Strings and Things

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The strings form the key interface between you and your guitar. If you’ve never played astringed instrument before, it may even feel uncomfortable for a while. But with the rightplaying action, your guitar will soon become easier to handle.

This chapter introduces you to some easy solutions for the trials and tribulations of playing astringed instrument. It tells you what you need to know to make playing fun and easy fromthe beginning, and introduces the many options available to you among different types ofguitar strings. And it will making tuning your guitar easier.

About the Fingers
The first thing a new guitarist notices is that the tips of the left-hand fingers can feel soreafter a stretch of playing. This is particularly true if you’re playing a steel-strung guitar, but isnoticeable even with nylon strings.

Just as a trumpeter must develop his “chops,” the guitarist will develop calluses. It may takeseveral weeks—or even months—for these to develop. And, if you take a break from practic-ing, you may lose the calluses you’ve built up.

The Playing Action
For beginners, it is important not to have strings that are too high off the fingerboard,because this increases the necessary pressure for the left-hand fingertips to hold down a clearnote or chord.

The strings are supported by detachable bones at the nut and bridge (see illustration). Thenut bone, which is slightly grooved to provide a guide for each string, sets the height abovethe fingerboard at that end. If the strings are too low they will buzz against the frets. If theyare too high, the guitar becomes hard to play, which can completely discourage you fromcontinuing.

If the setting is too high, the nut bone needs to be removed and filed down from the under-side. If it is too low, a sliver of cardboard or similar material may be inserted underneath, butthis should be a temporary solution until a new bone of the right height can be obtained. Ona classical guitar the height of the strings at the first fret will be about 1/16 in (1.5 mm).

At the bridge end, a similar adjustment can be made to the bridge bone to produce a heightat the twelfth fret of approximately 3/16 in (5 mm). The reason the measurements areapproximate is that the exact amount depends on the height of the frets and the total stringlength, both of which vary from maker to maker.

Note that these measurements are for the nylon string guitar. The metal strings of theacoustic guitar are set lower due to the greater tension, and for the sake of the left hand, steelstrings need to be as low as is practical, consistent with clear sound.