What’s In A String?

Would not a string by any other brand sound as sweet?  No way, Jose!  “Why do you say that,” you ask?  Well let me tell ya.

This tale begins with a few bottles of homemade fruit wine that were given by a friend who lives 2 hours away.  By the time I got back, it was very late, and I was tired, so the bottles and 3 boxes of Elixer Nanoweb strings all ended up in the chair just inside the front door.  Two days later, one of the bottles lost its cork and the wine spilled out — all over said chair and the packages holding the string sets were soaked, glue gone and packaging destroyed.  I let loose a long string of profanity and then began trying to salvage the strings themselves, during which I noticed that a couple of the sets were 80/20s rather than Phosphor Bronze that I buy for all of my Taylor guitars.

Working on an acoustic cover of “Children of the Grave” at the time, I’d recently pulled out a prototype of a 414ce LTD that was only released in Japan, one of the finest sets of harmonics I’ve ever heard, owning to the Adirondack spruce top and other undisclosed details.  The guitar sounded full and rich, with a well-balanced tone, as usual.  Curious, I pulled out Whale, my precious, a 618e First Edition, which had just gotten a new set of string on it.  I’d decided to experiment a bit, and had installed Medium Lights rather than the prescribed Mediums.  Playing the opening E triplet on the 618, my ears shot an urgent message to my brain: What the f___? Since when does that 414ce LTD blow the doors of of my 618e?  (And then I recalled that the guitar HAD sounded rather lackluster in the gig last night.)  Only then did my addled and sleep-deprived brain realize the full nature of the problem.   ALL of those strings were 80/20’s, not Phosphor Bronze!

Take a close look at the two packages below.  They’re nearly identical, save the 80/20 vs. Phosphor Bronze designation.  Notice how the LACK of Phosphor Bronze is easy to miss.  A much more obvious distinction is that the top of the Phosphor Bronze packaging is a gold-ish color, while the 80-20s lack that… at least until they change the packaging.
Elixir 8020 HD LightrElxiir Phosphor Bronze HD Light









What difference does it make?  A string is a string, right?  An overpriced piece of wire, sometimes made even more ludicrously expensive by a small portion of a gram of teflon or somesuch, right?  Wrong.  Strings are where the sound is generated, and the guitar itself can only amplify and expand upon the sound which is made in the first place.  So no, Jose, a string is not a string.  Not at all.  Otherwise, we’d all be playing cheap tin bell wire.

More importantly, the guitar in your hands was made around a particular string, and that string’s vibration and tension qualities.  If you’re not sure, put a set of Lights on a GS-Mini rather than the prescribed Mediums and ask yourself where the sound went.  About that time, you’ll be echoing my own “What the … ?”

Unfortunately for me, the packaging ruined, the strings can’t be returned.  I can hope that Elixir has mercy on a fool who doesn’t bother to read labels closely enough (let this be a warning to you) or I’ll be stuck with a few sets of 80/20 strings that I’ve zero use for.  Putting Phosphor Bronze Mediums back on Whale restored my precious to its proper former glory.  The Medium/Light experiment will have to wait for another time.

For those of you who are curious, 80/20 refers to the composition of the string, as does Phosphor Bronze.

I took a few minutes to pen (well, type) this confession in hopes that you, dear reader, might save yourself a bit of money and time and aggravation.  The points two be learned from this are:
1) Pay close attention to the EXACT model of the string.  If possible, use the model NUMBER to make sure all factors are correct.  Check and double-check. In the best case, you’ll have saved a trip to the store to return them.  At worst, you’ll have wasted the cost of the strings, or had a wine bottle fall on your string stash too, rendering them both useless and beyond return condition.
2) If you liked the sound of your guitar when you bought it, if that’s WHY you bought it, then always change the strings out with the same brand that was on it when you bought it.  Those strings gave you that sound and your guitar was built around that specific tone generator.  So be a bit smarter than I was and stop trying to second-guess Andy Powers, Bob Taylor and company.  They build your precious.  They might just know a bit about what it needs to continue to provide you with the sound you fell for in the first place.

What’s in a string?  EVERYTHING!

EDIT: Be sure to read the follow-up article to this, Voicing Via the Strings!

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