The weirdly cryptic title is actually just weird and not really cryptic — I’m talking briefly about electric guitars with either a wound G-string or a plain G-string. For the majority of electric guitars these are the old G-string and the new.
Specifically, I want to look at compensation.
Compensation and intonation
On a guitar or bass, compensation (or intonation — it’s the same thing) refers to the fact that the length of each string has been slightly adjusted so that it plays in tune in all positions. Each string has been ‘compensated’ to make up for the fact it’ll be pulled slightly sharp any time it’s fretted.
There are a lot of variables that play a part in that compensation but let’s look at one that’s particularly visible: an electric guitar’s G-string.
First, acoustic guitars
Yes, yes, I’ll get to the electric guitar in a minute. An acoustic guitar isn’t a bad place to start though.
For compensation, many acoustic guitars simply ‘slant’ the saddle (so the bottom strings are a little longer than the top). This can do a good enough job.
If the builder wants to make more of an effort, a compensated saddle might be fitted (see below). That will change the position each string goes over the saddle to further improve the guitar’s intonation. You can see the shape of the compensation 'pattern'.
The split-saddle bridge shown below has the same ‘standard’ compensation.
Again, you can see the ‘shape’ of the standard compensation. It’s a sort of lightning-bolt shape, with it’s split between the 2nd and 3rd strings (the B and G).
That split position is important to our story.
As we’ve mentioned, each string’s overall length is adjusted slightly longer to compensate it.
One of the major factors in how much each string is lengthened is that string’s size. As the string gauge gets bigger, the overall length is increased a little.
Crucially, however, it’s actually the size of the string core that has the most effect and not the apparent size after the wraps have gone on the wound strings.
This means although the wound 3rd (G-string) looks bigger than the plain 2nd (B), that’s just because it is wound. The actual string core is smaller, so it’s compensation decreases and it’s intonation point on the saddle jumps up.
Getting on to electric guitars
So, when the first electric guitars came out, string saddles had similar options to acoustic guitars.
Some instruments, like Gibson’s junior models, with the wrapover tailpiece, had very basic compensation (just an angled tailpiece).
Fenders, had adjustable saddles and that was great. On a Strat, for instance, you could adjust things to a fine degree. The overall lightning-bolt shape was the same, but with finer adjustments possible.
And, then there were the compensated bridges. A wrapover with a lightning bolt pattern on top. Brilliant. Now my Junior’s a bit less out of tune. Yay.
Archtop guitars often had a similar solution — a bridge with the compensation points carved it it. Great.
The coming of the New G
But players weren’t all happy.
“Lighter strings,” they cried. And lighter strings arrived. And among them lurked the Plain G-string. It’s no longer wound (wraps around a core) — it’s plain, just like the 1st and 2nd strings. How futuristic. And we all bought these fancy new strings and, before long, there were shredders and then djent.
But I digress.
The problem was, to replicate that wound G with a plain G, the plain G had to be bigger. So you’ve now got a bigger plain string in the place of what was a smaller core hiding in winds.
Wait, a sec… It needs more compensation now.
For a plain G-string, that intonation point is back further than the first two strings. It’s shifted the ‘split’ in the lighting bolt. The jump forward (shorter) now happens on the D-string.
Strat players just adjusted the saddle a bit, but suddenly that compensated wrapover bridge on my Junior is pushing my new plain G-string way out of whack.
And that’s the way it was for years. Although, to be fair, most people didn’t care that much for ages. Those that did care, though, they were stuck.
Plain G Compensated Bridges
Luckily, there are places you can now pick up bridges that have been manufactured with a plain G-string in mind. So, if you’ve got a guitar with fixed compensation/intonation, you can probably find a wrapover or archtop bridge to better match your string preferences.
Or you could play a wound G-string. Some players swear by it.
Or, of course, you could just not worry about it. Like they did in the old days. Ah, it was a simpler time. 😉