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String gauge: anybody here use .014's (heavy)?


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I have a number of prewar archtops, some of which have a rather thick top--e.g., my 1937 Super 400. Naturally, they sound great with medium gauge phosphor bronze strings (what I use on all of them), but I was thinking of experimenting with a .014-.059 gauge set. I've done a lot of reading around, and there seems to be a school of thought by which a heavier set will help the top vibrate and therefore get the most sound-wise out of the structure of the guitar. 

I've also read that up to the 1960's, heavy strings (probably .014 gauge) were pretty much the norm for acoustic guitars, which means that their acoustics were designed to work in conjunction with them.

Has anyone else experimented with these?





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There are plenty of archtop players here that may respond.

I had a 1947 L-7, and used 13s (modern mediums) on it, either flat wounds or hex core round wounds. I use 12s on my flat tops, usually with round cores for slightly lower tension.

When I started playing back in the 1960s, we all used mediums (13s) on flat tops. Can't remember what the cores were. We never asked what cores Martin monels or Black Diamonds were wound on.

If any guitar can stand heavies, it would probably be a trap-tail carved top-and-back archtop like an L-5/7 or your old Super 400. I looked at one of those, another 1937,  at a guitar show in Florida a few years ago , but it was more money than I was prepared to spend. It was a beautiful, one-owner guitar, as I recall.

It takes a lot of power to drive those tops if your aren't amplifying the guitar. 

I would not do this without talking to other archtop owners here, however. That's a lot of string tension on any guitar.

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Update. I've thrown caution to the wind and restrung my 1937 Super 400 with a set of D'Addario Phosphor Bronze EJ18 Heavy gauge--.014-.059. According to the package, tension with a 25" scale (mine is actually 14 7/8") is 212.82Lbs, as opposed to the 188Lbs (if I remember correctly) of the EJ17's I was using before.

First impressions: the sound is considerably louder and the notes more distinct, both played with single notes and with chords. Playing quicker runs is easier because the strings move less (suddenly, Eddie Lang's cadenzas can be kicked up a few metronome notches). Tuning is surprisingly stable compared to any other set I've ever used--practically never budged after I first restrung it. I've never experienced that before.

After 6 hours, no noticeable alterations to the top, neck, tailpiece, or other parts of the guitar. I'm hoping that the convex top acts like a dam does against water-pressure--rather than bearing the brunt of it in the middle, redirecting it laterally towards the edges of the lower bout.

Will keep it closely monitored, ready to abort the mission at the slightest sign of structural change. So far, though, I'm mighty pleased with the result--especially the sound. That guitar--already a fabulous piece--literally came alive. Wow. 



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I’d personally be concerned with the top near the F hole area by the sixth string possibly sinking  in with super heavy strings on a vintage archtop.  Causing the adjustable bridge to have to be considerably raised on that portion.  Its not unheard of for an archtop’s bridge having to be raised to a high height for the 5th and 6th string because of top sinkage of the wood by the upper F hole area.  I’d keep away from  heavy gauge strings on a vintage archtop for that reason.  I’d use lights or no more than mediums to play it safer.  As each increase in gauge puts considerably more tension on the top and as you can see on an archtop, that upper F hole is basically suspended in air, making the top just below it also suspended in air and susceptible to sinkage with the 6th string’s high tension  on the bridge near it.   Most archtops have a mid-range focus, so the extra tension of heavy gauge strings on the 6th and 5th string really doesn’t serve any purpose when compared to the dangers of being near a weak point on an archtop’s top, of it can be avoided.  Standard tuning by lights or mediums should provide more than enough tension over time to provide pretty good volume on an archtop’s top.  And, will help preserve the instrument.

That’s my take.

QM aka “ Jazzman” Jeff

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29 minutes ago, TomLeoni said:

I've looked inside, and both sides of the bridge are supported by parallel bracing. So far the F holes are 100% stable. Fingers crossed--it's been almost 24 hours, and no signs of structural alteration yet.

That was the way my L-7 was built, as well. I think the longitudinal top braces were slightly V'ed, so that the were slightly wider towards the tailpiece and narrower toward the neck. It was a pretty effective girder design. The arch of the top, combined with the longitudinal bracing,  pretty effectively resists the bending moment of the string tension.The top was pretty much built like a tank, and the whole guitar seemed substantial.

That was a 1947 model, and it still one of my favorite neck shapes as well. Pretty similar shape to late-1940s flat top necks,  and quite a handful.

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It should be noted that when people talk about having excessive or high string tension on an older guitar, they are generally talking about the cumulative effect of excessive or high string tension on an instrument over an extended period of time.  The same reason most manufacturers recommend loosening strings on a guitar of it is going to be unplayed for an extended period of time.  Any high string tension on a guitar generally will have a some kind of effect eventually, so it’s all a matter of trying to extend the life of a guitar.   So it’s not a matter of if the guitar has lasted a week with 14s on it.  It’s a matter of will the 14s on a vintage guitar potentially reduce the lifespan and playability of the guitar over time. I think possibly yes.  That doesn’t mean don’t not enjoy the guitar while it’s sounding great.  It means recognize it might be reducing its lifespan and playability over time.  Of course, it’s already had a good life span already and hopefully will have much more life and playability left on it,   But, common sense seems to be saying it can’t likely be helping the lifespan or playability lifespan of an aged instrument.  There is a reason 14s are not that popular to put on instruments.  That’s all I’ve been trying to say.   

Not sure if you’re in the US, but if you are, you might want to call George Gruhn’s guitar store in Nashville, Tennessee and have them weigh in on their thoughts about putting 14s on your vintage guitar.  Gruhns shop is the guru on vintage instruments.  If you do, let us know what they say.  If not Gruhn’s store, then maybe Elderly Instruments in Michigan.  Or, perhaps if your’re overseas, others can chime in with a reputable luthier/repairperson of vintage instruments in your locale to contact.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s your instrument to do with as you please to enjoy it.   But, I’d be curious what an expert would recommend regarding 14s in a vintage instrument, and assume others might also be.

Hope this keeps the thread going a bit.


QM aka “Jazzman” Jeff


Edited by QuestionMark
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7 hours ago, TomLeoni said:

Thanks, Jeff--you make some excellent points. I'll definitely bear them in mind and take your advice--I am in Virginia, and will be in Nashville for work later on this Spring. I've heard of Gruhn and a visit may be a must!

If I were going to Nashville, a trip to Gruhn Guitars would be at the top of my list, whether or not I had any questions for him.

Vintage guitars are an obsession. You look at one, it its scratches, dings, and wear, and you want to ask it "where have you been, and what has happened to you over your decades of life that brought you here today, in this condition?"

It's hard to know which are more interesting: the ones that have survived in near-pristine condition, or the ones that show a mark for every day of their existence.

I love both kinds, and everything in between.

I had the great good fortune to buy a 1950 J-45 from its original owner almost exactly a year ago. Fortunately, he was able to write the guitar's story for me, from saving his money to buy it as a young teenager to putting it away under the bed for decades when he went to work in the mills, finally pulling it out to sell to help his grandson finish school.

That's a guitar I will never let go.

The fact that it has perfect J-45 tone and character doesn't hurt, either.

Shiny and new is all well and good, but vintage is about character, and characters.

George Gruhn is one of those characters.


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