Strings

I have tried a number of brands and sets of strings, to find which best suit playing without nails. I’ve paid for all these strings myself, so I have no relationship with the companies mentioned.

Update to what you can read below:

I’ve very recently tried plain unvarnished gut from the harp-string specialists in the UK, Bow Brand. So far so good. The shortest length they supply is 4ft, which leaves about one foot of wastage, which is a shame. However, they also supply 12ft lengths at a discount, which provides four strings – very useful. Living in the UK, this cuts down on postage and import duty, which is appreciated. You have to write to them (via their Contact page) for a pdf price list, before making an order. Here’s a couple of videos using Bow Brand first (0.66), second (0.80), and a Damian Dlugolecki third string:

Update: These strings have surprised me by lasting over two FOUR months. The quality of production is excellent, and when purchased in 12-foot lengths, are as economical as nylon equivalents. Recommended.

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Another piece of news is that Damian Dlugolecki is sending me one or two of his varnished gut strings for comparison. A review will follow. Update: They came. They went. Not for me. However, my cyber friend, Kacper Wierzchos, loves them, and he too plays without nails.

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Gut Trebles

My favourite gut trebles are made by Damian Dlugolecki of Damian Strings in the US.

Damian

He offers plain or varnished gut. I only like the plain variety. These strings should last a long time, especially when only played with the flesh of the finger tip. They are beautiful strings to touch, and the sound is warm. Recommended. He offers them as single purchases, or as part of a set. However, his basses are modern synthetic strings.

Here’s a video with the three treble strings from Damian Dlugolecki:

La Bella Antique Gut Strings

LaBella

Available as a gut set, or with modern basses. I tried these once. They lasted a week. Very poor quality compared to those above or below. Not recommended.

Aquila Gut and Silk 900

Aquila-GutSilk-900-Chitarra-Classica-300x300

Aquila have changed their Gut & Silk strings from when I first played them. Initially I liked them, but with recent set, only the basses were useable. The three treble strings were very rough, and had intonation problems. Disappointing . From the Aquila website: “This set which is made with only one degree of tension, riproposes excatly a historical assembling, tipycal of the period of Llobet and Tàrrega by using only genuine gut strings for Trebles and silk’s core wound basses, as it was said by Pujol in the “Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra” of 1934.” Pujol gave measurements for the strings he used, which Aquila have taken for their production of these strings.

One possible downside to using this set is that they cannot be tuned to modern pitch of A = 440. Best tune them a semitone lower. If you like loud, strident, cutting basses, look elsewhere. The basses here are soft-sounding, and with little sustain, but I find them beautifully balanced with gut trebles – I’d say they are the best bass strings on the market at the moment.

Synthetic Strings

Aquila Ambra 900

Aquila-Ambra-900-Chitarra-Classica-300x300

Aquila have produced two types of nylgut (nylon with some properties of gut), now referred to as Old Nylgut and New Nylgut. This set has trebles made from the Old Nylgut, which is milk-white in colour, and very smooth in texture. That said, the Aquila website mentions New Nylgut, or “Supernylgut®”. The set I currently have is of the Old Nylgut variety. The basses use Aquila’s own invention: Sylkgut cores.

I’d like to say at the outset that I don’t believe that using nylgut is anywhere close to the experience of playing real gut, but it is probably the best alternative we have today. The sound, though, is warm, less bright than modern strings.

Ambra_2000

Ambra 2000 seems to be an update of the 900 series: “This set was conceived for one grade of tension and consists of -gut coloured Super Nylgut® for Trebles, while for the basses (silvered copper wires wound on Nylgut® multifilament core) we employed a different balance between wire and core in order to obtain warm and deep performances”. The New Nylgut used here has the colour of gut (yellowish). The tuning settles much faster than before. I just wish they weren’t so smooth. With flesh contact, it helps to a little bit of traction. Talking of which…

Savarez Low Tension (“White Card”)

Savarez

The trebles are ever so slightly rough, not nearly enough to cause a rough sound, but just enough to give good contact with the flesh. They are also much louder than the Aquila brands. When I first put them on, there was quite a bit of noise generated by the right-hand fingers sliding along the string, but as the days go by, that sound decreased.  They have a nice warmth, treble and bass, and the low tension means I can control vibrato better.

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50 thoughts on “Strings

  1. I only play with my finger tips/flesh no-nail. Never understood why others grew their nails as a method of playing the nylon strings I suspect the “attack” on the strings may produce a louder ( but not necessarily a nicer) sound.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Rob. i write to you, to thanks you so much for the geat inspiration you deliver to me, with this site and all your videos. I play electric guitar since a long time now. i began when i was 12 and i’m now near 50 (mostly metal style).

        I have always liked the classical guitar too. I even take some classical lessons at a time. The teacher said to me that i should grow my nails to play classical guitar. So, in my mind, i have always think that i can’t play it properly, due to the fact that i can’t stay my nails long. They brake easily, and with my job, that just don’t work.

        But since i find you, your site, your videos, things changes dramaticaly :). Play with no-nails is a way to play and no-nails classical player do exist :))) sorry for my bad english, i’m from Quebec, Canada so my first language is français.

        Like

      • Hi Serge. Great to hear your story, and sad too. There are many people who give up or never get started for the same reason: there seems to be an accepted Law, that you cannot play classical guitar without nails. Clearly this is not true. I’m very pleased that my website has convinced you otherwise! Now you must make up for lost time! Get practising!

        Like

  2. Hey! I’m the another one who plays without nails. I haven’t such experiences with different type of strings, but I find Savarez KF for historical plucked very nice and comfortable.

    Here is Aquila AMBRA 900 set on wandervögel and nails.
    Aquila “Gut’n’Silk” set on guitar and no nails (me).

    Best regards,
    Konstantin

    Like

    • Hi Konstantin. Nice to hear from you. Most 19th-century guitar players today play without nails. I’m more interested in finding out who plays without nails on post-Torres guitars. That said, I enjoyed your performance so much, I’m happy to include it here! Nice to hear the wandervögel as well 🙂

      Like

      • Thank you, Rob for the kind words! I’m happy you like it 🙂

        Now I see… that said, I play modern classical guitar with no nails as well. But mostly with my pupils and just for fun, I have no concerts with it and there is no recordings. I use Hannabach nylon strings (or Savarez KF Alliance for classical guitar) and like it very much, both of them. I feel very comfortable playing without nails, it gives more control with details, dynamics and articulation.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Rob for all the work you have put into your new site. It looks great! As you are looking for professional classical guitarists out there who play without nails, I thought I would add my name to the list. I adapted the Tarrega /Pujol approach a few years back, after playing the classical guitar with nails( or more often ping pong balls) for over 45 years. Between the 70s and 90’s I was a pretty active recitalist and taught in a several colleges in the North East US, but these days, now in my 60’s, I pretty much play for myself. I too found Damian Dlugolecki to be a wonderful source for gut strings; (I found out about him on a violin website). As I told him, he has the best G string I have ever heard. I added the gut component gradually and for the past two years I have used them on the 2nd and 3rd string ( the 16 and 20 gauge respectively). I keep experimenting with the first string in gut , but I sometimes feel it can be a little thin (not to mention expensive to keep up with) . That being said though, the more I play with gut the more I know that I need to find a way to employ it on the 1st string as well. I tune at 440 and I suppose I could bring it down to 430 or so and then use a slightly thicker string, but I would like to stay as close as possible to standard pitch. I have read that in Tarrega’s time he would have tuned a bit lower. While I love the feel and warmth of gut, I should say that I have been getting reasonably good results with an Augustine Classic e’ , which is formulated with a much softer ( albeit not always reliable) nylon. Much more problematic though are the basses; I have been using Augustine Red basses because they sound very nice on my old Fleta, but more often not, especially when the humidity gets high and the top swells a bit, they can present a really challenge to the flesh player. I have tried a few lower tension strings but I’m usually disappointed. I haven’t tried wound silk as they seem very hard to come by, but any thoughts would be most welcome. My best to you, John

    Like

    • Nice to hear from you, John. I’m busy at the moment, so will add you later. Do you have any videos online, recordings available?
      If I’m being purist about it, the Aquila silk-core basses are the only option. They are perfect. But they are deigned for a lower pitch. You might try Savarez White Card, which are not for the purist, but they are not bad, both trebles and basses.
      You might look for the US equivalent of Bow Brand harp strings – plain gut made to a high quality, and cheaper than the alternatives. There must be a harp-string maker in the States.
      Good luck!
      Rob

      Like

      • Thank you for the recommendation Rob. Perhaps I will try the low tension Savarez basses, if only to have them around when the humidity causes the tension of The Augustine basses to get to high. It is a shame that the Aquila silk basses aren’t designed for a 440 pitch, but I agree with you about the better control of vibrato with lower tension basses. In working on this new approach the last few years I have tried to aim for a sweet but clear sustained sound. Most of the accounts I have read about Tarrega have in fact have described his sound in that way. My apologies as I don’t have any recent recordings, most of the things I did years ago were either on tape or VHS (which means I am near ancient:) but it is my hope to do some videos
        with this new approach in the near future. One of my goals when I retire from my day job in a couple years is too go back into the field again with the hope of promoting the flesh approach as viable option (and choice) for classical guitar students. I think you have certainly opened the door in that way Rob, and no doubt have helped many students who did not realize that there is indeed an option. I’m sure that you, like myself , would like to stay away from the all too often polemic discussions that arise from this topic and instead focus on creating a beautiful lyrical sound . My best, John:)

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      • Cheers, John. If and when you do make videos and/or recordings, do let me know. And thanks for all your supportive comments – they are appreciated. Best wishes for your studies, and for the coming year.
        Rob

        Like

  4. Hi Rob! Thank you for a great resource. I just recently started playing again after 20 years, and I (re)started with nails, and then decided it wasn’t worth it. It’s different, playing without nails, but since I’ve completely forgotten everything I knew about playing, it isn’t much of an issue. 🙂 One question: You mention above that the Aquila Ambra 900 are “probably the best alternative we have today”, but the strings-by-mail site says that these strings are “Not to be tuned above a=430hz “. That seems odd to me, and since I tune to a=440, I guess they would be overstressed. But I’ve purchased the Savarez 520B white card strings, too, and I’ll try them. I’m currently using La Bella 2001M strings, but they do not have too even of a tone. And I think I’d like the rectified strings for flesh playing.

    Like

    • Hi Andrew. Great to have your comment. The gut strings that the 900 series are based on could not go up to 440 without consequences. But nylgut is more forgiving, and have used them at 440. Don’t blame me, though, if yours break! 🙂

      Like

    • Well, I put on the Saverez white card, and it is indeed far easier to play without nails. Thank you so much for the recommendation. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about the noise the trebles make; it is quite subtle (to me). Much more noticeable is the bass string squeak from some strings (which the Savarez really don’t have much of, either).

      Like

  5. No mention of Pyramid strings. German company in operation since 1850. Pricey, as full gut set is $100 here in States thru Strings by Mail, with silk bass set selling for $70. I have not used any gut strings yet, but am close to giving them a try. Love the tonal quality on your recordings. Nylon sounds flat in comparison. Oh, by the way, thanks to you I filed off my nails this morning! So far enjoying the learning process to new technique. It appears the contact point needs to be different than what I am used to. So instead of the side of the fingertip where flesh and nail meet, I now make contact more on the pad side of the tip to avoid nail contact, and then snap up away from the guitar body to get high volume. I already see the range of volume, and the control of volume is greater and easier than with nails. Thanks for your informative website and YouTube videos!

    Like

    • Hi David. Nice to hear from you. I tried Pyramid strings when I was a lute player, and didn’t really like them, irrespective of their cost. So, I never entertained the idea of using their guitar set. But let me know what you think of them, if indeed you go ahead and purchase them.

      I remember the day I filed my nails off, some twenty years ago. It was very liberating! But, to be honest, it took me six months before I was happy with the tone that was beginning to develop. I think the pads need time to adjust to their new role. So, my suggestion is that you don’t try to get great volume out of the instrument yet, as you might end up with blisters or calluses – neither of which I have. Take your time. And, yes, a little adjustment is needed to your technique. Be attentive to that, as you seem to be already.

      And good luck!

      Like

  6. Hi Rob,

    It’s a great website you have here, and especially nice since I have always had an issuewith nylon trebles. feeling like they lack the organic nature that I crave, and I’m just never happy with them. they can have their own beauty, but nothing compared to gut. I wanted to ask you about gut strings and nails… do they hold up? my nails are very smooth, but I do push my instrument to it’s fullest in terms of the required dynamic range for my playing. nylon trebles might not have the best range, but they last and don’t give me any issues. I would absolutely love to switch to gut, unless I’ll snap them within a week…

    looking forward to your response,

    Matthew

    Like

    • Hi Mathew. I’ve personally never played gut strings with nails, so my comments should be taken in light of that. Aguado played with nails, as did Tàrrega for most of his life, Llobet too, and they all played gut strings. So it must be possible. However, their guitars were more lightly built than most modern concert guitars. You say you have a strong attack, so I’m not totally sure if they would suit you. But you’ll never know until you try. You might just have to lay out for the cost, view it as an experiment. Then you’ll know, one way or the other. Good luck!

      Like

  7. Thanks for the quick response! I took some time to check out the rest of your site, I really love that you put together a player list with recordings… it illustrates what we’ve largely lost in the current approach.
    I’ll contact Bow Brand and see if they can ship some strings over. I prefer traditional guitars that breath, so I’m almost sure that gut will be a good match for my guitar, whether it will suite my right hand I’ll have to keep you posted. if the sound is truly what I seek I’m not ruling out a change in technique. it’s been too many years with the nylon.

    Regarding gauges I know how much tension to expect from a 0.737 high E and how much from a 0.711, do you know what the Gut equivalent would be? considering they are denser the gauges must be lower for the same tension.
    La Bella seem to use the same gauges for their gut set as they do for the nylon, while Aquila’s Ambre 900 with nylgut are much thinner.

    Like

    • I don’t know about exact equivalents. I order 0.66, 0.80 and 1.00, but some people find these too tense for them. So, perhaps my gauges could be considered High Tension. That might suit your technique. As ever with strings, some experimentation is needed.
      If there is one string more likely to break than the others, that would be the first. I usually order an extra length of that, though the present Bow Brand one has been on for three months, and is still looking and sounding good. I expect the other two to last a year or so. So, although there is an initial outlay, you won’t have to do it every month.
      Yes, let us know how you get on.

      Like

  8. Hi Rob,

    Just quick update, I contacted bow brand, still waiting for their reply, but in the meanwhile I put some rectified trebles on and cut off my nails….! I played for the last few day with clear trebles but it seems like clear nylon leds itself much better to playing with nails, while rougher strings are much better with the flesh. this might have a lot to do with why most people play with nails.
    My wife was shocked… but I said that if I want to give this a proper shot I might as well do it properly.
    so now I have sore red’ish finger tips and much less production! I am taking your tips from above about not playing too much at first. already it is obvious the sound of the flesh has great musical\emotional attributes compared to the nail, this was nothing new to me, but I was always told that sufficient tone production cannot be attained without the nails. Thankfully I already use the flesh on the thumb 90% of the time so I can use it to asses the sound potential of the stroke. this no doubt is a specific study, but one I am looking forward too and I think can be very worth while. thank you for creating these pages dedicated to this matter. I will post videos when ready.

    All the best,
    Matthew

    Like

    • Well, good for you! That’s quite a plunge. I remember the time I did it. I felt quite liberated, but also very worried. It worked for me in the end.
      Best advice: tune your guitar down a semitone at least, until you fingers get over the shock. I don’t at all like flesh on nylon, at least I haven’t found a way to get the sound I want that way. If you want to stick with nylon, try White Label Savarez (mentioned above) as they have that rough touch you are looking for. That will keep you happy until the gut arrives.
      Best of luck!

      Like

  9. I thought about it this way – how long will it take nails to grow back? maybe 2-3 weeks at most to usable length? so, it’s worth the shot. Indeed I am still wondering about certain aspects of technique, especially arpeggio and note articulation (in places like La Catedral by barrios for example), tremolo and such, but only time (and study) will tell! I hope to start a youtube channel soon’ish, I just need to figure out a recording setup for computer a dummy like me.

    Thanks!

    Like

  10. Rob, I’m curious as to whether you have a preferred spacing at the saddle for playing sans nails–do you require more spacing to dig in? I notice modern classical guitars seem to be getting tighter and tighter at the saddle, some down to 57mm, which may be fine for nails, but feels way too tight for a flesh only technique. I have small hands, but have noticed that 60mm is the minimum for myself. By the way, love your playing and have spent lots of time enjoying the music you make–thank you for all the recordings and videos.

    Like

    • Hi Allan. Good question. The guitar I had before the Ambridge was 60mm at the bridge, and I found it very comfortable. When Simon Ambridge told me his guitar (which he made for himself, but which ended up in my hands) was 57cm, I thought I would not get along with it. He told me that most of the guitars of the Tàrrega period were 57cm. So I decided to give it a try. It took about half an hour to get comfortable with it. Of course, I had played some 19th-century guitars with 57, even 53cms, so I had some familiarity with the spacing. Honestly, once you get stuck in, it doesn’t really matter, you just get used to what you have. Well, that’s my experience. Good luck! Let me know what you end up with.

      Like

  11. Well, I am the newest player to join you I am sure. I am just entering into the world of classical guitar and have much experience in other genres (Jazz, folk, blues all finger style) but to classical I am a newbie. You will find this a bit ironic. One of the main reasons I have not been successful with classical guitar is that I cannot grow good nails! They are thin, crooked and constantly break. All of the teachers I have sought out have insisted that I needed to find a solution. I won’t bore you with the details but I have tried every conceivable alternative with no success. So I just returned to my Jazz and folk played with my fingers and gave up on playing classical. Then I found you Rob and the possibility opened for me. But now I am a bit lost in the world of strings that you discuss. At this point I just need a beginning approach for dummies. I have acquired a very nice guitar, but with nylon classical strings. I want to get started with lessons and then gradually shift to better strings, etc. I think you offer instruction but I am not sure how to hook up with that. I have signed up for this blog and will keep reading and learn more and more as I go along. But right now I need some 101 mentoring. Thanks.

    Like

    • Hi Don. Nice to hear from you. So many people give up classical playing because of the nail thing, and it’s not the problem it is usually made out to be. You have a classical guitar now. Just regular classical strings will be fine, but I suggest you tune them down a semitone, not for any historical reasons, but to reduce the tension, and make things easier for your right-hand finger tips. I would do this for six months. After that you could start creeping up the pitch to 440, if you absolutely must play at that pitch. The fingerpads need time to get used to their new role, and you do not want them hardening with calluses – another misconception, in my view. My pads are soft, and I use hand cream on them daily.
      I teach many students via Skype or FaceTime, quite a few of them in the US. Let me know if you ever want to hook up.

      Like

  12. Hello Rob! I am a classical guitarist, and after years of study, I decided to play without nails, encouraged by your video: It was liberating! I am currently trying the Aquila Alabastro, but I find it too thin on the first two strings … work in progress … thanks a lot! ps: what equipment do you use to record? All the best, Max

    Like

  13. Hi Max. Good to hear from you. I wish you well with your new way of playing. One day you should try good-quality gut strings!
    Recording equipment: Rode NT4 Stereo mic; Fostex FR2 LE hard-disk recorder; Wavelab Essential 6 editing software.
    Best wishes,
    Rob

    Like

  14. Hi Rob, I need advice … I purchased SAVAREZ White card …. Tuning should be lowered? Or is it not necessary? My guitar is a copy of a Gallinotti 1952 … Sorry for my english by Google translate… Best wishes

    Like

    • Hi Max. Thanks for your three comments. The Savarez White Card strings can be tuned to 440 – no problem. I’ve also just tried the Pepe Romero Rectified High-Tension set, and they are very good, although I wish I had bought the Normal tension set instead.
      Cheers,
      Rob

      Like

  15. Dear Rob, I tried to order Bow brand gut from Vinderbilt and I got this answer:

    “We do carry the Bow Brand Gut string as needed, but for guitarists we do not have any type of string chart to be knowledgeable enough to sell you what you need. I suggest looking online for the exact Bow Brand strings needed and then I would be able to fill your order. Information needed would be: Harp String Octave and note letter name. Example would be Bow Brand 3rd Octave C. Thank you

    Can you help me what octave and letter name I should order for guitar? Thanks

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  16. Hi Rob
    I just purchased a Richard Howell ornate Torres, should arrive late fall. I also play without nails and was wondering if you would have a recommendation for what strings I should try on this guitar. The recommendation is light tension because of the thin sound board.

    thank you

    John G

    Like

    • Congratulations on the new guitar. I give my recommendations above. Savarez White Label are low tension. Unless you want gut? In that case 0.64, 0.80 and 1.00 should be light enough.

      Like

  17. Rob,
    thanx for the tip about the savarez 520 white card strings. not being a seasoned classical player our question:
    would the low tension require a lighter, e.g. more controlled pluck than the normal tension used at this time.
    being a beginner to gut/nylon strings we are experiencing these strings flex quite a bit. this classical venue is a much different world than steel string travis picking. the guitar; c-7 cordoba has n.t. strings. maybe we are plucking too aggressively …..any advice would be appreciated….have always played naked….and decided
    to try again at classical nylon after inspired by per-olov kindgren videos…..finding your video & web page was just icing on the cake!
    king regards,
    hoke
    florida,USA

    Like

    • Hi hoke. If you are used to playing with flesh on steel, then you should be able to cope with a normal to high-tension nylon string. My advice was aimed at classical players suddenly confronted with flesh only on nylon, which can take a bit of getting used to. So, go for a higher tension, is my advice. And good luck!

      Like

  18. thanx Rob for the advice…..forgot to mention we tune to 432hz in D. was concerned about the L.T. strings being too flexible at this tuning….anyway your advice towards the h.t pretty much solves the issue.
    thanx again,
    cheers!

    Like

  19. greetings Rob,
    our music store only stocked 520p Savarez. we checked theSavarez website before opening the packet. these 520p contain a plastic wound G & B. would these would strings be okay….would imagine they are used for tonal effects.
    cheers,hoke
    .

    Like

  20. greetings Rob, we’re having success playing naked. though would like to pass on that we use latex gloves to work through a condition we have that causes finger joints and finger tip skin to split open & stay very sore for many weeks.
    actually the credit goes to my wife for thinking of using the finger sections of a small latex glove to cover whichever digit that is hurting; at this typing it is only the thumb. tried using clear nail polish. even after many layers the polish never protected. if there is anyone out there with really sore finger tips this may help. use a section that is much smaller than the digit needing to be covered. so far it is working great on the right hand thumb. and seems to last. also it provided a good grip on the string which plucking. we feel confident it would work on the other digits on the right hand.
    thanx for the great site,
    hoke

    Like

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