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When playing my electric guitar, the pitch of notes varies depending upon how exactly the strings are fretted; this is particularly a problem with strings that are barred by the first finger, since the finger isn't totally flat. I don't think the magnitude of the bend is huge, but some days I find even slightly-imperfect intonation annoying.

I have a 3/4-scale electric guitar and I use a custom alternate tuning, G-D-d-f-g#-b. The string gauges I am using now are 40-52-28-22W-16-12.

I know that some strings are supposed to be especially "bendable", meaning that they have a very high coefficient of elasticity at the tension where they'll be used, and I understand that phosphor bronze strings have a relatively non-variable pitch (but are alas from my understanding not suitable for use on an electric guitar). Are there any strings that would be suitable for use with an electric guitar that would have a particularly low coefficient of elasticity?

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3 Answers 3

Now that you've explained that your tuning is G-D-D-F-G#-B, I understand why you have problems with intonation, and problems with some strings being too high over the nut or bridge.

From your earlier comment, do you mean to say that your local guitar store selected six individual strings for you based on those pitches in your tuning? Or did they sell you a standard packaged set?

You can't use any standard set of 6 guitar strings with such an unusual tuning scheme. You will have to purchase each string individually, and calculate what gauge you need for each string.

If you want to do your own research, the D'Addario string company publishes a detailed guide to selecting the optimal string gauge for each string for your own custom alternate tuning.

Check out this web page, download the PDF guide, and do some calculations.

D'Addario String Tension Guide

Take into account that your instrument is 3/4 scale. Shorter-scale guitars require heavier strings than standard-scale guitars to get good sound and intonation.

I'm guessing that your guitar's scale length is 22.5 inches (as opposed to the usual 24.75 or 25.5 inches). Measure it to make sure -- it's the distance from the nut to the bridge saddle, or the "speaking length" of the string. The D'Addario string tension tables don't take 22.5 short scale into account -- they are based on 25.5 inches. So you'll want slightly heavier gauges for each string than what their tables show.

You can then order individual strings of different gauges and windings to construct your own custom set. This will cost more money than purchasing a 6-string set.

You will certainly need to have a guitar technican make alterations to the nut and bridge and truss rod of your guitar to calibrate everything optimally for your custom strings and tuning. They can use a file to widen and deepen the slots in the (bone or plastic) nut and the (brass or steel) bridge to accommodate your particular strings.

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Comment on "slightly heavier gauges": The relevant conversion factor is (25.5/22.5)**2 for string tension, i.e. find strings whose tension is approx. 1.25x greater than what you ultimately want on your short scale guitar. –  Dave Feb 5 '13 at 20:37
    
@Dave: I had been thinking that I'd choose strings for a lower pitch than normal. I'd figured a 3/4 scale guitar should be a perfect fourth lower, but maybe I should measure its actual length. Pitch is proportional to the square of tension, but inversely proportional to length, right? –  supercat Feb 8 '13 at 15:35
    
The equation is on the linked site, but hard to read. f=0.5*sqrt(T/rho)/L (T=tension, rho is the mass density of the string, per unit length, L is length). –  Dave Feb 8 '13 at 15:46
    
So if your scale length is about 3/4 that of a standard guitar, the pitches would go up by a perfect fourth if everything else were held constant. –  Dave Feb 8 '13 at 15:53
    
No, Dave, you assumption is wrong. The scale length of a 3/4 guitar is NOT 75% that of a standard guitar. It is a figure of speech. You need to measure the scale length of the instrument. So-called 3/4 guitars can have a scale length anywhere from 21 inches upwards, which is 82% or greater. –  Wheat Williams Feb 8 '13 at 19:01
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Another factor is the frets on the guitar. Tall "jumbo" frets have more clearance between the top surface of the fret and the fingerboard. If you press down hard when you fret the string, the pitch might be pulled sharp. Tall frets have been popular on guitars for the last thirty years or so; "vintage" electric guitars tended to have small frets that are not nearly as tall.

Here is a diagram of the different kinds of frets available from Warmoth Custom Guitar Parts.

enter image description here

The "6230" and "6130" styles are similar to what was used on the earliest Fender and Gibson electric guitars, respectively. The tall "6150" style is perhaps the most commonly used on guitars made today. Tall frets are favored by "shredders" and those that bend strings a great deal.

If you have a guitar with tall jumbo frets, you can practice using less tension in your fretting fingers so you are not pressing the strings down all the way to the fingerboard. This is beneficial to your technique as well because you will experience less hand fatigue and it might facilitate playing faster.

You can also pay an experienced guitar repair technician to file your frets down lower, or to pull out the frets and replace them with smaller frets. This will be expensive.

Regardless, you should get a good professional "setup" on your guitar. This will improve the intonation overall. Here's my recent post about setups.

Keep these factors in mind:

1) Try a heavier gauge of strings

2) Learn to fret the strings with less tension in your fingers

3) Fret the strings directly behind each fret. Don't press down with your fingers in the middle of the fingerboard area between two frets. Doing so will mean that you are bending the string down too far and pulling it sharp.

4) If you can't compensate adequately with your fingering technique, you might want to see about getting smaller, lower frets on your guitar

5) If your electric guitar has a tremolo bridge set up to "float", you may want to get it set up to lie flat instead. A tremolo bridge set up to "float" might contribute to unsteady intonation unless you are very careful about your playing technique.

6) In all cases, get a professional "setup" to improve the intonation of your instrument overall and to set the optimal "action" for your playing technique.

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The guitar I use most is a $170 3/4 scale electric (I bought a 3/4 scale for easy traveling, and I've decided I like how it "feels"; I know getting consistent intonation out of a 3/4 scale is going to be harder than out of a larger instrument, but I'd like to do what I can). I very seldom get any buzz, so lowering the action might help, but I'm not sure how best to accomplish that. My low "D" (5th) string rides high, since the bridge has six saddles that adjust front-to-back but not vertically, and the 5th string grove is smaller than the 6th string grove even though my 5th string is big. –  supercat Feb 5 '13 at 16:49
    
If a professional setup would really help things, I wouldn't mind spending a few bucks, but I don't know how well a technician would set up an instrument for a tuning and playing style as unusual as mine (G-D-D-F-G#-B), playing mostly with the fronts of the finger rather than the tips. A useless technique for normal tuning, and not amenable to virtuosity, but enjoyable and comfortable (playing frequently for over a year with no callouses). –  supercat Feb 5 '13 at 16:57
    
If you have an unusual custom alternate tuning, with custom string gauges, then a professional setup would be essential. Good guitar technicians can calibrate all the parts of the guitar to be optimized for your particular situation. It might be the best US $60 you ever spent. –  Wheat Williams Feb 5 '13 at 17:45
    
Would you like to discuss a this in chat? We're getting a bit beyond the scope of the original question, but it sounds like you have useful information. –  supercat Feb 6 '13 at 5:27
    
With regard, to fretting behind each fret, am I correct in thinking that if a string is pushed down a certain DISTANCE, the amount be which it will be stretched is minimized if it's pushed midway between frets, but pushing near the fret will serve to reduce the distance by which the string has to be pushed? When using the first finger to bar multiple strings, some strings may have to be pushed further than ideal in order to ensure all the other strings fret cleanly. Should the first finger be moved a little further back to accommodate that? –  supercat Feb 8 '13 at 15:42
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Get the heaviest gauge strings that you can handle, don't worry about the material properties of the strings.

The string tension itself is the primary variable affecting unintentional bending. Obviously, using heavier gauge strings results in higher tension (for a given tuning) Note that longer scale length (e.g. 25.5") will also have higher string tension for a given tuning and string gauge. There is a secondary effect of higher gauge strings in that they have higher intrinsic stiffness, but this is secondary to just the increased tension. Over the range of electric guitar strings, the slight changes in material composition will have negligible effect relative to the string gauge.

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For example, if your electric guitar is strung with the gauge of extra-light strings we call "9s" (0.009 inch diameter on the high E string) then switch to "10s", "11s" or even "12s". This will require a new professional setup to get proper action and intonation with the newer heavier strings. –  Wheat Williams Feb 5 '13 at 16:32
    
@WheatWilliams: The guitar guy at a local store sold me a set of Ernie Ball strings chosen to yield reasonable tensions for my custom tuning (G-D-D-F-G#-B as 40-52-28-22W-16-12 I think), which were a big improvement over the stock strings. The bridge has per-string fore-aft adjustments, but not elevation, so it would seem that going bigger would increase the height discrepancies there unless I can do something about the bridge (it comes off when the strings are removed, but I don't know whether it would be interchangeable, and what other options would be available). –  supercat Feb 5 '13 at 17:04
    
Yes, a good guitar technician could file out, deepen and enlarge the slots for the strings in the bridge saddles and also in the nut to fit the gauges of strings you are using. Lowering the action overall might help with intonation, and might make the guitar easier to play as well. All of these factors require professional calibration, which is what a "setup" is all about. –  Wheat Williams Feb 5 '13 at 17:39
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