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Strung up, strung out

Yet another excellent Quora digest edition drops into my email inbox.

Why does Billy Gibbons use 7-43 guitar strings? It seems odd.

Billy uses 7–38.

Billy used to use 11s & 12s because he thought that’s what all the blues guys did: Big string = Big sound

He was in the green room of a gig with B.B. King and BB wanted to see Billy’s axe. BB was noodling with Billy’s guitar and asked Billy why he was running such heavy strings? Billy said, “I thought that’s how all you blues guys got your tone.” BB said, “Why do you want to work so hard?” I think Billy dropped down to 9s almost immediately and eventually worked his way down to 7s and 8s, which is what a lot of the classic music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s was done with.

7’s will teach you about control PDQ because they respond so easily. If you want to sound super-tight on 9s or 10s go play on 7s and 8s for while.

.007s? Dang, I don’t think I ever have played with strings that light; in fact, I don’t recall being aware that they even made ‘em that light. My uncle started me out on .008s, a jazz set of his preferred Black Diamonds with the wrapped G (as a snot-nosed punk kid already gravitating heavily towards rock and roll, I didn’t like that worth a damn, believe me; wrapped third strings on electric guitars is definitely a jazzbo thing). Then, once I’d mastered the essential chords, scales, and runs, followed by guitar adaptions of a few old songs, most of which Murray had transposed and committed to staff paper himself (Sweet Georgia Brown*, I remember ye fondly, old girl!), I went out on my own hook from there.

POINTLESS CF DIGRESSION™: I still have one of those jumbo-sized plastic totes crammed full of Murray’s old sheet-music transcriptions in climate-controlled storage over in my friend Wendy’s living room, safely tucked away between her two (2) pianos. It’s all promised to my friend Jeremy, a great player in his own right, who damned near collapsed in stunned but delighted disbelief when I first showed him that plastic-tub treasure trove and spent an evening pawing through it with him. Jeremy took guitar lessons from me back when I was still willing to take on students; he’s probably the best pure musician I’ve ever known, and I’m happy indeed to turn over all that 24-karat musical history to him, knowing as I do how much he’ll love it, and what good care he’ll take of it.

Anyhoo, when I began playing professionally, I had to change strings before every show, either in the green room or at the hotel. I could count on breaking at least one any night I got lazy and didn’t—usually the D or B, don’t know why that would have been. And believe me, I tried like hell to figure it out. It was annoying as hell, but then again all the onstage angst and aggro was easily avoided just by the simple expedient of changing the blasted things.

Uncle Murray, by contrast, only replaced his strings once in a blue moon; he’d boil ‘em when they started to feel limp and flaccid, then put ‘em back on for another year’s worth of abuse. Murray and I never discussed the way I went through strings; I figure he would have been genuinely horrified at the needless waste, the grotesque profligacy of any nephew of his buying strings not by the pack, but by the case. Why, the very idea! Surely he’d taught me better than THAT!

I DO know that Stevie Ray Vaughn famously used strings so painfully heavy they more closely resembled low-register piano strings, or perhaps telephone-pole guy wires. Don’t know how in the world he managed to play the way he did—bending notes with no apparent effort, fingers zooming wildly all over the fretboard like honeybees in a field of wildflowers—on strings that big, night after night after night, for years. But then, that’s why he’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I, y’know…ain’t.

My own calluses, laboriously created by set after set of comparatively wimpy D’Addario Jazz/Rock .011 to .049s, are still there, and I haven’t picked up a guitar since 2017. Hell, I can still feel the lip-callus you get from trumpet-playing when I run my tongue across my upper lip; apparently, they never do go away completely. The calluses on Stevie Ray’s left-hand fingertips, then, must have been something to see indeed. By the time he died, his fingertips must have been rutted as deeply as a New Mexico desert valley after a sudden monsoon.

.007 to .038 gauge strings, Gibbons? Ya fuckin’ pussy.

Update! Having mentioned Jeremy up there, please enjoy one of my all-time favorite songs from his surf band nonpareil, the Aqualads.

Great band, great tune. Written by the late, lamented Bob Nelson, may he forever rest in peace.

* I keep thinking of stuff I want to add to this post, so I put in a link to Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli’s version of SGB, just because they were two of Murray’s favorites.

3 thoughts on “Strung up, strung out

  1. Nowadays my strings of choice are 11-52s with a wound G. Phosphor Bronze, on a sweet lil’ Martin OM-28.

    I’d heard about Billy’s use of light strings a while back on a video rig rundown with ZZ Top guitar tech Elwood Francis, who now fills Dusty’s shoes. Pretty interesting viewing:

    1. DAYUUMMM! Rack-mounted Marshalls? Who knew? Just checked, and couldn’t find them on the Marshall website. But I did see ’em on and Sweetwater, starting at around five grand apiece. I repeat: DAYUUMMM.

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