Strange, Strange Strings

No longer ridiculously expensive — just REGULAR expensive.

No longer ridiculously expensive. Now they’re just very expensive.

I spent last week covering the Musikmesse musical instrument trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, for Premier Guitar. I had a blast, and Chris Kies and I posted details and pics of more than 70 new products. (Here’s the short list of our personal faves.) Kies shot lots of video, and will be posting more than 50 demo segments to the PG site in the coming weeks.

But Messe is hellishly loud, far noisier than NAMM. When I finally got home and picked up a guitar, it was an acoustic. I was trying something new, based on info I obtained from Mary Faith Rhoads-Lewis, CEO of Breezy Ridge, a company that distributes several brands for acoustic musicians, including John Pearse strings.

I’d previously geeked out here about about the strangest and most expensive guitar strings I’d ever tried: this “rope core” set from Austria’s Thomastik-Infeld. Reader/cool guy Al Milburn turned me on to them, and I wrote about them here. And I recently posted this video demonstrating how the transformed my old Martin 0-17 into a compelling steel/nylon hybrid with a unique and expressive voice.

Anyway, Ms. Rhoads-Lewis told me that the late John Pearse originally created this set for Thomastik, and that the John Pearse Folk Fingerpicking set [PJ116] is identical to what the Austrian company sells. Best part: You can get them in the States for under $20, as opposed to a walloping $35 for the Thomastiks. She also told me that their magic works in reverse: You can put this relatively low-tension set on a classical guitar for a very different sort of hybrid steel-string sound. (This, she said, is exactly what the great Brazilian player Bola Sete used to do.)

I popped a set on my old Yairi classical. The feel was — totally strange, and in precisely the opposite way as on the Martin. The tone was edgy and exciting, but the tension seemed a little too extreme. If just seemed a little too … high-strung, in every sense. Then I tried lowering the entire tuning a whole step, with the sixth dropped all the way to C.

And … oh, my. Check it out:

Summary: Holy cannoli, I love how this sounds. And there’s something psychologically satisfying about the transformation too. See, this guitar has always been a bit … tragic to me. I got it when I was 16. My classical guitar prof at UCLA said I needed a better instrument, and my every-supportive folks, bless ’em, helped me buy this Alvarez Yairi for around $700 (in 1970s dollars). It was a top-tier model for Alvarez, signed by luthier Kazuo Yairi, and boasting lovely Brazilian rosewood backs and sides. It was a huge upgrade for me, but as I got deeper into classical playing, its shortcomings emerged. Had I not shifted my studies to composition, I’d have needed to upgrade again. I envied the Igancio Fleta y Hijos models my two teachers played, but at around $3,000, they were beyond my budget, even with parental help. (Pity — their current value is approaching $50,000.) So I’ve used this instrument as a limited but decent-sounding model suitable for pop work, if not serious classical concertizing.

This guitar had two main problems: an overly dark and thick midrange that overpowers the high end, and a tendency to compress too much when played with maximum intensity. Basically, if just gets kind of “thuddy” when you whack on it. (I know shockingly little about classical lutherie, but I suspect the issue is an overly thick and heavy top.) I’ve tried dozens of string brands over the years, and while bright, high-tension sets helped, they never made the guitar sound great. I considered getting a pro quality classical a couple of years ago (not a Fleta, sadly!), but while auditioning a few at my local classical guitar store, I encountered the budget-priced instruments from Bulgaria’s Kremona/Orpheus Valley. These hand-made guitars sell for under a grand, not that much more than I paid for the Alvazez nearly 40 years ago. The woods aren’t as fancy, but the one I bought provided the bright, open sound the Alvarez never managed. I see that these guitars get mixed reviews online, but mine feels like about $2,000 worth of guitar, and I’m delighted with it. (You can see and hear the guitar in this post.) And since then, my Alvarez has been exiled to a garage shelf.

Man, am I glad I gave it a reprieve! I’m still trying to wrap my head around what’s happening here, but it seems as if the slightly higher tension of the rope-core strings excites the top in a way nylon strings never did. I can’t believe the sheer mass of the low C! I certainly couldn’t get that sound before. I also love the improved and expanded dynamic. Now when I whack it hard, if feels hard! Also, tuned low like this, it gets me close to the sound of an instrument I’ve long coveted: the Argentine baritone classical owned by one of my greatest heroes, the brilliant composer/producer/guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla. My restrung and retuned guitar has such a great baritone presence that the first thing I intuitively played was “I Fell Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” the beautiful Mixolydian melody that opens Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. (Yes, I’m going all Frisco on your asses and talking musical comedy.) It’s written for a basso/baritone voice, the kind that shakes the ground when it gets down to that low tonic note. I’ve never gotten closer to the effect on a classical guitar. In retrospect, that’s probably why I found myself noodling around on “Shenandoah” — I always loved the deep-voiced Paul Robeson version. (And frankly, I’ve been a little chicken to attempt the tune, given the amazing versions I’ve heard from Richard Thompson and Mark Goldenberg.)

In short: Despite all the yammering I’ve done about the transformative power of great flatwound strings, this is the most extreme makeover I’ve ever achieved via a simple string change. And now these strange, strange strings blow me away more than ever.

Just for comparison: Two clips performed on the same guitar, one right recorded before I replaced the nylon strings, and the Bernstein tune, played on the new set.

Granted, I don’t play much pure classical anymore, so a compelling hybrid is more appealing to me that a fine but conventional concert instrument. But I’d love to hear what a serious classical player could do on this set. (And anyone who objects on grounds of historical accuracy is full of it: Nylon strings only came into use after WWII, when Segovia popularized the new-fangled Augustine brand.)

Funny: I’ve aways thought “folk strings” meant an easy-to-finger set with soft materials and light tension, designed for casual pickers who couldn’t handle steel strings. (Players like my late mom, basically.) But there is nothing “amateur” about this set. Their response is simply explosive.

And I love that they renewed my enthusiasm for an instrument with so much personal history. Some sad news I heard at Messe only minutes before speaking with Ms. Rhoads-Lewis inspired the idea. I was talking to the Alvarez rep, who told me that Kazuo Yairi, who oversaw the Alvarez/Yairi family for many decades, died only a few days before the show. He not only built countless fine instruments for his own brands, but also trained many luthiers from around the world at his Japanese workshop. My condolences to all who knew this well-loved man, and my thanks for providing so much musical inspiration.

Any downside to the new strings? I’m not sure I could hang with them in standard tuning, even though it’s a cool sound. I’m also encountering a particular type of string noise more than usual: the sound of my right-hand thumb sliding along the strings as I shift between picking positions. I’m not sure whether it’s because the strings are so new, or because the extreme tonal changes the strings make possible enchants me so much that I can’t keep my damn hand still. But whatever — either the strings will adjust, or I will. Anyway, you can definitely hear the noise in the video, and also the tendency for the string to stick in the nut and go sharp — I’ll have to apply more nut lube. (Don’t go there.) There are some clumsy clams too, but I just used the warts-and-all performance because I wanted to capture my initial enthusiasm.

I don’t always mind string noise, actually. I like when you hear a acoustic guitar creak like a wooden ship at sea. My attitude was influenced by another of my loftiest heroes, genius producer/engineer Tchad Blake. When I first met Tchad some 20 years ago on a Tom Waits session, he said something about fret and string noise that’s always stayed with me. I paraphrase, but the essence was, he compared acoustic guitar sound as a still desert landscape. All is silent — until a lizard scuttles under a rock, or a bird flutters its wings in the bushes. Those intermittent noises only enhance the silence. Lovely image, right? And a good example of Tchad’s uniquely poetic perspective on music and sound.

So many years later I was tracking acoustic guitar with Tchad while making Tracy Chapman’s (beautiful and sadly overlooked) Where You Live album. Tchad asked me to replay a part because of accidental noise.

“What?!” I screeched. “What about the lizards and birds and rocks and things?”

“I know,” Tchad said. “But come on, man — that?!”

I played it again.

P.S.: This is also the first time I’ve recorded with the Edna microphone, one of two cool-looking models that Portland, Oregon’s Ear Trumpet Labs was kind enough to loan me for the monthly Strung Out solo guitar series I’m presenting at my local SF dive, El Rio. (I’m performing there this Thursday, the March 27th. Just saying.) Sounds pretty great, right? They’re not expensive for studio-quality condensers — $450. I don’t own a good small-diaphragm condenser mic, even though they’re usually my faves for acoustic work. This goes for about half the price of the Neumann TLM103 I usually use for acoustic demos, and I slightly prefer Edna’s sound. Plus, it looks cool, and I’m grateful for any visual distraction from my sallow, jet-lagged face. ;)

22 comments to Strange, Strange Strings

  • Oh my Joe what a marvellous sound, the low end is fabulous. Magical things seem to happen with baritone and / or low tuned guitars. On your Yairi the lower tension on the top will probably tune the top to a different main resonance. Have you listened to what happens when you tap or thump the top? i guess you would have to compare it to a tap with it strung with conventional strings.

  • Oinkus

    Very nice change ! Guitar really didn’t sound horrible before if you ask me. For just a string change and then dropping the tuning pretty big-time difference. That Edna mic sure sounds good at that price point too! Sort of crazy that your fav folk tune is Shenandoah (or Across the Wide Missouri) I am from that part of VA actually. On a different note ,what earplugs did you use at Musikmesse ?

  • So, rope cores on a classical guitar vs. rope cores on a steel-string type guitar? Just video to video, I find the Yari more exciting than the Martin. Calming down a steel-strung guitar to be a late-night around-the-house guitar is itself a cool thing, though.

    Anyway, it makes me consider hunting down an appropriate classical guitar. And I’ve never owned a classical or been particularly interested in one.

    • joe

      I know what you mean. I think the reason I like the Martin recipe is partly as a reaction against the really bright, brittle instrument I’ve been using for years. I think I’ll keep the rope cores on the Martin. But I agree that the Yairi clip is more of a knockout. It certainly surprised me more! :)

  • Martin

    Hi Joe. Absolutely beautiful playing and sound.
    I’ve got an old nylon string lying forlornly in the corner of the room
    and hardly ever pick it up for similar reasons you described.
    Just ordered a set of Pearse guitar strings and looking forward to trying them on. Been following your website for a while now and it’s
    wonderful. Cheers.

    • joe

      Thanks, Martin! Let me know how that works out. I was going to say: There are lots of nice old Japanese classical guitar knocking around, instruments that aren’t especially valuable, but which have nice woods and solid workmanship. I bet these strings could transform a lot of them into cool and inspiring instruments, provided you cool with a departure from a traditional nylon sound.

  • Martin

    Hi. The guitar I’ve got is a Raimondo 120-E(left handed).
    Not a bad sounding guitar as such but not particularly exciting either.
    Will definitely let you know how it works out. Cheers.

  • I know they're not your regular bronze strings but, being metallic, don't they intonate sharp on a clasical guitar? I'm inclined to give them a try, because the sound is great, really.

    • joe

      Hi, Alfredo! LOL — to my ear, EVERYTHING intonates sharp on every guitar. ;)

      But I don’t notice that these are any worse than nylon strings. If you try them, please share your experiences. I’m also curious whether you find that they feel better in a lowered tuning.

  • Wow. Finally took a moment to listen to the video. First of all, it’s a moving performance – I personally love when you’re tearing up a little about 3:08 (I was too). It’s also how I always dreamed my old Suzuki classical (sole axe for the first five years) sounded. A beautiful compromise that seems to highlight everything I love about the instrument.
    Makes me think of Grady Martin’s exceptional pick-style playing on ‘El Paso’, so poky and expressive.
    Thanks.

  • joe

    Oh, thanks, Dave. So that’s what we’re hearing on “El Paso”” you think? Pickstyle nylon-string? That’s certainly what it sounds like to me. I get why folks don’t do it more — hard in the guitar and hard on the strings — but it’s a great sound. I love that record, and the way it can move you whether your a little kit or a grizzled old cuss. :)

  • Martin

    Hi Joe. Had the John Pearse strings on now for a couple of days.
    Have not played the classical so much in ages. Brighter sound and just all round livelier. Have it tuned down a step and wallowing in deep toned heaven. Also tried it at normal pitch and liked that too.
    Did,nt mind the high stringiness of it. Benefits to both.
    A million thanks for the insight and inspiration.
    All the best.

  • Brian

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve been reading you here for a while (and since I was a kid in GP), but this is the first time I’ve been moved to comment; so first off, I love the blog and I love the sounds you’re playing with here!

    I’m thinking that these strings on this guitar sound especially cool in your hands because of the lute/19th century guitar-like right hand technique you use. The angle of attack of the right hand fingers in this approach fosters a sweet and mellow color, which I suspect is combining with the prominent midrange you describe this guitar as having and the brightening effect of the steel strings to create a rich, complete, and compelling sound. It’s one of those happy times where player, instrument, and string all counterbalance and compliment each other to make a cool effect.

    The flip side of this, though, makes me wonder if the results of sticking these strings in the hands of a ‘serious classical player’, as you say, wouldn’t actually be pretty disappointing. First off, you’re right that the things you don’t like about your classical axe probably all stem from an over-thick top; putting these strings on a ‘better’ classical instrument with a thinner top, then, might provide too much excitement for its extremely thin soundboard, making it sound ‘too hot.’ Also, I suspect the tension level would be just plain dangerous on an instrument like that.

    What’s more, I’m wondering if a more modern right hand classical technique wouldn’t sound pretty crumby with these strings. For instance, at the Peabody Conservatory, where I went to school, the approach to tone production is all about getting a rich, round body to your tone while still (through crafty use of the nails) having a bright, clear attack at the beginning of every note. Guitarists like Manuel Barruecco, Norbert Kraft, or Ricardo Cobo are famous examples of guys who are really, really good at this. Something tells me that using such an approach with these strings would be too darn bright and not very satisfying. Also, they might chew the hell out of one’s nails, right?

    All that said, it still might be super cool, so I’m definitely going to give slapping these strings on a a guitar and playing some straight-ahead classical a try. The results of your experiment are so undeniably awesome that it’s gotta be a worth a try!

    • joe

      Hi Brian — first, thanks the kind words, and for de-lurking. (I’m quite the hypocrite in that regard — there are blogs I’ve visited daily for years without posting a word.)

      Wow, this is an interesting discussion. And as you’ve probably sensed from things I’ve written (not to mention how I play), I have a real love/hate relationship with classical guitar pedagogy. I could probably discuss it for hours, but the simple version is, I view the non-standardization of guitar technique as the most exciting aspect of the instrument, and I tend to take a dim view of teachers and programs that formalize technique.

      Sure, violin and piano, say, carry huge pedagogical burdens, yet musicians continue to play those instruments with great creativity. But piano and violin have vast repertoires of great classical literature composed for them. The guitar does not. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Stravinsky, Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Strauss — none wrote any important guitar music. Maybe I can see surrendering your quirks and adopting a formalized technique for a life dedicated to Beethoven and Brahms. But for Sor and Guiliani? No frickin’ way!

      What guitar DOES have going for it, is an astonishing array of playing styles, plus worldwide accessibility and popularity. It’s the variation that makes guitar great, e puribus unum style.

      My current thinking about tone production is basically: Play till it sounds good. For example, when I listen to the video above, I bum out about how thin I make the first string sound. But I KNOW I could make it sound rich with a few days of practice, and hope to do so. That’s proven true for me over and over, like when switching from pick to fingerstyle playing on electric guitar many years ago. There was no method — I just kept whacking away till I heard a decent tone. It took many months to stop sounding shitty.

      So I tend to think any sensitive player, classical or otherwise, could get a great tone out of these strings (or countless others). But only if they really want to. :)

      Anyway, thanks for introducing yourself, Brian. Don’t be a stranger! :)

  • Oinkus

    Something I always thought was beyond amusing , Paganini considered the guitar as a worthless instrument but actually wrote some guitar/violin duets . I have a tape somewhere of a guy(name lost and forgotten) playing both parts on one guitar by himself , beyond amazing stuff. It always is amusing to attempt to pick a part from something classical and difficult and mutilate with a distorted guitar.

    • joe

      And Berlioz (who, beside being a great composer, was a brilliant, funny, and bitchy writer) is perhaps the only great composer who played no keyboard or violin. He left behind no guitar music, but wrote orchestral music using guitar and flageolet (a sort of flute) as his composing tools.

      I can see why that guitarist played both parts — ol’ Niccolò P. hogged the flashy parts for himself, and made the guitarist play the boring shit. :)

  • Martin B

    Are these definitely the same as the Thomastik KR116 set? I’m just wondering, as it says “Round Wound” on the packet and “Flat Wound” on the Thomastiks. Still contemplating a set for my parlour guitar…

  • David K.

    I think the trebles may be the same, but the basses different. The bases on the John Pearse’s are also listed at a slightly bigger guage. Anyway,thanks to you, Joe, I put the Thomastiks on my old Tacoma Chief acoustic that was collecting dust and now I play it all the time. Just love it. And now I will try them on my Schertler classical as well. Keep up the great work!

  • Brent Gable

    Hey Joe,
    Lovely playing. I used the Thomastiks years ago on an 1890s Washburn parlor guitar that I brought back from the dead and was afraid to put steel strings on. I had actually forgotten all about them before I saw this. I really loved the sound of them on that instrument but alas I sold it back in the day. I thought it was more important for my kids to eat than to have a cool little parlor guitar at the time. Rare occurrence of maturity. I currently have a 1920s ladder braced Stella parlor guitar that I love the the sound of the higher strings on but the low E just sounds really dead. Which can be a problem if you’re playing Blind Blake numbers right? I may have to get a set of these and see if it livens her up. I’ll keep you posted. By the way I am enjoying this blog. I’m slowly working my way backwards on your posts. Enjoy the vacation…

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