In general, there are five types of strings used in guitars — steel, nickel, brass, bronze, and nylon. Steel and nickel strings are usually found in electric guitars, while brass and bronze are used in steel-string acoustic guitar. We’ll specifically discuss everything about bronze strings, particularly, phosphor bronze vs. 80/20 bronze.
Phosphor Bronze Overview
Phosphor strings are the most popular ever since D’Addario first released them in 1974. They are made of an alloy of 92% copper with 8% tin and some traces of phosphorus (around 0.2%). Hence, these strings are more corrosion resistant compared to the 80/20 bronze strings and seem to last longer.
You’ll get warmer tones from these strings with more bass and midrange response. These strings are great for music genres that require mellower tones like folk and classical fingerstyle. They are usually used in small-bodied guitars. You can see these as stock strings on some acoustic guitars from Ibanez, Alvarez, or Takamine.
This is a simple alloy made of 80% copper and 20% zinc, thus the name 80/20. It’s not that popular among modern players, but if you really like bright tone with a bit of bass response, these strings are perfect for you. Take note that they don’t have the kind of midrange response as phosphor does.
Like phosphor, 80/20 strings have their unique tone, more like a quintessential acoustic guitar tone that’ very popular during the 1960s and the 70s. Because of their bright and crisp tone, they are usually found in dreadnought guitars like those from Martin or Taylor.
Before I can thoroughly compare these two strings in terms of design and tone, it’s very important to let you know how the strings are made. Just like the guitar, the construction of the strings is just as important, especially that you’ll rely on their vibrations to get the sound of your acoustic guitar. Here, I’m going to discuss the gauge, string core, winding type, and the string coating.
Gauge: This refers to how thick the string is. In general, thicker strings produce a warmer tone with more volume, yet they tend to be stiffer. On the other hand, thin strings are bright and easy to play, but some guitars with these strings may sound tinny. If you can see, the strings are numbered, .9 being the thinnest, while the .12 or higher is thick. Strings numbered .10 or .11 are referred to as ‘mediums,’ producing sound between these two extremes.
Core: The shape of the wire — hex core and round core. The former has a brighter and louder sound, while the latter has a more mellow sound. Hex core strings are a bit stiffer with lesser sustain than round core strings.
Winding Type: String windings come in three types — Roundwound, Flatwound, and Halfround. Roundwound strings are generally used for standard guitar strings. They have textured surfaces and produce a bright tone. Flatwound strings, as the name suggests, have flat surfaces. They are great for jazz guitars and offer darker and understated tone. They are stiffer, which makes them difficult to play. Lastly, the Halfwound strings, suggest that they are the middle ground between the first two. They’re a good fit for modern genres because they are brighter than the Flatwound.
Coating: Strings can come coated or uncoated, where the former lasts longer than the latter and might be more expensive, as well.
So, in general, strings have a core (hex or round), which is wrapped around by a small range of metals in different winding types. For bronze wound strings, like the phosphor and 80/20, they have steel core that aids their warm and bright tones. For added protection, a coating can be added to these strings.
As you can read from the previous section, it’s not just the alloy — phosphor bronze or the 80/20 — that solely affects the sound, but the design and construction, as well. Since you already know the string construction, it’s very easy for you to understand the things I’m going to discuss in this section.
Sometimes known as ‘brass,’ the 80/20 bronze strings are made with a mix of 80% copper and 20% zinc alloy wrapped on a steel core. The copper windings are known to easily corrode, which make the strings lose their tone. It’s the zinc that slows down the corrosion, but still, they have a shorter life cycle compared to phosphor bronze strings.
To address the quick-aging issues, phosphor bronze is made with 92% copper, 8% tin and 0.2% phosphorus. Although it has more highly corrosive copper component, the tin and phosphorus prevent the alloy from tarnishing rapidly. Hence, they are longer-lasting than 80/20.
You’ll choose one over the other primarily because of their tonal characteristics. The 80/20 strings have bright, crisp and more projected tone, perfect to recreate vintage sounds of the 1960s or 70s. Though they’re bright, they have just enough bass and lesser mids. For guitars with darker tonal qualities, they are usually paired with 80/20 strings to achieve a well-balanced tone.
Phosphor strings, on the other hand, have warmer, darker and fuller tones. Let the strings settle down for a few hours after use, and they have almost the same brilliance as the 80/20 strings. They have different qualities, especially with the added phosphorus that offers more tonal softness. With their darker tone, they are best to pair with bright-sounding guitars to get a more balanced sound.
This YouTube video will help you distinguish the sounds of these two bronze strings.
As I have mentioned earlier, coated strings are more expensive than uncoated strings. Both phosphor and 80/20 strings are available either coated or uncoated. So, the price varies with this, the design and the brand. You can see that there are tons of bronze strings offered in the market, but the most trusted ones are those from D ’Addario, Elixir and Martin.
Which one should you get? It’s a millionaire’s question since it primarily depends on your preferences, primarily on the genre you want to play. If you want to achieve bright and bell-like tones which can be heard from the sixties recordings, get the 80/20 bronze strings. However, if you want a warmer and darker tone, get the phosphor bronze.
In terms of longevity, phosphor bronze strings are better because of the phosphorus that makes them more corrosion resistant. We suggest you try both strings for you to decide which is the best that fits your taste and sound preferences.