Like most steel-string acoustic players, I don’t give a second thought to the fact that my instrument usually sports a set of bronze-wound strings. Indeed, the market doesn’t really offer alternatives, as pretty much all acoustic string makers focus on various formulations of bronze (though it should be noted that the core of most strings is, in fact, steel). The pleasant metallic ring of these strings is the sound we have come to associate with a toneful flattop.
Which is why I was surprised to learn some years ago that flatpicking legend Tony Rice actually prefers nickel-wound strings on his prewar D-28; bronze-wound strings ring too brightly on the famous dreadnought (a trait rarely attributed to rosewood guitars). Until recently, D’Aquisto manufactured Tony’s signature strings. I experimented with a set maybe six years ago, and while they didn’t sound bad, I wasn’t compelled to make a permanent switch from my usual preference for phosphor bronze.
Fast forward in time to 2013 — my D-28 and I are both a little older, and Martin has announced it is now offering Tony Rice signature strings. These new strings are made from Monel, a nickel alloy that Martin phased out in the 1970s (incidentally the same metal used in World War II dogtags). Eh, why not? Like picks, strings are a cheap and reversible way to experiment with your instrument’s tone.
The signature sets only come in bluegrass-approved .013-.056, which is fine by me, but may be too heavy for players with softer fingertips or a small-bodied guitar with an easily overdriven top. As expected, the Monels do away with the the metallic zing associated with a new set of bronze strings, which is also consistent with my memory of the D’Aquistos. However, I have to say my first impression of the Monels is a bit more favorable — but I have a hunch that may have as much to do with the age of my guitar as the strings themselves.
My D-28 has (to my ears at least) opened up significantly in the past few years, and the Monels really let the tonewoods sound through; the voice is more wood, and less string. There is a loss of some dimensionality in the bass, which serves to even out the boomy tendencies of a dreadnought but may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The key takeaway though is that these strings are probably best suited to a mature instrument made from solid woods; newer guitars or laminate guitars are likely to sound disappointing (maybe even muted) with a set of Monels.
So will I be converting to Monel? Probably not at this point, as there are some qualities of bronze strings that I miss, particularly in terms of overtones and low end character. However, I’ll be keeping these strings in mind for future applications in which my dreadnought needs to be tamed or a less brash sound is preferable — perhaps vocal accompaniment, or certain recording applications. Another useful tool to have stowed away in the gig bag!