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Strings 101 - Characteristics of Alternative Electric Guitar String Materials

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Nickel-plated, steel-wired guitar strings have become the industry standard material(s) of choice for manufacturing electric guitar strings, but this was not always the case.

In this article, we will be looking at some of the best alternative metals used by the most popular electric string brands that give a very different tone, feel and tension compared to nickel-plated strings. With more string companies devoting resources to alternative metals, there's never been a better time to check out non-nickel-wound guitar strings.

Stainless steel: very bright

Stainless steel or pure steel strings are generally made using stainless steel wrapped around a stainless steel hex core, and offer a multitude of advantages over traditional nickel-wound strings.

One such advantage is that steel strings have an incredibly bright and full tone. They are also extremely durable and can keep their intonation and tone longer, and generally don’t rust or deteriorate as quickly as nickel strings.

However, steel strings are slightly more expensive than nickel strings. They also tend to wear frets down quicker than nickel-wound strings and they can be quite hard to work with at first before they settle in.

Manufacturers that make stainless steel strings:

  • Ernie Ball: M-Steel, Stainless Steel
  • D’Addario: XL Prosteels, XL Halfwounds, XL Chromes Flat Wound (chromes produce a distinctive damped but tone-rich sound)
  • GHS: Super Steels, Precision Flats

  • Pure nickel: very warm

    Pure nickel strings hark back to the early days of the electric guitar in the 1950s, when most electric guitar strings were made out of pure nickel. Over the years, the industry standard changed to nickel-played steel strings.

    Pure nickel strings can vary in tone from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it’s probably a good idea to experiment with brands. They do all have a great deal of warmth in common and are perfect for rock 'n' roll, folk and blues.

    Pure nickels have fantastic playability and are very easy to work with. They also have greater longevity than contemporary nickel-plated strings.

    Some people consider that the tone of pure nickel strings strays from a distinctive warm sound to a muddy or mushy tone, depending on brand or the age of the string set in question. Also, pure nickel strings last the same as 'normal' nickel-plated steel strings but cost more, so you are not getting any extra longevity for your buck.

    Despite that, pure nickel strings still attract quite a following and are perfect for a player searching for an old-school warmth from their guitar tone.

    Manufacturers that make pure nickel strings:

  • Ernie Ball: Classic Pure Nickel Slinkys
  • D’Addario: XL Pure Nickel Round Wound
  • GHS: Nickel Rockers, Compound Nickel Rockers, Burnished Nickel Rockers, Big Core Nickel Rockers

  • Cobalt: punchy, strong low end

    Cobalt-wound strings are the latest innovation from Ernie Ball and are proving popular with some musicians due to their distinctly powerful tone. Ernie Ball Cobalts have the same playability that you would expect with a set of Slinkys but with an added dynamic range consisting of a more powerful bass and harmonic response with some increased high tones.

    Cobalts are particularly popular with players looking for a more contemporary, distortion-friendly tone that can help make them stand out from the crowd and they have a unique tonality.

    Coated strings: longer lasting

    Sometimes strings can become a burden on both time and money from constantly needing to be restrung due to deterioration or breakage. In response, many manufacturers have created longer-lasting coated guitar strings.

    One of the main issues with strings in regard to deterioration is that, due to the coiled design of strings, grime tends to get trapped in the string windings, causing them to rust and 'die'. Coated strings help to prevent this issue thanks to a special solution that protects the string from not only the elements but from the muck that could get trapped in their coils.

    A set of coated strings tends to last two to three times as long as conventional strings, although they do tend to be considerably more expensive than the equivalent conventional set. Most players see this as a fair compromise though, given their increased longevity and reliability.

    Manufacturers that make coated guitar strings:

  • Ernie Ball: Reinforced (RPS) Electric Slinkys (non-coated but tougher-built strings), Coated Electric Titanium RPS Slinkys
  • D’Addario: EXP Coated Nickel
  • GHS: Coated Boomers, Sun-Zero Boomers (non-coated yet extremely conditioned tough strings), Reinforced Boomers
  • Elixir: string sets with a nanoweb coating, string sets with a polyweb coating
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