Mis Amigos by John M Ramirez
When a customer comes in to buy strings, I will always ask what is their preference or what have they been using. I am sometimes surprised when they say they don’t have a preference or that the brand doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to try and reinvent the wheel or suggest any brand of strings to you but I would also suggest that it does indeed make a difference what string set you may chose for any of your guitars. There are so many variables to consider.
First, let’s talk about acoustic guitars and instruments in general. This perhaps requires more consideration due to the many tone woods available on acoustic instruments. Just because the manufacturer uses a phosphor bronze set as their O.E.M. string doesn’t mean you wouldn’t find that a set of 80/20 bronze makes for a more pleasing resultant tone-to you! The main difference between the two is that phosphor bronze has more copper content than 80/20s. The tone is darker (more bass content) and the string set lasts a little longer than the brighter 80/20s. Visually, phosphor bronze is more reddish in color while 80/20s are more yellow or golden. 80/20s are bright and in your face, especially when they are fresh. The initial brightness does tone down with play and is quite pleasing. At one time, all guitars came with 80/20s…that was the norm-e.g., D-Angelico strings which were considered some of the best strings in the 60s and 70s along with Martin M-140s and M-150s, which we still carry, were considered the industry standards. I would also suggest that when it comes to mandolins you should see if an 80/20 set doesn’t wake up your instrument to a tonality that you never thought it possessed. While the smaller size of the mandolin may lead you to believe a set with more bass characteristics are better, you won’t know unless you try something different.
For decades, Taylor Guitars used Elixir 80/20 Polyweb as their O.E.M. string set until changing to Elixir Phosphors in recent years. As of late, Martin Guitars while using their Lifespan treated strings on most production models began sending out 17 Series instruments (spruce top/mahogany back and sides) with their Retro strings which introduced nickel to the bronze alloy. Their research and development folks decided that the Retro set, which sounds like an already broken in set, if you will, was a better string for that series. With less edge and more warmth than even a phosphor bronze set, the Retro set may be the ideal set for you if you have to play a new string set on your guitar for a while before that initial edge wears off to your ear’s satisfaction. We all agree that a Retro set, while not being a treated string, has greater string life than both regular phosphor bronze or 80/20s…another reason you should try a set is to note the difference for yourself.
If you are playing acoustic/electric, there again, your string choice may be influenced by your amplification gear…amp or direct to a P.A. You will be amazed how different guitars react with different internal pickup systems through a variety of amplification with different strings. And when it comes to recording, we are in yet another arena. Did I mention the many variables which lead you to be happy with your acoustic strings? Many studio engineers tell artists in advance to not come in with super fresh strings for a session because there are too many extraneous overtones which can be problematic.
Now let us discuss the vast differences in electric guitars and ponder which strings will give you the best results. First of all, given any electric guitar, any amp will make your guitar sound a little different. That is due to the differences in amp voicings and speakers, whether it is a solid state amp or a tube amp, and the style and pickup configuration of your guitar. I have always said that strings are a personal preference and would suggest you try something new from time to time. When D’Addario came out with their NYXL Nickelwound series they said they would break in faster and would hold their tuning better with extreme bending and also last a bit longer and I agree with their assessment. Their windings appear a bit tighter than their regular XL counterpart and they may be a bit brighter for starters. Is any of that a reason to switch from regular D’Addarios, Curt Mangans, DRs or GHS sets that you have been using and are happy with? Again, may I suggest you try a variety of strings; if you buy a set of something new and aren’t happy with them, don’t buy them again; this is concrete evidence that all strings are not created equal.
With all the pedals some guitarists including myself use, one may say all bets are off and that any string of your gauge preference will do with any of your electric guitars. Substract all the effect pedals and even the internal reverb in your amp and I will bet there would be a discernable difference between brands and sets due to their alloy makeup. There is Nickelwound vs. Pure Nickel-the former being brighter and longer lasting while the latter is warmer sounding like older formula strings like Gibson Sonomatics referred to as the vintage sound. The majority of manufactured wound strings are hex core and relative to gauge have a certain tension/feel to the player. Round core strings sound the same relative to compound but feel a little lighter due to increased flexibility of the string that is merely wound on a smooth core as opposed to a more rigid hex wire core. Also, a round core string must get a 90 degree bend before cutting them to insure their stability in use. Again, I suggest you you try a few different sets on your instruments to see which one rises to the top in your opinion.
Pickups in different guitars may prompt the use of one set over another as well as the variables covered above. For example, any guitar with humbucking pickups already has more bass and output than one with single coil pickups. The sound we as players want to hear from any of our instruments can be tweaked by experimenting with different string brands and gauges. Just because Fender ships their instruments with a 9-42 set doesn’t mean that is for best results at all. Best results is what you want to feel and hear. The good folks at Reverend use 10-46 on all guitars-whether bolt-on or set neck. Changing string gauges and/or formula on an electric will often require a new set up to accommodate the differences that result from that switch. If a 10-46 set feels a bit heavy on a bolt on scale which is a tad longer than a set neck guitar, you may really have hit the lottery of playing ease if you try a set of 9.5-44 (my choice).
Remember, when it comes to strings, all the variables I have covered matter but what really matters is what is best for YOU!