By Paul Van Name
June 3, 2005 - 6:45 am
When Sam Bush plays mandolin, people listen. His style and sound have left an indelible mark on modern bluegrass and his tone is his signature. So when Gibson offered to develop a custom-gauged signature set of mandolin strings for him, the challenge bar was set high.
Gibson engineers were determined to recommend that his set be made of Monel, a nickel-copper alloy first used for musical instrument strings in the 1930s. Monel strings produced that magical tone heard on many famous bluegrass recordings. Once Sam Bush appeared in Gibson's corporate offices to discuss the project, we found that there was little convincing necessary. He had been using Monel all along.
"When I got my first mandolin (a 1963 Gibson A-50), it came with Mona-Steel strings," Sam reported. "I've loved the sound of Monel ever since. I had tried the bronze strings and even experimented with other manufacturers, but I missed the sound of the 3rd and 4th string on the Monel set. Through the years, I've always come back to that Gibson sound."
You won't find Monel on a chart of the elements. It's a trade name for a nickel alloy - around two-thirds nickel and one-third copper - invented by the International Nickel Co. in 1904 and named for its president, Ambrose Monell. When mandolin strings made of Monel are struck, the note projects loudly. It jumps out at the listener. Ironically, Monel exhibits an equally fast decay, so it decreases in volume very quickly after this strong initial attack. That's the sound, plain and simple.
"One of the things I'm known for is chopping rhythm, so I like the loudness of Monel," Sam added. "The fact that they don't sustain as long as bronze is fine because of the way I play."
Monel adds definition to every note - perfect for Sam's style of playing, which can go from a machine-gun flurry of notes to a gentle melodic passage within a few bars of music.
In addition, Monel is tough and stands up to the rigors of extensive playing. It has low tarnish and oxidation properties and was so durable and resistant to saltwater that the Navy specified Monel for its dogtags
Sam continues to push the mandolin into new and exciting dimensions and Gibson will always be there to help him along the way.
Special thanks to the Mandolin Cafe's primary business partners.