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Questions: String Tension and Pure Tone

Questions: String Tension and Pure Tone

by R.M. Mottola

Originally published in American Lutherie #98, 2009

See also,
Questions: String Tension and Purity of Tone by Alan Carruth


Pat Bowen from the Internet asks:

A generally accepted fact is that the higher the string tension, the more pure the tone. This causes me grief, since I have to build instruments to support the heaviest strings. Even if I don’t recommend them, someone is going to use them. But is this thing about the high tension and pure tone really true or is it just a folk tale?

The Questions Column editor

The short answer is yes, it is true, and the short explanation is inharmonicity. The higher the tension, the closer the partials are to true harmonic multiples of the fundamental frequency. On p. 115 of his book Engineering the Guitar — Theory and Practice, Richard Mark French states: “...increasing the radius [of the string] or elastic modulus [i.e., stiffness] makes the deviation from the ideal harmonic series worse, while increasing tension or length makes it better.” This is an interesting topic worthy of an article or at least a longer explanation than I’ve given here, which I hope someone will provide.