Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pro Guitar Tech Tom Spaulding - Scale Length and String Tone

Tom Spaulding is a Nashville based guitarist, producer/engineer, D’Addario AR rep, pro touring guitar tech. Has worked with artists ranging from Keith Urban & Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, to LeAnn Rimes & Lee Roy Parnell.

One of the interesting things about being a guitar tech is accommodating the different preferences of the various guitar players I work for. As a player myself, I have my own ideas about what sounds good, feels good, etc. Every guitar player I have tech'd for has different needs and methods to achieve their tone.

My string gauge choices are matched to my actual playing technique...I have a rather heavy right hand and tend to favor heavier gauges than some folks. As a kid, I grew up reading the Guitar Player magazine interviews and it seemed like everybody was playing .009 of .010 gauge electric strings. Country chicken-picker Albert Lee was playing .008's. Then along came Stevie Ray Vaughan and his legendary .013 E string...tuned down a half-step, of course. I think that revelation got players into trying heavier gauges and realizing that a properly tensioned set of .011s on a Gibson or .010's on a Fender felt just fine and the tonal increase was substantial.

The scale length of a guitar has a lot to do with the tone of your instrument. Gibson guitars typically have a 24 5/8ths" scale length, while most Fenders have a 25 1/2" scale (D’Addario calculates all string tensions at this scale) . The shorter scale of the Gibson helps define the sound of a typical Les Paul, round, warm lows and mids, a smooth top end. The Fender Strat or Tele has a twangy low end, punchier mids and a sparkly top end. While accentuated by body and neck material, the fundamentals, harmonics and partials created (and suppressed) with these scale lengths give us the foundation of the tone of the guitar. With these basic facts in mind, you can use different gauges of strings and different alloys to craft a tone from your instrument, played with your hands through your amp.

I have recently been stringing some guitars for Chris Rodriguez (Keith Urban) tour with D'Addario EPN115 Pure Nickel strings, .011 gauge. I use them on a Gibson Les Paul Junior (with stop bar tailpiece) and a Les Paul Deluxe. The softer feel and warmer tone of pure nickel offset the brightness of the P-90 in the Junior and the mini-humbuckers in the Deluxe. The solid mahogany SG gets EXL115 nickel wound stings...a bit brighter and a good match for the darker tone of mahogany. The Fender Tele (with B-Bender) gets a set of EXL115s as well, even though it is tuned up a half-step. The extra tension and heavier gauge help keep the mechanical bender in tune, in our experience. He has two Strats, one with a humbucker in the bridge that gets played with an E-bow a times, and an Eric Johnson signature model tuned to drop D. The humbucker Strat gets EXL115s, since using the E-bow entails the neck pickup with the tone rolled off. A thicker string with a brighter tone balances out the muffling effect of that, and gives the note more of a bowed sound...like a bit of rosin on a viola or cello. The EJ Strat gets EPN115 Pure Nickel strings, .011 gauge, because that's what it was built for. The maple neck and lightweight body, combined with vintage-style pickups has plenty of sparkle, the nickel keeps that from getting too harsh and biting.

Everybody's ears and hands are different and what works for me or my client's needs may not be the answer for you. Some players like to compensate different scale length guitars with different gauges of strings in order to even out the playing tension between them. For example… if you use 10s on a Fender scale guitar, you might try 10.5s or 11s on a Gibson scale. While this does not always perfectly balance the feel between the two guitars, it gets you in the ball park.

After a bit of experimentation, you can dial in a sound and feel that's right for your style, through your rig. Additionally, trying different alloys (Pure Nickel vs. Nickel Plated Steel vs. Stainless Steel, etc.) and matching bright strings to dark guitars and vice versa in combination with heavier/lighter gauges can open up your ears and get you closer to your perfect tone.

For further study, luthier Ralph Novak has an interesting article here: http://www.novaxguitars.com/Pages/Techarticle_frame.html
Here are some more D'Addario links on Scale length and String Tension: