Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Strings 'n Things

I read somewhere that Grigory Sokolov is very knowledgeable about piano technology. That puzzled me a bit: not that he is knowledgeable, but that it was worth mentioning. Then I realized that it might not be the norm among pianists, many of whom might rely on piano technicians to keep their instruments in proper working order. But apparently Sokolov is really involved with the pianos he plays on. This makes sense. As a guitarist I am very involved with the innards of my instrument and how it works acoustically and, most of all it seems, with the strings. I just changed my strings and it got me thinking about strings in general.

But before I get to that, let me just say that I would love to do an interview with Mr. Sokolov and ask him all about pianos: what does he look for, does he modify anything in the pianos he plays, how much time does he like with a piano before a concert and all those other gritty little details that never come up in interviews.

Strings are a big deal for guitar players because they wear out quickly--anywhere from between two weeks and a month if you practice a lot. In the throes of my performing career I went through from 20 to 25 sets a year. And the reason is this:

Click to enlarge

Yes, it's those darn frets. After sixty or seventy hours of playing the trebles (made of nylon) begin to get dented over each fret and the basses, especially the thinnest one, the 4th string, actually wear through the wire wrapping to the core (also nylon) on the second fret. The clarity of pitch begins to degrade and, for the basses, they start to sound dead. So if you basses are going thump thump and you are having trouble tuning: CHANGE YOUR STRINGS!

I have used just about every brand of strings there are over the years: Aranjuez (remember them?), Augustine (endorsed by Segovia), Savarez (the most elegant, made in France) and Pro Arte. These last are very reliable, well-priced strings and available locally, so I've been using them a lot:

Nothing wrong with them and I've been using them for several years. But when I was doing some recording last year I started wondering if there weren't some better options these days. Savarez has come out with a lot of new technology, but I have already tried them with mixed results. Savarez are wonderful strings, but no matter what they do, the basses always seem to go prematurely dead.

Pro Arte has some new and interesting strings out and I tried these out:

I'm not sure what the "composite core" refers to, presumably the core of the wound basses. These strings come with an extra third string. This one, the thickest treble, tends to be a bit pudgy sounding and this extra string, a kind of coffee-and-cream color, is supposed to help by being brighter and balancing better with the basses. It is described as a "monofilament composite." It does have a bit of a different feel and is a bit brighter. It felt to me a bit like a gut string (which I tried years ago). Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, it started sounding quite crappy (just like a gut string!). So I took it off and put on the other 3rd. Bottom line: nice strings, the basses stood up really well, but I have my doubts about that extra 3rd. They have another type out called "Dynacore" and the back of the box refers to a "Blended Polymer Core", but I haven't tried them yet:

Instead, today I went back to some strings I was introduced to a few years ago and found very impressive: Hannabach, made in Germany:

Very nice strings! Clear, open sound. Funny thing though, when I ordered them through Amazon, they ended up coming from a distributor in Japan! We're so globalized now.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on strings today. Now to get back to the guitar and see how those Hannabach are sounding.

Here is a piece I recorded years ago, and I'm pretty sure I had a set of Pro Arte EJ46s on. This is the last movement of El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer, Balada de la Doncella Enamorada:



Anonymous said...


I am surprised you didn't mention the incredible frustration from dealing with new strings: the constant retuning; sometimes needed in the middle of a tune. I think the genius who'll invent strings that don't detune at the beginning will deserve a Nobel prize (for peace, of course).

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, if you are putting new strings on every couple of weeks, you get it down to a fine art. Yes, lots of tuning up. But, hey, new strings! I love new strings (after a day or two). The one thing about Savarez is that they sound absolutely great on Day One. The basses settle down right away. But after a week or so, they just start to sound dull. The trebles last roughly forever, though.