Swing Guitar

Dedicated to pre-bebop jazz guitar.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Picks and Strings

Last week I received a nice big order from bigcitystrings.com, so I've some nice post fodder.

I'm a firm believer in Wegen picks - giant, massive, gargantuan picks. I have been using the 5mm Fatone or FatTone for 3 years and I could never go back to using regular picks. It took a little while to get used to, but the volume, projection and body are unparalleled. At $15 a pick, they aren't cheap, and you have to get used to always keeping tabs on your pick, but they are totally worth it.

My newest acquisitions are the "Button" and the "7". The 5mm button is fashioned after an old button which would have been whittled down to use as a pick - very old school, ala Django. This one is bit harder to us, but after a few minutes it became much more natural. This is the pick of choice for a lot of the djangobooks.com guys. But the real story is the "7". This is the mother of all picks - 7mm! I found this to be only a small change from the fattone and it created absolutely amazing volume. I'm stuck on this pick!

String Type
I think phospor bronze sounds to bright and tinny, so use 80/20 bronze. When I received my Eastman 805, it came with nickel 12's, and the only thing I could find to replace them at the time were Martin SP's. I had never used Martin strings and boy was I surprised at how great they sounded. I've tried a couple other brands, but kept coming back to the Martins. Also, I did try Martin Marquis and regular Martin 80/20's but neither sounded as good as the SP's. The Martin SP's just sound great, and, as advertized, have great longevity.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I just put flatwounds on my Eastman 810CE. Shudder. Ok, I'm over it. After talking to a couple people lately, I realized that back in the 30's and 40's people like Charlie Christian probably used flats. I got sick of having crappy string balance from bronze strings, and crappy acoustic tone from nickel. Since I have an Eastman 805 non-cutaway, that is now exclusively electric, I figured I could skimp a little on the acoustic tone of my electric guitar. Honestly, the acoustic tone isn't that bad. I could only find Thomastik Swing Flat 13's, and they are pretty good, but I really like D'Aquisto Flats. I've used those for years and they sound really good. Just stay away from "ground-wound" strings like D'Addario Chromes. The difference is that ground wound strings are normal round wound strings, except they are shaved flat. Real flatwounds are tape wound, and the wrap is a flat tape.
According to archtop.com, "Even the oldest archtop guitars are remarkably sturdy for the most part, having been built to accommodate high E strings of .014 or higher." Now I don't generally go that big, but I have 13's on both my Eastman's. I think anything less than a 12 is worthless.
If your treble strings are a bit thin sounding, you can try to go up a guage on the E and B strings - for quite a while I was using a 13 set but switching out for a 14 and 18 on the top two strings. Also, pay attention to the G, D and A string guages. I noticed that the "Medium" guage Martin SP 80/20's are 13/17/26/35/45/56, instead of the usual 26/36/46/56, which they use in the "Bluegrass" gauge. The D and A strings have the greatest volume and projection on an archtop guitar, and by using bigger guages you can increase the power and projection of the whole guitar. I made the move from the slightly lighter Medium to the slighter heavier Bluegrass, and the guitar sounds even bigger, especially for rhythm.


  • At 12:42 AM, Anonymous tom said…

    of course 'the best action' is somthing to be figured out individually. But as a reference point I would like to ask what your setting is (in terms of mm above the 12 fret) for your AR805 for pure acoustic playing. I own a 805 (my first real archtop) and currently use bronze 13's on it; the E is about 2.5 mm above the 12's fret.
    Thanks in advance

  • At 9:25 AM, Anonymous mv59 said…

    There are some things to say about the string issue. In my opinion, there is not a single solution. Different solutions can work as well: bronze or phospor bronze roundwounds, steel or nickel roundwounds, flatwounds, black nylon flatowounds... The rule of thumb is matching properly the guitar and the strings. An overbright harsh sounding guitar will benefit from flatwounds, while a dark and muddy sounding one will sound best with a bright nickel or bronze set. You have to experiment a while (and surely throw away some - not many actually - money) before to find the right tone for your instrument. The same for gauges: a light built guitar sometime sounds better with a lighter string set, as 0.11 or 0.12. Actually 0.14 sets are suitable only for heavy and thick old style archtops. The point is setting the string action high enough to avoid any buzzing, even when strumming hard. As always, you have to experiment on strings type and brand, action, pick, picking style etc before getting that magic chunky throaty driving tone you can hear on Count Basie's records! Have fun!

  • At 9:30 PM, Blogger Dave said…

    I used to use very heavy picks (I used the Wegens, and various Gypsy Jazz picks), but for whatever reason I wound up settling all the one down to a standard Fender "Delrin" .73mm pick!!! I use sandpaper to round the point a little bit, to warm up the sound, and use the two round "shoulder" edges when I'm playing solo chord melody stuff (ala Eddie Lang).

    I can completely control the tone much better than with a stiff pick, and get just as mellow a sound, and just as much projection. I have a hard right hand, with a big angle in my wrist, and LOTS of downstrokes.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I use EXTREMELY heavy strings. On my 1925 L-4 (oval hole), I have the guitar strung up 0.015, 0.019, 0.030, 0.038, 0.048, 0.068 in standard tuning.

    Previously, I wasn't able to get a 0.068 in 80/20 bronze (just phosphor) so I wound up mixing sets.

    Recently, I had Newtone strings out of England make me those gauges in 80/20 bronze, using a round core, and 2 layers of wrapping. I initially found the strings to be a bit on the bright side, but after rubbing some candle wax into the strings, that was all taken care of!

    There isn't the slightest bit of string rattle on my L-4 (which I do like on the right guitar), and I've never heard another guitar in person that has that same "deadness". Think of the decay of an upright bass, on an archtop!

    For regular gauged guitars, I found Martin SP's to have the best tone.

    Every guitar is totally different. I have some archtops that respond well to lighter strings. For example, I have a 1932 Harmony Crest Archtop that sounds best with 11's!!! Each guitar has to be played totally differently, to maximize it's potential. I have a bunch of old archtops that I string completely differently. Another favorite of mine, is my 1952 Gibson L-7C, strung 14-64.

    There is no general rule of thumb of what sounds best, so try what you can!!!


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