Get the most life from your acoustic guitar strings
By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
Acoustic guitarists have different habits and attitudes about replacing strings. Touring pros with ample budgets may change sets before every concert. Players of more modest means may keep a set installed until they’ve wrung every last bit of intonation, tone, and listener interest out of it. Of course, a player who is diligent about maintenance can extend string life by careful cleaning after each set or gig, being sure to wipe away the oils and grime that naturally accumulate during normal guitar playing.
But what about strings that do some of this work for you, or at least ward off some of the muck that makes changing strings a frequent chore for players who care about their sound? String manufacturers have sought chemical coatings to delay the inevitable buildup of grime and tone degradation, giving players a significantly longer usability period before the next set goes on. But many of these coatings have failed the durability test, shedding “flakes” in the play area of the string.
It appears Martin has found the right combination of ingredients for long-life strings with its Lifespan SP series and the Cleartone string treatment process the company adopted from Everly Music (owned by acoustic-guitar legend Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers). To paraphrase an old ad, these guitar strings take a beating and keep on singing.
The Cleartone process wraps strings in a skin that’s an imperceptible one-micron thick, so almost no weight is added to the string. The treatment penetrates the winding of lower-pitched strings to give corrosion resistance to both the core wire and the wrap. The treatment doesn’t deteriorate from normal playing and doesn’t dull the exceptional brightness Martin creates with its time-honored winding process. The Cleartone treatment is applied to both wound and unwound strings, so the entire set gets the benefit of extended life.
Although Everly Music makes its own Cleartone strings, Martin’s Lifespan SP strings have a unique character that serious players know from the enduringly popular Martin, Marquis, and SP lines. Every company has their own system for creating good string tone by mating core and wrap wire, and differences in production methods, not to mention specific string gauges, can have an effect on the characteristic tone of a particular line of strings. Martin has maintained its traditional quality while adding the latest technology to improve on its Martin SP strings. After installing a set of Lifespan Phosphor Bronze Custom Lights (.011–.052) on my D-15 mahogany-top dreadnought and playing it regularly and aggressively for a couple of weeks, I knew the company had produced another winner.
I’ve always generated a lot of moisture in my hands (okay, I’ve got sweaty palms) when I’m playing onstage, and I have to wipe my strings constantly just to keep an electric set usable for a week of regular gigging. My acoustic guitars get a bit less of a workout, but even a day of recording can take the edge off a new set and its tone within a few hours. High E and B strings that felt silky smooth when they were installed can feel like barbed wire after several runthroughs of material that needs aggressive strumming or flatpicking. The natural contaminants in the air can combine with moisture to make low-pitched strings sound like flatwounds pretty quickly.
Martin’s Lifespan SP strings stood up to weeks of heavy practicing and recording with minimal maintenance and no perceivable softening of tone. The strings seemed almost bionic in the lack of deterioration they showed after multiple takes of aggressive acoustic-rock tunes full of high-string bending, low-string popping, and all-string attack strumming.
Even better was the range of tones the Lifespan SPs delivered. They responded beautifully to changes in playing technique—crisp and zingy on solos with medium- to thin-gauge picks, mellow but clear on fingerpicked parts, and beautifully balanced on thumb-and-nail clawhammer-style pieces like Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.”
Martin’s Lifespan SP strings come in Bronze and Phosphor Bronze versions and light, medium, and custom light gauge sets. If you want the highest quality acoustic strings with the toughest exterior and longest life, check out a set. Martin has a how-to video online about changing strings. You might need it by the time you need a new set of Lifespans.