Speed Dating with Acoustic Strings

I have been using Elixir Phosphor Bronze Extra-Light strings on my acoustics for at least a decade now. I like the gauges; they are comfortable, and easy to play. They do not stress my wrists, and left arm tendons too much, which as I get older, is becoming increasingly problematic. I like the feel of the coating that Elixir uses, with the additional benefits that this coating minimizes string talk, and extends the life of the strings to quite an astonishing degree. They are familiar; I am used to them.

My acoustics are a Taylor 414ce (fall limited), and a Martin GPCPA4R. Both have similar characteristics, although they do sound remarkably different. I would describe the Taylor as crisp, chimey, and bell-like, while the Martin is mellow, even, articulate, and warm. The Taylor is great for playing in a band or smaller ensemble due to its presence, resonance, and capacity to cut through a mix when needed. I prefer the Martin for solo acoustic work, due it’s more traditional sound, and capacity for articulation. I appreciate the way the Martin responds to variations in my attack to create dynamics, especially with more intricate fingerstyle.

Over these past several lockdown months, I began studying classical guitar. (I will go into the motivations behind that decision in a subsequent blog article.) While I have picked up and played nylon string classical guitars before, I wanted to open this as a deliberate area of study, taking it more seriously. This is part of what lead me to consider alternative steel string options for acoustic guitars. I was interested to see what steel string acoustic product might be out there, that can perform and feel similar to the bass E-A-D-G strings on a nylon classical guitar. I like to retain a similar feel between each instrument I use, so that switching between acoustic, electric or classical can be as seamless as reasonably possible, reducing warm-up, and re-orientation time.

On to the requirements. What am I looking for in acoustic strings? 

1. Ease of Play (reduced tension, extra-light gauges with the bass E at 0.47 or less).

2. Tone (warm, articulate, responds to dynamics, and changes in attack).

3. Longevity (I don’t care much for changing strings regularly, and Elixirs have been a fantastic choice for meeting this requirement. They last a ridiculously long time).

4. I like the coating on Elixirs because of the feel, and the reduction in string talk, but you can use string cleaners, and lubricants like Tone Finger Ease to accomplish the same end, so this is not a deal breaker. I have also found that the “slipperiness” of Elixirs can be inconsistent from one set to another. Sometimes you get a batch that feels uncoated, and squeaks (string talk). I occasionally use glissando on the bass strings, so reducing friction, and squeaks is important to succeed on some of the songs I play.

5. I personally do not like 80/20 bronze, so that is not under consideration. I find the warmer, mellower tone of phosphor bronze much better.

The Contenders:

1. My incumbent long-time favorite, Elixir Phosphor Bronze, must be included. This would serve as the control sound for this project.

2. Ernie Ball Alumnium Bronze. While I doubted these would offer ease of play, or reduced string talk, this is innovative, and new. I was interested in what their tonal characteristics would be. I expected bright, clear, natural amplification, and projection. I also expected tremendous string talk.

3. GHS Silk and Steel. This got my attention because the bass strings contain a rayon core, rather than a steel core, with a silver plated copper wrap wire. As such, they are quite similar to the bass strings on a classical guitar. The low gauge and low tension also piqued my interest. I hypothesized they would be supremely easy to play, but with a substantial sacrifice in the tone for an acoustic guitar.

4. GHS Silk and Bronze. Similar to Silk and Steel except the wrapping wire is a phosphor bronze alloy. I expected these would work quite well, in terms of the trade-offs, and before actually trying them, I was already leaning this way.

Let the games begin. 

Ernie Ball Aluminium Bronze were nice tonally overall. I totally understand why they are so popular with percussive fingerstyle players. They are crisp, clear, ring out with light and heavy touches, chiming with a bright bell-like tone, and are incredibly punchy. As mentioned, the tone was nice, but not what I am looking for. String cross talk was off the charts on these, and the wound strings just didn’t feel nice against my callouses. I also didn’t like the gauges on the bass strings. They would have been better in my opinion if the low E bass started at a .47 on their extra-lights.

GHS Silk and Steel. These were definitely closer to what I was looking for. The gauges were very light, but with a substantial loss of volume. I personally did not really like the tone from the silver plated copper wrap wire. I absolutely loved the way they played, but the volume, and tonal sacrifices were not acceptable for me personally.

GHS Silk and Bronze. These have slightly higher gauges than the Silk and Steel, but produce more familiar acoustic tones. They mellowed out the Taylor nicely, calming down the jangly aspects of the Taylor sound, which is a big plus. They actually also corrected the variation on tone as you move up and down the length of the fingerboard. My Taylor tends to get more bass emphasis as you go beyond the 7th position, the same effect as moving your strumming hand closer to the fretboard, or selecting the neck pickup on an electric guitar. With the Silk and Bronze on the Taylor, the tone was much more uniform in different positions, so they pair very well with this particular guitar.

Right now, I have Elixirs on my Martin, and the GHS Silk and Bronze on my Taylor. I will keep running the comparison, but am inclining toward transitioning to use GHS Silk and Bronze exclusively with my acoutsics. The tone works for me, they sort out some of the issues with my Taylor, and playability is improved.

I hope you enjoyed this little subjective analysis of my String comparison. This is not about which product is inherently better than the other. This is more about researching how this space has developed, and finding the right fit for my particular set of changing preferences. Every manufacturer of strings that I compared here are deserved market leaders, produce excellent quality products, with models that meet the particular requirements they set out to address. This is more a matter of momentarily breaking out of brand loyalty to see what else is out there, where the trade-offs on playability, tone, and string talk are, and consider other innovations that may better suit my evolving needs.