It’s been a long, long time since I’ve tried silk and steel strings.
I’ve always thought of them as a transitional set for students migrating from nylon to steel strings. At least that’s how my mom used to explain them to me back when she was giving me my first lessons. Like many players, I viewed them more as a remedy for tender fingertips than a sound you’d actively seek out.
But over time, almost everything I thought I knew about strings turned out to be wrong. So I figured I’d give silk-and-steels a fresh listen.
This thread over at the Acoustic Guitar Forum seems like a fair summary of common attitudes about these strings. Opinions seems divided between players who simply find silk-and-steel strings too soft and quiet to be of much use, and those who enjoy them for fingerstyle playing, especially on small-bodied guitars.
I’ve been frustrated finding the right strings for the old Martin acoustic I picked up last year. I had a violent reaction against coated bronze strings, which I wrote about here. But I was kind of digging the way Martin Marquis 80/20s bronze strings sounded on the instrument, as heard in this video. Sometimes, though, the tone is just too harsh and clacky, so I wanted to try something lighter and softer.
I slapped down this quick duet performance of “Drewrie’s Accordes,” an anonymous lute duet found in The Jane Pickering Lute Book, a manuscript anthology of late 16th-century lute pieces. (This would have been played on gut strings in its day, and is usually performed on nylon-string classical guitar or lute today. My steel treble strings are definitely not historically correct, though some wire-stringed fretted instruments such as the cittern did exist in the Renaissance.)
Observations after the video.
Compared to all-metal strings, the silk-and-steels are definitely quieter, with less treble bite. I like their soft, malleable feel for intricate fingerstyle playing like this. They offer relatively smooth transitions between unwound and wound strings. They exhibit less clacky string and fingernail noise. Playing aggressively with a pick definitely “overloads” them, and would no doubt destroy the windings in short order. Even when playing exclusively fingerstyle, you get the sense that the bass strings aren’t long for this world. But I enjoy their sweet, quasi-classical tone, which to my ear does indeed split the difference between nylon and all-metal strings.
Still, I’m not sure I want to commit to having these on the guitar all the time. (I wish the guitar had a switch to toggle between a bronze and silk-and-steel sound!) Also, these are lighter than I usually play (the treble is .0115, and I pretty much never go below .012). But the relaxed tension does seem to suit this particular guitar.
How about you guys? Any experience with these soft-spoken strings? Do you think they sound cool, or are they merely a salve for sore fingers? And has anyone tried John Pearse silk-and-bronze strings? (That’s probably the next stop on this particular string quest.)
P.S.: This is also a pretty good example of how I apply lute techniques to steel-string playing, as I mentioned here. For most of the fast bits, I pick alternately using my right-hand thumb and index finger. A proper classical player would be more likely to alternate index- and middle-finger. Also, my right thumb sometimes drifts “behind” my right-hand fingers (that is, closer to the bridge). Classical players rarely position their picking thumbs closer to the bridge relative to the fingers. It’s not conscious on my part — it just what my hand does when I’m trying to brighten the bass notes and darken the trebles.