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Hands-On Review: Dean Markley Blue Steel Guitar Strings

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Dean Markley delivers long-lived brilliance by dropping the temperature.

By Arthur Begay

Dean Markley's Blue Steel strings for acoustic, electric, and bass guitars last longer and produce a brighter, more lively tone than any other strings I've played. Cryogenic treatment creates a metal that is more perfectly suited to the difficult task of generating brilliant tone through week after week of hard play.

Dean Markley Blue Steel Guitar Strings

The research

When my old friend Brian at Musician's Friend approached me about a product review that would take over two months to complete and would involve all of my stringed instruments, I was a little leery. When he added that I would get a goodly supply of Dean Markley Blue Steel strings plus whatever strings I wanted to compare them to in the bargain, the offer sounded considerably sweeter.

When I put a set of Blue Steels on my Martin D-28 and struck that first A minor add nine chord, the bargain seemed fantastic. From first blush these are clearly superior strings, rich in harmonic overtones and highs that are defined but not brittle. There were definitely warm tinglies happening, but I had to admit that I usually feel this way when I put on a new set of strings. I play all of my guitars and my bass a lot. And, due to laziness and parsimoniousness, I tend to put off string changes a few weeks longer than I should.

To get around the perceptual problem of the new-string thrill, I laid down some digital tracks with my nifty stereo condenser mike (the best mike for recording acoustic guitar I've ever heard) while I had the Blue Steels on. Then I took them off and put on a new set of my old favorites and recorded the same piece through the same mike with the same guitar.

Using the two original sets of strings, I alternated them in periods of one week on the guitar and one week off for eight weeks, playing them about an hour a day. At the end of each week I recorded the same piece of music with the same setup. This resulted in four recordings for each set of strings, each recording on strings that had now been played for a week longer than on the previous recording. Not exactly scientific, perhaps, but I felt it made me much more able to judge objectively. I followed the same procedure with my ES-335 and my Rickenbacker 4003 bass (albeit with a little less time per day on the instruments). It was a lot of work, but I hoped to learn something. And I did.

The results

Comparing the two acoustic guitar recordings of that first day, my old favorites (very good strings in their own right) held up to the Blue Steels pretty well. The Blue Steels outshone them but didn't clobber them. Both sets of strings had that brilliant, crisp, new-string tone with the sparkling high end. But the mic seemed to respond a little better to the Blue Steels--the midrange felt fuller. Otherwise the strings were fairly comparable when new.

In the week-two recordings there is already a more noticeable difference between the two sets of strings. My old favorites had mellowed in the high end, just as if somebody had rolled off the top few notches on the graphic EQ. For the Blue Steels I can hear no difference at all from the week-one recordings.

The week-three recordings produced more dramatic results. The old favorites are evidencing a serious high-end degradation and loss of harmonic overtones. The Blue Steels on the other hand still sound new. When comparing them to the week-one recordings I can hear a difference in the high end (only) but it is very slight.

By the final recordings, the difference between the two sets of acoustic guitar strings is astounding. Admittedly, the Blue Steels have mellowed a bit, but compared to the old favorites they sound brand new. The old favorites had acquired that old, dead feeling and sound. They were stiffer and less responsive at all frequencies and totally gone in the high end. The Blue Steels still sound punchy and bright, and even produced a lot of those gorgeous harmonic overtones.

The Blue Steel Electric strings fared just as well. They exhibited a similar pattern to the acoustics and really ended up surpassing the other strings in terms of their elasticity. By week four the old favorites had become stiff old dogs and the Blue Steels still felt as silky and stretchy as the day I put them on.

The initial situation with my bass was a little different because I hadn't changed strings in the first place for a long time. I had no idea how dead and sustain-free they'd become until I put on the Blue Steel Bass strings. The difference was astonishing. It was like having a new instrument. When I tried a new set of my old favorites in comparison, there was no comparison. The Blue Steels were far more responsive, produced a great deal more sustain, and had high-end to spare.

Over the weeks of testing, I could detect no difference at all in the Blue Steel Bass strings' tone while my old favorites went from bad to worse very quickly. Clearly my old favorite bass strings sucked, while the Blue Steels were incredible performers that held their sizzling tone week after week.

The reasons

Without a doubt and without exception, all three types of Blue Steel strings outperformed my old favorites in every dimension—high-end sparkle, midrange punch, elasticity, and especially longevity. But how is this possible? Strange as it may sound, this fantastic performance is achieved by getting the strings really, really stinkin' cold. A liquid nitrogen process takes them down to –320° for an exacting period of time, then slowly returns them to their original temperature. –320° is colder than the surface of Neptune, which is about 48 million miles from the sun.

This extreme cold makes the metal of the string so dense it actually realigns the molecules, transforming the alloy into something beyond itself, something truly amazing. So why doesn't every string maker do the cryogenic thing? In fact, many have. But Dean's precision proprietary process (which is an industrial secret not even I could pry out of them) delivers more consistent quality. I'm totally sold on the Blue Steels. As long as they keep making them, I'll keep buying them.

Tags: Strings

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