The history of guitar strings could never be represented as a single timeline because it went back and forth many times taking detours in the middle. Indeed, innovation has been the name of the game for centuries, and, although it is still in motion, nowadays we can speak of benchmarks that most companies abide by.
But how did we get there? Well, buckle up and hold on tight because here starts the journey that will take you straight into the heart of this awesome story.
Are you ready? Here we go!
The beginnings, gut strings
Believe it or not, historians have found traces of stringed instruments with gut strings dating all the way back to ancient Egypt. By the sixteenth century, government regulations were imposed on gut-string production.
Although many people still believe the myth of catgut strings, the guts used in manufacturing often belong to goats and cows.
One of the main reasons for dropping the use of guts as a material (besides obvious sourcing issues) was the environmental effects on guitar strings. Made of organic elements, humidity, temperature, and corrosion affected the way instruments were tuned and performed.
That tonal disparity in times when tuners were much scarcer than today brought players a plethora of problems. Thus, they sought for new materials to replace the core of wound strings and the plain strings as well.
DuPont, the Second World War, and a discovery
The material that could fight back against the environmental effects on guitar strings was invented by DuPont in 1935 and played a major role in World War II. However common it might seem to us, nylon is not even a hundred years old yet.
Nylon replaced the bottom three strings in classic guitars, ukuleles, and other stringed instruments for being more stable and easier to source than any other material at the moment. Guitars particularly took two different paths: some went to embrace steel, nickel, bronze, and other metals while others went for nylon.
Classic guitar strings
The first pack of nylon guitar strings for classical guitars came to be thanks to the three-party collaboration between DuPont, Segovia, and Albert Augustine Ltd. It was this last company the first to commercialize it in the mid-1940s, only 10 years after DuPont invented nylon.
Since that time, some modern variations, including composite strings with carbon fiber, made classic guitar strings more stable. Still, being part of a wooden, organic instrument, environmental effects provoke last-minute corrections even today.
In other words, no material can replace nylon and be 100% stable to this day.
Steel guitar strings
Steel strings have been around since the late 19th century. Indeed, a 1903 Gibson catalog offered an option for “gut or steel strings” when ordering an instrument from the factory.
The big problem that steel strings solved was volume; when hit or plucked, steel strings would create a much louder sound than gut and later nylon strings. That being said, they also created additional problems due to the increase of tension that would pull off guitar bridges and twist necks.
This was largely due to the technology for refining metal to be as thin as 0.10 as is the standard today not being quite there yet. Moreover, it wasn’t until the reinforcement of the necks with steel and ebony that steel strings became as stable as they are today.
Guitar and strings manufacturers have worked relentlessly to create a perfect match and technology-wise have advanced a lot in terms of stability. Still, other problems like rust, moisture, grime, and such affect string lifespan, sound, stability, and performance.
Nickel guitar strings
Nickel became the go-to metal to wrap steel strings in and manufacture the top three (or four, depending on the gauge) strings. This is very commonly found in electric instruments and the best, most popular brands in the world continue to use it to this day.
Most modern strings still have a steel core wrapped with either:
· Pure nickel – Pure nickel strings tend to sound fuller on the low registers and have less presence in mids and highs. Also, pure-nickel strings tend to last longer.
· Nickel wound – This means that the wrapping of the strings contains nickel but it is a steel-nickel alloy. The percentages depend on the manufacturer, but these strings tend to sound brighter, with more attack and midrange.
Unless it is specified outside the package, you can always expect the top three strings to be nickel-wound.
Bronze guitar strings
Bronze guitar strings dominate the steel-string acoustic guitar realm without the shadow of a doubt. Does this mean guitar strings are made of bronze? Well, not exactly, these are still made with a steel heart (this is why they are called “steel-string acoustics”) wrapped or plated in bronze or brass; some companies will add phosphorous to the equation to add warmth.
This innovation takes us back to the late 1930s; it is the result of the combined effort of D’Addario and John D’Angelico. The quality that bronze guitar strings add to the mix is brightness, which is why acoustic players embraced them since day one.
Indeed, most guitar innovations have to do with being heard in times when no (or very scarce) amplification was available. The use of bronze for guitar strings is no different; it allowed old Martin players in the 1930s, for example, to play with violins and other louder instruments
Flat-wound guitar strings
Finally, every jazz player’s favorite, flat-wound strings. These are made usually with pure steel and don’t feature any kind of wrapping. Although still controversial, LaBella claims ownership of this invention dating back to the 1940s. The particular quality of flat-wound strings is that you can’t hear the player’s fingers moving through the fretboard because they generate no friction.
Thus, jazz and other styles requesting quick chord changes embraced these strings until today. They are usually made of pure steel and tend to last for years. The absence of wrapping also helps avoid grime and sweat from sticking, but usually. rust appears shortening the string lifespan when not taken proper care of.
A step into the future, coated and treated strings
Because nowadays the major problems strings face are related to grime, dirt, sweat, and moisture, some companies have taken a bold step into the future offering coated strings.
Goretex, a company dedicated to manufacturing repellants came up with a compound made of fluoropolymer that served as a first coat for the fingers, protecting the metal beneath it.
Although a very modern invention, dating back to the end of the 1980s, there are many versions with the most popular being sold by Elixir. Other than that, companies like, for example, Dean Markley treat their strings with liquid nitrogen (Blue Steel strings), and Ernie Ball experimented with Cobalt, among many others.
They have succeeded in extending the lifespan of strings but they couldn’t make them retain their tone, character, and brightness. Thus, many players refrain from buying these strings because they are left with dark-sounding or dead-sounding strings that won’t break or wear out.
A long way to go still, guitar strings drawbacks
The history of guitar strings goes from the Egyptian pyramids to the most cutting-edge machinery you can think of. A lot has happened and many of the problems that players experienced throughout the years were solved.
That being said, there is still a long way to go to find the perfect material that won’t be affected by weather, wear out so fast, sound bright and full throughout its lifespan, and won’t cost a fortune.
For now, we should enjoy the technological wonders we can buy at a guitar store and hope for new innovations that can take guitar strings to the next level.