by Chris Frangou
When not in the know, walking up to the counter to buy acoustic strings can seem like an arduous and even daunting task. Being confronted with so many colourful and shiny packets can make it seem like there are endless possibilities, however when we break it down to some simple components, you can see it’s quite a bit simpler than it seems!
First of all we can look at the different materials the strings are made from. While generally the solid core of a string is made from steel, the wrap wire of the strings can be made from many different types of alloy. Some of the most common alloys acoustic strings are made from are:
Out of these, Phosphor Bronze strings are easily the most popular and purchased string type in modern times. Phosphor Bronze strings have a great clarity and presence balanced with nice lows and they last a reasonable amount of time. Phosphor Bronze is an alloy of copper and is made by adding a small amount of tin (from 0.5-11%) and an even smaller amount of phosphorus (between 0.01-0.35%).
80/20 Bronze strings have a slightly different composition. These are made of 80% copper and 20% zinc, and despite the name, this alloy is actually brass not bronze! These generally have a brighter tone than Phosphor Bronze strings.
Monel on the other hand is an alloy comprised of nickel and copper which gives them a silver appearance just like nickel electric guitar strings. These strings were the first type of steel strings available on guitars when steel strings came into widespread use in the early 20th Century. These strings are known for their high tensile strength as well as corrosion resistant properties. Overall Monel strings have a warmer and less sparkly sound compared to both Phosphor and 80/20 Bronze strings and work really great on vintage instruments!
Another interesting type of string is Silk and Steel. As the name describes, these strings are made with a “silk” core and steel wrap wire. The “silk” core in modern Silk and Steel strings is actually made from a nylon and they share some similarities with classical guitar strings, however the plain strings are steel. These feel very soft on the fingers, and are quite mellow. They are suited well to folk and fingerstyle playing, and like Monel, work well on vintage instruments.
Vive la Strings!:
These days there are a lot of string manufacturers that offer types of coated strings. Coated strings offer a much longer string life than regular strings as they are coated in a thin layer of polymer that ensures your strings stay free from dirt and corrosion of your strings that can be exacerbated by sweaty hands and atmospheric moisture. You can usually find coated Phosphor Bronze and 80/20 Bronze strings by most large scale string manufacturers.
The next aspect of string buying to consider is string gauge. The gauge of the strings refers to their thickness and is usually denoted by a numeral that indicates its thickness based on decimal of an inch. These days, the most popular string gauge for steel string guitars is .012 to .054 and it is usually the gauge most guitar manufacturers put on their guitars straight out of the factory. Meaning the 1st string (high E) is .012 of an inch in thickness, and this grades up until we get to the 6th string (low E) at the thickness of .054 of an inch. The four most common set gauges are from thickest to thinnest are:
While a set of “light” .012 to .054 might be the most popular. Guitarists tend to venture higher and lower in gauge to suit particular needs. For beginners, it’s much easier and softer on the fingers to play a lighter gauge of string, these are also good for a brighter tone with less bass as well as fragile vintage instruments that may not have much structural integrity and require a string set with an overall lower tension. Players that like to detune from standard E tuning might prefer a thicker set that can still have tension down to notes like D and C for the low E string, also the thicker you go the more bass and resonance you will get out of your acoustic instrument.
In the end, finding the right strings is about first of all working out what kind of sound you would like to hear come from your instrument and also the feel you would like it to have. The recipe for this will basically be a combination of the string material as well as its gauge. All of this is extremely personal and different for every musician. It’s also worth remembering that changing strings is one of the cheapest, easiest, and least intrusive modifications to your instrument. So don’t be afraid to have fun and experiment!
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