One SBM Customer’s Acoustic String Thoughts

One SBM Customer's Acoustic String Thoughts

One SBM Customer’s Acoustic String Thoughts

“These are a few of my favorite… strings.”
One SBM Customer’s Acoustic String Thoughts
By: Strings By Mail customer Russ Mason

I got my first guitar when I was 15 years old. It was a used Martin 0-15, solid mahogany top, back and sides. It was a sweet little thing, which I played for years. At the time I lived in a small residential town in upstate New York.

Back then, all acoustic strings were brass (now called 80/20 bronze). I didn’t know beans about guitar strings. I would just go to the music store and pay $2 a set. I knew nothing about gauges either. I am uncertain if there even were different gauges available where I lived. “I need some guitar strings. Here’s my two bucks.”

Now, years later, there are hundreds of acoustic strings in lots of different gauges and wrap-wire alloys (80/20, phosphor bronze, nickel, copper/nickel alloy, and an aluminum alloy).

There are also titanium strings, first developed (and patented) by Pete Rohrbacher; now made by C. F. Martin & Co. (Frankly, Pete Rohrbacher’s titanium strings were better. Sadly, they are no longer available).

I can’t say that I’ve tried all of the different acoustic string brands, but I can say that I have found some pretty good strings, and Strings By Mail has a really fine selection.

As you probably know, a particular string-set will sound different on different guitars. One set might sound great on a Martin, but not sound good on a Breedlove, or a Gibson. That’s what makes finding the right strings both fun and a challenge.

My luthier-friend in Portland puts D’Addario EJ16s (light gauge phosphor bronze) on every guitar which crosses his bench. He won’t even think of any other string. He’s a fantastic craftsman with a closed mind. It happens.
(By the way, D’Addario is pronounced “Da-Dario,” not “Dee-Adario.” )

Anyhow, here are my favorite strings, in order of preference.

GHS Laurence Juber Signature Bronze light phosphor bronze. They are just sensational, especially for finger-style playing.

On my larger guitars, such as my jumbos or dreadnoughts, I also order a single GHS Juber 56 E string because the 54 doesn’t quite cut it. This makes it a little bit like the GHS Juber “True Mediums” but I like the 12 and 16 gauges on top.

These strings have a great sparkle and punch – maybe the best I’ve ever played. The 56 at the bottom really adds a depth to the tone also.

Second place is a toss-up between regular Martin light phosphor bronze (not SP, not coated) and Rotosound Jumbo 12’s. They are both great string sets, and Rotosound was my favorite for a long time, but I’m a longtime Martin phosphor bronze fan, and they have a great consistency and tone.

But there’s a small, personal, snag with Martin strings. Across the board, the G string is a gauge too high for my liking. In the light sets, the G is a 25. In the medium sets, the G is a 26.

I often buy a single D’Addario 24, and 25, to alter the Martin sets. Fortunately, Martin and D’Addario use nearly identical wrap-wires in their phosphor sets, so you can’t tell the difference. However, Martin single strings are not available in SP, nor in Retro/Monel offerings, nor the Martin Titanium string (in which the G string is a whopping 27 gauge). What were they thinking?

Although I had heard of Tommy Emmanuel, I never heard him play acoustic guitar. But I recently saw him on YouTube and he is one amazing player. He leaves me in the dust.

I was intrigued about the strings Mr. Emmanuel used, so I did a little research. He uses Martin SP Flexible Core Custom Lights (11-52). This is a string I had never considered, but I bought a set to try. [SBM note: the Flexible Core strings will be discontinued in 2018]

They are extraordinary. Who would have thought that a 52 low E would sound good, but it does – at least on one of my dreadnoughts. In fact, the whole guitar just lights up with these strings. And, because of the lower gauge, they are easy to fret and bend. They are just great. However, I tried the Custom Lights on another guitar and they weren’t ideal. So, this goes back to my original point: you have to try different sets before you find the perfect match. But my dreadnought with the SP custom lights – it’s just a blast to play.

I also have a new, overly-bright Takamine NEX mini-jumbo, which I bought for my daughter. Although it has a beautiful, sunburst top, it’s not a very good instrument – at least not now. Maybe when it “breaks in” it will mellow enough to sound full-balanced.
Because the Takamine’s sound is so bright, I bought a set of D’Addario Pure Nickel strings, and replaced the middle phosphors with Pure nickel G (25), D (35), and A(45) when the set arrived. Although Pure nickel strings are not very bright-sounding, that’s what this guitar needed, to warm it up.

The great Tony Rice played Pure nickel D’Aquisto strings (with a low E of 57) before Martin re-introduced its Retro Monel brand. Even with the D’Aquisto strings, Mr. Rice’s vintage Martin dreadnought sounded great. So, don’t discredit Pure nickel strings, especially for an inexpensive guitar. They have the warmest sound of all, and are especially good on maple-body guitars. (I am told that pure copper strings are also very warm, but I have never tried them).

There is a huge difference between Pure nickel strings and nickel-plated steel, which are made for electric guitars. Putting nickel-plated steel strings on an acoustic guitar is not a good idea; the sound is thin and without much tone. But Pure nickel can be heaven for some instruments, especially maple-body guitars.

A few words about string tension. The heaviest of all are phosphor bronze, especially Martin SP Bluegrass strings. This means that, with this set, the pull on the bridge is 186 lbs. That’s heavy. Light gauge strings are in the 160+ range. 80/20 brass strings aren’t quite so heavy, and Pure nickels are the lightest of all. So a 45 in Pure nickel is probably close to a 42 in phosphor bronze.

Personally, I like a bright sound. That is because I play fingerstyle. I use a Fred Kelly orange speed pick on my thumb (sanded down a bit), and steel Dunlop fingerpicks on my first and second fingers. I always use fingerpicks when I play, even if I am playing a classical guitar. Don’t laugh; Willie Nelson uses a flat pick on his Martin classical guitar, the famous “Trigger,” and has worn a hole in the top near the bridge. Willie’s “tech” reports that, despite the hole in the soundboard, the guitar is in fine shape and sounds good.

Although I have some classical guitars, I play them folk-style for certain kinds of songs. Although the most popular classical string in the world is the D’Addario EJ45 Pro-Arte nylon, I have become totally enthralled by Pepe Romero strings (powered by La Bella). The tone is just breath-taking. I am also fond of La Bella’s 2001 Flamenco strings (though I don’t know how to play Flamenco).

Early in my years of playing steel-string acoustic guitar, I thought I might like to learn how to play a classical guitar properly. It’s quite a tale, but it will have to wait until next time.

Whatever else you do, have fun today.

Me playing two Silver Creek solid wood guitars: The first is a mahogany dreadnought with light gauge Martin Darco phosphor bronze strings. The second is a rosewood 000, with plain Martin 80/20 medium-light gauge strings (no longer available).

This is a Walden D610 dreadnought with medium gauge Martin Darco phosphor bronze strings. Nothing like a new set of strings to make an inexpensive B-stock Walden sound pretty good!

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