From the mid 20th century to the present, classical and flamenco guitarists have been able to take for granted the availability of a range of affordable, high-quality guitar strings produced by a variety of manufacturers. But all who played the guitar’s ancestors (vihuela, lute, Baroque guitar, and Romantic-era guitar) beginning 200 years ago, and players of the modern guitar through the late 1940s, were not so fortunate. Among the many things for which we can thank Andrés Segovia is his work with Albert Augustine on the development of modern classical guitar strings. As we shall see below, Augustine and those with whom he worked brought revolutionary changes to the guitar world in 1948 with the development of nylon treble strings and much-improved basses.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the nylon guitar string’s replacement of the centuries-old gut string is the most significant and universally accepted innovation in our instrument’s development since those introduced by luthier Antonio de Torres (1817–1892). Time will tell whether recent advances, such as alternative bracing systems, sandwich tops, relocation of sound holes, side sound ports, elevated fingerboards, non-traditional tonewoods, or some yet-undiscovered concept will be universally accepted and have the transformative effect that nylon strings have had.
Today’s Early Music specialists who use gut strings in their quest to faithfully reproduce repertoire from historic periods, and others who use them for their own esoteric reasons, understand the difficulties gut strings posed to the performer. For those who have never tried them, the
article “Guitar Strings Before and After Albert Augustine” penned by Segovia for The Guitar Review, No. 17, 1955, paints the picture:
My troubles increased when I began to give public concerts. If I came to the stage more nervous and worried than is usually the case with a novice artist . . . it was because of my lack of confidence in the strings. They were hardly ever perfectly in tune, the gut strings became unraveled, and the basses lost their resonance.
Segovia also describes embarrassing interruptions onstage due to his gut strings breaking.
After criticizing unnamed “knavish” manufacturers for the poor quality of their strings, Segovia offered praise for strings made by the Pirastro company of Germany. They tuned up better and lasted longer than others available to the young Segovia. According to the Pirastro website, the string company was founded in 1798 as “Giorgio Pirazzi and Sons” in Italy, and later moved to an area outside Frankfurt, Germany. In 1890, Gustav Pirazzi (grandson of founder Giorgio Pirazzi) formed a partnership with Theodor Strobel, and created the company name Pirastro by combining the first four letters of their surnames. The company continues to flourish as Pirastro GmbH, but does not currently list gut guitar strings among its offerings for orchestral stringed instruments and harp.
Around 1924, Segovia began his affiliation with German luthier Hermann Hauser, who knew people at Pirastro. Segovia asked Hauser to persuade the management at Pirastro to be more consistent with the thickness and uniformity of their guitar strings. The Maestro reports that the collaboration between Pirastro, Hauser, and himself resulted in improved quality and increased sales of Pirastro guitar strings owing to Segovia’s burgeoning career and the growing popularity of the guitar.
Segovia fled Spain after civil war erupted there in 1936, and made Montevideo, Uruguay, his home base until the end of WWII. He possessed a supply of strings, but it was running very low by the time the war ended. According to Segovia’s Guitar Review article, during a visit to New York during the Christmas holidays in 1946, he met General Charles Lionel Lindemann, a counselor with the British Embassy in Washington. Hearing Segovia speak of his need for strings, Lindemann told Segovia that he had friends in the DuPont family and asked if the nylon material DuPont engineers had developed might work for treble
strings. Lindemann arranged for Segovia to receive samples of nylon from DuPont.
Segovia described trying the nylon for the first string on his guitar: “When it had reached its proper pitch and I heard its clear sound, although it had a faint metallic accent that distinguished it from gut, I knew at once that a fuller and happier life was to open up for my beloved guitar.”
FROM STOCKINGS TO GUITARS
Some of the accounts of the advent of nylon strings present different scenarios and timelines from those presented by Segovia in Guitar Review. We can confirm that nylon was developed by DuPont in the late 1930s and became commercially available in 1940 for use in toothbrush bristles, women’s stockings, and fishing line. During the war years, however, nylon production was devoted almost exclusively to military applications. According to a few accounts, New York instrument maker Albert Augustine had been seeking an alternative to gut strings in the early 1940s and began experimenting with some nylon material that he found in an army surplus store. He had worked to develop nylon guitar strings for a few years before he met Segovia. The stories converge after Segovia is introduced to Augustine through mutual friend Vladimir Bobri, an illustrator, author, and guitarist who founded the New York Guitar Society and served as the editor of its magazine, Guitar Review.
In consultation with Segovia, Augustine was able to tone down the metallic sound of the nylon treble strings. All accounts say that DuPont could not be persuaded to enter the guitar string manufacturing market, but the company did agree to supply nylon to Augustine. Segovia prodded him to work on the bass strings next. Augustine used nylon for the core of the bass strings, as opposed to a silk thread core that was used in the pre-nylon days. He experimented with different metals for the wrapping of the bass strings and tried various polishing methods until he achieved a sound that pleased his ears and Segovia’s. He was now ready to begin production.
Augustine reached out to Olinto Mari, president of La Bella/E. & O. Mari strings, and began manufacturing his new strings at Mari’s factory in Long Island City, New York. It was a good choice to work with E. & O. Mari because of their long experience in the field. The Mari family had been making strings since 1640 in Italy, and brothers Emilio and Olinto relocated operations to New York in 1913. In 1947, Albert Augustine Ltd. was established and began producing strings of various tensions in packaging bearing a photo of Segovia and a poem penned by the maestro praising Augustine strings.
Since then, numerous companies have entered the classical guitar string market and many have tried newly developed materials. For instance, D’Addario offers a variety of treble strings made from clear nylon, black nylon, monofilament composite material, and titanium. Their website describes the latter as a “contemporary treble material with attractive purple hue,” with a brighter tone than traditional nylon. D’Addario produces basses labeled 80/20 Bronze (with winding composed of 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc), Silver-plated Copper, Multifilament Nylon Core, and Multifilament Composite Core.
French string maker Savarez was the first to develop treble strings made from fluorocarbon material. While they are often referred to as “carbon” strings, that’s an abbreviation of the full name. They are not made from carbon but from the polymer polyvinylidene fluoride (PVFD). A perusal of various blogs reveals that some players feel that carbon strings approximate the sound of gut strings. Many find that these trebles project and sustain better than nylon and are great for playing live. Other users report that carbon strings can be harder to play and sound strident, and hence don’t recommend them for recording.
Aquila USA (headquartered in Italy) has introduced their Nylgut line of strings made from a synthetic material. The Aquila website states that these strings can “imitate the acoustical characteristics of gut without the typical defects such as high cost, short string life, and severe instability to changes of climate.” Japanese virtuoso Shin-Ichi Fukuda uses these strings on his Romantic-era guitar for live performances, but chooses from Aquila’s line of modern gut strings for recording. A web search brings up other makers of gut strings including Gamut Académie Strings, Boston Catlines, Damian Dlugolecki, and Pyramid, among others.
Today, many successful string manufacturers give financial support for classical guitar performances and education in an effort to further the art of the classical guitar. The late Rose Augustine (1910–2003), wife of Albert Augustine, worked with her husband in the manufacture of strings until his passing in 1967, when she took over operations and continued to grow the company. She also turned her attention to the growth of classical guitar and its players. She quietly supported gifted young guitarists and helped finance the New York debuts of such performers as Sharon Isbin, Eliot Fisk, David Starobin, and Manuel Barrueco, to name a few. She also commissioned new music for the guitar from composers George Crumb, John Duarte, Lukas Foss, Aaron Copland, Gunther Schuller, and more.
In 1979, Rose established the Augustine Foundation to continue supporting classical guitar concerts and festivals, and commissioning new guitar music. Shortly before she died in 2003 at 93, a board of directors was elected to continue the foundation’s grant-making work honoring the legacy of the Augustines.
According to the D’Addario Foundation website, Jim and Janet D’Addario launched the Debuts and Premieres Series in New York City to support up-and-coming classical guitarists in 1979. Two years later, the D’Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts was established to expand the reach of the program beyond New York to other cities. In 1993, the foundation began offering grants to support classical guitar events as well as music education to underprivileged youth. In the early years of the new millennium, the name was shortened to the D’Addario Foundation, and the organization focused on supporting nonprofit music education and instruction programs. In 2011, the foundation celebrated its 30th anniversary with a performance series at Carnegie Hall to support young guitarists, featuring Celil Refik Kaya, Johannes Möller, Thibault Cauvin, and others. D’Addario continues its generous philanthropy in many areas of the classical guitar world.
La Bella/E. & O. Mari, Inc. sponsors classical as well as jazz and rock artists in clinics, artist appearances, and residencies. The company also supports guitar festivals and competitions, and provides scholarships and awards to promising players. Similarly, Savarez, Hannabach, and other string makers offer their support for a range of artists, music events, and education.
What began in the 1940s as an effort to improve the tools of the guitarist’s trade has widened to become a virtuous circle that has benefitted not only the sound and playability of our instrument, but the entire classical guitar ecosystem.
A WORLD OF STRINGS
Worldwide there are hundreds of companies, large and small, who make and/or distribute classical guitar strings, both custom-made and manufactured. Many brands are available through major online dealers such as stringsbymail.com, juststrings.com, guitarsalon.com, and stringsdirect.co.uk, but here are direct links to a small selection of U.S. and European string makers, whose websites offer more information about their products: