Guitar Strings – History, Technology

Guitar stringsMost of us have probably heard that guitars once were strung with catgut strings but unless you are into early music, you probably don’t have any experience with gut strings. The so-called catgut strings never came from cats but rather from sheep. Because the obvious replacement for gut was nylon strings we sometimes forget that nylon was invented by DuPont and didn’t come into wide use until after World War II. Most guitar makers switched from gut stringed instruments to designs that supported steel strings. Only classical and flamenco styled guitars switched to nylon strings.

The evolution of guitar design was often driven by a desire for a louder instrument. The evolution of instrument strings also addressed volume (loudness) when steel strings were introduced. But strings had other characteristics that people sought as improvements were made. Tone was of course important. But feel, consistency, longevity, balance between strings and finger noise were other parameters that have driven improvements in string technology. A parameter that doesn’t effect steel strings but can be a problem (or at least a nuisance) for gut strings is sensitivity to humidity.

Gut Strings

The use of gut strings is very old. Mimmo Peruffo, the founder of Aquila Corde, is also a scholar who researches the history and production techniques of gut strings. He’s found references to the use of gut strings on musical instruments going back to ancient Egypt. Written regulations for the production of gut strings could be found in the middle sixteenth century. Wound bass strings over a gut core appeared in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

Gut isn’t the only material that had been used for stringed instruments in the past. String making reflected the availability of local materials. Silk, horse hair and plant fibers have also been used. Gut is one of the more surprising choices. A written review of the gut string making process can be found in the article “Making Gut Strings” by Daniel Larson. Or you can watch the following video.

Historical Gut String Making (not for the squeamish)

The following video is a tour of the Aquila factory. They demonstrate steps for making gut ukulele strings but this is essentially the same process for any gut stringed instrument. Notice the semi-automated winding of wire around the gut core. I’ll show videos of steel string making using manual and automated equipment (further down in this article) but those methods are fairly similar to that shown here. During the tour it is pointed out that the methods they use for gut aren’t much different than those used 150 years ago.

Aquila Strings – factory tour (gut and synthetic Nylgut strings)

Steel Strings

The history of steel strings on guitars isn’t well documented.

  • Steel strings were already being put on guitars in the late 19th century and a Gibson catalog from 1903 indicated you should specify whether the guitar you ordered would be used with steel or gut strings. The first steel strings were likely silver plate plain strings with lower pitched strings wound with silver plated steel.
  • Monel, an alloy of Nickel and Copper, was introduced by Gibson in the 1930s. A catalog from 1937 lists “MONA-STEEL” strings which is likely a reference to Monel alloy as the core for the strings. The same catalog also lists Bronze strings for guitars.
  • D’Addario began making 80/20 Bronze strings in the 1930s in collaboration with John D’Angelico (source: D’Addario).
  • LaBella claims to have invented flat wound strings in 1940.
  • D’Addario introduced Phosphor Bronze strings in 1974.

Video of Modern Guitar String Production

Another Factory Tour. This one of GHS Strings showing how they get the balls onto the strings.

Hand operated String Winding Machine. DIY?

Nylon Strings

DuPont invented Nylon in 1935. The development of classical guitar strings based on nylon was through the collaboration of Segovia, DuPont and Albert Augustine. Augustine was the first company to perfect nylon strings for the guitar. This took place over the mid to late 1940s.

Modern variations to the original nylon strings have included composite strings with carbon fiber or other modifications to the string formulation.

Rectified strings are ground to a precision diameter. It also changes the feel of the strings.

Coated and Treated Strings

The earliest treatment given to strings was to use wires of different formulations that had been plated with different metals. Silver plated strings was used early on. Nickel plated strings is another. I have strings that were brass plated. Plating can affect tone and longevity of the strings.

The first modern coated or treated string came from the Gore company, the maker of Goretex water repellant fabric. The Elixir brand strings are coated with their proprietary fluoropolymer coating.

Since then, many companies have developed coatings and treatments to prolong the life of their strings. Other companies have licensed the coating formulations from one of the experts. D’Addario has EXP coated strings. Cleartone makes only coated strings. DR Strings has Neon strings with K3 coating. These are brightly colored strings are available for acoustic and electric guitars and are designed to be seen in black light.

Other treatments, metals and formulations used with strings include Cobalt (Ernie Ball), Titanium, Stainless Steel, Chrome, Nickel and liquid nitrogen treatment (Dean Markley Blue Steel).

Strings can also be burnished, ground, sanded (all about the same thing) to make them more uniform or smoother. Modern refinements include laser measurement of diameter and automated sorting by size.

String Manufacturers

Who made the strings on your guitar? If you’ve recently bought a new set of strings you could just look at the package couldn’t you? The problem with that is there has been a long held rumor among guitarists that there are only a handful of companies making guitar strings and most strings you buy are made by one of these few companies in OEM arrangements where someone else’s name goes on the package.

There is truth in the rumor. Many brands of guitar string aren’t made by the company whose name is on the package. But just as the past decades have produced an explosion in the number of small luthiers and boutique amp makers, there are now many more string makers and at least some of them actually wind their own strings. Look at the videos above. The equipment is well understood and not that complicated. The equipment is nearly generic. The string winding process used for gut strings doesn’t look that different from the automated modern string winding equipment. The differences in strings isn’t as much equipment as raw materials and process.

Rather than ask who really made the strings on your guitar, a better question is whether there is anything unique about them. Even OEM arrangements can incorporate proprietary processes and formulations. If you are buying a fairly common type of string then generic strings such as from Webstrings.com may be just fine and less expensive. In fact, they may be the same strings you get from a big name company but in a different package. If you like some quality in a set of strings you try, don’t worry about who made it. If it works for you you’re good.

 

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