Silk and Steel Strings Revisited

Silk and steel — bad-ass, or strictly for wusses?

Silk and steel — bad-ass, or strictly for wusses?.

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.

27 comments to Silk and Steel Strings Revisited

  • Dave

    For fingerstyle on a parlor I think they’re fantastic strings and I gravitated to them for the same reason I liked flats on electric – more expressive / control when played with fingers and reduced string noise. I’ve never found them ‘softly spoken’ but they are very much a part of the distinct voice of the guitar I have them on and wouldn’t necessarily pair well with another box.

  • smgear

    The feel and response of S&S is a very good match for my finger style, and why I always have them on at least one of my acoustics. But you’re right about the volume. They definitely sound better on small bodies which is why they pretty much live full time on my baby taylor (dropped a half or whole step to allow for massive bends). On my bigger acoustics, I generally use Argentines ( which have a similar responsiveness but are louder and notably brighter in the high end. They shine with a pick, but I get a pretty balanced sound by playing more on the nails instead of my usual joint pad/nail attack. So, as you continue this string journey, I think you should give argentines a try next.

    In the meantime though, I’m still searching for an electric set that has the right magnetic properties, but some of the silk wound tactile response that I love about S&S and argentines. Whoever develops that set will be my hero.

    • joe

      Hi! Wow — I had no idea there so many specialized “gypsy jazz” strings:

      John Pearse Nuage strings seem to be similar:

      So I’m assuming all these manufacturers are mimicking the Savarez originals?

      (Just order a couple of trial sets, BTW. Thanks!)

      • smgear

        cool, let us know how you like those. I usually detune those a step or two also if I’m playing fingerstyle, but I think that’s just because I really like to dig in and get some round thwunk on the bass notes. I think the John Pearse are essentially the same. I remember him launching them as the definitive gypsy set ‘recreating’ the original argentines, but they seem about identical to the recent Savarez ones. I’ve been tempted to sand the lower strings a bit, but haven’t tried it yet.

          • smgear

            just lightly sand some of the round grooves off the bass strings to give it more of a flat/smooth feel. It might be a destructive experiment, but I think the tone/resonance of those bass strings would be a good complement for a more flat-‘slidey’ string texture. They have a nice robust tone, but since I tend to mic them pretty close for fingerstyle, there’s a good deal of squeaking when they’re fresh. It’s just a hunch, but I think that if I sanded them a bit, the smoother bass slides would have a nice sonic texture….. but I’ve been wrong before.

  • Oinkus

    It is neat to watch you play with yourself ? Never done the silk and steel thing except by accident once and they died horribly to my aggressive pick and the race to 128th notes.Sounds really good did not see your thumb drifting but it is early and coffee is good but not magic.Maybe I can put those on the junker classical I have when I get the one I am trading for next?

  • Beautiful job on the duet! I think this sounds very appropriate for the material.

    I was facing similar issues as you when using my Martin 000-28VS. Bronze 80/20s just seemed to have the wrong feel, especially when fretting chords up the neck (the guitar has a chunky vintage V neck profile). I’ve been using the John Pearse silk and bronze for a few years now, and really like them! They seem to have some extra brightness that can be lost in normal silk and steel, but still give me the pliability and strong fundamental that I’m looking for. They work especially great for finger style, which, for me, means transferring classical chops to steel string guitars, and compliments the essentially nylon/classical style body shape of my guitar (vintage 12 fret body shape).

    I feel like they do bridge the “worlds” between nylon and steel, which to me is a great place to be! I’ve been in a bit of a string ques, like yourself, which started when I bought the Martin and my number one guitar, a Megas 18″ archtop. Talk about different…I use a combination of string types on the archtop: 2 plain steels on the trebles, two flat wound steels on the middles, and two round wound steels on the basses! Sounds great for the duet playing I do, which often calls for a more robust bass sound.

    • joe

      Hi Rebeat — thanks for all the GREAT info. I just ordered a set of Pearse bronze/silks last night. I’ll let you know how work out.

      I’d never even heard of Megas guitars. I googled them, and they look great.

      I’m curious about that three-string-type method of yours. Don’t suppose you’ve made any recordings?

  • Joe, beautiful playing! Have you tried silk and bronze strings? Several manufacturers make them, including GHS.I often installed them on parlour size guitars, using an extra-light set,but with a 12 and 15 on top to give the treble strings a more ‘vocal’ quality.Thomastik-Infeld also makes a,’rope-core’ string that is similiar in tone and tension. I don’t care for silk and steel,except when they’re new. I’m a hack player,but have repaired professionally for 29 years, and have dealt with many great players and their instruments.By the way, silk and bronze last longer…

    • joe

      Hi Al — thanks for the tip. Oh — we Bay Area guys know who you are! 🙂

      I just ordered some Pearse bronze/silks. And are these the Thomastik’s you’re talking about?

      I’d been eyeing those with curiosity. I’d have tried a set on my classical, but I’m so besotted with Aquilas right now I didn’t want to switch. But you say they’re a good choice for parlor guitars? And what’s a rope core, anyway?

  • Joe 10

    Hey Joe – I’ve been enjoying the new Martin Tony Rice models… All monel (at least the wound ones)… They seemed unsettling at first, but after a couple days stretch out they mellowed into a nice tone. I have them on my 000 flat picking box, and might put them on one of my finger style rigs and try to capture a more vintage vibe.

    I used to just love d’Quisto strings… Their nickel jazz strings… 710’s is I recall, but, it’s irrelevant since they went out of business. Try the Monel Martins… 12-56 I think…


    • joe

      Thanks fort the Tony Rice tip! I’m going to get a set, ’cause I instinctively trust anyone named Joe. 😉

      I bought another monel set (I forget which one) that I haven’t tried yet.

      I’m still digging the Thomastick Classic S set, BTW. Tried those?

  • Jonathan Pearl

    I have found silk and steel or silk and phosphor bronze strings ideal for the small Martin Backpacker travel guitars. The Backpackers sound clangy with conventional acoustic strings, more like banjos. And the shorter scale length responds well to strings with less tension. Sometimes it is desirable to sacrifice volume for playability and a more balanced tone.

  • Sarah Bates

    I play an all mahogany 000 Martin and I love the sweet warm tone of Martin Folk Silk and Steel on it. Fingerstyle or I use a medium weight pick held sideways so you hit the strings with the blunt side of the pick not the sharp tip. I also play a Taylor GS mini which is way too bright dressed in phosphor bronze and delicious with silk and steel.

  • I’ve been using Martin Silk & Steel Strings on my 12 String Ovation for the last 3 years at solo gigs. I play 2-5 days a week. If I have inside gig they last two gigs. Oustside I have to change them out right after.
    I love them! The sound on my 12 has never been better. I play hard and fast and do a lot of finger picking and these are perfect for me.
    I tried them on a 6 string and was not happy at all. they were too folky.
    But on a 12 string they totally ROck!
    I also let others play my 12 and they always say it’s the best playing 12 they’ve ever played.
    I will say that when I play outside I would love to change them out after 2hrs.
    There simply is nothing better than brand new silk and steel strings on my 12…

  • David Cook

    I just got a great deal on a used Squire thinline tele, and it came with what look and feel like silk and steel strings (which I haven’t played in decades), and I kinda like ’em. They’re funky. -but they can’t be silk and steel, right?- because that wouldn’t work on electric – but these do. Of course the dealer has no idea what the previous owner put on, so I’m searching around the web to figure out what these strings might be.
    I will note that my taste in strings has been changing in the last few years. I use flats on a number of guitars and basses now, and in general I’ve come to appreciate less overtones, and less sustain.

    • joe

      Thanks for the interesting observations, David! Wow — I’m curious about those strings too! I’ve been meaning to test how the nylon-feeling Thomastik rope-core strings I’ve been using behave with a magnetic mic, since they’re partly steel. (I’ll let you know how it goes.) Funny thing about getting fewer overtones from the bass strings: the highs sing more clearly without so many chaotic overtones. Ironically, a 12-string strung with flatwounds jangles more than on strung with roundwounds.

  • David Cook

    Now I feel stupid…under a 10x magnifier, I could see that the strings were coated white, with a hex core, matching the description of the DR NEON series of coated colored strings – nothing like a silk and steel, but they are dull sounding. To be fair, they’re probably a couple months old if not a year, because the guitar is mint; it was probably a present for someone who never played it.
    I replaced DR’s with a set of D’Addario nickels…and the nickels are so bright and clangorous. Gak. I’ve just got to find something in-between. I’ve never liked coated strings, I don’t think I want to go all the way to flat wounds on this guitar…I guess I’m developing a revulsion to round-wounds.
    Another off-topic comment: for the last year I’ve been using D’Addario bronze Flat Tops on a Gibson acoustic – I think they’re either ground or pressure-wound – and it does that reduced sustain and overtone thing. I’m really liking it for recording.

  • Frankie Revell

    I like silk and steel on my grandfather’s old Stella H927. I play lightly and with bare fingers. Sounds like crap but it’s a Stella–do you really think the strings matter…ha ha ha! I don’t mind the sound. I like the cheap sound for what I play (Old Time and Bluesy.)

  • Wallace

    Silk and steel!. Well I swear by them. I’m a finger picker and these strings have a mellow warm relaxed tone. Actually quite
    ‘delicious’ sounding. An added bonus is they are easier on hands, way less fatigue creeping in when playing for extended periods. For me at least they sound better on a Cedar-topped body. They impart a warmness that comes close to nylon , but with a tad more bight in the trebles. Bases are lush and never boomy. Mid-tones are sweet. THey give reasonable sustain and make vibrato dead easy

    • joe

      Thanks for your takes, Wallace and Rick. I think a lot of players have steered away from silk-and-steels because of their relatively low volume. But if you’re recording or playing though amps/PAs, that doesn’t really matter, does it?

  • Rick

    It may be true that silk & steels are generally better-suited to smaller guitars, but La Bella’s medium 12-string set, tuned down to C,sound wonderful for fingerpicking on my old dreadnought Tama. They bring back the volume just enough that it doesn’t overwhelm my voice, without being in any way wimpy – a very smooth, even, rich sound. They still use natural silk,though I doubt this makes any practical difference. Somewhat to my surprise I’ve also found they hold up well long-term.

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