How about a topic devoted to strings….what you have tried and what you liked and didn’t like about them. I’m sort of on the hunt for strings so that I can stop hunting for strings…if that makes any sense.
Here is what I’ve tried.
D’addario nickel wound 11’s and 12’s:
Basic string with high tension and nothing to get excited about. Easy to find and that is why I used them for a while. I have decided that I don’t like them. I have used them on a telecaster, a casino and jumbo hollowbody. Pretty average string life.
DR Pure Blues 11’s and 12’s:
Good inexpensive string that is pretty easy to find. Pure nickel and round cores. Sounds mo’betta’vintage. Lighter tension than the D’addario’s. Decent go to string. Pretty average string life.
D’angelico nickel 12’s:
Very similar to the DR Pure Blues and a little less expensive…have only ever found them online. Decent go to string, however I haven’t gone through more than 1 set, so not sure about string life.
Thomastik Bebop 12’s (Round wound):
A fantastic string. Low tension, big, even sound. They seem to last for ever. They are expensive, but last months, as in 4-6–which translates to cheaper than the D’ad’s if you are replacing strings often. My one gripe is 2 sets have had initial issues: 1 set the low E string was muted sounding, but the US rep for Thomastik sent me a replacement, and 2 a set broke a string very early in its life, as in like day 2 or 3. But otherwise a great string that isn’t quite as expensive as its price tag suggests when you figure in how long they last.
Pyramid Nickel round core 12’s.
I’m not sure if I like this string more than the Thomastik or not. The 12’s come with 7 strings, a wound and plain 3rd–which is nice. The strings may have had slightly higher tension than the Thomastiks, but still less than the DR’s and D’ads. I only had them on a jumbo archtop, but they had a sort of flutely, bell-like tone. Really a great string. And they last just as long as the Thomastiks. Similar price as the Thomastiks, but a little different tone that was equally as good.
Martin’s Tony Rice Monel Steel Strings 13’s:
I have them on a jumbo archtop right now. I really want to like these strings. They are cheap and easy to find (just strings.com), but they have a weird tone in the lower register. The top strings sound great and clunky–just like old records, but the lower strings seem to have no bass tone at all. Pretty low tension since they feel like the 12’s that I am use to, but they are 13’s. I have only had them for a week so I don’t know about their shelf life, but I’m not completely sure if I will keep them on for a couples of months to find out.
Newtone nickel round cores 12’s:
I really like these strings, but I have only tried them on 1 guitar (a casino). They are very warm strings. Kind of catch you off guard with their warmth–I keep asking myself if they are dark, or just really warm. They are up there in price (similar to T.I and Pyramid), but equally great and unique. They are about 4 months old and counting, so the price is well justified. I will try them on other guitars because I really like them, but they keep getting bumped down the list cause I keep wanting to try different strings. I think they will sound great on my jumbo archtop, but there is a chance they will just be too dark…we will see.
Not the most expensive flats out there, and that may be why they get used more than some other ones (from what I could gather reading reviews anyway). I really didn’t like these strings at all. Too much tension and kind a lifeless sound. I know flats are suppose to be a little bit duller, or have more, faster decay, but these were pretty lifeless. Still got to try T.I flats and D’Angelico flats. I have since found out that they are really nothing like the T.I flats. The chromes are round wound that are ground to flat surface…
On deck are: Thomastik Flatwounds, Newtone nickel acoustic strings (will put them on an electric archtop), D’angelico flats. I think that when I am done with these I will have settled on my choices.
So far my highlights are the Thomastik bebops, pyramid nickels, and Newtone nickels. But the DR’s are really a decent string for the price, and a good backup to keep around.
It seems I like pure nickel and round core strings–after that it is kinda ‘seasoning to taste.’
What have you tried and what do you like?
This is a cool review and much appreciated. I’ve been a D’Addario nickel round user only because they come in 10 packs and are readily available. I’ll be checking out the top 3 on your list. I want to experiment with flatwounds on my Tele so may look at the Thomastik flatwounds in the future. Looking forward to your “on deck” reviews. Mike
Bubba wrote a great review of those strings. I use Thomastic 12’s on my 175. I’ve had them on their for 6 months plus, still going strong. I use flats on my tokai les paul, I use chromes and they are okay but my buddy Tavo brought his TK tele with Thomastic 11’s. I really liked the sound of those. For my day to day playing especially with loud blues bands I use GHS 12’s. I think they are a little to bright but they are cheap and accessible.
Problem with pure nickel strings and non adjustable pole pickups. With Vintage Vibe HCC (Humbucker size Charlie Christian) pickups,
using steel or nickel plated steel sets the string to string balance was very good. Good thing since it’s not adjustable. I just put on a set of Pyramid round wound pure nickel 12’s using the plain 3rd and the difference in volume between the wound and unwound strings is sizable. The 3 wound strings ballance well as do the 3 unwound, but together it doesn’t work. I suspect it can be balanced with adjustable poles, but with a blade, I can’t use them. Anyone else experienced this?
I’m glad you mentioned this Grez as I was just getting ready to try those exact strings on my CC equipped Tele. I think I’ll pass now. I’m using Thomastik flatwound 12s now and not having any balance problems with them.
Mikemc, aren’t those also a full nickel wrap, not nickel coated steel? If so, I wonder if the size of, or the material of the core is different. I did a little web searching and some people mention this problem, but most do not. I guess it could be just a bad combination of pickups and strings accentuation the problem, but it must always be happening at some level.
This following is an excerpt from Jonathan Stout’s blog. From what he says I have to assume Charlie Christian used nickel strings with his pickup and they were roundwound. If what he’s saying is correct I would think nickel strings should work fine with no problems with a bar style pickup.
“For electric strings, it can be difficult finding strings gauged for jazz playing without using flatwound strings. I can confirm that roundwound strings were used on electric guitars until the 1950’s when flatwounds were introduced. (see below) I’ve been using D’Addario’s for a long time, generally with the standard nickel alloy, but I recently have been experiementing with a their pure nickel string, which would be more like strings used “back in the day.” I’ve gone back and forth with them yet, but many of the makes of “vintage” pure nickel strings don’t offer a 13 guage set, so D’Addario is one of your only options.
I recently spoke with legendary studio guitarist “Telecaster” Bob Bain. Beside being a one of the most recorded guitarists in history, one of Bob’s first job was playing guitar in Freddie Slack’s band in the early 40’s. He was friends with many important swing guitars, including Allan Reuss and Les Paul. We only spoke for a couple minutes on the phone, but he invited me to drop by his house to chat some more soon.
Anyway, he confirmed that early electric guitar players used roundwound nickel strings, and that flatwounds did not come on the scene until the 1950’s. He alluded to the role of one George Barnes in popularizing them – Bob called him”this guitar player from Chicago, George Barnes.” I think he was surprised to hear that I knew exactly who George Barnes was.
Here’s an article all about Bob from Vintage Guitar Magazine: http://www.vintageguitar.com/2810/bob-bain/
More from Jonathan Stout’s blog. I’m referring to his blog because for his electric guitar needs as he plays a Gibson ES-150 with a CC pickup and even uses the same amps as CC did. His string research is commendable. He mentions in this article that CC probably used mona-steel strings which was Gibson’s name for monel so my statement in the above post that he probably used nickel strings needs correcting. I think you are right that the CC pickup and pure nickel strings may have a balance problem if you follow his research on this. The part where he mentions that almost all strings have the same steel wire doesn’t apply to Thomastik and Pyramid brands. I’m pretty sure that all of their strings are nickel wire. Maybe I’m wrong. In any case it’s always fun to read about strings as they seem to be a science unto themselves. There’s a lot learn. Good luck Grez.
Guitar String Composition and Swing Guitar
DateThursday, May 16, 2013 at 10:31AM
Because Swing Guitar straddles the worlds of both acoustic and electric instruments, the choice of string has been an open question since I began playing Swing Guitar. At times I tried to “split the difference” between, but I found it was usually better to treat an instrument as either purely electric or acoustic, since electricifing an archtop so often leads to it loosing the essential acoustic character needed for proper swing rhythm guitar.
I recently got a message from Glenn Crytzer who again inquired about what strings to use, which propeled me on a quest to figure out once and for all about the history of guitar strings as it relates to what Swing and Early Jazz guitarists would have used. Here are the results of that research.
Electric vs. Acoustic = Nickel vs. Bronze
Today, guitar strings comes in an almost endless variety, but most are one of two basic flavors: “acoustic” bronze-wound and “electric” nickel-wound. Almost all strings have the same steel core wire, and the difference is the wire wrapped around it, though there is sometimes variation in the shape or size of the core wire. The plain, unwound strings (usually the high E and B, and on very light sets, the G) on bronze and nickel sets are generally the same.
While you can technically use either string on either guitar, the use of magnetic pickups on electric guitars require a string that is ferromagnetically responsive, and nickel-wound strings and unwound plain steel strings are much more responsive than bronze strings. Besides bronze wound being very inefficient, the difference in metals causes there to be a staggering volume difference between the plain, unwound strings and the wound strings. Bronze strings, while not being as magnetically responsive, do sound much louder acoustically. They are both fuller and zing-ier sounding than nickel-wound.
Nickel and Bronze Varieties
Bronze-wound strings come in two main flavors: 80/20 bronze and Phosphor Bronze. Phosphor Bronze is much newer, having been introduced in the 1970’s as a brighter, longer lasting string. Nickel-wound strings come into two main flavors as well: so-called “pure nickel” and nickel-wound (which are nickel-plated steel wrap). Nickel-plated steel strings were introduced in the 60’s as nickel prices rose, and the brighter sound of nickel-wounds was desired. 80/20 bronze and “pure-nickel” are generally considered the more “vintage” choice by mainstream guitar culture, though really that only means 1950’s or 1960’s vintage.
Flat = Jazz?
One other variation worth mentioning at this point is “flat-wound” strings. Flats are the darkest, and mellowest-sounding strings tonally, and because they have a flattened playing surface, they make almost no finger noise. The main varieties of these are what I think of as “true-flats” or “ribbon-wound”, where a flattened strip of metal is wound around the core wire, and “ground-wound” where a round string is wrapped and then the outer surface is shaved or ground down to a flat surface. Ribbon-wound strings are the darkest, with ground-wounds being a step brighter, but still mellower than round-wounds.
Flat wounds are often thought of as “jazz” strings, though in reality that means the “jazz” of the 50’s and 60’s. As I mentioned in a previous article, legendary studio guitarist Bob Bain related to me that flat wounds were not really used until the mid-50’s. La Bella claims to have introduced flats in 1940, but I’m guessing they weren’t commonly adopted until the 1950’s. Flat wound strings have the distinctive sound of post-bop and hard-bop guitarists like Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, etc., which is something distinctly different than swing-era electric players like Charlie Christian and early Barney Kessel. I don’t recommend flats for swing-era playing.
Strings Types and Swing Music
So the question remains, “what were they using before 1950, and more importantly what were they using during the swing-era?” That question has been difficult to answer, and I after some research and some theories.
Pre-History of Strings, part 1: “Steel”
As best as I can tell, metal musical instrument strings go back hundreds of years. They came to guitar in the middle of the 19th Century. During this time there was no particular standardization. Originally steel strings were oiled to retard oxidation, and other coatings were tried before plating came into the picture. Gauges were not specified, and you basically had the choice of brands.
For figuring out the timing of advancements and product introductions, the best resource I found was a collection of manufacturer’s catalogs at http://www.acousticmusic.org, all of which were available for download as PDFs. There were quite a few discussions in various forums asking many the same questions, but this one <http://theunofficialmartinguitarforum.yuku.com/topic/1743#.UV0JXKsjqXQ > from the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum was especially helpful. The extensive collection of string packages provided some missing information.
In the 1903 Gibson catalog, the only steel strings were listed as “silver wound.” Just judging from the catalog, it is hard to determine whether these were actually silver-plated, or whether they were “silvered” with some other alloy or method. Many of the string packages shown on the martin guitar forum, however, do specifically say “silver-plated”, and judging from the packaging art and lettering, these could easily be from the era the teens and 1930’s. Thus, I would bet that “silver wound” meant “silver-plated steel.”
The 1930 Martin catalog only lists “wound steel” (with wound B and G), but with no further description of composition. The 1934 Epiphone catalog also offers no clue to composition beyond “steel.”
Monel: The missing link
Before being my research, I had never heard of a metal called “Monel,” let alone did I realize that it was probably the dominant guitar string alloy for a period in the 1930’s and perhaps into the 40’s. According to wikipedia (I’ll do some legit metallurgical research eventually), monel is a nickel-copper alloy is commonly used in applications with highly corrosive environments. Monel guitar strings were produced from the 1920’s up until the 1970’s, and new old stocks had mostly run out years ago. However, Martin recently announced that they are bringing back monel strings for a signature set for bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. I just ordered a couple sets, and will report back as soon as I can.
The 1930-1931 Gibson catalog introduces “Mona-Steel” strings, which was Gibson’s name for monel. No other steel-string choices are listed.
The 1934 Gibson catalog, offers only mona-steels, but does offer the option of “hand polishing.” There is some conjecture on various bulletin boards that this is a reference to flat-wound strings, or at least an early “ground-wound” string. I do not think that is the case. Rather, I am guessing that the manufacturing standards of the day may have led the strings to be a bit “fuzzy” and perhaps a bit poorly finished. There are pictures of Mapes brand strings from the 30’s that came with a “sepam cloth” to polish the strings. Sepam cloth is something like an emery board. The 1944 Epiphone catalog mentions strings can be “hand-polished” to “reduce swish.” Reducing finger noise may also have been a concern. However, I would argue that while “hand-polishing” may have rounded off the gullys between round wrappings ever so slightly, they are not “flats” as we think of them. Also, given how much material would have to be removed to make them flat, I doubt that could really be achieved with something like an emery board or by hand.
In comes Bronze
So far, the earliest reference to “bronze wound strings” that I’ve come across is in the 1935 Martin catalog. Both Monel and bronze sets are listed, with bronze being listed as being “heavy gauge” and wound on a hexagonal core, and the monel listed as being “medium gauge” and wound on a “piano core,” which I’d assume is a round core. Gibson’s 1937 catalog also adds bronze-wound to the line up, along with the mona-steels. It isn’t until after the impact of the electric guitar that there is any text describing the qualities of monel vs. bronze.
Electric vs. Acoustic
The 1937 Gibson catalog is also very important because it introduces Gibson’s electric line of guitars, banjos, mandolins and hawaiian steel guitars. Gibson’s first electric guitar pickup, usually known as a “Charlie Christian” pickup, had an issue with the B string being significantly louder than the rest. By 1938 Gibson added a notch in the pickup under the B string to try to equalize the difference. Finally, in 1939 Gibson introduced a CC pickup with individual pole pieces on the ES-250. In 1937, the Gibson catalog simply directs electric guitar users to use a set of monel strings. But consider that, at that time, the first electric jazz guitar solo had yet to be recorded.
There was a significant amount of experimentation and innovation in those earliest years of the electric guitar. The next two catalogs in the collection show major changes. The 1942 Gibson catalog finally differentiates electric strings from acoustics. Mona-Steel and Bronze are both offered without reference to “acoustic”, but the newest addition is Mona-electric strings. The catalog only says that they are specifically selected gauges of mona-steel. Presumably monel was still used for electrics, but the gauges had been altered to deal with the “hot B string” problem.
There is a particularly telling paragraph in that 1942 catalog:
“Our Mona-Steel Strings are noted for their non-tarnishing long wearing qualities, and are better suited for electrics. The bronze strings have that clear tone of soft brilliancy, which is preferred by many especially in orchestra work. Light gauges are more responsive and ideal for light, fast picking; while heave gauges are designed for the orchestra players who need volume and solidity.”
The difference becomes codified
The 1942 Gibson catalog mentions that heavy-gauge bronze strings are standard equipment on Super 400’s and L-5’s. By the 1944 Epiphone Catalog the split between electric strings and acoustic strings appears to have solidified. It offers “special bronze wire covered” strings as well as now specifically electric “Electar” strings of “magnetic materials.”
After this my resources dried up. I can’t find any catalogs until 1950, when Gibson was offering both generically “Guitar” (presumably monel) and “Bronze Guitar Strings”, as well as specifically electric strings. Again, there is a lapse in the resources until 1959, when the Fender Catalog describes their electric guitar strings (as they only made electric instruments then) as “pure nickel-wound.”
Based the catalogs, I would feel comfortable making a couple of inferences.
I would bet that someone like Eddie Lang was using a silver-plated steel string until the introduction of monel and perhaps adopted monel until he died in 1934.
I’m guessing that Monel strings were probably used by the second generation of guys, like Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George Van Eps, though they may have switched to bronze-wound when they were introduced.
The swing-era rhythm players probably adopted bronze-wound strings because of their greater volume, although it’s possible some stuck with monel strings.
Because I can’t find any references to specifically electric strings until 1942, I would bet that Charlie Christian probably used mona-steel strings.
I bought a couple sets of Martin’s Tony Rice Signature Monel Strings. I tried them on both my Eastman 805 and my Franken-ES150. The verdict is still out, because I haven’t had a chance to trade back and forth and to play them on very many gigs. Lately I feel like I’ve gotten burned by forgetting that how something sounds alone is not necessarily how it sounds in the context of an ensemble.
On the acoustic, they definitely had a distinct sound as compared to either bronze or nickel. They were bright and cutting without being shrill. They seemed to have increased mids and upper mids, with somewhat reduced bass as compared to bronze. On the electric, there is some difference between the wound and unwound, but I think it maybe a beneficial one. The low strings tend to be very bassy and distort my EH-185 far more readily than the unwound strings. I think the lesser magnetic response may actually serve to balance the guitar better when jumping from rhythm guitar (which I’ve already written how much I dislike electric rhythm guitar) and solos.
Lastly, the gauges for this signature set are a bit different than a normal set of 13’s, with the middle strings running slightly lighter. Some of the strings seem to flexible, and seem to “give” when hit hard rather than bouncing back. Only more time an experimentation will tell.
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Great conversation on this topic. For my CC Dunham guitar I have used both thomastic rounds and GHS boomer 12’s. Both work great for me. Now, the issue I have with pyramid 12’s is the third plain is just too light. If it were a 19 or 20 I think the balance would be better. I use pyramid 12’s on my grez and I’ve been able to compensate by adjustingthe poles on the p90’s. I read an article with Barney Kessel he went as far as filing down the bar to ge the balance he liked. It was cool to hear how Barnes used flats. I haven’t tried flats on my grez but when these finally die, that will be the next set.
I am starting to think that we expect a higher level of perfection now than was available when all these things were originally conceived of. What a big deal it would have been to have the first electrified guitar! String materials were changing, people were filing down blades in pickups, it was all a “work in process” I bet.
That said, Vintage Vibe makes a little kit that allows you to boost the magnet strength under certain strings to balance things up a little better. I have one on the way. Also, a friend is lending me a Lollar humbucker size CC pickups, so we will see how that works with steel and nickel strings also.
I’m excited to hear the results. I think you are definitely right when we think about the development of electric guitar. It was all so new and the purpose was to amplify the instrument not develop coloration from the pickups and amp. That was just a by product of limited technology. With the pyramid strings I will say my biggest criticism is the balance guage wise between the the plain 3rd and 4th. The jump is just to big for me. I live with it, and I will have to for the next couple of months, but I will try Thomastics on my next restring.
It’s been awhile on this topic but I thought I would post an update on string balance and the Vintage Vibe HCC pickups. I did install this assembly from Vintage Vibe with booster magnets under the 3 wound strings and it did balance everything out well. The pic shows booster magnets under only one string. The booster magnets are Neo and the main mags are A2 or A5 so yes there is something going on with mixing magnet types but mostly it’s just about increased magnetic field strength under certain strings.
One other point that seems somewhat obvious now is that when I was experiencing the string imbalance, I was using a very clean, high headroom amp. As soon as you introduce compression (a tube amp driven hard enough to squeeze the signal a little) the difference smooths out some and is less obvious.
I know I am a little late on this topic, but. For me if I use an unwound 3rd string I use a thick gauge plain. I typically use a 22 plain which is what a wound 3rd is on a typical set with a wound 3rd. Doing this I have never had trouble with string balance in the guitar both plugged in and acoustically. With the thickness of that gauge the string stil doesn’t have a lot of vibration, like a wound string. So I guess that is why it balances well like a wound 3rd. Some people do not like the feel of a plain string that stiff though, because it does have some discomfort at first like when we all learn to play the guitar. It does give you the string balance you want and the ability for the bending we all want on a plain string. Everyone I have gotten to try this trick have never turned back. All of their searching for the right string brand, experimenting with pickups and their adjustments, all stop when they finally try the string trick.
Grez, That is a cool little contraption. I always wondered if just putting a little more magnet where the string was would boost the output. Then I figured it probably didn’t, because if it did someone would have done it by now. You may be able to shed some light on this next thing. I have always heard that with blade pickups, people would cut a groove in the bar to weaken the response of the pickup at that point, and use that to balance the hotter strings with the weaker ones. Have you ever heard this, or know if there is any merit to it? It makes sense to me since it would cause a little disruption in the filed right there. I have seen a lot of vintage guitars with these little grooves in them, like they were made by a blade, but just wrote it off as string damage, or something else, from years of being played. Now I wonder if this idea of balancing the pickup is what was being done to them. I would be curious to any insight you may have on the topic.
For anyone wanting to try the thicker plain 3rd trick here is a link to a Ernie Ball set that has it. A nice, cheap set of string to experiment with to see what you think. It is their Beefy Slinky set made for drop tuning metal heads. It is an 11-54 set.
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