String Theory

I don't know what gauge strings Jimi used but I'm guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that's why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

I don’t know what gauge strings Jimi used but I’m guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that’s why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

Back in 1958 when the 335 was first built, people were thinner and guitar strings were fatter. I was 6 years old but I was probably 14 by the time folks started playing with really light gauge strings. My first electric guitar (a 63/64 Fender Duo Sonic) came strung with a wound G-string and probably a .12 E string. Maybe even .13. I remember this because I wanted to bend strings and my guitar teacher-who was a jazz guy-said I needed lighter strings (and that he would be happy to sell me a set for $8 (that’s probably $50 in today’s dollars). He was always trying to sell me something. He probably didn’t make much of a living at $5 a lesson back in 64. Anyway, back to the string thing.  Back then 12’s were considered light gauge. Guitar bridges had a range of motion forward and back limited by the depth of the ABR-1. With a wound G string and a set of 12’s, there was plenty of room to get the string lengths right. That means the guitar will be in tune all over the fingerboard (well, more or less but that’s another post).

Now, it’s 1966 and the music is getting more inventive. The Brits have reinterpreted American blues and the Americans have gone psychedelic. Players are bending strings and making guitar noises that have never been heard before. Predictably, it’s easier to bend a light string than a heavy one, so early adopters started seeking out lighter strings for their guitars. I know guys who used banjo strings because they couldn’t get guitar strings light enough for their style of playing. Eventually, the string makers caught on and they started selling 11’s, 10’s, 9’s and eventually 8’s. My recollection is that Ernie Ball was early to the party. I remember buying a set of “slinkies” fairly early on in my gigging days (’67?) and wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Then the fun started. I never quite understood intonation until I understood a bit of physics. So, I was out of tune a lot when I played and it drove me nuts. I was playing a ’62 ES-330 at the time and I couldn’t get it to tune with a plain G string. Odd thing was that I always thought it was the B string that was so far out. Eventually, I figured out that I had to turn around the saddle on the G string and set it as far back as it would go. That got me pretty close but I was playing with 9’s back then. I still can’t get 9’s to work on a vintage ES. 10’s usually require the (.17) G string to be set all the way back with the saddle reversed, so that seems be the limit. Gibson’s change to the Nashville type bridge added enough range for lighter strings but it came kind of late. Very late, actually. Besides, Nashvilles look wrong on a 335 anyway. Not as bad as the “harmonica” bridge they put on SG’s but still…

What I do now is if a buyer wants 9’s on his 335, I put on a set of 9’s but I use a .17 G string. Most 9 sets have a .16 G and that usually won’t intonate. It will be noticeably sharp at the 12th fret and above. You can compensate a bit by going slightly sharp on the B and E but if you have an ear for this kind of stuff, it will drive you up the wall eventually and you’ll spend more time tuning than playing. The best solution? Well, on a vintage ES, 10’s or 11’s are the way to go. I don’t gig any more so I use 11’s. Lead guitar pyrotechnics are for the youngsters anyway. Old guys like me look a little silly trying to be Jimi Hendrix. We looked silly back in 1968 too but we were too young to notice.

9 Responses to “String Theory”

  1. Rod Allcock says:

    I remember Gibson Sonomatic strings, I think 13-56, which were described on the packet as ‘Light Gauge’. Best we could get in the UK at the time.

  2. Gus says:

    I use .12s on both my 335 and 330 and can heartily recommend them. They work so well on ES guitars. Have the nut re-cut, tweak the truss rod and you’ll never look back when you hear the difference in tone!

  3. Larry N. says:

    The clip has him playing THAT guitar on the Dick Cavett show about a month after Woodstock. If the full song clips were still on YouTube you could plainly hear and see how Jimi had trouble getting the Gibson in tune. Hear the last chord on the clip I put up.

  4. RAB says:

    Right, tuning on vintage guitars with modern, lighter strings is a bit of a compromise but can be done with satisfactory results if you aren’t too anal! Quoting Frank Z again, “Shuddup and play yer git-tar!”

  5. Larry N. says:

    Shut up and play your (slighty) out of tune guitar?

  6. Rod says:

    ALL guitars, indeed, all instruments which use tempered tuning, play out of tune anyway. It’s just that, for the most part, we can’t hear it or our ears and brain have tuned it out.

  7. RAB says:

    +1,000,000 Rod!

  8. RC says:

    I tune the open G string flat a little if I’ve already slammed the saddle and am sharp when fretting. Sacrifice open chords. You’re going to have to sacrifice something/somewhere.

  9. Tommie Chick says:

    Charlie is spot on accurate. Thankfully these days, he can make the compromise
    for you. He has done my 2010 ES 335 with a good 10-46 set. My tone is a in tune
    than it has ever been. I am using all Callaham locking ABR-1 and his stop tailpiece
    and locking studs. By the way, Callaham Gibson and Fender vintage replacement
    parts are made in Virginia, USA. My vintage early ’59 strat also has Callaham

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