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.
One Tip: no matter what brand you use, tune them down at least a tone overnight to prolong their life.
Latest Update 9 March, 2022:
My previous favourite guitar gut strings were made by Damian Dlugolecki of https://www.damianstrings.com – but Damian is heading towards retirement and has slowed down his output. Consequently his strings are hard to get hold of.
Wild Gut Strings
But recently a new string maker has stepped up to make astonishingly good guitar trebles, and they have a great and memorable name: Wild Gut Strings. They are based in Switzerland: https://www.wildgutstrings.ch/en/home.html
I approached them to see if they would be interested in manufacturing guitar strings – they already made great strings for bowed instruments – and they declared an interest. A few months later four strings arrived in the post, including two 1st strings, a 2nd and a 3rd. Just holding the strings I could tell they were of a very high quality. See their website for their manufacturing process.
Here is a series of three videos I made over the first week of having these strings, which I have to declare are now my favourite strings:
Considering the highest production standards have been used, these Wild Gut strings are not cheap. I suggest you buy the three trebles plus an additional 1st, and thereafter you might only have to replace a 1st or maybe a 2nd in a period of 12 months, assuming the contact points of the string on the guitar (bridge holes, frets, and nut grooves) are smooth. The 3rd should last a couple of years, in my estimation, unless you play with nails, when that time might be halved – as for all unvarnished gut strings.
Damian Strings by Damian Dlugolecki
If you can get hold of Damian strings, then they are certainly worth considering.
Damian claims his string can tune to A=440, modern pitch, and will happily tune to A=435 for Tárrega. Here’s a video I made after the strings had been on my Simon Ambridge guitar (after Manuel Ramirez) for only 24 hours, @ 440 pitch:
The plain unvarnished gut from the UK-based harp-string specialists, Bow Brand are about the least expensive good gut string, but they are not made with guitar players in mind. 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:
The strings are ground and polished smooth, which might please nail players, and I have to say I prefer a little roughness to the touch, to get some traction between flesh and string. These strings have surprised me, though, by lasting over six months. The quality of production is excellent, and when purchased in 12-foot lengths, are as economical as nylon equivalents. Recommended.
La Bella Antique Gut Strings
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.
The latest incarnation of the Aquila Gut and Silk guitar set has varnished trebles. I was sent a review set, and to be honest I wasn’t happy about the varnish, but I put them on my teaching guitar, which I use five days per week, and to my astonishment they have lasted two years! After a year no traces of the varnish could be found. They are a nice string for nail players, or very patient flesh players!
Aquila Ambra 900
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 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”)
The trebles are 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.
There are only two types that I use, both manufactured by Aquila: Seta and Rayon. Seta are made with REAL SILK – they have a muted, soft sound, but are prone to break overnight when you are sleeping! You must tune them down overnight. Rayon are the bio nylon equivalent of the Seta strings. They are also muted – not as much as Seta – and last a lot longer. My current set have been on for two years…and counting!