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Selecting Strings for Playing Jazz Guitar

Material

Some guitars are designed for specific string material. If you play jazz on a steel string guitar, you should not be surprised to learn that steel is the preferred material for the instrument. Stanley Jordan uses steel for his style, as exemplified in this performance of "Eleanor Rigby":

On the other hand, a classical acoustic guitar should use nylon, and in fact may warp quickly if you try to use a metal string.  A classical guitar string like the Savarez Corum Alliance 500AJ High Tension string gives a nice sound from an acoustic.

Different materials also can yield very different jazz guitar tones. Steel gives a bright, sometimes sharp tone to your play, which works well for upbeat numbers you may want to perform. Chrome is a classically warm-sounding metal, giving almost a retro feel to your play. D'Addario's ECG24 Chrome Flat Wound are the class of this group. If you are looking to play old jazz standards in a way that sounds authentic, chrome can go a long way toward your getting the right sound. Think of the sound of a Charlie Christian on "Profoundly Blue." Finally, nickel strings like the D'addario EJ21 XL help you find a balance between warm and bright, offering a classic tone and a string that responds well to your fingers.

Coated or plated strings offer a very different feel to your play, for better or worse. A plated string, such as a nickel-plated steel, can give some of the best of both worlds and further help you find some of the balance in the specific sound you want to create. Coated strings also may last longer; on the other hand, coating can wear off, and sometimes the material makes it harder for you to get a feel for the guitar as you play.

Thickness

A standard guitar string thickness is about 0.009 inches, and this may be a good place to start. As you develop your sound and your feel for the instrument, though, you can experiment with different levels. When you want to play fast, lighter strings allow your fingers to move more nimbly across the guitar. The strings bend better and vibrate more, giving you a lighter, freer sound. On the other hand, most guitar players feel that a thicker string gives a more natural tone. You also can play with a heavier sound on thicker strings. A deep blues feel, then, would call for thick strings that resonate in each note, as opposed to a more free-wheeling jazz guitar style that calls for lighter strings.

Find What Feels Good

Especially for beginner players, getting the right sound and structure to what you play is something you need to discover and develop over time. Jazz guitar might begin as an attempt to replicate and imitate sounds you have heard. But as you learn, develop, and grow as a musician, your focus should quickly move to what feels right to you. No two jazz guitar players sound exactly alike; if you reach the precise virtuosity level of one of the greats, you will still not sound like that player. You need to develop your own sound and style, using those who played before you as examples to emulate and from whom to learn as you find your own path.

String selection, then, is not a determining step for you. You should experiment with different materials and thicknesses, and try them on different kinds of guitars. You will learn and grow not by choosing a string and sticking with it, but by getting a feel for each kind and learning what works best: what feels right both to your fingers and to your ears. Understanding what to expect from each is a great starting point, but only you can decide where to go from there.

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