What’s the deal with Silk and Steel?

Bronze wrapped Silk and Steel string

For many acoustic players, when it comes to making a choice on which strings to play, it’s often a toss up between opting for a set of 80/20 bronze or phosphor bronze strings.

However, did you know that there are several other lesser known options out there, one in particular being silk and steel strings. The seasoned acoustic players amongst us may have come across these sets before, but for many, silk and steel strings will be a completely new concept.

So what exactly are they? How do they sound and are they right for you? In this blog we’ll cover all the questions you may never realise you had about silk and steel strings.

So what exactly are they and how are they different to ‘normal’ strings?

In order to explain what silk and strings are, it helps to have a small background knowledge in how both acoustic strings and classical guitar strings are constructed.

Traditionally, wound steel acoustic strings are made up of two main constituent parts; the steel core wire and the outer wrap wire (usually made from 80/20 bronze or phosphor bronze).

In comparison, the wound strings on a classical/nylon strung guitar usually consist of a silvered steel outer wrap wire wound over a multi-filament nylon core comprised of many tiny fine strands of silk (so no central steel core involved here at all).

So what about silk and steel strings?

Well these strings are a bit of a hybrid of the two and are created by taking a central steel core wire (as found in your everyday pack of acoustic strings) with a thin layer of silk filament sandwiched between the core and the outer wrap wire.

If you take a look at the image below, you can see how each string is constructed.

What does this added layer of silk actually do and how do they sound?

Whilst silk and steel strings are designed to be played on steel strung acoustic guitars, you can clearly see that there’s a big nod to the design of classical strings here. As a result they share some similar characteristics when it comes to how they sound and play.

The addition of the silk layer certainly alters the tonality and playability and many of the brands that manufacture these sets cite the following characteristics;

Warmer, mellow tone
Lower tension
Less string noise

We’ve played plenty of the silk and steel sets we sell here at Strings Direct and we can testify that all sets certainly have a warmer tone and feel softer feel under the fingers in comparison to standard acoustic strings. In fact straight out of the packet, you can feel that these strings have less tension just by flexing them in your hands. The added flex also helps make fingering chords (especially barre chords) noticeably easier which would make these a good string to try out for new players to the instrument.

Many manufacturers also point out that silk and steel sets are ideal for fingerstyle players for their even, rounded tone but this also lends itself to general strumming too.. think of the silk layer sandwiched between the core and wrap wire as an audio compressor for your strings!

What sets are available?

Whilst silk and steel strings could be considered a fairly unique offering, there are plenty of big name brands that manufacture them including GHS, D’Addario, Ernie Ball and Martin. There are also some boutique string brands making sets such as Pyramid and John Pearse. In fact, several brands including New York based string makers La Bella produce 12-string sets too.

Silk & Steel Set Showcase

Whilst silk and steel strings are made by several manufacturers, players aren’t offered such a wide range of options when it comes to gauge choice.  Most sets are come in a 10 or 11 gauge but there are a one or two heavier sets with Ernie Ball’s Earthwood 13-56 set being the heaviest we supply.

Whilst there may not be a plethora of gauges on offer, players have the benefit of choosing from three different types of wrap material; silver plated copper, 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze.  If you are happy to experiment with different brands, you certainly have the advantage of honing in on which sound you like the most here.

Various silk and steel strings available

Tonally, silver plated copper sets sound most similar to a typical classical string. Not only because of the added silk, but the vast majority of classical wound strings are wound with silver plated copper too. Out of the three wrap materials on offer, these are certainly the most mellow and offer a very neutral tone…. not too bright, not overly dark either. They’re probably not to everybody’s taste but certainly worth exploring. In fact, Michigan based string brand GHS say their silk and sets are ideal for those players “that want a classical guitar tone and feel out of an acoustic string” and they are pretty accurate in saying that.

In comparison, the 80/20 Bronze and Phosphor Bronze versions of the silk and steel sets definitely produce a tone that is more what you’d come to expect from a standard set of acoustic strings.

Standard 80/20 bronze sets have a distinctly bright and powerful sound and if paired with a bright sounding acoustic, they can be zingier than a KFC burger. Ernie Ball’s 80/20 Silk and Steel sets certainly aren’t as sparkly as their standard counterpart but they still remain bright with a nice ‘played in’ tone and we found it really helped tone down the ‘tinny’ harshness you can get from a brand new set of strings.

Martin, John Pearse and GHS all offer a phosphor bronze wrapped silk and steel set. From a tonal standpoint, these have a nice well rounded tone and are probably our favourite of all the three different wrap materials on offer. They have a very balance of brightness and warmth that’s just right, and tuning wise they also settled in quickly too.

Martin’s MA130FX Silk and Phosphor Set was probably the most comfortable set we tested. This particular set comes with a thinner core which if you have read our previous blog post you’ll know that this helps to facilitate the flexibility even more. This set is a very popular choice amongst our customers with many rave reviews on our site.  John Pearse’ Silk and Phosphor sets also come with a thinner core too.

An appealing characteristic that we noticed with both the 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze sets is that because they are slightly mellower than standard sets, you’re able play these strings fairly hard without getting that initial harshness or brittle tone you often find when attacking brighter strings with gusto.

If you’d like to explore silk and steel sets further and would be keen on creating your own custom gauge set, we stock GHS’ Silk and (Silvered) Steel strings singley and you can create your own set using our custom gauge set builder here.

Acoustic guitar player with soundhole pickup

Who are these strings for?

Silk and Steel can be a nice alternative for players that often prefer to play a lighter gauge string. Likewise they’d also be a good option for the out and out electric player that dabbles in a bit of acoustic here and there.

They’re lower tension also makes them a great option for players that struggle with arthritis, muscle soreness or any sort of repetitive strain injuries.

It should be said that low tension isn’t what these strings are all about and they could certainly appeal to a wider range of players than you may first think.

Their mellow tone could be the answer for some people that find traditional acoustic strings a bit too “zingy” or “brittle” sounding at times. Of course, you may have a guitar that is naturally very loud or bright, in which case they may just offer that touch of warmth needed to soften the sound a bit more.

From a tonal standpoint, these strings certainly aren’t as bold and ballsy as a standard set of acoustic strings. But there are times when bold and ballsy isn’t always the order of the day….  For instance, in a live setting you may accompany a vocalist where the guitar needs to sit lower in the mix allowing the vocals to stand more. Or, perhaps you may be hired to play some background guitar in a restaurant … silk and steel’s mellow tone may help to lower the volume slightly and curb that edgy brightness that can be more cutting than a steak knife!

Of course, it’s not just live playing where these strings could offer some benefits.  A few brands say that these strings are a great option for studio players, particularly because they produce less string noise.  Whilst this is true, there is still some audible noise present as you change between chords and move your hands about the neck, so any reduced noise is certainly subtle and not completely eradicated.

With more of us playing at home nowadays, we may find ourselves in situations where we simply cannot play too loud. For example, you may have children sleeping, live in a house share or don’t want to annoy your housemates or neighbours. It can be hard to control the volume of a bright, zingy acoustic so having a set of strings that helps to tame this issue slightly may be of interest to some players.

Conclusion

We hope this blog has helped give you a more informed background of silk and steel strings.   If you want to check out the full range we have available you can head to our site here.  There are plenty of customer reviews of many of the sets so take a look at what other players think… we think you’d be surprised at their popularity.

Of course, if you have used silk and steel strings in the past, love them or hate them, it’d be great to hear from you about your experiences and what you think in the comments box below.

As always, if you have any questions regarding these sets or if you have any other questions, please feel free to send us a message or comment below where we’d be happy to help out and answer where we can.

Thanks as always for reading our blogs, we love hearing from you and welcome any feedback.

If there’s any topics you’d like to see us cover in the future please let us know and we’ll see what we can do 🙂

Until next time, see you on the other side.

11 Comments

  • christopher daws

    Hi there, l have a lovely d42 2016 martin guitar which has an outstanding tone. I recently tried a set of lighter gauge strings as l am
    a relatively beginner player and decided to sacrifice a slightly lower volume for an easier pressure to achieve chords. I think l am getting slightly more buzz with these lighter strings and wonder what you would suggest to try from the martin range. I am a martin enthusiast so feel l should support them. I look forward to hearing from you Chris.

  • Steve Whiteley

    What about the unwound strings in the set – are they the same as in a ‘steel string’ set?

  • Geir M.B. Myklebust

    Hi there !
    I got 3 x Guild F-512’s, and they all use La Bella Silk&Steel.
    I tune the guitars down to C and Bb and A, using the LaBella 710-12H with different tunings.
    These are the only strings that can handle this kind of down-tuning.
    All other strings just give me huge problems with intonation … naturally, I should say.

    The LaBella Silk&Steel series are indeed fabulous strings.
    Very flexible to play, very warm tone, and they stay in tune much longer than other strings.
    Just remember, do not ever stretch them by hand (!)- like you do when your putting on a new set of Phosphor Bronze etc …
    If you do, they’ll die on you, and get totally lifeless. Let them stretch gradually by playing them.

    I’ve used these strings for many many years now, and I am totally dependent on them.
    And I love them !

    Best 🙂

    • Barry Jones

      Forgot to say. Ive used these on an om28 and a twelve fret short scale (low tension) and they sounded great on both. Bal

  • Tim Bliss

    Interesting article. I was not aware that silk & steels were available in bronze wound.
    I ve used traditional silver silk & steels on my travel guitar in an attempt to warm up the rather limited bottom end.
    Are these available for instruments other than guitar? I have a maple bodied bouzouki that could definitely do with having the edge taken off its brashness.

  • Alex B

    Thanks for another great blog. Very interesting

  • Peter Clifton

    Interesting info, thanks for that. I’ve been using Newtone Heritage and DR Blues strings as some arthritis, but was planning to give these a try, and it helps to know the different types of S&S.
    Peter

  • Good advice here – thank you so much – the most comprehensive coverage of S+S strings I’ve read on the Net, and I did a fair amount or research before ordering GHS 9 gauge Silk and Steel strings from Strings Direct for my 1960s Hofner parlor guitar. Although it’s a classical guitar, many of these left the factory in Germany with steel strings, (maybe because it’s got 18 frets – so lower tension).

    Some of my friends were horrified that I was using DeAddario phosphor bronze 9 strings. They were saying, try silk and steel, they will lower the tension and are a nice hybrid. Since GHS seem to be the only Silk & Steel 9 gauge, that’s what I ordered. So how am I finding them?

    As expected, certainly a lot mellower than phosphor bronze, and the feel of the stings is certainly a hybrid between steel and nylon. but they weren’t the massive difference I’d been expecting, and as the blog here says, they are far more like a “softer” version of regular steel strings than nylons.

    THE GOOD STUFF: I’ve found is that, they get much, much better the more they are played-in, which has been a really nice surprise during COVD lock-down! As for string tension, I still don’t know that it’s reduced the strain on the neck much, if at all, but the silk and steel do feel far more “natural” to play on my classical parlor.

    DOWN-SIDE: Read this with caution, because every guitar is different and players’ expectations vary vastly. But for me, the top E string still sounded way too “zingy” and harsh – to the point where I’ve replaced it for now with a nylon E! I don’t see this as a long term fix, because I hate to think what it’s doing to the neck tension, and it does sound a bit weird, but after reading this blog I now know that single S+S replacement strings are to be had – I’ll try a DeAddario 10 gauge and hopefully this will help me decide what my next set of strings will be. I’m not going back to Phosphor Bronze on this guitar, so it looks like one brand or another of Silk and Steel it will be. By the way, ‘StringsDirect’ have been really quick sending out strings to me – even during the height of the lock-down – well done and thank you!

    • Correction: the GHS S+S strings are of course 10s, not 9s as I stated in my piece. Both D’Addario and Ernie Balls are 10s. The nylon top E has settled down now, and quite liking the sound now! Next set will be either D’Addario (11- 47s) or Ernie Balls (10 – 50). Having rescued my Hofner parlor guitar from almost certain oblivion last year, and playing it most days, I’m now pretty confident that string tension isn’t going to be a problem, so I’m happy to keep her strung with silk and steels.

  • Barry Jones

    Tried the ernie ball and john pearse. I like the ernies,used them for years but was surprised at how good the john ps sounded..Im on the last leg(hands out of shape and old) so im hoping these strings will prolong my playing days. They are definitely softer on the fingers and easier to play. Im assuming youve now got ernies in?. Thanks strings d and the postman, how do you do it? Peace and love. Bal Jones

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Barry, thanks for the comment. Deliveries from Ernie Ball are a little speradic at the moment but we do have most of the Silk and Steel range available at the nmoment, just waiting on the Extra Light sets.
      Thanks

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