I've had a couple of people post me recently to ask about my string and guitar set ups, so I thought I'd put something up for guitar players. If you are NOT a guitar player, please enjoy the sidebar, and/or skip down to pick up the previous posts of the road adventure which is the National Steel Blues Tour!
I play a variety of electric and acoustic stringed instruments, but mainly I'm known for my finger picking on resophonic guitars. Nationals. With biscuits. That's what I'm going to discuss here. My playing set-up, on my resonators. All about me.
I grew up playing without thumb picks- and therefore without fingerpicks- partially because there were no left handed thumb picks, and partially because most of my early influences mainly played bare thumb, bare finger. I love the voice of resophonic instruments, coaxed out with the bare fingers. I think you get a bigger range of tone possibilities. LOL, yes, even me on my long declared "dead" strings. All that said, the longer I play, the more I believe that each guitar-player combination is unique. And there are times where I would LIKE to be using a thumb pick. I'm not opposed to it in the least, and I wouldn't be surprised to find myself using one of those fancy, left thumb picks sometime in the future. Do I love Morgan Davis' groove? Fred McDowell? Darn straight I do! But that's not how I play.
It's hard to believe that a player like me is as fussy about strings as I am! Bare fingers on dead strings. I have a reputation for rarely changing strings, but I get the sounds I want out of these guitars, and my fans seem to like the sound of them. That's the only important part. Do you like the way your guitar sounds? There's no right and wrong about it. Unless, of course, you are trying really hard to sound like somebody else. Or more like somebody else. All my guitars are strung in a similar way. For my style of playing I prefer slightly lighter bass strings, and slightly heavier treble strings. I like the bass to thump- often dampened- and the treble to carry most of the melodic weight. Also, I hate it when strings squeak- hence my preference for older or seasoned strings. I don't like bright, new strings on my guitars. New wound strings will also grab at the flesh of your fingers- raise blisters, damage callus. I'm not above taking a file, or a little sandpaper to the region of any new strings that will contact my thumb and fingers- my picking hand. I work almost every night, so I don't want to raise a blister- on, or under, even my big, fat callus! And I don't want the slide to be scratchy either- so I may give the whole string a bit of a polish. Flat or semi-flat wound strings may be a good option for some, but I really don't modify to that extent, and I need to use combinations of string gauges not offered in sets. A heavy slide will smooth the strings out nicely over time, too. I use an 11/16 deep socket most of the time on most of my guitars. It's dense and heavy- I like that. I also use some glass, bottlenecks that I've taken off wine bottles. I've got a shotgun barrel slide I've been playing with recently. It's a little light on it's own, but I've jammed a big bolt in the end of it to give it a bit more grab. If your friends are cutting these sorts of weapons down, there's no point wasting the barrels...
The action on my guitars tends to be fairly low. Not really, really, low- I like to whack these strings pretty hard. But you don't need a crazy, high action to play slide- and you probably want to fret the instrument in a conventional way, too. A slightly heavier treble string at a lower action works well for me, and does not result in fret noise.
I don't like strings to break. It's rare that I break a string, and it's even more uncommon for me to break one on stage. It's an event when that happens! Each guitar in the family has it's own similar, but personalized string set. As has been suggested, you can certainly play with fairly light strings on a National. The resonator is going to be pretty loud regardless. And you can mic it up if you want. But you do want enough string underneath your fingers to control, and to ride a slide. As a rule, I really wouldn't change the high E down to .12 on a resonator- if you play very much at all you may well be breaking these, and you probably won't get as much conversation out of the string. A .13, just a tad heavier, might be a better bet. B might be .16-17. For the G you can mix it up: I use plain, unwound Gs on all but one of my guitars. Try a .24. It will never wear out (unlike the wound, .26 strings that last only a few hours before the windings tear), you can still bend it, and it will sound great with a slide. I sometimes use a .26 plain- but that's like bailing wire to most people. I play a lot... My own, typical set ups for the bass side are pretty light- .36-39, .44-48, 48-52. You can run heavier if you want, but unless you are in a bluegrass band, playing with picks, holding a steel, I don't know why you'd need to. I don't need to, anyway. My sixth string is usually not much heavier than the fifth. Works for me.
So read here: I'd suggest buying and changing your strings individually. Keep the string packs- the wrappers- in your guitar case with the date of change written on them. If you break a particular guage more than once, more often than the others, move that string up by one gauge on that guitar. Did it break at the nut or the bridge? Is it mechanical, or does it have more to do with the way you play? After a few months you will have adjusted the guitar-string combination to your playing style and to the personality of the guitar- and, probably, you will rarely break strings. I also apply a little graphite- from a simple pencil- into the nut and bridge slots when I'm changing a string. I think a little more "slip" in these spots can help avoid, or postpone the breaking of strings.
The same advice goes if you like the sound of brand new strings- nothing wrong with that, and they are easier to tune. They do stretch, though. And why go up on stage to tune a package of spanking new strings over and over again? New, but not brand new. The best time to change out a set of strings is probably AFTER a show! Strings will help make, or break, your show and your sound- but you and your hands are still the most important part of your gear. No rules. Go with what works for you. If you've got the sound in your head, with a little work you can probably get it to come out of your hands using almost any guitar-string combination. If you don't have sounds in your head, it's not going to matter how cool your guitars, or strings are. Through my limited contact with Hubert Sumlin, I observed that he always sounded the same, no matter what guitar he was playing. Hubert was cool. The guitars didn't matter. I've told you what works for me.
I'm changing out the 5th string today because I've had some tuning concerns with it, and because the string seems to have gone beyond the dead thump I like. Who would of thought that the string would last for eight years! That's a lot of shows on my number one guitar. And thousands of hours of busking in all weather. Finally wore through and wore down the windings over the length of it. Changing it out, I'm seeing that the frets, fretboard, and neck also have substantial wear. The frets are cut down to the wood in a couple of places, and form deep ruts everywhere else. The fretboard has some deep hollows, and is quite scalloped in places along the treble side. The neck has now got a little twist which is a little bigger and a little more twisted than it once was. Like me. If this had happened overnight, the instrument would not be playable. As it is, the guitar is played hours every day, and is usually on stage doing shows. To a point, our playing and tuning adapt to the slow changes of an instrument. After that... guitar hospital.
My 1929 National, Type O has not had any work done to it in about 35 years. Well, I fix a machine head every once in a while, but that's it. Soon, she'll take a break and visit a luthier while her sister- the Dark Angel- my 1935 Duolian, gets the centre stage. Meanwhile, the Type O will finish this 10th annual, National Steel Blues Tour with me. And probably make the next album. Neither of us have retirement plans. She probably has at least another 86 years left in her career.