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Thread: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

  1. #26
    Registered User Pete Braccio's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    F5’s have a trussrod in the neck and there bridges sit closer to the crown of the top (due to 14/15 fret neck joint). Therefore, it is not an apples to apples comparison.

    I use the flat wound D’Addarios on my A (FWIW)

  2. #27
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by Pete Braccio View Post
    F5’s have a trussrod in the neck and there bridges sit closer to the crown of the top (due to 14/15 fret neck joint). Therefore, it is not an apples to apples comparison.

    I use the flat wound D’Addarios on my A (FWIW)
    All true -- the necks and bridge positions are, indeed, different. But carved top collapses are unrelated to the presence or absence of a truss rod in the neck. On top of that, the A-model necks tend to be stouter (shorter, wider, deeper) than F5 necks, and have shown little evidence of not being able to handle medium gauge strings. So that's not it.

    As to the bridge position, it's hard to know for sure which model might be more vulnerable to collapse. But notice that the F5 bridge position is farther away from the supported edges (rim) of the top of the instrument, and therefore might be more, not less, subject to collapse. Furthermore, the larger string break angle found on the F5 implies that its bridge experiences a greater downbearing force for a given level of string tension, and not less, than for an A-model. I would therefore expect, a priori, for an F5 to be more vulnerable to collapse than an A-model, all else being equal. Of course, plenty of F5 tops have failed over the years, too!

    Personally, I attribute top failures to weaknesses in the carved wood coupled with humidity changes (which introduce further weakness). Tops on mandolins tend to be carved awfully thin -- even dangerously thin -- in an effort to achieve the greatest volume and best tone. Not all pieces of spruce tonewood are created equal, of course, and some fraction of carved tops will tend to fail under these conditions. Don't be too quick to blame the string tension, though. That comes with the territory. The total string tension only varies by ~30% in going from the lightest to the heaviest gauges in common use. But the overall wood strength of the top can vary by a whole lot more than that, and so, too, can the carving thickness graduations!
    Last edited by sblock; Jun-29-2018 at 6:05pm.

  3. #28
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    After all the arguments, my take on this is that heavier strings will increase the risk of failure, but that does not necessarily mean something will fail. Most will probably be perfectly fine, a few will have problems and those are the ones we end up with to repair. The problems will most likely take time to manifest, so you might not notice anything for a while. I have also repaired a few vintage Gibsons with bent necks and/or top sinkage, but can't be sure what the original cause of the problem is. Sometimes I get them with no strings. However, lighter strings do mean the probability of problems will be reduced, but there is no guarantee one way or the other. Personally I will never put heavy strings on my 1918 Gibson, but if you are comfortable with an increased risk of failure, go right ahead with your's.
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    Henry Lawton hank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    what ya gonna do? Don’t ya just love Friday night mandolin drama?
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  5. #30
    mando-evangelist August Watters's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    I realize that you attribute top failures in A models to their being too heavily strung, but there's darned little evidence to support that conclusion. Your own personal experience is valuable, and I do appreciate it, but it is purely anecdotal evidence.
    All the evidence I've seen in this thread is anecdotal, on both sides of the debate, except that you have specified some string tensions for strings appropriate for modern, carved-top instruments. That's helpful but without similar data for the strings originally used on these instruments, I don't think we're comparing apples to apples.

    And other esteemed luthiers would seem to disagree with you (see earlier thread).
    um. . .I don't think that's the way the wind is blowing in this thread, but OK. I know the tech I use would have strong views against J74s on vintage Gibsons.

    Gibson A and F models were designed to use gauges similar to the J74's available today (a medium gauge).
    And yet you've already established that today's string materials carry higher tension. You've estimated that phosphor bronze carries an addition 7% of tension (compared to nickel), and that compares roughly to the difference between J74s and J75s. From the D'Addario website: So it seems fair to say that with J74s, we've already increased the tension load over the original strings these instruments used, right? Whether or not that is significant enough to cause problems will always be anecdotal, which is why experience is so important.

    But whether or not J74s are heavy enough to cause damage is, I think, the wrong question. I think a better question would be, what is the optimal string tension for a vintage instrument? or any instrument, for that matter? Too little tension doesn't drive the top; too much tension overloads it. I have a very nice, handmade F5 that comes to life with J73s, but feels muted with J74s.
    Last edited by August Watters; Jun-30-2018 at 8:33am.
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  7. #31
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    I have used GHS A270's on my '22 for a loooong time with no problems. That being said I don't anymore. The lightest string that will give you a great sound would be my choice. I now use the GHS N260's, i think that is the number. They are a little lighter all across the board, but give me the same sound. At my age I don't need to work any harder than I have to and the mandolin is way older than I am so I am sure it appreciates it also.
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  8. #32
    Registered User Roger Moss's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Likelihood of top or neck failure apparently cant be reliably predicted, even between instruments of the same model, much less general style. I put light strings on mine long ago and it still sounded fine, so I decided to just not tempt fate and stick with them.
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  9. #33
    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    I stand by my earlier statement.
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    "If brains was lard, that boy couldn't grease a very big skillet" J.D. Clampett

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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    i work with plenty of medical folks who frequently use the notion of "risk/benefit" as part of their decision making process. Maybe this can also be applied here. There seems to be agreement there is an increased risk of adding more string tension, whether 7% or whatever unknowns...which may be enough to push some tops over the edge. With so many string and pick combinations, would it be safer to explore all these options than risk destroying a vintage piece over a higher tension set of strings? "Do no harm" is preventative and one can't always undo the damage done by uncertain practices.

    Also, if the mandolin in question doesn't have the right sound without increasing tension, then maybe it isn't the right mandolin for that picker. Something else to consider is if that mandolin is going to be your lifetime instrument, or if it will move on after awhile. Again, is the risk worth it?

    Bryce showed me a Sam Bush mandolin yesterday with a top that was caving in. Seems Gibson made some SB models with thinner tops and braces for a short time for this reason. Maybe Hoss has survived thinning the top so far, it's a risky thing to do. Lastly, it's noteworthy that the SB string gauges have somewhat lower tension: 11 and 14 plain, with Monel (lower tension than PB) 25 and 41. It all works together, doesn't it?

    So here are some questions for the risk takers: Is the risk really worth the benefit? Or would it be better for the current owner to find the instrument that actually suits him and to find an owner who likes the tonally deficient mandolin just fine the way it is? At the end of the day, the total number of Gibson A's is getting smaller, and is it better to have all of them just as they are or have fewer survivors because of hotrodding practices?
    Last edited by dan in va; Jun-30-2018 at 11:37am.

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  13. #35
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    You may not want to bring the tensions past FCGD... pitches... Or maybe
    this is when you adopt an EBF#C# tuning...
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  14. #36
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    I see more badly warped necks than top failures or ribs separating from the neck block. But I see all three.

    The mandolin I described above was purchased in the late '80's or early '90's, and had a straight neck at the time. I accompanied the owner when he made the purchase, and later made some minor repairs. When it came to my shop a couple of months ago, the neck was so badly warped that I had to remove the fingerboard to repair it correctly. If I had planed the fingerboard, it would have thinned the board beyond acceptable limits. I measured the strings as 11-16-26-41 this last time around. The bow in the formerly straight neck was over 1/16" at the midpoint between the nut and the heel. I used this particular instrument as an example for this thread because I have observed the history of the instrument over the past 25+ years. Those who want to consider it anecdotal are free to do so. I have seen quite a few others like it over the years.

    For those who like numbers, here are some sample costs associated with repairing Gibsons with badly warped necks:

    Refret fingerboard, $300.
    Additional labor to plane fingerboard straight, $75 to $100.
    New nut, $80, or $25 to shim and recut the existing nut if possible.

    Or-- Remove fingerboard, straighten neck, reinstall fingerboard and refret, $500.
    New nut, $80.

    Or-- Replace fingerboard, straighten neck, $600.
    New nut, still $80.

    The above costs do not reflect any labor that may be incurred if the bridge height needs to be significantly altered.

    If the back must be removed to execute top repairs, the minimum charge would be around $300. Removing the back is a difficult and risky repair, and may affect the cosmetics of the instrument.

    These costs may be somewhat higher or lower in other shops.

    Is an "only 7%" increase in tension worth the risk? Or a 15%+ increase if you're changing from 10's to heavies? It's the owner's call. Most of us who do the actual work don't generally offer a discount for "but somebody told me that heavies were ok." Occasionally, I may bend my policies a little and give someone a 10% break. That's still a lot of money.

    I have emailed George Gruhn to see if he has any actual measurements of pre-war Gibson strings. If I get a response, I will post it.

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    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    This is becoming a popcorn thread!
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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by Timbofood View Post
    This is becoming a popcorn thread!
    Speaking of popcorn ... it's so hot today that the corn popped in the bed of the pickup between the grocery store and home.

    This thread is interesting. Personalities, some are cautious, some overcautious, some perhaps even fearful, others take risks, sometimes foolish risks. Some rely on personal and professional anecdotes, some rely on their best understanding of scientific data, and in the end they're either cautious or they take risks. It takes all kinds to make up a mandolin world.

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  18. #39

    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Just to muddy the waters: a google search for "best strings for Gibson A-Jr" finds several older threads on MC where highly experienced players OK, or even recommend, the use of J74s.

    I'd had Curt Mangan light 10-36 strings on my own paddlehead A-Jr, but they sure were low in volume. Just put D'Addario EJ74s on, and the sound has opened up dramatically - it's loud enough to perform on now.

    I've read that old Gibsons were highly variable in top thickness. Maybe my mandolin has a extra-thick top, that isn't fazed by 11-40 strings. Built on a Friday afternoon, by a daydreaming Gibson worker who didn't bother thinning the top to spec?

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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    No telling what went on in the old Gibson plant. It could be said that "the only consistent thing about Gibson was their inconsistency." Somehow, with all of that inconsistency, they still managed to build a lot of awfully good sounding instruments.

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  22. #41

    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    No knock intended on Curt Mangan strings - the set was just too light.

  23. #42
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Am using lights on my 2 oval hole A's. The 1910 A has PB and the 1929 A Jr has 80/20 on it right now. They work well and get me the sound I want from the instruments. Either can keep up with an accordion or 2. That's what I need.

    Both of these instruments have also had numerous repairs over the years.
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    To be safe, I play my mandolin with no strings. I sound amazing!

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by mmuller View Post
    To be safe, I play my mandolin with no strings. I sound amazing!

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    No doubt you'd sound better than me that way!

    Be safe.
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    Smile Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by mmuller View Post
    To be safe, I play my mandolin with no strings. I sound amazing!

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    I sound my best playing it this way...


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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Gunter View Post
    Speaking of popcorn ... it's so hot today that the corn popped in the bed of the pickup between the grocery store and home.

    This thread is interesting. Personalities, some are cautious, some overcautious, some perhaps even fearful, others take risks, sometimes foolish risks. Some rely on personal and professional anecdotes, some rely on their best understanding of scientific data, and in the end they're either cautious or they take risks. It takes all kinds to make up a mandolin world.

    Welcome to July in NJ....

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  32. #47
    Henry Lawton hank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    I respect rcc56’s caution from his experiences of this with mandolins and owners that he is familiar with. If there is no missing ingredient like a hot attic or car maybe we should rethink this from a more technical viewpoint. Maybe a quick ball meter graduation and thickness map along with deflection testing could help us identify the strong from the weak in builds both modern and the very old.
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  33. #48
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Of course, we would not even be having this discussion if medium (or medium-heavy) strings didn't make certain A-model mandolins sound better, in the estimation of their owners! Some folks who are advising others never to use medium gauge strings seem to discount this particular factor for some reason, and I'm not quite sure why. If light gauge strings sounded the best on all our mandolins, we'd all be using them, naturally. After all, they're easier to play and easier on the instrument. But alas, that is not the case. Heavier gauge strings can sound louder, improve the tone, drive the top better, and express more dynamic range on certain mandolins, and with certain players. You just have to try, and see what you prefer on your own instrument. But no one here is suggesting that you use strings so heavy that they will damage the instrument. We seem to have a fundamental disagreement over what gauges can reasonably be tolerated by vintage Gibson A models from the teens. I think the majority of luthiers would agree that virtually all the modern A-models are built to handle medium (J74) or medium-heavy (J75) strings. No one has mentioned avoiding these in this thread, anyway. I would note that the construction of these modern instruments, in most cases, is not any "beefier" than the vintage paddleheads and snakeheads (but, as we've noted, these exhibited a whole lot of variation among them). Perhaps the older instruments had systematically thinner or weaker tops, but I'm very much inclined to doubt that. Is there any evidence to suggest that old tops somehow get progressively weaker over time, and become more prone to collapse/sinkage? Seems doubtful, too.

    As I wrote earlier, it really doesn't matter that much if you use light or medium strings, because the net string pull on the instrument is going to be roughly 150-200 lbs, regardless. The numbers don't lie. If a mandolin top is weaker or thinner and prone to sinkage in the first place, and you give it 100+ years to do so under all that pressure (and who-knows-what extremes of temperature and humidity), then it will eventually give way. Yes, even with light gauge strings on it! And some fraction of older mandolins have certainly given way over the years. No one here questions that. The real question is whether you can meaningfully forestall that inevitable collapse by going to a set of lighter strings. Writing as a scientist, I don't think this buys you much of a safety margin at all, because the baseline tension is already very high, and the absolute tension difference among the gauges is just not that much! As I wrote earlier, just tuning your instrument a half-step higher adds as much or more tension as switching from J74s to J75s. Is it possible that some vintage mandolins were built so flimsily that they are teetering within just a few percent of the forces that lead to collapse? Yes. But these mandolins will likely eventually give way, regardless, because changes in humidity and temperature and tuning and usage will also introduce factors that further weaken the already-underbuilt top. But there are many, many teens Gibsons still out there that have been strung for over 100 years continuously with medium gauge strings (>160 lbs tension), and these have NOT sunk or collapsed. I take this as an existence proof that at least some vintage Gibson A-models -- and probably most -- can handle the tension. Instrument repair people get to see the ones that have failed more often than the ones that don't require any repair, naturally. This is called selection bias by scientists. Their conclusions may be entirely valid, but they apply only to a subset of the data.

    As for your own vintage instrument? Only you can be the proper judge of what is acceptable. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and different levels of perceived risk.

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  35. #49
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    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Name dropping.. Blues player Yank Rachell used the lower EBF#C# tuning,

    which made playing with a Guitar player who loved the key of E Maj simpler..
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  36. #50

    Default Re: Heavy gauge strings (J75) on a vintage Gibson A

    Saw this post. I've had Flattops on my 25 A4. The instrument seems very stable, tone is amazing. Still though, don't want to put any stress on this old gem. A friend came by and happened to have a set of LaBella 770Ms on him. 10 - 38. Other than not used to an unwound A string, it plays great with the lighter guage. And TBH, you could string this instrument up with poop and it would still sound incredible. I guess I'll give a go for a while. Thanks for the info.

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