Pure Nickel or Nickel Wound Guitar Strings?

"Pure nickel" strings are throwbacks to the early days of rock and roll. When the 60s came around and people wanted to play with higher gain amps and more distortion there was the move toward "nickel wound" strings (and other materials) which have a 'brighter' and 'tighter' sound. (For an historical rundown check out this article by Cleveland).

I played for twenty years doing what most people do: buying the garden variety stuff that everybody else uses or getting what was on sale during my undergraduate days when I was spending all my student loans on beer, guitars, and whatnot (it's amazing how much money you can spend on whatnot).

Some years ago I tried some D'Addario "pure nickel" strings out of simple curiosity and was very unimpressed and never gave them a second thought. Dead, dull, duds. Then a few years back I acquired a guitar that you might say lacked 'mojo' or 'vibe' or any other puffery you might want to throw in there. I tried some 'pure nickel' strings once again, but, this time, I went with some other brands and I've been converted.

Here's the deal: if you play blues, roots, pop, country, etc....(genres where you are not playing with tons of distortion like metal and hard rock) then 'pure nickel' strings can really add some nuance, warmth, color, and enriched harmonic content to your sound. This is especially the case if you have a guitar that is heavy on the fundamentals (lacking 'mojo'). Read some tips on improving the sound of your guitar!

You might use this as a rule of thumb: if you're the kind of player that goes for preamp distortion or if you hit the front in with a lot of stomp box distortion then maybe stick to nickel wound strings but if you're the NMV (non-master volume) amp type, i.e., power amp overdrive, then 'pure nickel' might be your thing. So, guys and gals playing it clean or overdriving the power amp section are good candidates for "pure nickel" strings. Metal heads and hard rockers? Not so much.

So what's good out there?

Over the last couple of months we've been doing a big evaluation of guitar strings -- we're probably not going to complete the review for a long time -- but, so far, a couple of items are stand-outs that I encourage you to give a spin:

Curt Mangan Pure Nickel

You can get these online at Strings and Beyond (wait for a sale when they're 20% off and buy in bulk). These Mangan strings are beefy but easy to bend, they sound fantastic, easy to play, and last a good long while. My preference is to put these on my short scale guitars, although, when I put a set of 10s on my G&L Legacy it was transformed into a monster with a huge, piano-like bottom end.

If you have a larger budget you might try some top drawer stuff from Pyramid. These strings are amazing. The wound strings will remind you of rope more than wire when you pull them out of their envelopes. I like these on Strat and Tele style guitars. Be careful, however, these Pyramid strings are 'round core' (cf. to hex core) and you may experience intonation inconsistencies, core slippage, and unraveling of the windings without precautions -- the reason I usually stick to hex core strings such as the Mangans on any guitar with locking tuners. I only use round core strings on instruments I can get the string bent and wrapped around the tuner post before cutting the ends.

Elderly tends to have the best prices if you want to give the Pyramids a spin.

You'll have to be careful with this type of string -- the windings can slip causing tuning and intonation problems. DR strings are reported to be particularly unstable by some folks. Make sure you put a sharp bend or crimp in the free end of the string to prevent the windings from shifting around the core.

Perhaps the best of both worlds: Pyramid Maximum Performance (Pure Nickel and hex core construction) ... be prepared, however, to pay more. They may lack a bit of the slink found in the Nickel Classics and the Mangan strings but very nice all the same; perhaps the best all-around string you can get? I'm not so sure. I think the Mangan pure nickels are a better feeling hex core string than these and a lot more affordable. Sound? These Pyramid MP strings might have the edge but I wouldn't want to bet on it.

To summarize:

Mangan Pure Nickel: best affordable everyday string for most of my guitars;

Pyramid Nickel Classics on my guitars with vintage style tuners (non-locking) where I can get the string up to pitch before cutting the running ends. These offer a bit more 'mojo' and are easier to bend than the Mangans.

Pyramid Maximum Performance: top drawer stuff (and high price). Not really my thing.

Either way, Mangan or Pyramid, you're getting strings that blow away the run of the mill junk from EB or D'Addario.

On a side note, if you're into coated corrosion resistant strings, go directly to Mapes and buy their low-cost but high-value three-pack of guitar strings. I bring this up, because every good American brand of guitar strings is just using Mapes wire so you might as well just skip the middleman go buy direct for a lot less. They're not the pure nickel strings but they are really good strings.