By Adam Perlmutter
In recent posts, we’ve surveyed affordable guitars, amplifiers, and pedals. For this installment, we’ll check out strings and picks. On one hand, some of these options—like a $22 guitar pick(!)—hardly qualify as budget items. But on the other, they can make your guitar sound surprisingly better, and are a whole lot cheaper than buying a new instrument.
There are a dizzying array of options for guitar strings these days, and AG has recently reviewed a few specialized sets (detailed and linked below) that can transform the sound and feel of your instrument. And for more ideas, check out our recent guide to buying strings.
SIT American Roots Monel
One of the biggest trends in the acoustic guitar world for the last few years has been the resurgence of strings wound with Monel, a trademarked name for an alloy of nickel and copper that has been around since 1901 and was commonly used for guitar strings in decades past. They are known for giving a warm, rich sound that highlights a more even, natural guitar tone while offering natural corrosion resistance.
SIT Strings’ American Roots Monel Acoustic is the latest addition to the expanding field of Monel-wound guitar strings. With the words “American Roots” right in the name, they’re aimed squarely at the vintage-guitar-tone devotee. —Greg Olwell
Developed to faithfully produce authentic vintage tones from the 1950s–’70s, SonoTone’s American-made strings are available in two types for acoustic guitarists: phosphor bronze Symphonic and Concert brass. Both sets promise a bright, sustained, and balanced sound and share similar construction: custom formulated alloys on hex cores.
The SonoTones performed well in a variety of contexts: early jazz-style plectrum guitar, hard-driving swing rhythm, and chord-melody playing. Beyond acoustic jazz, the strings were well suited to blues and folk, whether articulated with a pick or fingerstyle. Big pop/rock chords sounded particularly good, making the strings highly versatile. The SonoTones managed to exhibit a great amount of power but also responded well to a sensitive touch. —Nick Rossi
To address frustrations with commercial strings’ inability to capture the inherent harmonic complexity and balance of an acoustic instrument, Richard Hoover and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company consulted with acoustician and inventor Roger Siminoff. Together, they created Parabolic Tension strings as a way to achieve an optimal relative volume between strings by using specific core-to-wrap ratios to control the overall string tension. They are made of round steel cores, wound with phosphor bronze, and a proprietary micro-coating. —Sean McGowan
D’Addario’s new XT series strings, which incorporate high-carbon steel cores, are designed to be less prone to breakage, offer greater pitch stability, and last longer. I first restrung a cheap old archtop, a mid-1960s Gibson L-50, with the phosphor-bronze XTs in gauge .012–.053. With the full XT set on, the new strings seemed to require less tugging than normal to settle into pitch. And they sounded spectacular.
Picking A Pick
Experimenting with picks is a good and relatively affordable way of dialing in your guitar tone. I myself used a generic medium pick for many years and was skeptical about the concept of boutique picks—that is until I tried the $35 BlueChip TP50 that I heard Julian Lage played. While I’ll never reach anywhere close to Lage’s level of instrumental prowess, I immediately noticed how much thicker and warmer the BlueChip made all of my guitars sound and have used one ever since.
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AG has recently reviewed some great nonstandard picks for any style—D’Addario Casein, which replicates the tone and feel of tortoiseshell, and SkinTone Leather. And to learn more about how the composition and thickness of a pick can change your sound, check out our Quest For Tone Pick Guide.
Over the past couple of decades, boutique makers have been experimenting with casein, a protein-based plastic touted as the closest material to tortoiseshell. D’Addario is the first major manufacturer to offer casein plectrums. This year, the company introduced a heavy 2.00mm 351-shape guitar pick ($21.99 street) and a 1.40mm rounded triangle Chris Thile Signature mandolin pick ($24.99). Both share similar features—a faux-tortoiseshell appearance, beveled edges, and embossing to provide grip—with prices lower than their typical boutique counterparts. —Nick Rossi
Because leather is softer and more pliable than a hard plastic pick, you have to trade some volume for warmth. But warmth is the goal of SkinTone picks ($11.99 for a single, $19.99 for a two-pack, $24.99 for a three-pack), which were developed by David Novak for a student who needed a warmer tone, but had trouble adapting to fingerstyle. To give the pick a little more support and rigidity, Novak uses a single layer of Lexan polycarbonate sheet sandwiched between two pieces of premium cattle leather. —Greg Olwell