DURING AN INTERVIEW a few months back, Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal
enthused about the pure nickel strings manufactured by a small American
company called Snake Oil Brand. Curious, I tracked down SOB, and, after
trying the company’s two types of electric guitar strings on my own
guitars, I wrote a favorable review of both the Original Nickel and
nickel-plated Rock Formula strings in the December 2006 GP. In that
review, the manufacturer was quoted as saying he believed there had
been a decline in the quality of string manufacturing starting in
1970—particularly due to the transition away from pure nickel
roundwound strings to nickel-plated steel roundwounds. Not
surprisingly, some other manufacturers disagreed, and countered with
various claims of their own.
At that point, we decided to investigate for ourselves whether there was such a shift, and, if so, whether it truly represented a “decline” in string quality. To that end, we spoke with individuals at string companies who were active in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as those currently manufacturing pure nickel strings. We also combed through back issues of GP seeking technical articles and advertisements from the time, surfed the Web in search of clues and hard data, and spoke with knowledgeable folks with no connection to the industry, including a respected luthier and a pro guitar tech.
In 1954, Germany’s Pyramid likely became the first company to offer pure nickel roundwound guitar strings. Pyramid strings became popular with British and European guitarists, but were practically unknown in the United States. By the mid ’60s, however, U.S.-made nickel roundwounds—such as Fender’s No. 150 Spanish Guitar and Gibson’s GE-340 Sonomatic sets—were the strings of choice for many English and American rock guitarists, contributing substantially to the characteristic electric guitar tones from that period.
Then, around 1968, manufacturers began advertising strings that utilized stainless steel and various other alloys in their formulas, and, by 1970, most were marketing nickel-plated steel roundwound sets in addition to their pure nickel offerings. And that’s where things begin to get interesting. Industry
veterans who were actively involved with string issues at that time express very different views as to why the shift took place, but they generally fall into one of two camps: Those who believe steep increases in the cost of nickel precipitated the change, and those who believe that the change was primarily a response to players’ shifting tonal tastes.
About half of the authorities we surveyed said that increased costs were definitely the motive for shifting away from pure nickel to nickel-plated steel wrapping (which contains only about eight percent nickel). They cited slim profit margins and an increasingly competitive marketplace as the business environment at the time, and the more cynical among them suggested that the less-expensive string formulas were then marketed as an “advantage” to players.
Those authorities who said the increased cost of nickel didn’t drive the introduction of nickel-plated steel strings argued that the material content of a string only represents about 20 percent of the selling price, that profit margins at the time were actually quite high, and if the idea was to dramatically cut costs, most manufacturers would not have continued to offer pure nickel strings while they were marketing newer products.
A perusal of string advertisements running in GP between 1968 and 1974 indicated that, beginning in the early ’70s, while specific formulations were routinely touted for acoustic guitar strings, such designations were comparatively rare in ads for electric strings. Most of these ads were, in fact, for the nickel-plated variety. The intention appears to have been to focus on less expensive nickel-plated strings, while continuing to offer pure nickel sets without necessarily advertising them—a strategy that could just as easily be explained as a marketing effort to establish new brands as it could a cost-cutting measure.
GP would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this article: Brian Ball (Ernie Ball), Mark Dronge (DR), Dean Farley (SOB), Robert Hind (SIT), Don Johnson (Fender, retired), Max Junger (Pyramid), Russ McFee (GHS), Ralph Novak (Novax), Tom Ricksgers (Fender), Ray Rothlisberger (GHS), Bernie Squires (GHS), Brian Vance (D’Addario), and Stephen White (Guitar Tech).
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