UPDATE: I’ve updated the audio examples to include 80/20 bronze strings, as detailed in this newer post.
Can I share my steel-string psychodrama?
I’m lucky enough to own many electric guitars, but I’ve played one steel-string acoustic almost exclusively for many years — a small-bodied Lowden with a tone that a very famous manufacturer of acoustic pickups once described as “like a f%^$ing cannon!” Its sizzling-bright treble and modest low-end make it a great recording instrument. (Engineers often boost highs and roll off lows when processing acoustic guitar, but this model is practically “pre-EQ’ed.”)
But it’s not an easy guitar to play. It seems to amplify string noise, flubbed notes, and all other playing imperfections. “This is a ‘tough love’ guitar,” muttered one singer/songwriter friend.
So when I bought a second steel-string recently, I wanted something warmer, softer, and more flattering, and I found it in a pretty old small-bodied Martin. The day I bought it, I restrung it with treble strings to record my recent Nashville high-strung demo, then popped on a set of the phosphor-bronze strings I’ve been using for years on the Lowden.
And I was seriously bummed out by the tone, as I lamented over at the forum.
The problem was, my sweet, soft antique suddenly sounded a hell of a lot like the Lowden, with blistering treble and cruel string noise. And I realized in a flash that a lot of the qualities I’d attributed to the Lowden were, in fact, a result of the modern, coated phosphor bronze string I’d been using. So I ordered some alternatives and made a few test recordings to demonstrate how dramatic the differences are.
Have a listen:
I played two short on the same guitar, first with coated phosphor-bronze strings, and then with uncoated nickel-wrapped ones. I’m not going to mention the brand names, because both are respected brands, and to be honest, the differences I detect have everything to do with their composition, and little do with who fabricated them. (Discussing string brands is often a dubious proposition. You should be aware that there are far more string brands than there are string manufacturers. Most of the larger facilities actually make string for other companies under other names.)
Some observations: The phosphor-bronze strings are much louder and brighter, with higher highs and lower lows. They have a glistening, “modern” sound that I don’t especially love on this old, well-loved guitar. They feel sleek to the fingers, and they impart a great feeling of mass. Despite my bitching, it’s easy to understand why they’re so popular!
Meanwhile, the nickel-wrapped strings are sweeter and quieter. Compared to the coated strings, they have a softer, less “metallic” feel on the fingers. Even though the gauges are comparable, they seem lighter — there seems to be less tension, and it’s much easier to bend them. I like their more humble sound, and I sure don’t miss that pumped-up treble (a quality perfectly described in the forum thread by Bear as “a weird zing that rides shotgun on the wound strings”). The looser feel can be more expressive. (It wasn’t a conscious decision to noodle around a lot more on the nickel performance — the strings made me do it!) But man. you just can’t whack those low notes they way you can with bronze-based strings — they just sort of crap out when played aggressively.
So which do I like better? Neither! I’m still searching.
Obviously, this is nothing like a comprehensive comparison — I just picked two string types at opposite ends of the tonal spectrum. I’m going to keep experimenting with various alternatives, and I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I’d be most appreciative if anyone who’s navigated these waters can share what they’ve learned. Can anyone give me a clue?
In the meantime: Here is a great Guitar Player article by my pal Barry Cleveland. The focus is on electric guitar strings, but it’s a fascinating story about the rise and fall of nickel strings.
P.S.: Thanks to Steve Gillette for composing “Darcy Farrow,” the pretty song I played in the first two demo clips. I’ve loved it every since Steve performed it at my high school
back in the late Triassic many years ago. It’s been recorded by Ian & Sylvia, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, John Denver, and many other artists, but I like Steve’s version best.