Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dear Hucbald: "Which Classical Guitar Strings Do You Use?"

Most of the off-blog e-mail questions I get concern some arcane aspect of music theory or composition, and I don't usually think them worthy of an entire dedicated post - though I might work the answer I come up with or parts of the discussion into some latter post or posts on a related topic. Well, I actually got a question from a bright young dude named Paul at USC about selecting the right strings for nylon string guitars that got me thinking. I don't usually consider myself any kind of expert on the classical guitar, because I didn't start concentrating on it until I was twenty-nine years old, and I'm really just a composer who plays a little better than the average bear. I was actually kind of shocked that anyone would e-mail me for advice in that area. Then I thought, "well, it has been nineteen years now that I've been playing nylon string guitar, and I have learned quite a bit in that time" so why not. I would never presume to give anything like authoritative advice on technique, for example, but strings? Yeah, I know a little bit about strings:

As I've mentioned before, every guitar I've ever had has "wanted" a certain set of strings (Or, in a lot of cases, a combination of two or more sets of strings), and a lot of what I percieve the guitar "wants" is simply the result of my subjective taste in sound quality that I, personally, find desirable. So, to keep those issues seperate, I'll tell you what I like, and the qualities I've discovered that certain kinds of strings have.

For the metal wound bass strings, I like a very bright sound that is rich in harmonic content. Not quite that "brand new string set" sound, but the sound particularly bright basses settle into after about four or five days of being played. The trick for me is, obviously, to get a bass set which displays this characteristic for the longest period of time. Savarez has never made a bass set I like, period. They aren't bright enough to start off with, never mind how long they last. Otherwise, however, they are fine strings if you like a more traditional "round sound" (I know a lot of nylon string players who actually like a fairly dead sound for the basses, and I think my preference for a bright sound comes from my history as a steel string player, so I'm probably atypical in this regard). Galli basses are plenty bright, but they don't keep that characteristic for very long, otherwise they too are excellent strings.

Years past, I used Augustine Blue basses on everything, but then they started cutting their strings so short I didn't have enough string to tie them the way I like, so I ditched them. But, they are bright, and they do last a fairly long time, so they are otherwise fine. I just get torqued when I feel a manufacturer is trying to save a few pennies by suddenly cutting all of their strings shorter, so I blew them off entirely.

The worst experience I ever had was with Hannabach, however (That large pile of useless red string sets at the top left of the photo). I tried them because Richard McLish (The "RMC" of RMC Pickups) recommended them for the Polydrive. Well, I call them the "Mission Impossible" strings, because they self-destruct in five seconds. The D's in the Super High Tension sets I got started breaking - not at the barrel, the nut, or the saddle; but right, smack, dab in the middle of the string - after being on the guitar for only a few days. They never broke when I was playing them, but overnight: I'd got to the studio to find the D had disintegrated at the core. Some of the D's actually broke before I ever got them up to pitch (!) and I could hear the core strands snapping as I tightened the strings. I e-mailed Richard about that, and he admitted to modifying his nut and saddle to put less stress on them. I'm sorry, but that is simply not acceptable, that is a design flaw. I kept them to use the E's on my fretted Glissentar, and I've never had one of them break. This problem with the Hannabachs is a shame, because otherwise they have all of the qualities I look for in a bass set.

Without a doubt the best sounding bass set - to me - that I've ever heard was the original D'Addario EXP coated basses. They were copper and coated with the EXP coating, but they were not silver plated. This lack of silver plating made them stupid bright, and the EXP coating made them last for... ever, with one slight problem: The copper was so soft that the winding on the D's would wear through too fast. This happened at the second fret E for me, as I do a lot of trills there. This was a double shame, because not only did they sound excellent, but the copper color looked way cool. So, D'Addario re-worked the strings in a silver plated version, and while not quite as bright - and not nearly as fetching to look at - they are otherwise better in every way. I am on my way to using these basses exclusively on every guitar I have except the fretted Glissentar, which I've described my travails with previously.

For trebles, there are two very different classes of strings available now: Traditional nylon, and the newer carbon fiber synthetics. When Savarez came out with the Alliance CF trebles back circa 1988, I was an early adopter. They don't stretch nearly as much as nylon, so they settle into tune much more quickly. They are also harder, so they last... well, I changed them when I got sick and tired of looking at them. Eventually they will divot underneath from fretwear - and I usually noticed that due to arising intonation problems - but it takes a lot of time and effort to get them to that point. A couple of issues with these strings are that, since they are harder, they are quite prone to shearing. The biggest headache Ed and I have dealt with in getting them adapted for the B's and E's on the fretted Glissentar is that they were first snapping at the nut because the string channels were too tight and the edges were cut too sharp, and then they started shearing at the barrels of the tuners because of a metal insert that Sperzel had fitted to them. After the nut was properly modified for them, Ed tapped the inserts out of the Sperzels for the unwound strings (Only the B's and E's on the fretted Glissentar, which uses steel wound G's), and now they work fine.

I used the Savarez CF trebles with Augustine blue basses for years on all of my guitars, but eventually I came to a point where I couldn't get the range of tone I wanted from the CF's. They are unholy bright, and lack body or "weight." Part of this is the fact that they are MUCH thinner than any other treble set for their tension level, so there just isn't enough mass to them. This characteristic is perfect for the fretted Glissentar, since I'm going for a "smaller" sound with it that is closer to a baroque guitar or a lute, but I became dissatisfied with them for my Murray and my Godin Multiacs.

The Galli Titanium sets have carbon fiber trebles, and they have diameters which are a little closer to traditional nylon (Though still a tad thinner). As a result, they last forever, are quite bright, and they have more body to their sound. My Murray loves them, and that guitar now uses those exclusively. They also have a tres cool blue hue to them, and the combo of the blue Galli trebles and the old copper D'Addario EXP's was super-fab (Hey, I was a rock guitar god once: Showmanship is a good thing).

If I had a nickle for every classical guitarist I've met who has said, "I hate carbon fiber trebles!"... They may or may not be eloquent with the details as to why that is the case, but I believe that - in a nutshell - no carbon fiber set has the weight or rounded tone that is possible with nylon, and only nylon. The problem with nylon is that it is soft, which makes manufacturing them from the melted substance problematic: Uniform string diameters are difficult to achieve. So, you get intonation problems. Augustine was the worst for this in my experience. It is because of this vast potential for inconsistency that you have sales slogans like "laser-selected" and "gound trebels" ad absurdam. The traditional nylon Savarez trebles are quite nice, very consistent, and they have a slightly frosty patina to them wich makes fingering them more secure. They can also get quite dark sounds - darker than I personally care for. The problem with that frosty surface - for those of us with clawing, amateurish technique - is that they sometimes give off high frequency squeaks if you slide your fingers along them. Otherwise, they are superb.

The D'Addario nylon trebles are my personal favorites (D'Addario does not make any carbon fiber trebles that I'm aware of), because they are smooth, consistent, ubiquitously available, and they have a nice combination of brightness and weight to their sound. Because of this, I'm in a position I have not been in for over a decade: My Godin Multiac Grand Concert SA uses a matched set! I'm referring to the D'Addario EXP 44 Extra Hard Tension sets at the right mid-field of the photo. It's a shame D'Addario does not make a CF treble set or two, because I'd endorse them exclusively if they did.

Concerning string tensions: To my taste, the higher the better. I can get a lower action with less breaking up of the sound with higher tensions. There is one caviat to this: Extra High Tension strings are hard on some acoustic guitars. I uses standard high tension sets on my two Murrays, but since the Godins are so over-engineered, they get the super high tension strings (Well, the Multiac does; the Glissentar uses a weird combination of tensions that really does not relate to six-stringers at all). CF sets do not come in extra hard versions for some reason, by the way.

I think that about covers it. Best advice would be to do a lot of experimentation for yourself: It takes time and it costs money, but there really isn't any better way to do it. Oh yeah; and it's a never-ending process.

Reason #2 why guitars are better than girls: Guitars only come with six to twelve strings attached. This one looks like she has more strings than Helen's harp. But I'd probably let her tie me up.


Blogger Michael Manning said...

HI! Well, I played as you did in my teen years, fractured my left wrist in football while taking guitar lessons, then my teacher passed away. I was foolish, put down the instrument and picked it up about a year ago. But I'd suggest you come to my site and click on Bid Buckley. While a folk acoustic artist he would be helpful. I know of and use D'Addario myself but I'm a Rock musician who also loves classical. I'll also mention you to Bud. Cheers!

12:25 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I just visited your blog and bud's: Anyone who likes Steeve McQueen has to be cool! I use and have for many years. You can order complete sets, bass sets, or single strings from them, which makes life much easier for those of us who are always trying out new combinations in search of the "perfect" tone.

1:21 AM  
Blogger Dale Harris said...

Thanks you for your article which I found both interesting and informative.

I'm a classical player using concert luthier-guitars by Manuel Contreras II and Stephen Hill, plus I play a Godin Grand Concert like yourself. Using D'Addario EJ46's I found myself with severe intonation problems with the Contreras, and had the man himself look at it. I'd happy memories of using Augustine Imperial Blues in my early student days only later switching to D'Addario EJ46's in a quest for more tension on an old guitar. He suggested trying D'Addario EJ46's (high tension) on the bass and Savarez Alliance (normal ternsion) on the trebles. I stuck with this choice but the intonation kept getting worse. Later, Stephen Hill looked at it and suggested using Savarez Crystal Blue (Hard) or Luthier medium-hard's. I find the Luthiers break up and become scratchy on the trebles. The Crystal blues are frankly boring (although I am using those on the Hill guitar and they are happily being recorded - but I long for a change as I hate compromise!).

With regards to string breakages I experimented with La Bella Professional Series classic strings, but found that the basses broke overnight for no apparent reason!

Its interesting that you mention extra hard tension D'Addario. I tried extra hards on the bass side a while back when playing a particular Turkish/Italian piece that requires re-tuning the guitar to C# minor: thus the sixth string drops to a C#, the 5th to G#, and 4th to C#. I will try them on the Godin, although I suspect that the G 3rd will be on the tubby side (and the EJ46 is certainly that so things may only get worse!). These extra hard (bass side only) ended up being put on a spare guitar where I tried out a nashville tuning with extra light gauge strings on the treble side (tuned one octave up).

I'm with you on your conclusion that string choice evolves and yet never reaches any sensible conclusion. Factors such as string action, various tensions of the woods that slacken over a lifespan may mean (and this was certainly the case with my cheaper student guitar) that one set of strings used in the first few years of a given guitars life may not be 'the' choice when the guitar matures.

Best regards, Dr Dale Harris

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have played flamenco guitar for 53 years now. I tried all the strings out there. For the last two years, I used D'Addario J45C bases which are medium tension and have a composite core. They are loud, powerful and last and last and last. I use the E treble first string from this set. For my 2nd (b)and 3rd (G) I use Savarez red card wound strings which have more power and sound than the clear nylon. I tune about 30% below a 440 A. This is my dream sound and action.

3:27 PM  

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