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Guide to Coated Strings

In our previous blog you may remember that we talked a lot about coated guitar strings.

If you’ve been playing the guitar for some time you’ll no doubt be familiar with the concept of coated strings.  These guys are no longer the new kid on the block and have been on the string scene for quite some time now.  But what exactly are they and are they all the same?  Well, wonder no more, we’re here to give you a run down on all things coated strings.

What exactly is a coated string?

Whilst on our instruments, strings really bear the brunt of some hefty treatment.  Strings are often battered to within an inch of their life with our right hand (if you’re a right handed player) and the acidic sweat and dirt that builds up on our left hand can sit on the strings surface attacking and compromising their physical appearance and their strength too. 

But, it’s not only the abuse through playing that gets hurled at them.  Other conditions also play a part in premature damage to our strings; humidity, atmospheric nasties, smoke, beer… you name it, they can all have a detrimental effect to some extent.

The solution? Ladies and Gentleman! Enter….The Coated String!

So what exactly are they? These strings have an ultra-thin liquid polymer coating applied to the string's outer surface.   This coating acts like a Marvel-esque shield helping to prevent sweat, dirt and grime from attacking the string which can lead to all the undesirable scenarios we mentioned above.

Above - This images shows the coating on D'Addario's XS Acoustic Strings and how it acts as a protective layer for the string underneath (Image Courtesy of D'Addario)

So what does this mean for a guitar player? Well for starters it means our strings will last that much longer than normal.  In fact, most manufacturers project that coated strings will last around 3 - 5 times longer than a standard uncoated string.

"Great, but how much does all this extra hocus pocus cost?"

Granted, adding a coating to strings does add an extra stage (or more) to the manufacturing process and as a result, coated strings do cost more than standard uncoated strings.  However, if you look at the bigger picture, coated strings often work out more economical in the long term….

Whilst these strings last 3 - 5 times longer than normal, on average they usually work out around twice the price of a standard set of strings.  Therefore, if you do opt for coated strings, over the course of say a year, you’ll no doubt be spending less on strings.

What sets are available?

As mentioned earlier, coated strings are no longer a new phenomenon in the string world.  In fact, you’ll see that a good chunk of string brands have a coated set or two in their lineup.  You’ll also notice that it’s not just electric and acoustic strings that are available. Coated Bass, Classical, Mandolin and Banjo sets have become more readily available over the years.

Whilst some of the world’s biggest brands have entered the ring, it’s Elixir strings that are arguably the kings of the coated string world.  These guys have been the most popular brand pretty much since they were introduced around 20 years ago.  Owned by water resistant clothing specialists Gore, Elixir are certainly our strongest selling coated string.

Martin Lifespan 2.0 Coated Strings

Whilst Elixir do seem to reign supreme, there are some close competitors when it comes to popularity.

As always, D’Addario are never far behind and always pushing the boundaries of string technology.  Over the years they’ve continued to innovate and refine their coated string offerings and most recently they’ve released their XT range (available for electric, acoustic, bass, classical, mandolin and banjo).  Most recently this year they also released their XS coated string range (currently only available for acoustic guitar).

Check out our full range of coated strings here.

Are coated strings all the same then?

So with all these coated strings available on the market, aren’t they all the same as one another?

You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that by slapping a coating on the outer surface of a string, they’d all pretty much be the same as one another, right!?

Of course, this simply isn’t the case and this is where things start to get interesting (if you’re string super nerds like us!).   The differences really come to the fore when you consider the coating itself and how it’s applied to the string.  Both elements being the secret sauce of each brand if you will.

There isn’t a standard off-the-shelf coating from B&Q that brands buy and then apply to their strings. Oh no!!  All these brands have gone to great lengths to create their own proprietary coatings and as a result, each is different to the other not just in its makeup but it’s thickness and texture too.

Elixir Polyweb Electric Guitar String Coating

Application

For some brands, they like to coat the wrap wire of their wound strings before it is wrapped around the central core.  Whereas some others like Elixir, coat the string after it has been made (a bit like a protective sock for your strings).  

Above - Image Courtesy of D'Addario. For D'Addario's latest XS Acoustic string range they've taken the decision to coat the outer surface of the string after it's been wound which is a first for any of their coated string ranges.

Of course, each manufacturer will argue that their way is the best.  For instance, the brands that coat the wire first before winding say that this helps to maintain a more natural feel and Elixir say that their coating prevents the little ridges between the windings from getting clogged up.

It’s actually for this very reason that some brands like DR’s Veritas strings insist on coating the central core of the wound strings too.   At first you may think, what’s the point of doing this? The central core isn’t exposed to your fingers or the atmosphere? 

It’s a perfectly logical thought, right!?  However, the grime that builds up between the windings can (over time) creep in between the gaps making their way down to the central core wire.  Once it’s made its way here, your strings are really on the turn as it’s the core wire that plays a big part in dictating the strength of the string.   If this starts to tarnish, you’re on a bumpy road to string break town!

DR Veritas Electric Guitar String Set

Nowadays, many of the plain strings in sets are also coated or anti-rust treated.  There was a time when brands focused purely on coating the wound strings only, but nowadays many have seen the light and insist on coating all 6 strings to help preserve the life and balance of the entire set.

Who are coated strings for?

We speak to plenty of guitar players every day and you may or may not be surprised that there're players out there that can tarnish a standard set of strings in a matter of minutes due to sweat and acidic perspiration from their hands. Whilst coated strings are great for these players, their extended life certainly appeals to many other musicians too.

Let’s be honest, whilst we love strings, changing them isn’t our favourite job in the world so for those players, coated strings are a really good option.  Their extended life means you won’t need to change them quite so often.

Coated sets are also a great choice for instruments that may not be played very often.  This may sound counter intuitive - after all, why would you want to spend more money on strings for a guitar that isn’t regularly used? However, when you take into account that it’s not just finger sweat that kills your strings, the dirt in the air and humidity are also silent ninjas attacking your strings whilst we’re not looking.  Therefore, if the strings are being protected from these elements whilst it’s not being played for extended periods, the next time we come to play the instrument, it should still feel and sound great.

How the coating on Elixir strings prevents build up
Above - Image Courtesy of Elixir Strings - This advertisement from Elixir clearly shows how all the sweat, dirt and grime from our hands and the atmosphere can work their way between the windings.

It’s for this very reason that some guitar manufacturers insist on putting coated strings on their guitars from the factory.  We know for a fact that Taylor Guitars ship their instruments with Elixir strings on.  If you think about it, it’s actually a sensible move.  After all, the brands that make these instruments are shipping their products all over the world, exposing the instruments to a whole host of various climates and humidities.  There is also a good chance that these instruments will sit on the wall of a music shop for an extended period of time and be tested out by plenty of players too!  All these situations that can easily mean the strings fall victim to becoming tarnished over time.

The Haters

Whilst coated strings certainly have their fans, as with everything guitar, there’s a proportion of musicians that simply don’t buy into the concept.

For the traditionalists out there, the added coating makes the string feel ‘unnatural’ with many saying that they can actually feel the coating making a significant difference to the playability of the string.

Tonally, players often argue that coated strings don’t have the brightness of an uncoated string.  Their argument is that the coating can muffle the sound somewhat hindering it’s natural brightness and resonance.  

There’s no doubt that any substance applied to our strings will alter their feel and sound and coated string manufacturers know this too.  In fact, it’s these reservations that many string brands often try to address.  You only have to take a quick look at most of the marketing around coated sets to see a strong theme where manufacturers are striving to produce a string that feels and sounds like an uncoated string.

Evidence of this is in Elixir’s most recent Optiweb electric sets.  Over the years they have continued to thin out their coating and their latest electric offering is their ‘lightest coating yet’ and is described as having ‘the same crisp tone as an uncoated string’ and providing a ‘natural feel’.  

If you’ve played coated strings in the past, you may well have noticed that as they age, sometimes the coating can flake in certain spots.  This can be most noticeable at the nut as the string passes across it (especially if you are changing between tunings frequently) and also the area where the strings are struck with a pick around by the pickups or soundhole. [We have it on good authority from Elixir and our own experience that this 'flaking' doesn't actually affect the effectiveness of the coating - it just looks dodgy].

Our 20 years plus experience of selling strings has also meant that we’ve often come across players that need help sourcing strings that won’t aggravate a nickel allergy.   Depending on the severity of the allergy, coated strings have often been a viable option for some players.  The coating on the surface of the string gives some players the option to continue to use a nickel wound string without coming into direct contact with the nickel surface of the string itself.

Coating in a Coated String starting to flake

As we mentioned above, as coated strings age, some of the coating can start to flake in certain areas.  As a result these parts of the string are no longer protected and if you are using coated strings to protect your fingers from a nickel allergy, you need to be mindful that this may render them no longer effective for that particular purpose.

If you’d like some more information on the best strings for a nickel allergy, be sure to check out our blog post here

So there you have it, a quick (kind of!) insight into the world of coated strings.  

Whilst, comparatively speaking they’re still relatively new in the string world, their popularity is ever growing as the advancements in technology develops.  With that in mind, we’d confidently say that they’re certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Granted, they’re not for everybody.  But if you are yet to try a set, they’re well worth a try to see what the fuss is about and possibly lighten the load on your wallet in the long run!




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