String history – what did guitar players use in the pre-war era?

Do you know anything about the history of guitar strings? Probably not much. One can hardly find any information on the kind of strings musical instrument companies manufactured and people used on guitars in the pre-World War II era. Questions like “was it roundwounds or flatwounds that came first for the electric guitar”, or “were bronze wound strings around in the swing era” remain unanswered after most internet searches. Fortunately, the answers are out there (at least partly), since there’s a wonderful source called AcousticMusic.Org; this website has a couple of old guitar catalogs available from the very end of the 1800s on, which is a tremendous help for our topic.

Guitar strings by Gibson

Let’s check out the kind of guitar strings Gibson produced in 1903 and 1917:

1903: This catalog only mentions gut and steel strings, without further discussing the details: “Always state whether steel or gut strings are to be used.”; for the difference in bracing and the overall tension that the construction had to withstand. It’s possible that the list of accessories (or as they used to be called back then, “guitar furnishings”) part is missing or not presented in the downloadable excerpt.

The string history of guitar - Gibson 19031917: We can find three different string sets for the standard tuned guitar:

  1. A set based on the so called silvered wire core (it doesn’t say whether this “silvered wire” means silvered steel or something much softer, but I think it’s steel core, as it was mentioned already in the 1903 catalog); the high E is plain silvered wire. You can choose between a plain B and a silvered wire wound B. There’s a plain silvered wire G available (!), and you can also get a silvered wire wound G, wound (or as they said, spun) on silvered wire and silk, and the rest of this set is also wound on silvered wire core combined with silk fibres. As you can see, things like a plain 3rd and silk & steel already existed back then.
  1. An interesting set that starts with a plain copper (this “copper” can actually be some kind of bronze or copper coated steel as well) high E string, then you can get either a plain copper B or a copper wound B (not stated, but it’s probably wound on a copper core as well). The rest of the set consists of what they call “copper wound on silk with wire center”, which probably means a copper wound set on steel wire, in the silk and steel fashion.
  1. This might be the lightest set out of the three, starting with a plain silk high E, a Russian gut (apparently a trade name for some kind of gut used on many different stringed instruments back then, including violins) B string, and the rest of the set is silvered spun on silk, which is probably a silvered copper or bronze alloy this time (because a steel winding on a silk core would be unlikely).

Looking at it from a historical aspect, it’s worth mentioning that there was also a set for the contra-bass strings of the then popular harp-guitar, consisting of a mixed package of silver and copper wound strings, on what probably was a steel wire core.

Let’s continue now and see what kind of guitar strings Gibson produced in the beginning of the swing era, and what strings they offered to support the increasing popularity of the Hawaiian-style steel guitar.

Something’s begun

1921 and 1923: These two catalogs from AcousticMusic.Org – just like the one from 1903 – only mention gut and wire (steel core) strings again, because the accessories parts are missing or non-existent.

1928 and 1929: These catalogs don’t even offer the option between gut and steel strings anymore. However, with the above mentioned swing music and the appearance of the Gibson L-5 model, plus the flattop guitars Gibson made to be played primarily in Hawaiian-style, you can be sure that at least the stock Gibson guitars were designed for steel core strings, to achieve maximum volume and projection.

Gibson Nick Lucas Gibson L11930-31 and 1932: We have two different sets here, one for Spanish-style playing (the same set is offered for guitar-banjo) and one for Hawaiian guitar.

  1. A Mona-steel (monel) set for regular playing and for the above mentioned guitar-banjo; the low E, the A, D, and G strings are monel steel wound, while the B and high E strings are plain silvered steel.
  1. The set for the Hawaiian-style playing has three copper (probably some kind of bronze, since bronze used to be called “copper” back in that era) wound strings (from low to high: E, A, E); and three plain steel (“silvered steel”) ones (A, C, E; the C and E ones are the same thickness). For this set, hand polishing was available for 1/3 more, to reduce finger noise. This polishing didn’t convert the strings into what we know today as flatwound nor groundwound strings; it simply removed some of the round, circular “crown” of the windings; something one could do with a piece of sandpaper.

There were two more Mona-steel (monel) sets for two four string guitars, one for tenor guitar and one for the so called plectrum guitar; these string sets contained two steel wound and two plain steel (silvered) strings. Both of these guitars were archtop versions of the corresponding banjo models. There was also a harp-guitar bass string set with both silver wound and copper (bronze) wound strings.

Now that our string history tale reached the middle of the blooming swing era, Gibson’s catalogs (they can be found on AcousticMusic.Org) are getting a bit more proper and professional as well.

Swing it

1934: We have four different sets of Mona-steel (monel) strings, for Spanish-style guitar in standard tuning. These are the following:

  1. It’s a ball end guitar string set. The low E, the A and D strings are Mona-steel wound, and there are both wound and plain steel G and B strings. The 1st E string is plain silvered steel.
  2. Gibson calls this a Jumbo heavy gauge set (though the actual gauges are still not indicated, of course); the catalog mentions again that it’s a ball end set. The Gibson Jumbo model was introduced this year, maybe it’s the kind of gauge they meant to use on that guitar. Winding wise, it’s the same Mona-steel as above, except there’s no choice between a plain and a wound G, only the above mentioned plain B and wound B.
  3. It’s a silk & steel set (wound on a steel core with silk fibers and monel wire) with loop ends; the E, A, D, G, and B strings are wound, and you also get an additional plain silvered steel B and a plain E.
  4. It’s a gut and silk loop end set; the E, A, D and G strings are monel steel wound on silk core; you also get a plain gut G, and the B and E are plain gut strings as well.

For 10% more, you could get any of these guitar string sets in auditorium size, with 42” length.

Gibson EH150 lap steel 1937There were two Mona-steel Hawaiian guitar sets, for lap style playing:

  1. H. For this heavy gauge set, the E, A, E, A strings are wound, and you also get a plain steel A and the C# and E strings are also plain, “silvered” steel.
  2. H. Roy Smeck Hawaiian set: winding wise, it’s the same as above minus the bonus plain A string, but the slightly lower prices indicate that it was a bit lighter set than the above one.

You could get the above string sets (except the gut and silk & steel ones) as hand polished for a couple more cents; again this doesn’t mean they were converted into flatwound or groundwound, only flattened a bit on the surface for easier and quieter fingering.

The catalog mentions plectrum guitar, tenor guitar, guitar banjo and harp-guitar sets as well with the round monel winding wire on the wound strings.

There were also two bronze wound ball end string sets: a guitar one with options exactly like the above mentioned Mona-steel ball end guitar set (1.) except for the lack of the optional plain G; and one like the heavy gauge Hawaiian monel one above (1. H.), for a few cents less than their equivalent monel wound cousins.

1937: Same as the 1934 one, except this catalog offers the regular monel wound ball end set for both acoustic and the newcomer electric guitar, and there heavy gauge Hawaiian Mona-steel set for electric lap steel guitar.

1942: Same as the 1937 one, only this year the bronze wound set for Spanish-style guitar was called the Jumbo Guitar set, and a plain, unwound G string was an available option as well. Historically, this set was the standard equipment on the Super 400 and the L-5 models, among others.

So we are back in the swirl of the swing period again, but this time we are looking at the guitar strings offered by Epiphone.

Pre-war Epiphone strings

1934: The first catalog available on AcousticMusic.Org from Epiphone. This catalog is very down to the point in every aspect. There’s practical information on how to string your instrument properly, and how you need heavier strings for a guitar that’s got a heavier, thicker top to move. As far as guitar strings go, we have only two Epiphone Masterbilt ball end sets here, one for Spanish-style guitar, and one for lap-style Hawaiian guitar.

The description doesn’t get too specific, it only says the plain strings are made of steel, and it also indicates the wound ones, without further mentioning the material of the winding wire. For the regular guitar, the E, A, D, G and B strings are wound, and the high E (1st) is plain steel. Optional plain G (!) and B strings are also available.

For the Hawaiian guitar, we have wound E, A and E strings, and the A, C# and E strings are plain steel.

The catalog also offers a string set for tenor and plectrum guitars; these are the same set for both instruments.

Dave and Gillian with Epiphone OlympicsP.S. Yes, you can find the Epiphone Olympic archtop in this catalog, the kind of guitar Dave Rawlings plays. This guitar was quite the low end archtop to get back then, with its original $35 price.

1938: Unfortunately, this catalog doesn’t mention strings; the accessories part seems to be missing.

1944: While it’s a mid-war catalog, one can still find useful info in it, including various suggested tunings for the Hawaiian guitar, and the scale length of all the stringed instruments Epiphone offered. Both the Spanish-style and the acoustic steel (Hawaiian) guitar was 25½”, while the electric Hawaiian steel guitar had 22½” scale length. We also get a lot of instruments simply stamped across with the text “Discontinued For The Duration”. The war was still not over.

As far as strings go, interestingly, we have two bronze wound (“Special BRONZE wire covered”) heavy gauge sets, and one light bronze wound set (the actual gauges are not indicated):

  1. This one comes with wound E, A, D, G and B strings, with a plain steel E, plus optional plain G and B strings.
  2. This one comes with wound E, A, D, G and B strings, a plain steel E as well, but only an optional plain B one.
  3. This light set comes with wound E, A, D, G and B strings, with a plain steel E, plus optional plain G and B strings.

We also have a Hawaiian set with three bronze wound low strings and three plain steel (“highest grade silvered steel”) ones for the higher three.

For electric guitar, we have the following disclaimer: “Electar strings are made from scientifically gauged and specially selected magnetic materials. Designed for use on electronic instruments.”, without actually naming the material of the winding wire. One can only assume it’s the same monel steel alloy Gibson used this time. Also, all of the electric strings are hand polished by default.

As far as the actual electric string sets go, we have a Spanish-style set with wound E, A, D and G strings, and plain steel B and E ones; and a Hawaiian-style set with three wound low strings and three plain “silvered” steel ones for the higher three.

Time to go back to the beginning of the 20th century in our history research, and check out what kind of info we have on the strings Martin used on their guitars. Our help is the catalogs we can find at AcousticMusic.Org.

Martin – story in strings

1898: Unfortunately, this old, small size catalog doesn’t offer any information on the guitar string materials. The guitars pictured have pin bridges, but of course they were around for gut & silk strings as well, so it’s not a sign of a steel string acoustic guitar.

1919: This catalog tells us just a little bit more: “Gut strings are put on regularly, steel strings to order.” It doesn’t say however, that they do build a different guitar with stronger bracing in case you want to play it with steel strings.

1930 Martin OM281924: The catalog from this year goes a bit even further, and tells us which body style (interestingly not size) has what strings, and it also gives us options. These are the following: Style 17 is strung with steel strings only; Style 18 is steel strings by default, but it can be custom ordered with gut strings; the rest of the models are gut strings by default (plain gut treble strings and silk core bass strings with some metallic winding wire that’s not named), and steel string versions can be custom ordered. The catalog also mentions that once the customer settled on a kind of strings, they discourage him/her to use the other kind, for it can either ruin the guitar or not be able to produce the expected sound, depending on the kind of strings it was built for.

1930: This is the first Martin catalog where the strings are listed on their own, separate page. We have two sets for Spanish-style playing, and one set for the then popular Hawaiian steel guitar. The Spanish sets are the following:

  1. The E, A, D, G and B strings are so wound strings on a steel core (yes, that’s a wound B), and the 1st E string is plain silvered steel. It doesn’t mention the winding material, but it can be assumed that it’s actually monel steel alloy.
  1. This set has the E, A and D strings wound on a silk core, and the three treble strings (G, B, E) are plain gut ones.

The Martin set for Hawaiian guitar is the following:

  1. The E, A and E strings are (hand) polished copper wound (can be bronze of course), and the A, C# and E strings are plain silvered steel.

We also have a tenor guitar set with three wound and one plain steel strings.

1935-1941: we are back in that era again, when even Martin was making a lot of different acoustic archtop guitars, so those loud, swinging big bands could have their choppy rhythm laid down properly. Archtop guitars weren’t the only stuff Martin offered though; the famous dreadnoughts and orchestra models (OM) were just as popular. But what kind of strings did people put on all these different Martin models back then, between 1935-1941? We’ll find it out soon.

Strings by Martin; 1935-1941

1935: We have three string sets for regular Spanish-style guitar – two steel core sets and a gut & silk one. The catalog also offers a set to use on Hawaiian-style steel guitars. The Spanish sets are the following:

  1. Martin calls it a heavy gauge set; The E, A, D, G and B strings are bronze wound on hexagonal steel core wire, the high E string is plain steel, and there’s also an optional plain steel B string. The wound strings are hand polished by default.

1935-1941, Martin archtop

  1. The second steel string set is a medium gauge one; the E, A, D, G and B strings are wound on what they call piano steel wire, which is their round core wire, there’s an optional plain B and a plain steel high E as well. The winding wire is monel steel, and there’s no mention of hand polishing.
  1. This is the gut & silk string set; the E, A and D strings are bronze wound on a core made of silk fibers, the G, B and E strings are gut strings (“trued gut, white”).

The Hawaiian-style set has what they call “copper wound” (most probably bronze as well) E, A and E bass strings, and the A, C# and E strings are polished steel. The bass strings are hand polished by default.

1937: This catalog has the exact same string sets for guitar as the above, 1935 one.

1940: Same as the 1935 and 1937 ones.

1941: Same as the 1935, 1937 and 1940 ones.

Flatwounds and La Bella probably ring a bell, but Slingerland?! What does a drum company have to do with guitar strings – you may ask. Well, my friend, this company has started with selling German import ukuleles, then pretty soon they started making their own ukes, banjos and guitars. Their drums only appeared on the musical instrument scene in 1927. Anyway, we can find a single Slingerland catalog on AcousticMusic.Org, and it’s full of very nice archtops, flattops, banjos, mandolins and ukes, and what’s most important for our topic, it’s got a separate “strings” section. What this catalog doesn’t have are drums, nor the indication of the year it was printed in – most probably because the covers are missing. The hosting website dates it to the 1930s.

Anyway, let’s walk back to our history class and see what kind of guitar strings Slingerland had back in the 30s!

Slingerland, La Bella, flatwounds

By now you surely are not expecting an elaborate description, are you? Well, you shouldn’t. This catalog has only two string sets for guitar: one for Spanish-style playing, and one for the then popular Hawaiian-style steel guitar. The sets are the following:

  1. Spanish guitar string set: the E, A, D and G strings are bronze wound on silver-plated steel cores, and the B and E strings are plain silver-plated steel. There’s also an optional plain steel G string.
  1. Hawaiian guitar string set: the E, A and E strings are bronze winding wire on silver-plated steel centers, and the A, C# and E strings are plain silvered steel strings. That’s it, folks!

flatwounds; Slingerland guitarSo what is up with La Bella? Well, unfortunately we can’t find any catalogs from this Italian American string manufacturing brand. What we can find however is the claim they are making on their website, which is the following: “The original set design for electric guitar, the Flat Wound Stainless series are the first ribbon-wire wrapped strings. Developed in 1940 by La Bella, these strings are manufactured for all types of electric pick-ups.”

Now if we believe them – and why shouldn’t we – that statement kind of settles those never ending debates of when flatwounds appeared on the guitar string scene, and as you can see, the biggest name guitar companies didn’t sell these kind of strings before and during the World War II. Thus we can safely assume that flatwounds have become sort of a high-end, sought after thing from about the early 1950s on, because of their near zero string noise, that was much better compared to those earlier discussed other attempts of hand polishing.

And with that, we have reached the end of our pre-WWII history research on guitar strings.

2 Replies to “String history – what did guitar players use in the pre-war era?”

  1. I have been building and repairing guitars for 35 years. For various reasons I have been inside and/or taken apart several pre-war Martins and have studied their bracing. By comparison with today’s flat tops, the bracing in the old Martins seems light.

    Question: Was the design string tension (torque) on the pre-war Martin guitar tops the same as it is today (~175 lbs)?

    1. Working with them for that long, you know a lot more about Martins than I do, Joe. The old ones designed for gut strings were surely lighter braced, but what about 30s OMs and Dreadnoughts? Some of these were used in swing bands, where they had to project like archtops, so I’m pretty sure that’s why even the B string was wound in some of those string sets mentioned above. Do they have the same designed ~175lbs top tension?

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