Generally speaking, guitar string manufacturers start with a carefully measured steel-core wire, which is then wrapped with nickel-plated steel, and then attached to a ball-end that holds the string in place in the guitar’s bridge.
According to Discovery’s How Guitar Strings Are Made, Guitar string manufacturers typically start with a steel core wire, that manufacturers examine with a zoom-stereo microscope, and using the scope, they examine it using a magnification of 100x lens, looking for flaws in the hexagonal wire.
After that, they measure the core wire’s diameter with a digital micrometre, and it has to be a perfect size. Typically, the inner core wire is made out of iron, and then they use a wrapped wire made out of nickel-plated steel and wrap it around posts on the in-strawn testing machine.
The purpose of this machine is a test to see how much tension the nickel-plated wire can actually take. A computer then measures the distance as well as the tension to find out how much tension it can take before it actually snaps.
After this step, the core wire undergoes a twist test, and they loop the wire around a machine called a torsion-tester, which spins rapidly until the core wire snaps. The purpose of this is to test the strength of the wire as well as the elasticity.
At this stage, there are plastic hoppers full of ball ends, and the machine is called a ball-end sorter. The ball-end sorter uses hollow pistons that oscillate up and down, selecting one ball-end at a time.
This makes it so that only the balls of the proper size actually make it through the machine and out to the other side.
The ball ends that shoot out of a piston into a bucket underneath, and from here, they’ll go to the core string machine. Then, a machine takes the ball-ends and places them on a pin, after they’ve dropped from a hopper.
Rollers feed the core wire into a clamping guide, which aligns with the ball end, and then the pin spins, twisting the wire into a neat loop around the ball end. This is the part of the process that creates the beginning of the guitar strings, where the wire is twisted around the wire and up to the ball end.
The ball-end is the part that is inserted into the bridge and holds in place on account of the fact the ball-end is much bigger than the holes in the bridge, essentially ensuring that it sticks into place.
The core-ends with the ball-ends attached, then drop into a repository. At that stage, an employee in the factory hooks the ball end onto a string wire, and he loops a bronze end around the core wire.
A string-winding carriage then guides the bronze wire down the length of the core wire as it wraps around it.
The electrically powered wire spins the core wire. This is the action that grabs the wrap wire as the carriage ensures that it gets wrapped neatly.
Computerized sensors then monitor the speed at which the string gets wound, in addition to the tension of the string. The winder then applies a critical amount of tension as it wraps the bronze wiring around the core.
And at that stage, it’s a wrap. They are then bundled up like straw, typically around 144 wires to the bunch.
Guitar strings are also made from nylon as well. They hook the nylon core material to a winder, which pulls it down from a big spool. Next, they loop silver-plated copper wrap wire onto the nylon, and then the hook spins, and it coils the wrap wire around the nylon string, which binds it.
Again, a carriage system run by an electric motor ensures that everything falls into place.
Then, an employee removes the strings and hangs them on a rack. Gravity causes the strings to slide down into a station where workers coil them and then place them on a conveyor belt. Further down the line, another worker puts them in a bag, that has a gas-neutralizing barrier built into the plastic to thwart corrosion.
At this stage, the strings are ready to be strung up on the guitar for playing – effective immediately. Essentially, the method described above is the origin of the modern-day process for creating guitar strings, however, in the past, we didn’t have the technology to do it in this manner.
Historically speaking, they actually used a far more primitive process, but they also worked as well. In this next section, we’re going to discuss some of the older ways of how guitar strings were made.
How Guitar Strings Were Originally Made
According to Maestros of the Guitar, the most frequently used material for guitar strings in the past was called “catgut.” They were used to string up a multitude of instruments, including violins, guitars, lutes, and harps, in addition to much older snare drums.
The website claims that they used the intestinal lining of livestock, usually sheep and cattle. In the past, they used the term, cattle, to describe both bulls and cows. Purportedly, the origin of the term, “catgut,” is a short-form version of the word, cattle gut.
Another origin attributed to folklore from the past was the word, kitgut, with the word, kit, meaning fiddle. Bass strings were also used in this way, although, the catgut was wound around a silk core thread.
Moreover, in classical Greek Mythology, there was a story of the son of Zeus, Hermes, who made a stringed instrument through the use of tortoise intestines. Using cow skin, the instrument maker stretched the material over a shell for a soundboard, creating seven strings out of sheep intestines.
In William Shakespeares’ play Much Ado About Nothing, the notorious playwright explained that it was strange that people used sheep’s guts to bring out the souls of a man’s body. Of course, I’m paraphrasing what his character said in the play, but that’s the general gist of it.
How Did They Use Catgut?
According to Maestros Of The Guitar, instrument-makers used the thin part of sheep intestines to make strings after steeping them in water. The outside of the intestine was pulled off using a blunt edge, most commonly a knife.
After the alkaline lye steeping process, the worker stretched and smoothed them out so they were equal, and burning sulphur fumes were used to clean them. After that, they sorted and dyed them into varying sizes.
At that stage, the craftsman would twist them together by hand to create long cords, and the number of strands was determined by how quality of the catgut.
In addition to using this process for guitar strings and other stringed instruments, they also used them for tennis racquet strings as well as for surgical tools, including sutures.
However, there were some significant problems with catgut strings, which we’ll explore in a second.
Some of these issues had to do with the lack of strength, which led to intonation problems, issues with expansion and contraction on account of humidity, as well as continuous and frequent breakage.
However, in the 1600s and 1700s, metal-wound strings began popping up, and by the end of the 1600s, metal-wound strings began being used on the lower strings of the bass instruments, in addition to french violins.
The 20th Century
During the Second World War, surgical sutures were prioritized over guitar strings for obvious reasons, and the two products were both made using catgut. However, because of the high demand for sutures, there wasn’t enough catgut available for both sutures and guitar strings.
When Andres Segovia was in the United States, he reportedly went to foreign diplomats and mentioned that he couldn’t find his favorite strings to use.
Later, the British Embassy’s General Lindeman spoke with the Du Pont family and grabbed nylon strings which he gave to Segovia.
Despite Segovia using the strings at this point in history, it wasn’t until Albert Augustine, in New York City, first started to use nylon for guitar strings. Rose Augustine, his wife, supposedly remembered her husband found it difficult to find the proper material to make strings during the Second World War until he happened to stumble upon some in an army store in Greenwich Village.
Augustine went and spoke to the Du Pont company and asked them about being able to make new guitar strings using nylon, but they weren’t convinced it was entirely possible, because players likely wouldn’t appreciate the way they sounded.
Eventually, the aforementioned men spoke with the editor of Guitar Review, Vladimir Bobri, and they all decided together to move forward with the creation of nylon guitar strings, and three years later, Augustine Classical Guitar Strings began production three years after the war in 1948.
Initially, the very first Augustine strings were just for treble strings, rather than bass, and they used a nylon string core and were wrapped in metal. Over the years, they figured out how to smooth out the metal and make them sound and feel a bit better using various polishing and cleaning techniques.
Furthermore, Olga Coelho, the Brazilian guitarist, is frequently quoted as being one of the first players to use nylon strings during a performance in 1944. Interestingly, at that time, she was living with Andres Segovia, so historians are convinced she played a role in the development of nylon strings.
I hope this was helpful to you. I would recommend checking out the YouTube video from the Discovery Channel on How It’s Made.