We are all prone to fall for a myth—some widely held but false idea that relates to an area that is of particular interest to us. There are computer myths— a slow computer is always the result of a virus. There are car myths—talking on a cell phone while filling the gas tank can cause an explosion. There are food myths—it takes 7 years to digest swallowed chewing gum. And there are guitar myths.
The guitar world is overrun with myths. In roughly 15 years of professionally repairing guitars, I came across a number of them, and I’d like to dispel a few of the more common ones that I know of.
Here are three common myths that tend to circulate among guitarists.
Guitar Necks are Built Under Tension
This is easily the myth I’ve heard repeated the most. The idea underlying the myth is that when changing your strings, you should only change one string at a time because taking all the string tension off of your guitar’s neck can somehow damage it.
This is completely false. No harm will come to your guitar if you take all the strings off at one time. Whenever I did anything to a guitar that required removing the strings, I took them all off. This also gave me the opportunity to clean and oil the fingerboard polish the frets.
Like many myths, this one is based on a half-truth. Sometimes during fret leveling process, the neck is put under simulated string tension. The only reason this is done is because string tension exerts forces on the neck that could make it bow a little unpredictably. Leveling the frets under simulated tension is thought to help keep them truly level while under real-world string tension. In fact, lots of factories don’t even do this. It is however a good repair technique to use when doing a fret leveling on a guitar with a squirrely neck.
The only time I really recommend changing your strings one at a time is when restringing a locking tremolo. This just makes it easier to get the guitar back in tune. Otherwise, go ahead and take all your strings off the next time you change your strings. You won’t hurt anything, and it will make it easier to clean your guitar up if it’s getting a little grimy.
Heavier Strings will Give You a Bigger Sound
As I wrote in an earlier post, tone is more about you and how you play than the gear you play on. Sure, Stevie Ray Vaughan played on .012 or .013 gauge strings, and he had a really huge sound. Maybe that’s how this myth got so popular. But there are lots of great players with a big sound that play really light strings. Did you know that Brian May plays .008’s, Eddie Van Halen plays .009’s, and a host of other really great players with big tone play really light strings? It’s true. I was once shocked to learn that a locally famous guitarist with an absolutely huge sound played on .008’s.
If you want a big sound, focus on improving your technique, and play on a string gauge that’s comfortable for you and responds well to your playing style.
More Mass in the Bridge Will Yield Better Tone and Sustain
I honestly don’t understand how this myth got started. In fact, the opposite is demonstrably true, hence Paul Reed Smith’s very lightweight bridges. I don’t think anyone would say that PRS guitars suffer from a want of either tone or sustain.
The easiest way to dispel this myth for yourself is to try a little experiment with an acoustic guitar. Strum a cord, and touch the bridge with something like the handle a butter knife from the kitchen drawer. You’ll notice an immediate drop in volume and over all tonal quality. In some cases you may even notice a slight drop in sustain.
Good acoustic guitar makers struggle to make their bridges as light as possible while maintaining sufficient strength. They know that excess mass is a tone and sustain killer. This same principle applies to electric guitars.
Sustain is much more affected by the angle at which the strings break over the nut and bridge than almost any other factor. That’s why guitars with angled headstocks like Les Pauls tend to have better sustain than guitars with a flat headstocks like Stratocasters.
So, if you ever find yourself tempted to add mass to your electric guitar bridge by epoxying brass shims underneath it in an attempt to increase sustain or improve tone, don’t do it. It won’t work, and your guitar will probably sound worse.
Maybe you’ve heard some other guitar myths. Share them with us in the comments below.
Here’s a video of the PRS factory constructing guitar necks. No, they aren’t “built under tension.”