In the words of the immortal jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” This quote highlights the progressive and innovative nature of a genre that’s adapted quite a bit over its century of existence, but throughout its numerous changes, a sense of respect has been held for the genre. Perhaps it’s the warm, memorable hooks, or the exquisite solo sections, but no other genre seems to be both as natural and complex as jazz. This diversity could explain why jazz has enjoyed its status as a popular genre for nearly a century, as well as begin to describe why the jazz has trickled down into dozens of smaller sub-genres.
From Bossa Nova to fusion to gypsy, numerous different scenes have cropped up over the years. Besides changes in rhythm and influences from other genres, each of the jazz sub-genres tends to impart different tones, particularly when one focuses on the ubiquitous guitar. While it would be quite difficult to perfectly mimic the tones of the jazz guitar legends, there are several easy choices one can make to help shape their own tones. One such option that players can use to easily manipulate their tone is to choose the best guitar strings to fit their desired sound. Different strings can offer vastly different tones, even on the same instrument, so it’s important to understand what strings are best suited to which genres and why. Below we’ll show you some of the most recognizable jazz guitar tones, as well as well as pair them with a set of acoustic guitar strings that can help you to achieve a similar tone.
Famous Jazz Sounds
Frankly, no discussion of jazz guitar tone is complete without discussing the works of Django Reinhardt, a French guitar legend largely responsible for the proliferation of gypsy jazz. You may not know the term gypsy jazz, but you definitely know the sound:
To a modern day listener, there’s something quintessentially centurion about Reinhardt and his gypsy jazz. It sounds like every stereotypical depiction of the early twentieth century, but for good reason: Reinhardt’s music has been massively popular for a number of years so you still hear it often today when referencing that time period.
Now, it’s important to note that when emulating Reinhardt’s impeccable tone and playing style, one must understand his playing style. The legendary guitarist was badly burned in his left fretting hand, forcing him to solo with only his index and middle fingers. Because of this, the guitarist made interesting choices in phrasing and chord inversions that a four fingered player may not naturally make.
Naturally, jazz has undergone numerous changes since the time of Django Reinhardt, and as such readers may wish to achieve a more modern jazz tone. One guitarist that might be interesting to examine is the great John McLaughlin; over the course of his career, the guitarist has established himself as a master acoustic and electric player, combining rock, jazz, funk, and even Indian influences. In fact, McLaughlin is often credited as one of the originators of jazz fusion.
It should be noted that while McLaughlin is largely known for his electric guitar work, the man can definitely work an acoustic, as the above video aptly demonstrates. In both arenas, McLaughlin possesses a uncannily perfect balance in his guitar tone. On the one hand, his playing is remarkably warm and engaging, especially in the tunes in which he implements an acoustic guitar. In stark contrast to his warm, open tone is his ability to pick at lightning speeds. In order to play at such speeds while maintaining clarity, McLaughlin’s tone also must remain balanced between warmth and brightness. Very few strings are capable of delivering on both fronts, but there are a handful of them out there.
Popular Jazz Guitar Strings
D’Addario Gypsy Jazz
As one might expect, different manufacturers over the years have positioned their strings to target the various jazz markets. For the earlier, Reinhardt-esque style jazz, one of the more popular string choices is the D’Addario Gypsy Jazz. This series of strings caters to players seeking a warm but balanced tone, and by all measures seems to succeed in providing such a product. Players from across the world have commented on the merits of these strings, praising the brightness of tone and durability.
In terms of construction, the D’Addario Gypsy Jazz strings utilize a high carbon steel filament wrapped by a silver-plated copper mix. The combinations of materials here have been chosen to maximize the lifespan without damaging the tone, and as such should last players several months of routine play. The player has the choice between light and medium gauged strings, allowing a choice based on the player’s style.
The best part is, like most all of D’Addario’s strings, you can actually find sets of these rather cheaply and through a wide variety of online retailers. Although the Gypsy Jazz strings are a bit rarer than their more mainstream acoustic and electric counterparts, consumers should have no trouble finding them for $10-20 online and at most music shops, if not less during a sale.
Galli Gypsy Jazz Silk and Steel
Another interesting offering in the Gypsy Jazz marketplace one might want to consider is the Galli Gypsy Jazz Silk and Steels. In truth, these strings are quite similar to many other gypsy jazz strings on the market, including the D’Addario Gypsy Jazz’s. That being said, many musicians tend to report a warmer tone from these strings, though they definitely sound more comparable to Gypsy Jazz strings than other Silk and Steel’s available. When used in an appropriate context, this depth of tone can really add a lot to a tune, and it’s definitely worth ordering a pack of these strings to experiment with.
Speaking of ordering strings, that’s likely the best way to ahold of the Galli Silk and Steel’s. Though one may be able to find these strings in a physical shop, in our experience, few brick and mortar shops stock Galli products as they are a bit niche and underground. Some of the big stores on the internet will always stock these (and just about everything else), and it’s not uncommon to find these strings for as cheap as $6 per pack.
As great as the Gypsy Jazz strings are, there are numerous other strings on the market that appeal to jazz guitar enthusiasts. One such example is the DR Sunbeams. In comparison the previously mentioned Gypsy Jazz strings, DR’s offering is quite a bit brighter and more trebly, but in modern day jazz these characteristics can actually be used to create a unique and memorable sound. The DR Sunbeam strings are particularly well suited for jazz, and have been well reviewed by a number of talented musicians and critics.
One of the important things to note about DR’s strings is the highly individualistic nature of each pack. DR doesn’t simply label themselves as the makers of “the Handmade String” as a marketing ploy; each string is crafted by hand and as such has minute differences from other strings in the series. This means that while each pack of DR Sunbeam Phosphor Bronze’s will sound 90% the same, the last 10% will provide the variability to help a guitarist stand out by keeping their sound varied and fresh. DR’s reputation for making high quality strings seems to stem from this fact, and it should not be considered lightly when choosing strings.
DR strings are often available in music shops, but if you can’t find any in person, the internet has a constant stream of products from this company. Try Amazon.com. One should expect to pay more than $10-15 for a new set of strings from DR, including shipping and handling. These are great jazz strings that will offer a totally different tonal characteristic than the Gypsy Jazz’s, and as such are most definitely worth a try.
At this point, it should be pretty clear that string choice can offer a lot of variety and it’s worth experimenting with a few different sets until you find one you like. Although we’ve given some fantastic recommendations for acoustic jazz strings, there are a number of other products available. If you really want to find the absolute best tone, we highly encourage you to try out as many different brands as possible until you find one that works. Everyone has their tone, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work to find!