View Full Version : Antique strings and things

Bob A
May-12-2004, 11:30am
I was struck by RSW's comment in another thread, wherein he stated that old Gibson strings, presumably manufactured for Gibson instruments of the period, were made as light as bowlback strings of the era. He felt that the Gibson instruments were made to Resist the effects of changes in humidity, temperature etc. The implication is that the heavier stringing followed later, and was found to be suitable, or at least non-destructive.

This is sort of amazing, insofar as there are probably close to zero players in this day who would think to use such light gauge strings on an instrument of the Gibson type.

I suspect that this kind of information, ephemeral as it is, and documented only by the occasional collector of such things as 80-year-old mandolin strings, is worthy of being saved. I bring it to your attention in the hope that it can stimulate more such revelations, and perhaps even be added to by micrometer measurement etc. It is just the sort of thing that could be preserved on the website that Jim is thinking of setting up.

I encourage anyone who might have something of this nature to share, to post it here or somewhere, in hope of some kind of permanence. We're awash in oceans of info, but who knows what lurks in the depths?

May-12-2004, 11:38am
For what it's worth, I've been using Dogal's RW-92 on my one and only Gibson mandolin. It seems to me that e" clocks ca. 0.0095-0.010" or so. I use them specifically because I imagine them to be similar to the old Black Diamonds. That said, my grandfather left me a pack of old Black Diamond guitar strings once, but I have never used a set of antique Balck Diamond mandolin strings. I know many players do. I would be interested in specs on the original Black Diamonds too.

Hubert Angaiak
May-12-2004, 12:48pm
That is definitely interesting. I've a '14 F-2, but its set up 11's. I've never thought of putting anything other than 11's thinking that is what you suppose to use. I should try on a set of .09's and go up from there. When do you think the heavier sets 11's came into the picture? I tried a set of Thomastik starks on my F-5,tremlos were great and very clear sound when you pick the strings. The G was a bit sloppy for my taste especially when you begin to hit the strings harder so I put back the D'Addarios. Did you see at least which year the strings were?

May-12-2004, 1:08pm
There was a marked decline in mandolin popularity before 1920. Its reappearance was largely inspired by bluegrass. I'm not really certain the exact year heavier strings to go to 0.011" or better on e" became popular. I suspect it came hand in hand with the advent of bluegrass. If you read the golden-era methods (ca. 1880-1920), you'll note that with lighter strings, lighter (<1.0 mm) and pointier picks were widely favored. I think this is what it takes to make light stringing sound more good and less "sloppy." I was using Dogal's rather pointy "carbon" pick in their gauge 3 (I'm guessing this is around 0.75 mm thick). Nobody is importing Dogal picks any more, so I have been buying Clayton's 0.8 mm large triangles in "Ultem Gold," giving them a more traditional "Neapolitan" shape with shears, then buffing and beveling the edges. I have grown quite fond of the result. I even tried to convince Clayton to start mass producing the shape. The reply I got was polite but terse:

Hi Eugene,
Sorry but no we don't do custom shapes. Good luck though.
Best Regards

May-12-2004, 4:10pm
Surely the heavy stringing came in to allow for the more forceful attack required by BG players (competing with dreadnoughts and banjos) to achieve maximum volume?
I haven't tried anything light on my F2 since I had a set of Thomastik flatwounds on it for a while some time ago.

I think I rejected them due to floppyness and decrease in 'punch'. However I'd be interested to hear if anyone else is using light strings successfully on their old Gibsons
Marc Woodward


Bob A
May-12-2004, 5:07pm
Close as I can come is the admission of using Dogal Calace medios on my Lyon & Healy A. I like them, despite the initial roughness of the winding. Of course the mandolin is more lightly-built than the Gibsons.

Incidentally, the mesurements I've made of the Dogals:
light(RW92b) 0.010; 0.014; 0.024; 0.035
medio 0.011; 0.014; 0.026; 0.038 (inches, of course)

which don't seem all that light to me.

Jim Garber
May-12-2004, 5:45pm
I believe that regardless of Bluegrass's influence, there was a trend in general, prior to the to advent of electric instruments, to increase the volume of acoustic instruments. For instance, in jazz and swing orchestras the guitar in orer to be heard needed to be louder.

As a result, there was an increase in the gauge of strings to even heavier than we know today. Medium gauge and even heavy gauge strings. In addition, there was the usual increase in scale length and body size of instruments, esp archtop guitars as well as sideline innovations such as the resonator instruments.


May-12-2004, 7:00pm
I'd speculate that the increase in string gauges probably started when mandolins were unpopular and proper mandolin strings difficult to find. #Some probably used whatever guitar strings were around, which would make it difficult to find E strings any smaller than .011. #Somebody put such strings on a bowlback and wrecked it, but somebody else put them on a Gibson and decided it sounds better than it ever did with "proper mandolin strings" of the day.

As I said in another thread a few weeks ago:

There's a definite historical trend towards louder instruments, at least in Western culture. #It's been going on since at least the Baroque and even the development of amplification hasn't stopped it. #It's an arms race, and its history and causes surely make a fascinating subject for various scholarly types.

Mandolin players might be affected by this less than trumpet players and very few of us need maximum projection (unlike those poor bluegrassers who have to deal with overzealous bluegrass banjos) but I think classical mandolin design is driven by high-end models whose prospective buyers need to keep up with grand pianos louder than those of yesteryear. #And so it goes...

Yeah, I sometimes wish drummers would go back to using skin heads and horn sections would have to play quietly so an unmiked vocalist can be heard over them, but on the other hand I do play every week in a large church with lousy acoustics and it's nice to be able to do it unamplified.

May-13-2004, 1:38am
Hello everyone and I am happy to get into this despite that I have to steal time from 'urgent things to do'. Anyway, I'll try to get around to organizing my string gauge data I've collected over the years. This will be surprising to some and not at all to others. My take on the reason that we have such thick strings today on Loar instruments and other vintage instruments has a lot to do with the advent of bluegrass but more to do with the fact that players involved in popular music, struggling through the depression era and isolated (culturally and geographically) from the italian-american mandolin schooled traditions (as much as it existed) simply found it natural and easier to play with rounded picks, heavy strings and eventually the jumbo frets so common today. Had Bill Monroe taken a few lessons from DePace, Pettine or even Bickford, he probably would have been happy playing his Loar with a pointed pick and the thinner strings. Undoubtedly this would have effected his style and tone but I don't believe at all that thick picks and thick strings produce more 'real' volume or projection. Bill Monroe projected because his musical message projected. Had he been schooled on a bowl back and Dogal lights, he could have made as much noise (assuming he was playing a Vega, Embergher or similar mandolin). It is definitely true that with the lighter gauge strings, a more pointy pick is preferable. The inverse is also true. Who knows why the thicker strings started being made in the 30s or so. Between then and now, the transition was gradual. Black Diamonds (the strings I was brought up with) where still the most common strings available back then and were basically the same gauge as some decades before. It remains quite clear that thinner strings and a more pointed pick are less forgiving in use so would require a less casual approach in developping mandolin technique.

I agree with Peter that we're in a strange era now with music and instruments (thanks to the relentless efforts of GE and producers of 'plug-in' devices). Even acoustic instruments are now designed to sound like their synthetic equivalents. Homogenized, pasteurized, normalized... it goes on and on. Almost everytime I have the occasion to listen to a student or work with an ensemble (coaching, conducting, or just giving my 2 bits), what always comes to fore is the general indiffernece to dynamics, both written and implied in the score.

Bob A
May-22-2004, 9:23pm
Current Black Diamond strings are stated to run 0.095; 0.012; 0.022; 0.035, with the wound strings described as silverplated. It would be of interest to know how these compare with the old B D strings.

I confess to being lax on dynamics myself, though more thru loss of focus than indifference, certainly. Then too, excitement sometimes overwhelms. A revival of real chamber music (in suitable chambers) would be a blessing to those few whose nervous systems have not yet been overwhelmed.