Acoustic Strings: Alloys, Coats, and Attitudes
Whether you've ever gone to college, played in a traveling folk band, hung out with hipsters of various demographics, or just plain wanted to pick up chicks, you're familiar with acoustic guitars. And chances are, you've picked one up or played one at some point in your life. Heck, you might even be an expert, virtuoso player. Acoustic playing might be your destiny and your calling, your pride and joy, your forte', the cheese to your macaroni. But let me ask you this? Do you know your strings? More specifically, which strings are which and how they affect your overall sound and performance?
Well, if you're anything like me, you could have been playing for most of your life to date and still not have the faintest idea about strings. And I don't blame you if you don't because, A) there are a ton of string options out there these days, all with different characteristics that determine tone and playability, and B) I honestly didn't know one string from another until I started working at a music store. I'm a drummer. What can you expect?
But then again, I've been playing guitar for many years now and have since done my homework on the subject of strings. Turns out, even the most skilled and educated players still aren't sure when it comes to what strings might suit them best for their kind of music. And that's why, over the next few weeks, Bigfoot Music has commissioned me with the UPMOST IMPORTANCE of educating our beloved customer base (out there and hungry for knowledge about guitar strings, of course!) on this subject. And as implied at the beginning of this expositional onslaught, we're gonna start with acoustic strings! More specifically, the most common kind: bronze and bronze-alloys...
A Quick Word About Bronze:
Before we go any further, let me just say that the focus of this first post is on metal-based acoustic guitar strings, NOT nylon or classical guitar strings. We'll talk about those later on. We'll also cover electric guitar strings eventually, too.
Which brings me to this important distinction...While electric guitar strings are all about getting amplifcation and maximum output (in other words, making everything as loud as friggin' possbile), acoustic strings are all about the following three characteristics: the perfect mix of tone, clarity, and longevity to suit whatever music you're playing. Bronze is widely considered the brightest and most articulately voiced metal string. And because it is not inherently ferromagnetic (particularly senstive to magnets), bronze makes an ideal choice for acoustic strings. Chances are, 90% of the acoustic guitar strings out there are some form of bronze or another. They're shimmery and brassy and just all around hunky-dory. But not all bronze-based strings are alike, which is why it is important to know your alloys, boys and girls.
I'm going to walk you through the Bigfoot String Catalog and give you an in-detail synopsis of each string type, what they mean for your music, and how they sound:
Martin Marquis' and Martin SP's ($9.97-12.59):
Two different types of bronze-alloys here, and possbily the most common two out there on the market: Martin Marquis' are what are referred to as 80/20 bronze, and the SP's are simply called Phosphor Bronze. What does this mean?
80/20 bronze is given that very unsexy name because it is simply the ratio of copper-to-zinc in the wrap wire (80% copper, 20% zinc). If you remember your high school chemisty class, you'll remember that copper is highly corrosive, so the more copper involved in your strings, the quicker they're going to lose their initial "shiny" sound and corrode into a deader, duller sound. Hence, the zinc factor, since zinc slows down the corrosion process. The result? Very crisp, very articulate sound with brilliant high-end and a pretty wide tonal spectrum. The downside? They don't stay that way forever. You'll get the "best" sound from the first two-to-three hours of playing, but eventually the strings wear down. (Note: the latest craze in string-coating, however, has had some beneficial effects on 80/20 strings. We'll talk about that in a sec).
In reponse to the inevitably short-ish lives of 80/20 strings, Phosphor bronze strings were developed for the purpose of increasing the longevity of string life. The phosphor content actually slows the natural corrosion process of the wrap wire way down, so you get good tone much longer than 80/20. What makes the two inherently different, however, is tone; phosphor bronze sounds considerably darker, warmer, and generally softer than the bright, cutting 80/20.
To make a pretty general statement, if you're looking for bright, brash, brilliant sound, 80/20 is your string! If you're looking for warm, pleasing, and dark, you've got phosphor bronze. Here at shop, we carry both options in Martin brand strings.
Comparable brands include our D'addario EJ16's (phosphor bronze) which are $9.64, Ernie Ball Slinky Acoustics (phosphor bronze) at $7.88 and Martin's off-shoot Darco strings (80/20 bronze) which start at $5.99.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, 80/20 strings are prized for their tone and clarity, but up until the recent coated-string technology hit the market, they've been relatively short-lived. So, what's ACTUALLY up with coated strings, anyhow?
Elixir Acoustic Strings: Polyweb and Nanoweb ($13.99-14.99):
Most people who haven't yet discovered the neatness of coated strings find their first quandry with the obvious price. Coated strings, at least the good ones, are kinda pricey in comparison to non-coated strings. And when they see the tag, many roll their eyes or ask, "What the heck?" Well, I'll be happy to tell you the heck concerning Elixir strings, and the coating process in general.
Elixir strings are actually the product of the Gor-tex® Fabric company (you might know them as the people who make all those fancy hiking and sportswear clothes and accesories). Their whole schtick is their cool fabrics that are waterproof and breathable and make things sleak and aerodynamic (but unfortunately, do not improve your general athletic skill all that much, dangit). How these two industries ended up hooking up and making this sweet, sweet love-child is somewhat interesting because, essentially, Elixir were the first to coat a string, and to coat a string well. Their original string recipe (the Elixir Polyweb Lights) is your basic 80/20 bronze-wound string, plus a layer of "polyweb" Gor-tex coating. The result? You have strings that sound really good for a much longer time. Remember how the downside of 80/20 bronze is its limited tone-life? Elixir-coated strings have solved that problem for a good many of us, and we here at Bigfoot (who maintain a healthy amount of skepticism at pretty much anything) swear by these guys. Most of us on staff don't use any other kind of string anymore because we're impressed by the increased life-span of the Elixir string.
And it's important to say, too, that Elixir's coating process is patented (being that they wind the string first, and then coat it). All other coated-strings (Cleartone, D'addario, etc) try to get around that patent my coating the winds, and then winding the string. The problem there is that you are losing metal-on-metal contact with your winds, so though your strings stay less corrode-y, you've got some tone-loss. It's really all a matter of preference in the end, but if you want my opinion, Elixir strings are best coated strings out there and are worth the extra couple bucks. They come in a bunch of different guages, as well as their thinner-coated "Nanoweb" strings which are phosphor-bronze instead of 80/20.
One last kind of string I'd like to touch on for this week's post, and then I'm off to my night-job as a celebrity pharamicist...
Silk Steel: Classic Sound Without the Classical Part:
There's a lot more about acoustic strings that I could talk about, but I'm gonna finish my rant with D'addario Silk and Steel's since they're pretty unique and worth a shameless plug ;) For those of you who like the gentle, mellow sound of a nylon-string guitars but don't actually own a classical, these strings are pretty neat. The core is a silk-string with silver-plated copper winding, essentially giving you the best of both the steel-string and nylon-string worlds. You get the traditional tone of a classical, but the tenacity of a steel acoustic, so you aren't accidentally cracking off any headstocks or playing with limp, lanky strings. D'addario EJ40's ($14.99) are perfect for the finger-pickin' players who want something a little more folky or sophisticated without having to bleed their wallet out for said folkiness/sophistication.
Next week, we talk about electric strings! In the words of Sammy Haggar, "YeeeeeAAAAAOOOOWW!"