There’s been quite an improvement in guitar strings in recent years. Quality has gone up with more sophisticated string winding and better quality wire. We have our choice of strings that capture a particular tone for a particular use: bluegrass, fingerstyle, dropped tunings, etc. Some are warm, some are clear, some have longer sustain, some feel more or less stiff to the fingers, and some are more musical sounding. Depending on the top of your guitar, some strings will sound “great” and others not good at all. Let’s start with matching tops to string gauges.
On the continuum of guitar top woods, softer woods need less string energy, while stiffer tops need more energy to produce sound. Western red cedar is on the softest end of the scale. From there: redwood, engleman spruce, sitka spruce, the hybrid spruces like Lutz spruce, european spruces that grow stiffer as you go up in altitude, and then adirondack spruce at the high end of the stiffness scale. For example, my cedar topped guitar just needs light strings to get the top moving. My Goodall jumbo has a tight grained German spruce top that absolutely must have medium gauge strings to get it moving. Otherwise, the bass overpowers the mids and trebles. Pay attention to manufacturer recommendations. Some softer tops cannot deal with the higher tension of mediuem gauge strings without warping at the bridge!
Tops have tonal color. So do strings. Softer tops are often characterized as warm, while stiff tops sound cool to our ears. I suggest using strings that complement the inherent tone of your top wood. Some of this is trial and error: try several makes of strings, and find what you like. Phosphor bronze strings tend to sound warmer, and have a more complex sound that includes more overtones. Bright bronze or 80/20 bronze bring out more clarity and individual string separation, while sounding less warm. For example I tried a set of the excellent Newtone strings on my adirondack [very STIFF] top Lowden. They sounded cold! The extreme clarity of this topwood needed a warmer string to bring out it’s best. The tonal signature of this particular brand of string would likely work better on a softer top. Many folks believe that sitka spruce is rather neutral, and will tell you that the string choice contributes more to the tone of your guitar.
One final thought. If you like to experiment with open or dropped tunings, consider using medium gauge strings. As you detune, string tension decreases-and it’s easy to get flabby bass or buzzing treble strings. Medium gauge strings have a higher tension and help avoid these problems. I use medium strings on my Lowden and tune it half a step down from standard. This is what Phil Keaggy does…who can argue with that?!
My favorites in no particular order:
- GHS Laurence Juber Signature…warm, wonderful loose feel, rather bold sound, really cool brass plated trebles
- Wyres Pierre Bensusan DADGAD…long life coating, complex sound, nice feel, long sustain
- Elixer Nanoweb phospher bronze…long life coating, very delicate sound for quiet passages, warmth and sparkle
- DR Sunbeam phosphor bronze…super sustain on a round core, VERY nice feel…really unique tone