While they don’t have quite the household name status as Gibson and Fender, Gretsch have been a go-to brand for those in the know for decades. They’re widely regarded for their beautiful, retro-styled guitars, and their warm, mellow tones.
Gretsch pickups are fairly low output in comparison to other similarly styled guitars, but another contributing factor to their unique tones are the strings that they choose for their electric lineup. Interestingly, Gretsch equips their guitars with their own Gretsch Electromatic Strings, but for 10 years or more, Gretsch have not offered their strings for sale separately.
This leaves Gretsch electric guitar players in a situation where they either change things up completely, or, where they need to find a set that matches the originals as closely as possible in order to try and recreate the sound.
If your Gretsch is a solid body, like one of the Jet models, or a center block like the Streamliner series, it will ship with Gretsch Electromatic Nickel Plated Steel Strings in a .010 to .046 gauge. Hollow body models are equipped with heavier strings to compensate for some of the lost sustain – these guitars are equipped with Gretsch Electromatic Nickel Plated Steel Strings in .011 to .049.
How to Choose New Strings for your Gretsch Guitar
When the stock strings on your Gretsch electric guitar need to be replaced, you’ll need to think about which direction you’d like to go in for the future. Keep reading to find out more about the strings that are best suited to each style:
The solid body electric guitar is one of the most dynamic instruments in the world. With a couple of simple adjustments, the same guitar that could feature in a jazz band can be used for the heaviest doom metal. This versatility really means that string choice is wide open for players.
Nickel plated steel, pure nickel, and pure steel are the most common materials you’ll find for electric guitar strings, and they all sound great on solid body instruments.
Nickel plated steel is a great all around material. It offers a nicely balanced tone, and it offers decent corrosion resistance.
If you’re looking to keep things mellow, pure nickel is a good option. Nickel isn’t as easily picked up by magnets as pure steel, and is less likely to sound harsh, and when paired with the low output Gretsch pickups, you’ll have some of the smoothest tones you’ve ever heard.
If you’re looking to get a brasher sound, pure steel will be the way to go. Pure steel has better magnetism than nickel and will result in a hotter overall sound, as the pickups will be better able to detect the string movement.
As far as gauge goes, you can really go as heavy or as light as you like. Having the solid body mass really helps with volume and sustain, so a light string will sound much louder than it would on other styles but will still leave lots of room for big bends and extended play comfort.
Semi-hollow body players are fortunate to have the best of both worlds. The big center block running through the middle of their guitars allows their instruments to behave in much the same way as a solid body would, while still offering the weight savings and unique tones of an archtop.
Despite the vintage looks, semi-hollow guitars have become incredibly popular with guitarists in heavier genres – for example, one of Gretsch’s signature artists is Keeley Davis of post-hardcore group, At The Drive In. Typically, heavy styles call for heavy gauges, which Gretsch semi-hollows handle very well.
On the contrary, if you’re a fingerstyle player, you can go ahead and equip any Gretsch semi-hollow with lighter strings and it will still sound great. The center block adds the mass needed for great sustain, so even a set of 9s will still cut through a mix.
Gretsch are also well known for their hollow body and jazz-box style guitars. From the factory they’re equipped with nickel plated steel strings in a heavy .011 gauge. These guitars tend to perform best when equipped with nickel plated strings or pure nickel. Hollow bodies are prone to feedback, and the mellower tones of nickel can help to keep that in check.
A lack of sustain can also be an issue with true hollow-body guitars. Using a heavy gauge string is one way to compensate for the guitar’s inherent low mass and improve the perceived sustain. If you’re looking to keep the guitar’s original tone, look to restring with something in an 11 gauge.
Best Replacement Gretsch Strings
As we’ve discussed, unless you’re able to get hold of new-old-stock Gretsch Electromatic strings, you won’t be able to restring like-for-like. Even if you could get hold of the stock strings, you might not want to – Electromatic strings were widely criticized for their poor packaging and tendency to corrode prematurely when they were new, so a set that has been sitting for 10+ years is unlikely to yield the tones you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for widely available, reliable, and affordable strings, you really can’t go wrong with Ernie Ball Regular Slinky strings. They are the same .010-.046 gauge as the stock Electromatic Strings, and are also made from nickel plated steel. Despite not being the most high-tech strings on the market, they’re the go-to for countless guitar legends, and play really well on both solid body and semi hollow Gretsch guitars.
Should you want to mix things up, Elixir Nanoweb Nickel Plated Steel strings in .010-.046 feel fantastic, last a long time, and bring a beautiful warmth when paired with Gretsch pickups.
For hollow body players, a close match to the original strings that I’d recommend gladly are the D’Addario EXL 115 medium gauge. They are sized from .011 to.049 just as the stock strings are and are made from nickel plated steel.
For a change of sound, consider a Set of D’Addario EGC24 Flatwound Chromes in .011 to .050. They’re made with a stainless steel wrap, but because of the flatwound finish, they have a warm and mellow tone that’s perfect for jazz.
It might seem disappointing at first that it’s not easy to buy direct replacement strings for your Gretsch but think of it as an opportunity to experiment with something new, and you’ll open up a world of tonal possibilities. Of course, if you really want to keep the sound as similar as possible, there are options on the market that offer almost identical specifications to the stock strings, and the difference might even be indistinguishable to the untrained ear.
main image courtesy of flickr user interestedbystandr under creative commons
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