by Professor String
|If You Carry A Spare Set Of Strings In Your Case...Beware!||
of years ago, a dentist friend of mine bought a brand new Gibson Le Grande
archtop guitar to add to his collection. If you are familiar with this guitar,
then you know it retails somewhere north of $12,000, and there is often a wait
(at least a year) for a specific color. It was a longtime dream of my friend to
own one of these rare production pieces of art. I caught up with him a couple of
days after buying the guitar and asked him how it was. He did not seem as
excited as I had expected. After further discussion, he finally opened up to the
fact that the guitar had several “dead spots” in the neck and sounded partially
muted. I asked him if he had changed strings. He said “Yes.” He said the
original set from the factory on the guitar were too light in gauge size and
sounded lifeless. He had a “spare” set of strings that he put on to replace the
originals. There was hardly any improvement. So, at that point he had played the
guitar with two different sets of strings and had similar results. He took the
guitar back to the shop, and they could not figure out what was going on. They
offered to send it back. However, it would be close to a year before another
would arrive. My friend declined the offer as he could not bare wait at least
another year to get the guitar.
Was his dream guitar a lemon?
No. There was still a string issue happening with this guitar. After further questioning, I asked him about the “spare” set he put on the Le Grande. Here is what happened:
Me: How old was the set of spare strings?
Friend: They were brand new.
Me: What brand?
Friend: [We will not reveal the name he said, but the strings were a major brand name.]
Me: When did you buy them?
Friend: It was a spare set I bought about a year ago.
Me: Did the set ever leave the house?
Friend: They were in a case with my gig guitar.
Me: Was the string package air tight?
Friend: I don’t know.
Me: Houston, we have a problem.
The Silent String Menace
In the days of yester year and still today, virtually all individual strings came in little white paper envelopes. The paper envelopes were usually stuffed into a clear little plastic jacket with a flap. These little packages kept the strings clean, untangled, and clearly marked with the proper gauge information. Again, many string manufacturers continue to use this style of packaging. This style of packaging has an Achilles heal in its design. The humidity barrier is fairly low and the strings are susceptible to oxidation damage over time. The paper can actually work as a double edged sword when it is exposed to high humidity. The paper will provide some protection, but if the humidity exposure is high enough on a given day, the paper turns into a sponge. Once the moisture works its way into the paper, uncoated strings will start to oxidize. When the moisture has soaked into the packaging, it may never completely leave. Remember that clear little plastic jacket mentioned earlier? It becomes a micro greenhouse when moisture is trapped inside. The strings gradually tarnish, and their ability to generate crisp clean frequency is degraded.
Seal The Deal!
More and more string manufacturers have converted their packaging towards air tight designs. The strings are often placed in a sealed plastic bag within the outside jacket or box. As long as the bag is not opened, the strings are safe from oxidation and their shelf life is greatly extended. Some companies do not use a sealed plastic bag, but shrink wrap the outside of the box. This also provides some protection. Shrink wrapping does not always provide a hermetic style of seal, but can be very effective in preventing moisture damage to a new set of strings. At this point, we should note that there is an exception to string corrosion. Strings with polymer coatings are not as susceptible to moisture damage. You still have to be careful with polymer string sets as the plain strings included in the set are usually not coated. As a result, they can still oxidize and degrade in tone.
A Happy Ending
So what happened to my dentist friend trying to get his Gibson Le Grande to play like the one in his dream? As it turns out, the “spare” set of strings had issues. He lived in Florida on some beach front property. So, not only did he have high moisture, but possibly a higher probability of sea salt mist in the air. He played at a couple of lounges down the road. The “spare” set was with him every time he went out to play. It is difficult to say what that set of strings had been exposed to. Once a fresh set of strings were strung up, the Le Grande started singing. Here is a good rule of thumb: Your spare set of strings should be used for emergency breakage, not as a replacement set for restringing. Also, whenever possible, try to get strings that have hermetically sealed packaging to ensure reliability when it comes time to use them.
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