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String theory

Posted by in General on September 23, 2014 . 0 Comments.

Here's a weird thing. Unless they're classical guitars, acoustic guitars are typically referred to as "steel string" guitars. But the strings aren't steel. Hmmm....

It isn't uncommon for customers to ask me, "What are the best acoustic guitar strings?"

The fact is, there are no "best" strings, just as there is no "best" guitarist.  As players, each one of us spends our time in pursuit of something magical and special, that sonic signature that we hear in our head and yearn to let out. To complicate things, we all have individual techniques, styles and a preferred "feel". Most importantly, each of us has two ears, and we tend to work them very hard. We want our ears to be happy.

If you're just starting out and building up your callouses, a lighter set of strings will make your life a bit easier. Lighter strings take less strength to fret, and will dig a little less into those tender fingertips. But there's a potential tradeoff with those skinny strings. First, they're not going to produce the same robust sound that those finger-busting fatties do. Second, it's going to be harder to keep your guitar in tune. But if the alternative is to leave your guitar in a closet, the tradeoff seems fair.

There is a dizzying array of acoustic guitar strings out there. However, the bulk of them fall into two basic categories, 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. Spoiler Alert: There are no "pure' bronze strings. They're all actually a mix of different alloys including tin-phosphor, zinc and copper. The core is almost universally made of steel. 

80/20 bronze refers to the ratio of copper to zinc in the wrap wire. The wrap wire is 80% copper while the other 20% is zinc. Since copper is highly corrosive, the zinc helps slows down the oxidation process and adds additional hardness. Sonically, 80/20 strings are known for their projection and wide tonal range. Flatpickers often choose them for their brilliance and crisp highs. 

Phosphor bronze strings were developed to last longer than their 80/20 siblings. That's because the phosphorus content helps preserve the brilliant tone longer than 80/20 bronze strings.  Although they're not as bright as 80/20 strings, phosphor bronze strings have a balanced, warm and intimate voice that makes fingerpicking sound great. 

Whatever the mix, a fresh set of "bronze" strings can make nearly any acoustic guitar come alive with highly penetrating tone. Bronze metal is known for its shimmer and brassy sound, but it also produces deep, commanding low end. And since string coatings have become popular, a set can last for many weeks, or months, without losing that "new car" shine.

And yes, there really are "neon" guitar strings.

Last update: September 23, 2014

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