A Very Quiet Guitar

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After last week’s loudness experiments, and with the sonic carnage of NAMM just days away, I figured it was a good opportunity to dial down the decibels and share an interesting guitar/string combination I’ve been enjoying for a few months.

Last spring I wrote about several oddball acoustic strings I was trying out. Oddest of all was a set of Thomastik-Infeld Classic S Rope Core strings.

At $34 bucks a pop in the U.S., they’re blisteringly expensive, but they have a sound I’ve never encountered elsewhere. The result is the closest thing to a nylon-string sound I’ve heard from an ordinarily steel-stringed guitar.

I’ve had the same set on this guitar since May — they’re certainly long-lasting! Now I’m going to experiment with a few other options, but I wanted to document these before swapping them out.

Have a listen:

These strings fascinate me. They convert the guitar into what sounds like a hybrid nylon/steel-string instrument. They permit classical techniques such as rest-strokes, but when you bend them, they feel more like steel strings. The gauges are bizarre: .013 through .039. I’ve never played anything like them.

With these strings, my Martin is quieter than most classical guitars — more like the volume of Renaissance lute (an instrument I played a lot in my teens, though I haven’t owned one in many years). For me, this pairing has the same sort of sweet intimacy. This happens to be the one guitar I keep in my house — everything else is down in the studio. It’s quite literally a parlor instrument, and I’ve loved having a soft, quiet guitar to noodle on. It’s sometimes frustrating, though, how quickly these strings “overload” — the notes in the demo that snap and sizzle aren’t intentional — I’m just playing a little too hard.

I still consider this is a cool alternative classical sound, but after months of playing, I tend to think this combination would best suit a fingerstyle player who uses a lot of bending, smearing, and slapping. I bet Joseph Spence and Bert Jansch would have sounded great on these, as would Ry.

I may return to these extraordinary strings. Actually, in a perfect world, I’d have two lovely old Martins, one to strung conventionally, and the other strung with rope-cores. And since we’re talking “perfect world,” what the hell? Two pre-War Martins for everybody! No, make that three!

23 comments to A Very Quiet Guitar

  • Bebah Palulah

    Dang you just named two of my favorite guitar players (Spence and Ry)! My son’s middle name is “Ryland”. Bert Jansch’s “Avocet” is also an awesome recording and I also have some groovy 60′s duets he did with John Renbourn. How ’bout Pierre Bensusan? That guy’s got some dynamics.

  • smgear

    “this combination would best suit a fingerstyle player who uses a lot of bending, smearing, and slapping”

    Ordered!

  • geeanthony

    Interesting post and nice playing, as always. I have the same set on my Collings parlor right now, and they’re all the things you mentioned. I don’t like them as much as I thought I might, but at $34, I just can’t bring myself to change them yet.

    • joe

      LOL — I know what you mean, gee! I’m going to remove my set in the coming days, and I feel like I should wash them before storing them in a safety deposit box!

  • Thomastik-Infeld makes a classical string with steel centres in the treble strings,which also sound beautiful.As you probably know, it was common for classical/flamenco players to string trebles w/ steel in the twenties.The T-I strings last a long time for me,too.I've had a set on my re-fretted Teisco TG-64 for a year.Thanks,JOE! Great,as usual.

    • joe

      Actually, Al, I’m not sure I did know that. I guess I thought everyone used gut before Segovia popularized Augustine nylon strings.

      But I was talking to classical guitarist Giacomo Fiore at the last String Out show about early wire-string instruments, like Renaissance citterns. And it occurred to me I had no idea what they might have sounded like with their pre-industrial wire. Probably lots of nasty overtones flying around!

  • Dan

    The George Benson 12s were about the best strings ever for a Fender Jaguar, so expensive though, used to wince if I ever broke one.

    • joe

      I love those strings. I use Pyramids instead because they’re a little brighter. But man, I’d play those any day!

      For anyone appalled by how decadent we users of expensive flat wounds are — well, you’re right! They’re expensive, and we’re decadent. But they do last a long, long time. I use a set for months and months, though I’ve gotten a bit more diligent about wiping them off after a session.

      • smgear

        well, if it helps you guys justify anything, just imagine what it’s like for us ‘other’ string players who pay a minimum of $60-100/set for violin/viola/cello strings, not to mention that ‘playable’ instruments start at a few thousand bucks. So $30 for a good set of strings is hardly decadent…..

        • joe

          Totally true. If you played, say, classical harp? Your instrument might cost $40,000, and not for some special, historic model. Guitarists are quite spoiled in the sense that we can score instruments totally suited for professional use for a couple of hundred bucks.

  • Oystein

    WOW! That was just beautiful! Wish I had the chops to do justice to something like that…

  • Geeking out…Would LOVE to hear those on an electric, or an electric acoustic…I know they can overload quickly, but as someone who likes noisy filth I think that might be an interesting combination through a grungy overdrive!!

  • NotSoFast

    Very nice playing, nice sound, and a bit of history of the nylon string, too. Fun fact: Zeppelins (not the Led ones) internal hydrogen balloons were made out of cow gut. 250,000 cows per Zeppelin.

  • el reclusa

    I’m intrigued. I wonder how a set would sound on 6-string banjo? Or on a National?

    • joe

      Wow — hadn’t though of that. It would probably sound pretty cool!

      FWIW, I’ve had a set of Aquila nylon strings on my banjo for the last year. I’m WAY preferring them to conventional metal strings. This might be an interesting “split the difference” choice.

      • el reclusa

        I’d been thinking about trying Nylons on my cheapie Dean 6-string for a while now, but these might indeed be a good compromise. The price is…ouch, but considering how often (ot not) I change my banjo strings, probably worth a shot. One of these days, I’d love to get a Deering or something nicer, but that Dean’s not too bad- even if every time I pick it up I think about those pointy Dimebag Darrel guitars amd wince a little.

  • Beautiful playing Joe! You mentioned flat wounds below – They stop making those cool D'Aquistos! miss those but the Thomastik-Infelds are pretty nice although anyone with a name that difficult to type should be fined!

  • Kerry Maxwell

    That sounds gorgeous! I have my Godin Glissentar strung with two sets of these. At $68 for two sets it’s killer on the wallet, but there’s really no other string for that instrument once you get used to them.

    • joe

      Oh, cool! Actually, you’re the only other guitarist I’ve spoken with who’s tried them. And I wasn’t aware of the Glissentar, either. Looks interesting! What sort of stuff do you use it for?

  • Kerry Maxwell

    It’s really an Oud / guitar hybrid, so I often play it with the traditional risha ( a pick that looks like a flexible popsicle stick made from cow horn) and go for Oud like sounds. But I also like playing it fingerstyle further up the neck, which gives a more fretless bass / nylon string sound. The TI strings are much better for a technique where you slide a lot, as plain nylon leads to friction burns. I have a small body acoustic I’d love to try these on, but it’s cheap 1970 Yamaha student model so I’m not sure it’s worthy.

  • Martin B

    I have a small, lightly built parlour guitar which might be crying out for a set of these, since it responds best to light strings. A sort of nylon/steel hybrid might be a cool sound for this guitar.
    And for once they’re not more expensive in the UK than the US, I guess because they’re made in Europe.

    • joe

      I’m curious what you think! I also kind of liked the sound of old-fashioned La Bella silk and steel strings, and they were certainly a lot less expensive! But there were my faves.

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