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Heavy gauge silk and steel strings: anybody tried 'em?

Lango-DjangoLango-Django Niagara-On-The-Lake, ONModerator
edited August 2016 in Eddie Lang Club Posts: 1,560
As some of you may recall from previous postings, I totally love the sound Eddie Lang got from his L-4 or L-5.

But as many of you can attest, the only way to get those old arch tops to sing is to use real heavy gauge strings.

Which is one of the reason I love gypsy guitars so much, you can play 'em for hours and they never hurt your LH fingers.


But the thought recently occurred to me, what if one were to use heavy gauge silk and steel strings? Could one get that big Lang-y sound without the pain?

I notice that LaBella's website mentions a "medium gauge" S & S:
.012, .016, .025W, .033, .046, .056

The also offer "twelve-string" S & S:
014-.014, .018-.018, .031W-.012, .044-.018, .056-.025W, .068-.033W

So IF I could buy individual strings from LaBella (---????) maybe I could even put together a really heavy set:
.014, 018, .031W, .044, .056, .068


Has anyone around here ever been down this road before?


Paul Cezanne: "I could paint for a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing."

Edgar Degas: "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.... To draw, you must close your eyes and sing."


  • MarkAMarkA Vermont✭✭✭ Holo Epiphany, French mystery, Gibson L-5
    Posts: 102
    Not I, but an interesting concept, let us know how it works out!
  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 283
    I routinely string my archtops, vintage and modern, with 13-56 bronze (or Zebras) and don't have any problems with my fingers. And I'm over 70 with just the beginnings of joint pain in my left hand. If the instrument is set up right there shouldn't be much stress--though if you're accustomed to the extra-light touch of a Selmer-style and Argentines, there's going to be a period of adjustment.

    On the other hand, experimenting with heavy silk & steels might yield interesting results. One never knows, does one? (And on the third hand, silk & steel, which have copper wrap, wear and go dead pretty quickly, which is why I use GHS or Pearse silk & bronze on my more delicate guitars.)

  • Lenzer Fisoma have a heavier gauge silk and steel.
    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 283
    The heaviest S&S set I see on the Lenzer site is 12-50. GHS makes a 12-54 S&B set--which is still a tad light for an archtop (though they work fine on flat-tops).
  • SnapSnap New
    Posts: 0
    Too late to the party, anyways here go my 2cents on archtops and heavy gauges.

    Though it's true that the heavier the strings the louder your guitar might become, it doesn't mean it sounds any better. In many cases it's just the opposite. Every guitar asks for a given gauge to give its best. I don't mean models, I mean specific guitars. As an example I have two "identical" 1935 archtops; same design, same model, same year, same maker... But they are totally different beasts. One feels stiff and heavy, and asks for quite heavy gauge and quite strong playing. The other one feels way lighter, it's easy speaking, you can use either light or heavy gauges. It likes them all and you can play as soft or strong as you want, it just follows you. Which one sounds better? I wouldn't tell. Which one is louder when you want them loud? They're similar, but totally different performers. My favorite of the two? The light one because it's more versatile, all-round and responsive. The heavier is more a maid for a given purpose. Again, it doesn't mean that it has a worse tone. I use to string the light one with 13s for many years. Switched to 12s and now I'm on 11s... 11s on a 30s archtop? Yes, 11s. because is only a tad quieter than with 13s, the tone remains rich, and playability is now easy and superb. As you can imagine, it's not the same with the stiff one. It remains on 13s, and would take some more.

    Now, back to the "11s on a '30s archtop". For sure. If you check old catalogs and measure old unused (or not too rust) string sets, you'll find that the old guys were not using the heavy gauges we use to asume. Not at all. Not even close. Standard guitar sets hardly ever had anything thicker than a .050 as a 6th string back in the day and remained the same until the '70s. In those days more often than not the heaviest 6th available for guitar sets was a .047 (or the European metric equivalent) and typically had .010 and .011 as 1st. That's true, just make your own research. You won't find hints of the modern heavy gauges anywhere. Django or Eddie Lang (and contemporaries) used mostly .011 - .047 sets. because there was about no string maker offering anything different for steel strings guitars. Those typical .011- .047 sets where what you can find in stores and catalogs, what they had available and what they used. They didn't made special orders, or settled on those gauges after years of experimentation and tests. They just walked into a store as guitar players did and asked for a guitar steel strings set. As simple as that. The same happened at both sides of the pond. Check US or European catalogs. They offered about the same gauges... if specified.

    So, it's clearly a myth that the old guys used humongous string gauges on their guitars. They used quite light weight strings for the current standards and got the tone. Just think about it. Don't let myths fooling you (or hurting you fingers).
  • SnapSnap New
    Posts: 0
    Now for materials. Good old strings used to have silver-plated steel plains and round cores, with silver-plated copper wounds. That's what Django used. Not a personal choice, just what there was around in the stores for steel string guitars all over Europe. Just like classical strings, but switching the gut for steel. But steel string guitar player always complain about string longevity. Classical players just assume their strings will last for short if they want to use their tone holy grial wound; silver-plated copper.

    Steel guitar players moved forward and got the way more durable monel alloy. It typically replaced the copper in the US along the 20s and not too much (or not too fast) in Europe. Orchestra players also demanded more punch and volume from their guitars. Enter brass, (or bronze... or 80/20 bronze as we use to call it nowadays). Apparently Martin introduced the hex core along with the brass wound strings. IMHO, it was more a penny pinching decision that a tonal one, but it came along with a tonal impact too. They give a bit more sparkle at the cost of a bit of definition and solidity on the note fundamental. So there were three choices: the traditional copper, the modern and durable monel, and the powerful brass. Plain strings (and sometimes cores) were plated with silver or tin. Not sure if brass plating was used that early.

    Remember that electric guitars, while already available, were a rarity until the late '30s and no maker (or strings maker) specifically offered electric and acoustic strings until that period, and usually happened later than that. Right on the '40s. Electric players used to prefer monel or the (now called pure) nickel wounds. I'm not sure when nickel strings we available or popular. It seems to me that pure nickel were the cheapo alternative to the holy grial silver-plated copper or the ultra-modern and extravagant (mostly nickel) monel alloy. The humble pure nickel was somewhat the poor-man strings choice back in the day while today is a quintessential tonal choice giving an amazing solidity to the fundamentals. I really love nickel as a brass alternative.

    Remember that nickel-plated steel wounds and phosphor bronze appeared way later. Decades later actually. If you are after the old days or the golden era of the acoustic guitars tone, you probably don't want to use these two types on your guitar.

  • SnapSnap New
    Posts: 0
    Sorry for the typos... i don't see and edit button here...
  • Lango-DjangoLango-Django Niagara-On-The-Lake, ONModerator
    edited January 2017 Posts: 1,560

    According to Robb Lawrence – who claims to own Eddie Lang’s block inlaid L-5 – Lang used the following finger-breaking string gauges!

    6 - 73; 5 - 48; 4 - 38; 3 - 30; 2 - 20; 1 - 15


    Somewhere in my messy closet I have a Guitar Player magazine special article that discusses this topic, circa 1985.

    According to the article, Robb Lawrence bought Eddie's L5 from his widow, Kitty, who stated that the strings were the same ones that Eddie had put on the guitar before his untimely death in March, 1933.

    Robb Lawrence said that he measured those strings with a calliper, and these were the gauges.

    Snap, I'm just wondering what evidence you have that this is incorrect?

    Paul Cezanne: "I could paint for a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing."

    Edgar Degas: "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.... To draw, you must close your eyes and sing."
  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 283
    There is evidence that while the actual gauges were not listed on the packages, makers did indeed offer strings of varying weights, usually calling out a set as "heavy." And aside from the Eddie Lang example, there are sets with wound Bs (Epiphone offered guitars with nuts cut for wound or unwound Bs), which suggests something about whole-set gauges. Then there's the question of gauges for instruments like the Gibson mandocellos, harp guitars (sub-bass strings), and Style Os. The ones I've had in my hands had pretty heavy strings.

    This page has photos of pre-war Gibson packaging--again, no specific gauges, but a suggestion of the range of strings offered. (The whole site is a trove of vintage Gibson gear and accessory photos.)

    I can't recall when individually-gauged sets appeared, but I've been playing since the 1950s and I'm pretty sure that light-medium-heavy sets were available long before the 1970s. And while individual instruments certainly do respond to different setups, my experience with older archtops strongly favors at least mediums for them to speak optimally.
  • SnapSnap New
    Posts: 0
    Thanks so much for your contributions, guys.

    Certainly the flat-tops ruled the acoustic guitar world for decades and thus the "general purpose" string gauges... I stand corrected. It's clear that the reduced acoustic archtop niche (even in the '30s) followed their own rules. I guess these guys, lang, Kress, etc.. got some direct access to the Gibson guys and got some custom instruments and surely some custom strings sets.

    I also wonder what gauges the K-5 mandocello used. Or what Kress used for his extended tuning back in the day in terms of gauge and materials. His bottom strings were a whole tone below the mandocello and the 6th string don't use to sound dull as heard in the recordings.

    Really interesting the Lang's gauges. Thanks for sharing!
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