Review: Aquila Classical Guitar Strings, Very Oddball, Very Good

If you’ve been playing the classical guitar for a year or two, the name Aquila will be familiar. You may not have used these guitar strings, but surely heard of them. It’s perhaps time to try them out for the difference in sound they can bring to your guitar. I will introduce you to some of the more popular variants of classical guitar strings that the company makes for you to make your own, informed choice.

The Italian string company is now renowned as possibly the only one making guitar strings from a variety of unusual materials. Instead of the regular nylon and fluorocarbon trebles that every manufacturer offers, Aquila gives you ones made of Nylgut and plant-based Bionylon, for instance.

Innovative, all right. But are the strings any good? Aquila has its legions of fan following but not without its unconvinced detractors. My own guess is you are more likely to find something exceedingly suitable and surprisingly good for your guitar from all the string variations that Aquila has to offer.

Aquila’s claim to fame came with the invention and use of what it called Nylgut, a synthetic alternative to natural gut. Without the durability and consistency issues of natural gut, Aquila’s alternative was a hit for its gut-like acoustic quality, a desirable reference point for guitars as also violins. As monofilament for trebles and multifilament for basses, Nylgut is a practical and modern option for today’s guitarists looking for a ‘classic’ sound and a fast attack.

Aquila has also experimented (successfully) with other natural, plant-based materials like sugarcane. Its latest offering Sugar is actually made of a sugar polymer. This is an unusual company making unusual products with a range including the popular, all-Nylgut Alabastro, the Nylonplant Zaffiro and the impressive Sugar.

Here are a handful of Aquila variants that you can try for your guitar – knowing full well that you are leaving the comfort zone of plain ol’ nylon strings. Trust me, the adventure should do you good.

Aquila Sugar: the brightest of them all

Aptly named for its sugar bioplastic derivation, Sugar trebles are known for their volume, sustain and brilliance. They have the clarity typical of carbon strings with an excellent vibrato and greater timbre variations depending on the position of the right hand. In a popular online meeting place for classical guitar – the Delcamp forums – the owner and innovator in charge of Aquila plays an active role and shares his opinions freely.

He mentions that Sugar strings may have ‘too much sustain maybe’ turning the classical guitar into an acoustic one almost. In lab tests, he says that Sugar had 24% more sustain than carbon strings. But to his surprise, many good guitarists told him that Sugar does have an interesting place for itself among classical guitars. Rob MacKillop, the veteran guitarist known for his nail-less playing, was among those impressed by Sugar.

Many guitarists report that for all its vaunted brightness, Sugar has a fullness and depth to its sound rather than being shrill or thin like many carbon trebles can be.

The trebles have a transparent look “that resembles crystal glass” while the bass strings have a special red-colored protective varnish for reducing finger squeaks. The Sugar set comes in 3 tensions: light, normal and superior. OK, there is also a fourth tension called ‘extra’ meant for flamenco guitars.

If you’re new to understanding guitar tension and how it may affect your guitar’s sound, the short answer is go with normal tension. You can experiment with other tensions later once you have established a baseline experience. If you want to know more, read my short article on Which Tension is Right for your Guitar?

For those who are familiar with string tensions, the normal tension values of Aquila strings are roughly in the same range as normal tension strings of other popular brands.

Sugar strings, along with another variant Alchemia, are among the options that have gained a reputation for very long life. Since Aquila strings are pretty affordably priced, a long life expectancy is an added advantage. 

Aquila Alchemia: less bright, more rich

Guitarists convinced of Aquila’s approach to innovation and their actual products often talk about Sugar and Alchemia almost interchangeably. There is a lot of similarity not only in the sound but in the very formulation itself.

Like Sugar, Alchemia strings are made with the plastic material derived from sugarcane but unlike Sugar, it is blended with the company’s proprietary Nylgut. Perhaps because of the owner’s own observation that Sugar strings may be “too much sustain”, the Alchemia variant is a fuller, richer sound but less loud and projecting.

The sound of Alchemia is compared to carbon strings by users who term it crisp and bright. And Aquila describes it as being closer to carbon of all their strings. The projection is greater than carbon although less than that of Sugar. The strings afford a good grip on the fingers and are not slippery as some synthetic materials can be.

They come in the usual light, normal and superior tensions. The strings have excellent vibrato and provide “all the sweetness and melodiousness of gut together with the brightness and promptness typical of Fluorocarbon.”

To some, the Alchemia offers the perfect balance of tone and loudness. To others looking for more sustain and loudness, Sugar is the thing. I have personally tried the Alchemia on my Amalio Burguet (normal tension) and the result has been satisfying – better than Sugar. Your results, needless to say, will vary.

A point to note is that like many carbon strings, the G string on the Alchemia – or for that matter, any Aquila variant – is not tubby sounding at all. Regular nylon strings have that fat and flat sound that you may have noticed on the 3rd string. I have a short article devoted to Why the G String Sounds Bad if you want to know more about the matter and what to do about it.

So there it is: Alchemia, less bright, more rich than Sugar. And that might just be your cup of tea.

Aquila Alabastro: the unique Nylgut in action

Perhaps the most popular among Aquila brands is the Alabastro. It was one of the early variants that the company offered (Sugar is among the recent ones) using the novel Nylgut formulation.

For hundreds of years, animal gut was used for stringed instruments and known for its pleasing acoustic properties. Dupont’s nylon was put to good commercial use for classical guitar by the venerable Augustine strings – see my article on Legendary Augustine Strings for You – and the rest is history. From then on, gut died and nylon ruled.

Yet, for all its durability and consistency, nylon is acoustically very different from gut. And Aquila took it upon itself to come up with a synthetic material that would rival gut in its essential sound and acoustic properties. 

To many, Nylgut strings in the form of Alabastro strings came as great news and a refreshing change in the sound of the guitar. The trebles are of monofilament Nylgut and the basses are multifilament Nylgut core with a silver-plated copper winding. Besides the sound quality, the basses have great stability to withstand climate change, an excellent intonation and long life.

User reviews over the years term the Alabastro full sounding and sweet with greater depth than normal nylon strings. They are known to hold their tuning very well and quickly. The trebles are not overly bright and keep their sound even after a couple of months. The basses just keep “going and going” at least according to one satisfied user.

On most guitars the Alabastro set can be a good bet and a fine introduction to the world of Aquila strings. (My own confession is that the Alabastro, along with another variant Zaffiro, were both disasters on my Burguet guitar. Strings are so dependent on the guitar and also on personal preference. Till you actually try them, you don’t know.) 

Even on relatively inexpensive classical guitars like a Cordoba C7 or a Godin Etude (La Patrie formerly), people have reported a livelier sound with Alabastro. Not “pingy” or metallic but full and round, yet bright. The harmonics are rich and clear. Some find the new material a little harder on fingertips but most say the strings are actually easier to play on.

Alabastro can most likely become your favorite set of strings – very balanced, brighter than nylon and resembling gut.

Aquila Zaffiro: made from plants, sounds like carbon

Aquila gets to work again with another innovative material it calls Nylonplant, a special variety of nylon that is a 100% plant derivative. The Nylonplant trebles are matched with basses that are silver-plated copper wound over a Supernylgut multifilament core.

Incidentally, the use of a plant based alternative brings down carbon dioxide emissions significantly and you’re doing your bit for the environment when you buy a Zaffiro set. The new material has been around for a while now and the general consensus is it is acoustically bright and fast, very similar to carbon strings. The sound is powerful and the stability of the tuning is remarkable. The strings are advertised as being as close to the sound of carbon strings without being carbon. The trebles are indeed louder than nylon and brighter than most nylons. The intonation is good.

If you are used to playing with a nylon staple like the D’Addario EJ45, a great choice by the way, it is easy to understand the differences that Zaffiro brings to the table. The touch and feel are very different for the medium tension Zaffiro strings are noticeably lighter and easier to play. The tone is also brighter. The basses start out sounding bright but turn mellow after playing for a couple of weeks. And they last a long time.

I know a few folks personally for whom the Zaffiro are the go-to strings. They love the big volume and the brighter sound, especially the high E string. They find the G string much less tubby than a nylon G string. And of course, they love the long life of the basses particularly.

The Zaffiro is a good alternative to nylon or even to Aquila’s own Alchemia. Not as bright as the Alchemia, the Zaffiro is richer and fuller in sound and certainly brighter than regular nylon strings. And, quite possibly, a great introduction to the world of innovative strings, the kind no other manufacturer has.

Aquila Ambra 2000: recreating the sound of gut strings

As seen earlier, violins and guitars in the past routinely made use of animal gut strings. That may sound basic and inferior but the truth is gut strings had their strengths: a good tonal presence and greater brightness than today’s nylon strings. The basses were silk wound strings, not as bright as nylon and less sustain but with a sweeter sound and more accent on the fundamental note rather than the overtones. It’s the sound that created some of the greatest music the world has known.

The Ambra sets were conceived to mimic gut strings closely in acoustic terms. The Ambra 2000 comes in single tension only – medium – in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. A clear white Nylgut is used for the trebles with a “small difference in the formulation in order to achieve the best melodiousness”.

Unlike the regular silver-plated copper basses found on most Aquila strings, this set features another unique material, Rayon. Silver-plated copper is wound over red-colored multifilament of rayon for a “warm and percussive sound similar to silk basses.”

There are quite a few who have cast their votes in favor of Ambra 2000 for its clean and crisp trebles and the overall approximation to genuine gut strings. The rayon basses are noteworthy in that according to some they start out sounding dull but become sweeter in a matter of days. (The opposite is true with most other strings, though.)

Another frequent comment is that the strings take a while to settle in and are quite “stretchy”. If you have a fascination, as I do, for historical things like gut strings from the distant past, the Ambra 2000 is a stellar option. I haven’t heard gut strings in person, so it’s difficult to know what to look for. I wouldn’t even know where to find them and whether they’re still being made for the classical guitar at all. They would probably be frightfully expensive.

With all that mind, I would take the word of those who know better and seriously consider the Ambra 2000 as a practical alternative to the real thing.

Aquila Perla: on the rivers of Bionylon

To finish our round-up of Aquila strings, here comes yet another innovation: Bionylon trebles. This is a special nylon that is a 68% plant-based derivative – “the first eco-friendly synthetic string in the world” – invented by the company for its acoustic and mechanical properties. The monofilament trebles look smooth and opaque and produce a warm, mellow sound.

The Bionylon trebles are matched with silver-plated copper wound Nylgut multifilament basses. These basses reputedly have low moisture absorption and so have stable intonation under moisture changes.

If the Sugar set of strings are the brightest from Aquila, the Perla is at the other end, the warmest. Advanced guitarists are known to prefer the sound of Perla strings for their melodic tone and warmth of the trebles and the firm, crisp tones of the basses.

Perla sets are brighter than most other nylons and less bright than carbons.

While something like the Alchemia has the bite in the trebles that you may be looking for, the Perla has a distinctly darker sound. The cream-colored Bionylon strings have a smooth feel for good playability. The overall sound accents the fundamental but with enough overtones for some brightness.

As with the Ambra 2000, many users have noticed that the Perla takes a long time to stretch and hold its pitch when compared to nylon strings. But once stretched, it is said to hold its pitch very well.

A final word on Aquila Strings

Whether you find these variants suitable for your needs and tastes is one thing. But it’s quite another for our industry as a whole to have a company like Aquila doing remarkable innovations on the strings we use every day. A genuine hats-off to that!

By and large, all Aquila strings sound brighter than most regular nylon strings, with Sugar being the brightest. All strings have a reputation for longer life, particularly the basses. And none of the variants are expensive.

Aquila’s site ranks their string sets from the brightest to the warmest as follows: Sugar, Rubino, Alchemia, Zaffiro, Alabastro, Ambra 2000, Cristallo and Perla. My own recommendation is to start with Alabastro, the original Nylgut sensation and a good introduction to what the whole Aquila thing is all about.

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Happy plucking!

Narayan Kumar

Narayan Kumar is a passionate classical guitarist and an online research buff. He is also one half of the online classical guitar duo DuJu who put out guitar duets regularly on their YouTube channel. Read more about Narayan.

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