Tara likes to make fun of me whenever I have a new flamenco guitar, because I change guitar strings constantly in the first few weeks of having it. Most of that changing is going back to a set of strings I had on before, to see how I feel about it now that I’ve tried something new. Fortunately, I know that once I settle on a set, I’m really unlikely to change. So it’s worth going back and forth a lot to make sure I know exactly what set of strings I like for a new flamenco guitar. In the meantime it got me thinking about how much we obsess over guitar strings – and rightly so, given how important they are. So here are a few thoughts I have after a lifetime of changing strings:
1 – How do they feel?
I actually think this is the single most important thing about the right set of flamenco guitar strings. The best sounding strings aren’t worth much if you’re not comfortable playing your guitar, so to me the first priority is finding a string that has the right balance of left-hand and right-hand feel. Personally I like quite a bit of resistance at the right hand, but I don’t want the left hand to ever struggle. Too light and only the left hand is happy. Too heavy and only the right hand is happy. The Goldilocks set makes both hands happy, and you may not realize you had the right tension until you go up or down a tension and realize the one before was the right one.
2 – How do they sound?
Duh, right? Obviously this one is important, but what are we looking for? Some guitars are inherently too bright and you’ll want to tame that with a ‘duller’ string, or vice-versa. And of course the tension will affect this as well, but the best sounding string/tension may not be the one that feels best, so go back to item 1)… Also, some sets will have great basses but not-so-great trebles or vice-versa. Move on (or see item 7 below). In the end, sound is very subjective, so the most important thing is that you love the sound of your guitar.
3 – How much do they cost?
Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think a set of strings should be an investment. If you live in the US consider yourself fortunate, as in Europe strings are about double what they are in the US. And while we’re at it, a more expensive string is not necessarily better than an affordable one. For most of my professional life I’ve used the very affordable La Bella 2001’s because I like them, and not because they cost less.
4 – Don’t change your trebles.
Your bass strings will wear out much more quickly than your trebles, and there is absolutely no need to change trebles every time you change your basses. I probably change trebles once for every four or five times I change basses. Basses get duller with wear, but trebles seem to get better as they settle. If they don’t look frayed by the saddle or nut I’d just as soon leave them. Also, they take longer to settle into tune than the basses.
5 – Commit.
Once you find a string/tension you love there’s very little reason to change, unless you just enjoy the uncertainty. I have a lot of friends in the industry, so people give me new strings to try all the time and I always go back to my old standby sets afterwards unless my mind and hands are blown by the new set. And a much as I may like some of the new ones, I’d rather not have to get used to a new tension for each hand. I know what strings I put on each guitar, and once I’ve found the right tension I’m just too lazy to change that.
6 – But…
As I’ve gotten older I seem to like a higher tension at the right hand, so about 7 years ago I bumped all of my guitars up a tension and now my hands are happier. I guess the lesson here is to be open to change?
7 – Combining sets.
Some people like to use the trebles from one set and basses from another (or even just the 3rd string from one set, etc…) I’ll never forget when a friend who works for one of the major string companies told me how much that pissed him off. ‘We spend years of research making sets that are perfectly balanced and then people go mess it up!’ (He said it more colorfully…). That said, it’s usually more expensive and more of a pain in the ass, so I’d say avoid this rabbit hole unless you’ve tried everything and can’t find a set that balances for you.
8 – I recommend La Bella 2001 strings.
I endorse La Bella because I love their strings. I hadn’t ever really thought about endorsing a string, but then I was approached by another company that wanted me to endorse their string. Instead I called the folks at La Bella and told them I’d rather endorse the strings I’ve actually used all my life. I use the 2001 classical sets on most of my guitars, and the 2001 flamenco set for my Conde. And I’m currently trying out their new La Bella Vivace sets with the carbon trebles. I like the sound a lot, but I’m not sure I’ll adapt to a thinner string. I also love the Pepe Romero sets that Pepe recently launched, and it turns out that they’re made by La Bella, too. They have a few more varieties of trebles to go with the 2001 basses and there’s a great Flamenco and Vintage set which is the first light tension set I’ve really liked.
Strings can be a rabbit hole for sure, but they don’t have to be forever.