In a sense, all classical guitar bass strings are basically the same. The bass strings (the thickest three, D, A and the low E strings) are usually wound and plated or coated with a metal. Different manufacturers use different metals and alloys each with its pros and cons. The general principle is that denser materials offer more clarity, while less dense materials create more warmth.
Bass strings have multi-filament nylon cores, wrapped in a metal winding. The most common winding materials are silver plated copper and bronze. (But there are a few more choices as well. Hang on.)
Which bass string winding will you choose – silver-plated or bronze?
Silver-Plated Copper: Silver plating offers a smooth feel and corrodes much less than unprotected copper. Some manufacturers refer to such strings as “silver strings” even though silver is just a coating over the underlying copper. Chances are good that these are the very strings you are playing on currently without even realizing it: silver-plated copper winding.
80/20 Bronze: Bronze is an alloy of mostly copper and some other stuff. This alloy is well known for its brilliance and projection in steel-string acoustic guitar circles. On a classical guitar, this alloy makes for a deeper, warmer sound that is different from silver-plated copper bass strings. Chances are you haven’t played on bass strings made of bronze winding.
Some manufacturers call them “gold strings” by way of taking some advertising liberties. The “gold” refers to string color rather than content. Yet other makers (and retailers) refer to them as “brass strings” which is often a more accurate description (lots of copper + some zinc).
Given these two types of bass string winding – silver-plated copper or bronze – you will find subtle variations like roundwound strings and flatwound strings.
Roundwound strings are the most popular and common winding method found on classical guitar bass strings. Flatwound strings are basically roundwound strings flattened at the top of the winding for a smoother feel and less finger noise. See my article How to Avoid String Squeaks if you need more information on this.
Silver plated bass strings vs 80/20 bronze strings
Take one of the best-selling classical guitar string sets on the planet: the hugely popular and much liked D’Addario EJ45. The bass strings in this set are regular silver-plated copper windings. By and large, everyone loves the sound of these bass strings to such an extent that we may say that our idea of what bass strings should sound like has been formed by popular brands like the EJ45.
On the other hand, take a relatively lesser-known variant from the same company: D’Addario EJ47. This set has the bass strings wound in bronze. Speaking for myself, I have found the EJ47 basses have a refreshing vibe to them while being rich and mellow. The point is these basses are distinctly different in tonal character to those of the EJ45.
There are other examples. The famed acoustic strings maker Ernie Ball has a classical guitar variant called Earthwood 80/20 Bronze Nylon. The three wound bass strings are made of 80/20 bronze wrapped around a multi-filament nylon core. Nylon gives them a percussive attack, and 80/20 bronze provides a richer sound compared to traditional silver-plated copper.
Note: Although it may not make much difference to guitar players, some manufacturers say ‘bronze’ (with its connotation of Olympic medals perhaps) when they actually should be saying ‘brass’, an alloy of copper and zinc with traces of other materials like phosphor. But we’ll stick with the industry name ‘bronze’ to these strings.
Less frequently, you may come across Phosphor Bronze guitar strings. These are similar to 80/20 bronze, but with phosphor added to prevent oxidation and increase the life of the strings. The trade-off is that they’re a little less bright than regular bronze strings which some players believe is a perfect tone for bass strings.
A great example of Phospor Bronze strings is GHS 2000 Black Nylon Trebles with Phosphor Bronze Bass HT Guitar Strings. You can check the price at Amazon.
Popular silver-coated copper bass strings
To start with, silver is a very thin coating. Through friction and sweat, it will wear off and tarnish or oxidize as well. That’s the reason why a bass string over the first 5 frets wears off first, exposing the copper beneath. The same string at the 16th or 17th fret will remain perfectly silver coated, perhaps a little tarnished with time.
The main purpose of the coating is to make the string last longer by protecting it. Uncoated copper strings will go ‘dead’ faster. Also, silver coating adds a brighter tone to the string and a longer sustain. Compare something like a silver wound D’Addario EJ45 with an Aquila Copper, the EJ45 will sound both brighter and with more sustain.
Some popular brands of silver coated basses are the following (with their Amazon links):
Savarez 540R Alliance: One of their best-selling and highest quality string sets is the 540R Alliance, which feature silver-plated wound bass strings, with carbon trebles and normal tension. Savarez 500AR Alliance/Corum NT Classical Guitar Strings is also another good choice for silver-coated bass strings with carbon trebles.
La Bella 427 Elite: As part of their Elite series, the 427 is a popular medium-tension string set, with clear nylon trebles and silver-plated wound bass strings that are known for smooth playability.
Hannabach’s 815 Silver Special: This is among the German brand’s top-selling string series. It comes in tensions from super high to super low and features nylon trebles with silver-special coated basses.
Augustine Classic Red MT Classical Guitar Strings: Silverplated copper basses are part of the Red series (medium tension) and this is a highly rated set from this pioneer of classical guitar strings.
GHS Strings Classical Guitar Strings (2300): This set has nylon trebles with “Winter Silver Basses” and claims pure intonation.
An unusual offering is a set of bass strings that is not silver-coated but made of pure silver. La Bella Argento AM Pure Silver MT Classical Guitar Strings make use of “99.9% pure silver filament” for their Argento line. The company claims that the “initial articulated note does not fluctuate from pitch but reveals a penetrating sound in the bass register. This can only be achieved with 99% solid silver wire.”
It is a pricey option but an interesting one.
Knobloch too produces strings with “pure sterling silver”. Sterling silver is in fact 92.5% silver (the rest being mostly copper) so these are marginally a lesser grade of purity than the LaBella strings.
You should find both these interesting options at Strings By Mail website.
Popular Bronze 80/20 classical guitar strings
As for the bass strings of a classical guitar, 80/20 bronze is also known as ‘brass’ or ‘gold’ by some brands. This is a favorite with many guitarists, with good brightness and projection.
For instance, Aranjuez’s top of the line A700 Series strings are “gold” plated. The Strings By Mail website that sells them describes the A700 series as bronze-wound and “brilliant”. Gold refers just to the color! Having said that, these strings are very highly rated by those who use them. They say the A700 basses are very clear and bright.
Incidentally, the reputed Aranjuez strings may not be available for too long, which is a pity. Juan Orozco, the founder of Aranjuez, died in Feb 2020 and the future of these strings is uncertain. The website isn’t functional and whatever stocks you may find with some online retailers may the last ones you can lay your hands on.
Again, it is interesting that the Augustine strings website says that its basses are “gold” plated. However, the Strings By Mail website says that they are brass-wound. These brass-wound strings are among Augustine’s top of the line.
There are more highly interesting and popular options to consider (with their Amazon links):
The acclaimed 725 Goldin Series from Hannabach (with carbon trebles) again talks of a ‘gold alloy’ for its basses. Read the fine print and it talks of a ‘newly developed golden yellow metal alloy.’ Yet these are some of the most prized (and pricey) strings you can find. They do have a darker tone that some performers like and have great projection and clarity. You can check the price on Amazon of the Hannabach 725 Goldin set.
D’Addario EJ33 Folk Nylon Classical Guitar Strings: These have the typical 80/20 Bronze bass strings with clear nylon trebles. It’s part of D’Addario’s Folk series and has a ball end like acoustic guitar strings and not a free end like with classical strings.
D’Addario EJ47 NT 80/20 Bronze Wound Classical Guitar Strings are a prime example of the 80/20 Bronze bass strings and the way they sound.
Augustine Imperial Gold HT/MT Classical Guitar Strings: These include the Golden Alloy bass strings we discussed earlier. The Imperial Gold is a reputed, well regarded variant.
La Bella 850 Elite Classical MT Classical Guitar Strings includes the company’s Gold Alloy basses paired with ‘gold’ nylon trebles. It is a great affordable option.
La Bella 900 Golden Superior MHT Classical Guitar Strings: This set has Gold Alloy polished basses paired with gold nylon trebles. Again this is a great affordable option.
Mention must be made of a final set of high quality bass strings that go beyond using the word ‘gold’ to merely denote color and actually use gold plating on the bass strings.
Hannabach 825 Pure Gold: The basses of this set are plated with pure 24K gold, and are designed “to resist the effects of acid perspiration, making them ideal for those with sweaty hands. Unlike other brands whose ‘gold’ strings are made of less expensive alloys, these strings are quite impervious to acid corrosion.”
To understand string tension and what will be right for you, check out my article Normal Tension vs High Tension strings.