John Pearse Silks Acoustic Guitar Strings
By Todd Stuart Phillips
I have a lot of playing coming up, in terms of recording and gigs. So I was not looking forward to finding time to put on a set of John Pearse SILKS, just to review them for Maury's Music. Well boy, was I surprised when I finally did. They are really great!
But perhaps I should explain my trepidation. Some years ago I was busking in a corner of Washington Square Park when a person rewarded my efforts by tossing a famous brand of silk and steel strings into my open guitar case, saying they were "very mellow" and perfect for folk music. Unfortunately, I found them to be mushy, dull and undefined. Perhaps they were supposed to make a steel string guitar sound more like a nylon string guitar. To my ear they sounded dead as a doornail right out of the box and went down hill from there. Other silk and steels sounded the same.
I feared similar results when I put on these Pearse SILKS. I could not have been more wrong. Unlike those dullards I had experienced previously, these strings are alive with definition and sing with a voice that can be summed up as beautiful. I have since learned they are made a little different from other silk lined strings and that adds up to a big difference in how they sound.
The official Pearse copy says "This is NOT a silk and steel set." It also says that their "triple annealed mild steel is pulled through a draw plate to make an extra skinny core. Onto this is wound a silk multifilament which cushions a phosphor bronze winding." In other words, that pretty much makes them a silk and steel set, since the steel referred to is the steel core with the silk being the fibrous sheath that covers it. Regardless, this kind of construction results in a string with lower tension when tuned to concert pitch, which can be good for delicate, vintage instruments and also provides a less metallic or brassy sound, which can be good or bad, depending on how extreme the effect and the player's personal taste.
However, there are some clear differences between traditional silked strings and these Pearse SILKS. Silk and steels are traditionally covered by silver windings, to mimic those used on Classical guitars. But only the most expensive Classical guitar strings tend to use actual silk fibers to wrap the core. Most manufactures' silk and steel strings have an artificial "silk" made from nylon or other synthetic materials. Perhaps there is something about the particular steel in the core or some special quality to the silk wrapping that goes into Pearse SILKS (I was not able to ascertain what they use for lining.) However, the true and simple genius apparent in these strings comes from winding the silken layer with their famous phosphor bronze. This brings in an additional dimension of tonal vibrancy that elevates these strings to a whole new and very welcome tier above other silk lined strings.
By coincidence, I had recently acquired a guitar custom built at the Martin factory in 1988 for Eric Schoenberg's shop and have been playing it with the classic John Pearse Phosphor Bronze strings. I am not usually a fan of phosphor bronze because it can be a bit brash and shiny; so I tend to play 80/20s. But I wanted to see what PBs would sound like on this guitar and of course I chose John Pearse. They provide the epitome of the phosphor bronze sound without being overly bright or brassy. This allowed a great vantage point from which to discern the differences between their normal phosphor bronze strings and the ones with the silk linings. The answer was just enough to make all the difference in the world.
For me, PBs are very good at making a bad guitar sound better. They can likewise brighten up good but otherwise dark and murky guitars, like those made with Sitka spruce on top of rosewood or Macassar ebony. But they can be so full of pizzazz that the sound of the strings themselves overshadows the woody textures of a well-made guitar. They also have a lot edge to their voice, increased string noise from gliding fingertips and a thwacky sound when attacking them with a pick. On the other hand, silk and steel strings can sound listless and even when they sound OK they have a short lifespan. These SILKS do not sound anything like silk lined strings I have heard previously. Instead, they sound like a phosphor bronze string with everything I dislike about phosphor bronze removed from the tonal landscape.
The unwanted sonic glare is filtered out of the strings, allowing the character of the guitar itself take center stage. They have the purity of a fine 80/20 string while adding in a subtle gleam of phosphor bronze to the higher fundamentals and harmonic overtones. Any string noise has been toned down to the level of coated strings without the tone-deadening trait that comes with the synthetic coatings. The PB thwackiness has been reduced as well so it goes unnoticed most of the time and is more than made up for by the delicious detail in the voice of the guitar and a warmth in the lower fundamentals previous unheard in phosphor bronze strings.
They excel in solo fingerstyle playing with a glowing roundness to the wound strings that brought out the complex detail from the old-growth, Brazilian rosewood on this seventeen year old OM. When playing leads, chords and fills with flat pick I found they worked very well and allowed me to cut through the other instruments nicely. I just love them.
I also found it interesting that these strings were originally made at the request of Steve Sheehan, lead guitarist for the Judds and are marketed toward electric guitarists who also want to play acoustic music. I guess this is because the strings have less tension when tuned to concert pitch so they bend easier. But the removal of all that extra rasp and sheen inherent in typical phosphor bronze also makes them ideal for studio musicians who have to change strings in mid session; they have the best qualities of brand new strings but leave the worst qualities out of the picture, while achieving the longer life that makes pros turn to phosphor bronze in the first place.
I am on record as lamenting this modern trend toward acoustic strings that feel "electric". I am a dyed in the wool acoustic guitar player who uses a lot of dropped tunings and plays hard, so I do not welcome strings without enough tension. But at the moment the only guitar I have to play is this custom Schoenberg, so lightly built it has a stamp on the center brace which says Use Light Gauge Strings Only. These SILKS seem made to order for just such a guitar. I had no trouble with alternate tunings and they just sound so dang pretty! When my other guitars arrive home from the Martin factory I will simply try a medium gauge set and see how they stack up to my heavy-handed playing. I know Pearse offers some of their strings in a New Medium set, which features slightly heavier gauges on the E, b and e strings, ideal for Celtic tunings like DADGAD. I can only hope they will offer SILKS that way some time soon. They move the bar much higher for phosphor bronze strings and are superior to all other silk lined strings I have ever heard.
Out of a possible 8 Notes on the T Spoon scale of Guitaracity I give John Pearse phosphor bronze SILKS a defined and glowing 7 notes.