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Strings, Guitars and Mandolins

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The feel of new guitar or mandolin strings on your fingers is similar to the unexpected pleasure of driving a car that has four new tires.  They are soft and responsive, such a delight to play.

I’m 15.  I’ve found a n old f-hole Sterling guitar in the attic at my grandfathers.  I’ll bet that it used to be my uncle Don’s guitar.  It has an almost black finish.  It may be beatup but it is beautiful.  Hmmm, needs new strings, five dollars.  I scrape together the funds, get the strings, and restring it, copying the way the old strings were put on.  Sounds wonderful to my untrained ear.

I’m 16, time for a new guitar.    Off to the local music store.  Ah there is 12-string guitar.  No one else has anything like that.  Doesn’t Glenn Campbell play a 12 sometimes?  I’ll buy that one.  For the life of me I don’t remember what I did to earn the hundred dollars to by it.  Somehow it doesn’t bother me that it has horrible action.  I just love the sound.  And it’s new, truly mine.  I’ll actually end up learning to play bar chords on that thing which will affect all of my guitar playing for the rest of my life.  I’m still working on countering bad habits.  On the other hand, I was naïve enough to think that I should play just one string of each pair to make for good bass lines.  While that is right, no one does that as it too difficult.  It really helped my right hand technique.

Twelve strings… the strings are about twice as expensive.  I don’t change them very often.  When I do change them, it is a wonderful feeling to my fingers.  Sometimes the octave string on the G will break (it is the highest string on a 12).  I have so little money that I can’t afford to buy a new set.  So I unwind the string and tie a square not in it, hoping it will hold.  For some reason the break is always above the nut making it possible to do that.  Wish I had some pictures of that.

When I am 20 I buy my first real six-string guitar.  Surprisingly, it was also a sterling, like the first one.  I would play it for 25 years.  It was a much better guitar than the $250 that I paid for at the Boston Music Co.  It has gone through at least 4 hard cases, probably more than 200 sets of strings.  Brandon and Steve have it, a loaner for them to learn on.

I’ve talked to lots of friends, a few professionals.  So what’s the best brand of strings to buy.  A few have favorites.  Most professionals go with whatever cheap strings they can find and just change them frequently.  Having new strings is more important than the brand.  I’ve found that to be true.  And my fingers sweat a lot, well all of me does.  Changing strings frequently is only prudent.  So I buy all my strings at webstrings, $3.00 a set; I’m such a tight-wad!

Last night I’m changing the strings on my mandolin, getting ready for a vacation.  Like a 12, mandolin strings are in pairs.  I start with the first pair of strings.  One I’m threading on the mandolin, the other is in my lap.  Wait!  It’s not!  Hey!  Kingu, our giant cat, is running off with my string.  Pandemonium and comedy ensue, chasing Kingu who has the string tangled in his fur so he can’t get rid of it.  I’m running as fast as I can and he’s running as fast as he can to get away and the string is following him.  My wife finally walks up and plucks it off him.  What would I do without Cata?

I’ll finish this ramble with the first time I changed strings on the mandolin.  I made a mistake, assumed it was done the same as a guitar:  take off all the strings, do a thorough cleaning, restring it, play and enjoy.  So I started.  I took off all the stings and….. the bridge fell off onto the floor.  What the heck!  Oh no, it’s a floating bridge!  Ahhgggg…. Some assembly required.

On a guitar the bridge (the part that the strings slide over on the body of the mandolin or guitar) is glued down.  Now this is a disaster.  That bridge has to be precisely placed.  The frets are calibrated a certain distance apart.  If that bridge isn’t placed just right, you will never play in tune.  It will either go sharp or flat (in extreme conditions, both) as you work your way up the neck.  I put it where I remember it.  But it’s not right.  For months afterwards I’m loosening the strings , repositioning, retuning, and still having it wrong.  Repeat ad infinitum.  You can position it mathematically or with a piece of string.  It still won’t be quite right.  You have to use your ear and work with the harmonics.  Months and months of this crap.  Eventually I got it right.

So last night when I changed the strings, I did it in groups.  I changed the two sets of outside strings.  Then I changed the two sets of inside strings.  The bridge did not fall to the floor.  And it feels wonderful, those new strings, the crisp, sustaining tones.  I’m a happy man.

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