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Should You Change Guitar Strings for the Studio?

There’s a lot of debate about how often to change your guitar strings in the studio. No matter what people say, it’s a matter of opinion.

In this article we’re going to look at both sides of the coin.

As a producer, it’s important to understand the instruments you’re recording and the ways the sound can be augmented.

Rusty Cage

Some believe that strings should always be new on recordings. The notion is every song requires a set change.

This can be true for modern rock and country sounds, but isn’t the case for classic sounds. Many of the revered recordings of the past were recorded with old strings. Artists were not sitting in studios with guitar techs and boxes of strings. They changed them when they broke or really needed it. Those Beatles tunes everyone loves… not the newest strings.

My argument is not for new or old strings, but simply what works best for your sound. That means you have to figure out your blend of tones.

Metal Health

New strings have a lot of rich overtones and harmonics. They’re bright and have a resonance that doesn’t last long. Sometimes you only get an hour or two of that ”new” sound.

This is why people who love that sound change strings often.

Let’s Get Physical

Changing strings often means you have to plan before a session. It’s best to change your strings a day before the session and stretch them properly.

New strings have to stretch. If they’re not stretched properly they will go out of tune. You don’t want that to happen in the middle of a keeper performance.

If the new string sound is what I’m going for, I’ll change the night before, stretch and stop playing guitar. It doesn’t take long to stretch, so it won’t kill that new twang.

La Gangrene

Often, I like the sound of old strings.

I’m not talking green and rusted old, but worn in. They tend to be less bright and have a more direct tone.

Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not good to record with old strings. Just listen to any record pre 80’s. Do they sound new to you? Most of the time, no.

Deviation Will Not Be Tolerated

Intonation can fluctuate on old strings. I check my intonation before a session. I don’t just check with old strings, but new as well.

People have a tendency to over analyze intonation these days. It’s funny to me that a lot of records people worship from the past, like the Beatles, have imperfect intonation.

There is a limit to how much your ears can tolerate. I’m talking small amounts here.

The Dull Flame of Desire

I dig the tones of Steve Cropper. He plays a tele with old strings into a tweed.

If I want this sound, but need to change my strings before a session, here’s a good trick: I’ll change my strings two days before a session if I have advance notice. Before the string change, I go to my local drug store and buy a tube of Chapstick.

I would pick something not too fruity smelling or you’re likely to get looks from everyone on the session. But, if you must, I’m a fan of mint.

To dull the strings I rub Chapstick on them.

It can still take a day or two to get them to that “old” sound, but it greatly speeds the process up. This way, you get the intonation and feel of new strings but with the sound of older strings.

Wound

Mostly these days it’s the norm to use roundwound strings.

There are other strings to be aware of though that can vary your tone greatly.

A lot of people associate flatwound strings with jazz, but they were very common in early Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s a guitarist’s secret to get that Beatles sound. Flatwounds into a Vox AC30 = done!

It’s not just that flatwounds are “dead” sounding. The attack of the note is different.

Roundwounds have a halo around the note. Flatwounds seem to be direct to the note.

So, although they are more mellow their attack is well defined when picked. They also have a rich bass response.

Worm in the Silk

Most guitarists use bronze or phosphor bronze on acoustic guitars. Silk and steel strings are roundwound, but with a silk inner windings. They sound in between roundwound and nylon (classical sound) strings. They work wonderfully for finger-style guitar.

Who Cares

So why all the hubbub, bub? It’s a great asset for any producer to know how to get the best sounds in front of the mic.

That’s a dying art in the world of post processing.

Things will never sound as good as captured at the source. Plus, capturing great sound at the source makes every down downstream infinitely easier.

Money, Money, Money

With today’s budgets, there aren’t guitar techs on sessions for most of us non-famous types. Cartage pay to sessions is slim. This means session musicians show up with what they can carry on their back. There has to be even more consideration about the sounds you’re trying to capture prior to the session.

Before a session, I have a chat with the producer (if it’s not me) about desired sounds. I go through my collection with them and we pick what I can carry. Sometimes a studio has a few guitars, so I bring what they don’t have.

A planning stage is very helpful. Rarely, can I show up with my whole collection and worry about it later.

Knowing what sounds can come out of instruments is as important as knowing how to set up a compressor.

A producer has a view of the entire project. Get your magnifying glass out and inspect all sounds at the source for you next session.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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  • My strings receive a fair amount of wear, so they end up not lasting very long. If you’re interested, I did some research on increasing the lifespan of a new set of strings. Take a look at the post on my blog: http://www.playguitarlive.com/10-tips-to-make-guitar-strings-last-longer/

  • Really interesting trick using a chap stick to get the sound of old sounding strings. Not something I would have thought of!

  • Marius Jensen

    Great article, very balanced and I too prefer the sound of older strings 😉

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