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Learn Blues Guitar - Are Strings Important?

Updated on April 2, 2013

Guitar Strings And Other Magical Things

A long, long time ago I was visiting a folk club south of London enjoying some music being performed by a jug band. This was rather out of the ordinary in itself, as many folk clubs at that time were strictly traditional in the UK, which translates as 'no blues' and 'no electric!'

The resident group was a multi-instrument jug band named 'Ginger Jug'. They played everything from Piedmont ragtime to Robert Johnson and everything between. The act was entertaining and remarkably authentic, just like one would imagine a real old jug band to be.

The guys had a core group of musicians who held the act together, but on any one night up to three or four extra people would just bring an instrument and join in - superb atmospherics! You never knew exactly what would happen, but you always knew that it would be entertaining.

(Photo: By Tashaila Nichole Meyers & User:Argon233 (Own work) - Wikimedia Commons)

Memphis Jug By Urthogie at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Memphis Jug By Urthogie at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The musicians would often shout out to the audience during a piece, who would then respond by singing a part of the chorus or refrain. This was marvelous stuff, made even better by the fact that the group of players were never the same people each time one saw them.

Of course, there was a central number of players - probably 6 in all, but more players might turn up and just join in. Sometimes, the effect was incredibly good. Even when the music was less than perfect, the whole feeling of good humor about the whole thing made it work out.

It was while watching this specific soiree that I had a lesson in how to play the blues and the importance of string choice. During one of the breaks, a lone performer walked to the stage carrying a beat up old guitar. Let's pause here, and I'll give you some insight into my musical status during the previous few years.

Times Ain't Like They Used to Be - Early Rural & Popular Music
Times Ain't Like They Used to Be - Early Rural & Popular Music

"Here's your chance to see three hot jazz bands recorded on film while the jazz age was still going on. I was stunned by the late twenties footage of Herb Westphal, Johnson's jazz band (super hot!), and Ted Weems. The film of the Georgia field hands singing is a step back into a time machine of American rural life."

Copyright Jim Bruce 2009
Copyright Jim Bruce 2009

Steel Picks And Strings And The Expense It Brings

When I moved down from the North of England, I settled (for a couple of years) in London and began to study old ragtime blues guitar, like the style played by. I also performed for a living and so my guitar strings were important to my playing. First of all, I tried several types and various gauge strings before choosing to use light gauge phosphor bronze.

Unfortunately, I played using steel finger picks exclusively, which really tore up the strings. It wasn't too long before I found that I was replacing the strings every week or so, which was really expensive. I accepted this situation, because I told myself that the guitar strings are absolutely vital to my playing. Enough of that, back to the folk club ...

Dunlop 9023R Shell Plastic Thumbpicks, Large, 12/Bag
Dunlop 9023R Shell Plastic Thumbpicks, Large, 12/Bag

The original Dunlop thumb picks can't be beat. They are durable and come in different sizes, depending on your particular needs.

I particularly like them as they don't slip and they last a long time. the striking edge doesn't grate against the strings and they feel 'natural'.

National NP-2-4PK Finger Picks - Nickel-Silver - 4 Pack
National NP-2-4PK Finger Picks - Nickel-Silver - 4 Pack

The best thing about these picks is that you'll never have to buy them again (unless you lose them!) Being made from stainless steel, they just don't wear out.

I bend the tips over so the end is close to the tip of my finger, which means I don't have to adjust the angle of attack at all.

Muddy Waters By Emmett D. Smith (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Muddy Waters By Emmett D. Smith (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Never Mind The Strings - Just Play The Thing!

I think that I was quite arrogant at that time, but tell myself that I was young and we all pass through it. I was actually sniggering about the state of his guitar, particularly his strings. The wound strings were green with corrosion in places and the higher ones were a little rusty. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the bass E string had come apart at some time and was tied back together with a knot just above the nut! This was unbelievable. Surely he wasn't going to play this thing?

Maybe you've guessed it by now. The guy began to play and my mouth fell open. His playing wasn't really complicated, but it felt so bluesy that I was deeply jealous. He played authentic blues guitar and that was his job. The strings were of little importance. The basses didn't have to sustain, as he muted the sound heavily with his hand. If the treble strings were not in tune, then he'd bend them until they were. This sure technique in addition to his solid timing made for a superior experience for the listener, which gave me a lesson.

It reminded me of Muddy Waters' famous quote. When asked what was his preferred guitar to play, he said , "It doesn't matter - just give me a guitar and I'll make you cry."

There's a bewildering choice of guitar strings on the market and we can choose from lights gauge, mediums or heavy in a variety of metals. Once you have chosen the kind of string you want , which manufacturer should we go for? It isn't much good specifying 'light phosphor', for example, as there are differences between makes. There's nothing for it but to try some out for yourself. It's no use good having lights just because your favorite guitarist uses them, just to find that your way of playing is much too hard and you should use heavier strings.

Martin MSP4100 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light
Martin MSP4100 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light

Blues pickers often prefer light gauge strings with a clear response, like Martin light gauge phosphor bronze, while most flat pickers are happier with medium gauge. Which ever you opt for, you can't really go wrong with the Martin brand of guitar strings. Even we look back just 30 years, the variety of strings available is huge, from the standard bronze 80/20 with an average life, to extreme long life strings (with a price to reflect it!).

A great mid-way path between the cheapest and the most expensive is the Martin SP series. The unwound strings aren't silver colored, but are coated and seem to last longer while delivering great tone over their lifetime.


Jim Bruce And Ken Mayall Play Statesboro' Blues By Willie McTell

Statesboro' Blues and other Piedmont style ragtime blues songs are featured in Jim's Complete Acoustic Blues Course - see link module.

How To Change Guitar Strings In The Right Way

It's very true that the most effective things and processes are the most simple, and changing strings is no exception. New guitarists tend to have a running battle with their strings, bot loving and hating them at the same time! It's important to respect them and pass on to worrying about playing and not guitar technical issues.

First off, we tended to wrap those strings on any old how, as we were more interested in playing the guitar - often as beginners we tend to pass over how great strings and their up-keep are so important to our overall performances. It's not unusual to see guitar with big lengths of wire hanging off the tuning headstock, and wrapped in great bundles around the turrets!

Over wrapping is the first sin we commit. One of the first things we encounter as a new guitarist is the infuriating tendency of the strings to go out of tune. In the dim recesses of our newbie musical mind we think that the friction we associate with more wraps will keep the thing in tune, but it's just not like that. Sure it will improve on it, but it needs more than friction to keep tune.

The video below shows how Martin does it, which is by passing the spare end of the string under the strung part, over the string again by bending it around itself. When the tuning peg is turned, as the string tightens it traps the spare end underneath it and locks it in place. Economical and efficient - superb! It just remains to bring it up to standard tuning tension and snip off the excess.

It look really nice and it's the right thing to do for your guitar. As the method effectively locks the string against itself, it's not necessary to have many wraps around the tuning turret - there is no benefit as the lock is doing the job of stopping the string from slipping. Is it as simple as that? Well, yes it is.

How To Tune Your New Guitar Strings

Peterson StroboClip Clip-On Strobe Tuner
Peterson StroboClip Clip-On Strobe Tuner

For years I just tuned the D string with a common or garden LED type tuner, and then tuned the others to it using any of the recommended methods, but as my hearing deteriorated with age I want do such a good job of it. Nowadays I use a strobe tuner. Incredibly, when I inquired locally at some big guitar stores, the technicians had never heard of them!

I'm not sure of the technical aspects, but suffice to say that they are much more accurate than the standard l.e.d. type tuner and just as easy to use. For comparison, a standard tuner is anywhere from 1% to 3% accurate - a strobe tuner is 0.1%, which is a big, big difference, I'm sure you'll agree. They are more expensive than the standard l.e.d. tuner, but the upside is that you'll never need to buy another tuner again!

Copyright Jim Bruce 2009
Copyright Jim Bruce 2009

Spotlight - Jim Bruce Blues Guitar Lessons

Jim Bruce Acoustic Blues Guitar Lessons

A Complete Course Teaching All Major Styles

Details Of The Package ...

The perfect format for learning the tricks used by the classic blues men.

11 hours of detailed tuition - download, online and disk

An instant download link is provided after payment

36 complete lessons covering the major blues picking styles

Separate tablature files for printing out

Slow motion close ups of both hands

On-screen chord diagrams & tablature for quick reference

Ragtime, delta blues, bottleneck and open tunings

BONUS GIFT #1 Jim's MP3 album 'Metro'.

BONUS GIFT #2 Acoustic Blues Travellers MP3

album 'Wake Up, Walk Out.'

You know what to do and how to do it. (You could even ask me what 'metaphysics' means, and I'll look it up for you.)

Metaphysics Corner - Don't Get Shy

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