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.
By the 1950s, widespread implementation of magnetic pickups in electric guitars had led string manufacturers to experiment with Monel steel, stainless steel 430, chrome, nickel, and other materials with more desirable magnetic properties than previously used materials such as bronze and brass. Nickel was found to not only possess a balanced and pleasing tone, it was also easier on frets, and, perhaps most importantly, it produced less distortion. At the time, distortion was considered highly undesirable, and large percentages of R&D budgets went toward keeping it at bay. Nickel was difficult to come by in the U.S. during the early and mid ’50s, however, so serious implementation didn’t really get underway until about 1957.
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.
Follow the Money
Naturally, one critical variable in the history of nickel string production is the price and availability of the metal itself. At the outset of the Korean War, the U.S. government took control of the distribution and allocation of nickel, resulting in a severe shortage for non-defense uses between 1951 and 1957. Similarly, the dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War eventually led to a steady rise in nickel prices beginning in 1967. Pricing was further affected by a shutdown of the Canadian nickel, copper, and iron industries in 1969, due to a prolonged series of labor strikes. U.S. Geological Survey figures show an increase in nickel prices from 88 cents per pound in 1967, to $1.29 per pound in 1970. The cost rose to $2.07 per pound in 1975, and then to $2.96 per pound by the end of the decade.
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.
Chase the Sound
Those who assert that increased costs were not the motivation for developing nickel-plated steel strings cited shifting concepts of good tone as the primary factor. While pure nickel strings exhibit a wonderful warmth and nuanced richness when you are playing with clean tones, those virtues are quickly compromised as you crank up the gain—which is exactly what rock players were doing during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Upping the steel content of the string wrap (and, in some cases, increasing the diameter of the steel core wire) significantly increased output, resulting in a hotter signal at the amp input. That boost—along with the overall brighter sound of the steel wrap—also helped compensate for the tone-sucking effect of daisy-chaining multiple effects pedals together. The main reasons for plating the steel with nickel at all seem to have been to reduce fret wear and provide a more familiar, finger-friendly surface. Jazz guitarists and others who weren’t concerned with distortion continued to purchase pure nickel strings, but they represented only a small percentage of the expanding string market.
Pure or Plated?
In the end, whether the commodities market or the musical market sparked the widespread dissemination of nickel-plated steel strings is largely an academic question. As to whether the shift represented a “decline” in string manufacturing, most authorities agree that, in general, strings are better made today than ever before. And, even if all brands of pure nickel and nickel-plated steel strings were identical—which, of course, they are not—the formulation that’s “better” still comes down to individual taste. Pure nickel purists bent on vintage tones champion their favorites, and those seeking hotter and brighter tones embrace other formulations. The good news is that a huge variety of both types of strings are currently available, so you can be the judge. g
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).