By Brian Scherzer
Strings are strings, right? Although guitar and bass players may argue over whether it is worth paying extra for "boutique" strings, I suspect that few would argue that the choice of strings can be that final tweak to get a desired tone. Some players state that certain brands retain their vibrancy for longer than others, which they maintain justifies a higher price. Others choose strings based on available budget, ease of finding and buying their desired brand, differences in tension and feel or, if you're like me, it comes down to a combination of tone, feel and longevity.
Keep in mind that I am a bassist who only dabbles in guitar. However, the issues that guide my guitar string purchases are no different than those that dictate which bass strings I prefer. Having started playing in the 1960s, there were few choices available and what you ended up with was largely dictated by what your closest dealer was carrying. Today, even if you don't live anywhere close to a music store, the internet allows us a myriad of choices. One of those choices, whether buying locally or online, are strings made by Curt Mangan.
I'm not sure that I can remember all of the different strings I have tried on both guitars and basses. I can remember using some of the more commonly known brands, including Ernie Ball, D'Addario, Elixer, Fender and Gibson. I have also tried some of the more esoteric strings by Pyramid, Snake Oil and Thomastik-Infeld. Based on my personal experience, some strings, for whatever reasons, appealed to me more than others. I added one more brand to my list quite by accident. The brand I preferred at the time wasn't available when I needed to make a string change on my Strat. At the time, I was looking for pure nickel strings and went to a couple of music stores. At the smaller of these stores was a brand I had never heard of......Curt Mangan Strings. Well, the store didn't carry my preferred gauge set but I bought a couple of packs of heavier gauge strings, including one that was an accidental purchase. It was a pack of nickel plated steel strings.
I didn't realize until after stringing the Strat that these weren't pure nickel. However, immediately after plugging the strat into an amp, I was absolutely wowed with the sound. There was the kind of warmth I want from nickel but also more depth and "shimmer" to the mids and highs than I had heard from this particular instrument. When I looked closer at the pack that these strings came in, I realized that they weren't pure nickel......and didn't care. If there was ever a doubt that strings can make a difference, I had my proof. From that day on, my guitar strings have remained Curt Mangan brand.
No, Curt's strings aren't going to please everyone, and they will cost you a bit more than the least expensive brands, but they are more in the mid-pricing level that most of us can afford. My sense of things is that they are more than worth the price. Curt Mangan has offered to give all TGP members a $5 "coupon" (use code "TGP" when making an order) to allow you a chance to try out a set. I suggest taking him up on this! I have yet to break a string and I do find that these remain sounding fresh quite a bit longer than the more typical strings. I use .10 gauge sets on both Strats and Les Pauls and find them to be about medium in tension. Bending a string presents no unusual need for superman hands! I love the overtones and harmonics that I get. The pure nickel strings are warmer and more "vintage" sounding than the nickel-plated ones, while the nickel-plated strings just have that wonderful bell-tone quality that can make a guitar stand out in performance or recording. One thing that Mr. Mangan offers for those of us who are really fussy about our string gauges and aren't happy with the standard sets being offered is the ability to choose any of his strings to make up custom string sets. So, who the heck is Curt Mangan? To answer that question, I did an email interview with Curt. I included the following video to give folks a better idea of what Curt and his strings are all about.
Brian: What led to your decision to become a string manufacturer and when did you begin to get involved in that business?
Curt: I have a long history with strings having played, installed, sold and now building them. In 2004, after 17-years as Director of Sales and Marketing at Ernie Ball, I thought there might be a little room for a small string manufacturer and decided to try it.
Brian: Could you give a brief history of strings and the major differences between the early strings and modern strings?
Curt: String making became more automated in the 1950’s due to advances in machinery. Gaining more control of the string making process continues and each improvement increases consistent quality. However, the process still remains labor intensive.
Brian: What are the most important factors in making quality strings?
Curt: Developing a balanced recipe that includes, core-to wrap ratios, tension on the core wire while winding the string, selecting and obtaining the best raw materials, pride in craftsmanship, attention to details and testing each batch.
Brian: Could you explain the differences between your various guitar strings and the sound and feel of each type?
Curt: It is difficult to describe tone, but I will go with this. Nickel-Plated Steel commonly called nickelwound has become the most popular wrap alloy for electric guitars and basses. It has nice highs, mids and lows. Pure nickel still has plenty of twang, but has a slightly warmer sound and many players think they feel smoother than nickel-plated steel. Stainless steel is somewhat brighter and some players think the feel is a little less smooth than nickel-plated steel.
80/20 bronze (80% copper/20% zinc) for acoustic instruments seems to have a flat response with maybe a slight boost in the mid-range. Phosphor bronze (92% copper /7% zinc / 1% phosphor) seems to have enhanced highs and lows with a touch less mid-range. Some say it’s like pushing the loudness button on your stereo. Some also say phosphor feels a little smoother than 80/20 bronze.
Brian: What goes into creating strings that are balanced in tension and volume?
Curt: We used a lot of trial and error until we found what we liked and then we hoped other players would like it as well as we did.
Brian: There seem to be differences in the industry regarding what kinds of cores to use. What are the differences you have experienced between using a hex core or a round core? How did you select your core type and why did you decide on it?
Curt: We experimented with round core and found that intonation was very inconsistent. If the wrap slips at all, the string will not intonate and sounds odd. So we decided to only use hex core. Some people swear by round core and that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong, it’s what works for you as a player.
Brian: Some companies' strings seem to last longer than others. What makes a string retain its tone for a longer than typical time period?
Curt: It’s the quality of raw materials and workmanship.
Brian: What are some tips that would help musicians keep their strings toneful for longer?
Curt: The two most common causes for strings to lose tone and feel is dirt and grime getting in between the wraps and metal fatigue. Washing your hands before playing and wiping your strings down when you’re done can help on dirt and grime. Some player’s even use a little alcohol to wipe the strings down. Metal fatigue is a law of nature and varies by how aggressive the player is.
Brian: A lot of players tend to purchase mass-produced strings, preferring to pay as little as possible. What reasons would you give to convince them that paying more for strings would be worthwhile?
Curt: Nothing happens until a player’s fingers touch the strings and every player has a unique touch that causes the string to vibrate differently. That’s why string choice including alloy and gauge is so important and part of the pursuit of finding your own personal sweet spot. What price to pay for strings is the same as deciding what beer you like. There are many who prefer the best deal they can find on a case Bud, Miller, Coors, etc and there are many who prefer a craft beer. There’s no right or wrong, it’s personal choice. No matter how much marketing is used to convince a customer to use a product it still always comes down to the point when product must speak for itself. In our case we hope the player hears and feels what we heard and felt making the product and if so, will recommend them to their friends.