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Balanced Tension Strings

I’m a fan of flat wound strings for jazz and even sometimes for blues. My second choice in electric guitar strings is pure nickel round wound strings. The question which prompted me to write this post is: Why do I like certain string brands and sets more than others?

My first choice for flat wound strings is the Jazz-Swing sets from Thomastik-Infeld (TI). The most popular brand of flat wound strings according to a survey at Jazz Guitar Online (jazzguitar.be) are D’Addario (DAD) Chromes. They are a quality string at a reasonable price but there are several things that make me prefer the TI strings.

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It’s difficult to do a side-by-side comparison of stings under the same conditions, on the same guitar. I’m not sure I could tell the difference between DAD Chromes and TI flat wounds in a blind listening test, but Chromes always seem to have a different tone than TI or La Bella flat wounds. It’s brighter, but I don’t care for it. I don’t have enough information to explain why this would be so, but one hypothesis is the composition of the stainless wrap is different for Chromes than TI strings. It could be that Chromes have more chrome in their alloy and TI has more Nickel.

There are other reasons why I think TI strings are one of the best flat wound strings available. For example, TI and La Bella both wrap the ends of their string in a thread which is a nice touch. D’Addario does not do this.

But the main reason I have arrived at to explain what I like best about TI strings is their set composition. Although I don’t see TI advertise this fact, their sets have a more balanced tension than their competitors. This affects both the feel and the tone.

If you look at the string gauges in a set of Chromes and compare them to a TI set having the same 1st string gauge, the bottom four strings of the TI are closer to the next lower set from DAD.

FW String Gauge Comparison

Make&Cat123456
TI JS112121620w273750
DAD ECG24111522w304050
DAD ECG25121624w324252
String gauges in 1/1000ths of an inch

Tension Comparison

CatNoEBGDAETotal
JS11222.822.724.624.122.823.3140.3
ECG2419.620.525.025.325.321.1136.8
ECG2523.423.329.628.726.922.5154.3
Tensions in lbs

Three of six strings in the Chrome 11s (ECG24) set have a larger gauge than the corresponding TI 12s (JS112) set. Tensions shows the same thing.

Because I am a retired scientist, I did the math and calculated the coefficient of variation (CV%) for the string tensions. String tensions for each set were obtained from the manufacturers’ websites. If math puts you off, just know that the bigger the CV%, the greater the difference between each string’s tension. However, an easier calculation that gives a similar answer is to just subtract the minimum tension from the maximum.

Set variation in tension

CatNoCV%max-min
JS1123.4%1.9 lbs
ECG2411.7%5.7 lbs
ECG2511.8%7.0 lbs
CV% of tensions = Std.Dev./average

The gauges and tensions of most guitar string sets were arrived at through trial and error without much logic. The strings available when I began playing guitar in the early 1960s were all heavier than today’s choices. I had few choices in gauges, materials, or windings back then and no internet or even mail order to find the perfect string. Ernie Ball began selling offering his slinky strings in response to the rock guitarists who wanted something lighter in gauge so they could bend them more easily. Other guitarists asked for thicker low strings and we got sets with light tops and heavy bottoms. All of this was great if that’s what you wanted.

But I’ve found the low strings on some sets combined with certain guitars gave me overpowering bass. Although I love blues & rock, for playing jazz I don’t need to do more than 1/4 step bends. Less tension on the bass and more on the treble seems more balanced both in feel (easier to play difficult chords) and balanced in tone.

Regarding tone, one of the big questions guitarists often debate is whether heavier strings give a better tone. I think it does give a better clean tone on the plain strings. I saw a response on a forum thread claiming Billy Gibbons gets a thick tone using light gauge strings. I love ZZ Top, but I would describe the cleanest I’ve heard him play as heavy overdrive. If you compare the high strings on his typical 7-38 set (7, 9, 11, 20, 30, 38) to a 12 gauge jazz set and play through an amp with NO distortion (gain somewhere between 9 and 10 O’clock), those 7s will sound thinner. Once you increase the gain, and play through a fuzz-face and other distortion pedals, the differences won’t matter.

Some string makers are now offering balanced tension sets. E.g., D’Addario and StringJoy both have Nickel-plated steel sets in balanced tension. As I’ve described, Thomastik-Infeld’s Jazz-Swing Flat wound sets have balanced tension as do their pure Nickel round wound BeBop sets. As much as I love TI’s strings, they are among the most expensive strings I’ve tried. This leads me to explore custom sets for balanced tension. StringJoy Broadway pure Nickel strings are available in customized gauges for no extra cost. GHS also sells individual pure Nickel strings through online merchants as does D’Addario (and also Thomastik-Infeld). You won’t get all of the advantages of TI strings this way, but you can create a set with the tensions you want at a savings of perhaps more than 50% (depending on when and where you get your strings).

Here are GHS and StringJoy round wound custom gauges I’ve picked compared to stock catalog sets. My goal was to match the tension of the TI BB112 set as closely as possible.

Custom vs Stock Cat gauges

MakeCatNo123456
GHScustom11.51520p263648
SJcustom11.51519p283850
GHS140012.01522w284254
SJBW1212.01624w324252
TIBB11212.01620p283650
String gauges in 1/1000ths of an inch

Custom vs Stock Cat tensions

MakeEBGDAETotalCV%
GHS c22.521.721.722.122.722.8133.52.2%
SJ c23.622.522.823.122.821.8136.62.6%
GHS s24.921.726.524.530.127.5155.211.1%
SJ s25.725.629.530.128.123.1162.19.9%
TI s22.822.724.023.822.022.5137.83.4%
Tensions in lbs; c=custom; s= stock set, refers to previous table

So, what do I have on my guitars right now? I have two archtop hollow jazz guitars, both with 12s, one with TI JS112 flat wound strings and one with DR PHR-12 Pure Nickel round wound strings. I have TI BB112 ordered to try.

I also have two Telecasters, both with 11s, one with Webstrings.com 11-48 New York Flat wound strings (The least expensive flat wounds I’ve found). The other has StringJoy Broadway 11s, a pure Nickel set.

As you can see, there are still many combinations to try. If I like the TI Bebop set, I may try a custom set when I change them. I also plan to try a balanced set of round wound pure Nickel strings on a Telecaster though I haven’t decided whether to go with StringJoy or GHS strings.

Note: All strings compared above, except the D’Addario Chromes, have round core wires.


Tension data can be found on each maker’s website. GHS provides a downloadable PDF. Thomastik-Infeld has a page for each type of string: Bebop round wounds or Jazz-Swing flat wounds. D’Addario has a pop-out table for each string set type & size, e.g. ECG24 Chromes 11s. StringJoy has a tension calculator page where you can enter the scale length and type (e.g. Broadways) and see the tensions for custom gauge sets.

2 thoughts on “Balanced Tension Strings”

  1. There is a simple(ish) formula one can use to get equal tension strings. Start with the heaviest string you want. Say a 44. Multiply that by .75. This will give you a 33. Usually, this turns out to be a 32. Multiply that by .75, etc. So, the formula is, G(n+1)= 0.75×Gn.

    A better formula for custom tunings, select your largest gauge. G(n+1)=(1-0.05×(# notes difference)×Gn). If we go E to A, A to D, D to G, these are all 5 notes difference. Thus the 0.75 above. Going G to B, that is only 4 notes different. So, it’s 0.8x the previous string.

    As a fan of extended range guitars, I bought a 9 and 8 string guitar from the same manufacturer. The std strings warped the neck, making proper tuning impossible. 105, 80, 60, 44, 32, 24, 18, 13, 10 kept everything even and allowed me to tune the guitar properly.

    Talking to some luthiers in my area, they see a lot of gibson guitars with warped necks. The owners use heavy top, light bottom strings.

    If you want to build a set light to heavy, take your light gauge and divide by 0.75 or the formula above. So, start with a 9, divide that by 0.75, you get a 12, divide by 0.80, you get a 15, then divide by .75 to get the other strings, 20, 27, 36.

    There is a bit of a change going from wound to plain strings.

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