String theory is far too complex for the likes of me. Vibrating strings make up everything, the physicists, say, when it comes to different universes and distant higher dimensions.

Please don’t ask me to explain this string theory graphic.

However, one physicist from England’s Oxford University has just released a paper explaining a new kind of string theory: the study of how lead guitarists make their instruments wail, cry and sing.
Dr. David Grimes, who also just happens to be a guitarist, published the results of his study in the online science and medicine journal, PLOS ONE, this month.

He writes, “Coupled with the huge array of amplification, effects and distortion options, the electric guitar can yield a vocal-like quality in lead playing, allusions to which are often made in popular culture; in Dire Strait’s 1979 debut single “Sultans of swing”, songwriter Mark Knopfler refers to a jazz guitarist as being “strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”.
Eric’s guitar gently wept (right) on George’s famous Beatles song
“Eric Clapton’s thick guitar tone and use of vibrato is referred to by guitarists as the “woman tone”, which he famously contributed to the Beatles’ classic, “While My guitar Gently Weeps”.

These are but some examples. An accomplished guitarist’s tone and vibrato can be so intrinsic to that player that their idiosyncratic sound is as distinctive as a vocalist’s to a trained ear.”
One particular guitarist, in particular, who immediately springs my mind, has a style so distinctive, you don’t even need that ‘trained ear’, as Dr. Grimes infers, to know instantly who it is. I’m referring to Brian May of Queen, of course, who just happens to be a doctor of astrophysics as well as a rock guitarist.

Queen guitarist Dr. Brian May receiving his PhD in astronomy








Is it simply coincidence that has Dr. May creating such a unique guitar sound or is he on the same wavelength as Dr. Grimes?

Funnily enough, Dr. May gets a mention in Dr. Grimes string theory paper. It’s at the end of David’s introduction, part of which I quote here for your enlightenment.
“As the electric guitar has become ubiquitous in rock, pop, metal, jazz and
blues, it has developed a range of techniques which further distinguish it from its musical forebears. String-bending and vibrato add much to a guitarist’s palette, and as these techniques are heavily influenced by the physical constraints of the guitar and strings used, the underlying mechanics are worthy of analysis.
Guitarists also use a wide variety of legato techniques to articulate their playing; these include hammer-ons, where a fretted string is picked and another one sounded by coming down sharply on it with the fretting hand, resulting in a smoother sound that would result from merely picking both notes. The opposite technique is a pull-off, where a picked note is released and a lower one sounded. A fusion of both these techniques practically unique to the guitar is tapping, where both fretting and picking hands are used to ‘articulate’ a flurry of notes. This is a staple of modern
lead guitar playing, popularised by guitar virtuoso Edward Van Halen in the
late 1970s.

The colorful Mr. Frank Zappa

For these techniques, the fretting force required to ‘sound’ a note
with or without picking becomes an important limiting factor and influences a player’s choice of string and guitar set-up.
Unlike more traditional instruments, there is also wide scope for modification and extension of tonal range by using external hardware.

One example of this is the vibrato system or “whammy-bar” which many guitars opt for; these are mechanical systems for adding extra vibrato and come in a variety of designs.

Rather misleadingly, they are sometimes referred to as tremolo bars, which is an unfortunate misnomer as tremolo is modulation of volume rather than pitch.

Such units dramatically increase the sonic scope of the instrument and have been employed by famous players such as Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani, amongst others.”

Dr. Grimes’s paper goes even further, offering up equations demonstrating how bending strings, tapping, fretting, vibrato and the whammy bar changes the pitch of notes.
Bend that string, brother


“In this work,” he says, “models for these processes are derived and the implications for guitar and string design discussed. The string-bending model is experimentally validated using a variety of strings and vibrato dynamics are simulated. The implications of these findings on the configuration and design of guitars is also discussed.”
The good doctor confirmed his equations experimentally by putting nails through one of his own guitars to measure the effect of string bending. That’s dedication for you. I hope it wasn’t a pre-CBS Fender Stat.
For more information on Dr. Grimes’ String Theory, his diagrams and equations, visit: