Strings and Tuning of 19th Century Guitars (Cuerdas y afinaciones para guitarras del S.XIX)

Strings and Tuning of 19th Century Guitars

Tuning 19th century guitars

Strings for 19th century guitars

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Early Romantic Guitar Home Page

Editor’s Choice Strings 

Here are my recommendations by vendor for period guitars and copies.

This is not a list of all vendors, only the ones I have tried and recommend.

The strings I use for early guitars are shown on the right.

Panormo V-Headstock,
Baker tuners
Photo Courtesy:
The Guitar Workshop, Belgium

  • * La Bella 2001L – Light Tension, full pitch
    These strings sound good, are consistently intonated, and have safe tension at full pitch for most period guitars, plus they are cheap and easy to find. I use these for my 642 scale Stauffer copy, 630 scale ca. 1805 Lavigne, and 540 scale Terz guitar. Strings by Mail always carries these at low cost with fast and good service in my past dealings. However, I don’t like nylon for 2nd and 3rd (b,g) strings on romantic guitars – they sound a bit flabby to me, so I throw them out and replace them with gut or fluorocarbon, with good results. However, if you’re in a hurry and not so picky, these will do fine. If you want to replace the 2nd and 3rd strings, buy the individual strings from LaBella’s web site from the ERG#7 set, replace with fluorocarbon, or other gut vendors; read this page to learn how to pick your gauges and where to buy strings.
  • * Individual strings.
    I often order individual strings to get the exact tension that I want for the instrument. For 630-645 scale in standard tuning, I use: 

    1 – D’Addario Rectified Nylon 027 (NYL027)
    2 – Seaguar fluoro-carbon fishing line (b=.66mm/50 pound line/50FC25) or Labella VG028 varnished gut or 032 nylon
    3 - Seaguar fluoro-carbon fishing line (g=.81mm/70 pound line/70FC25) or Labella VG036 varnished gut or 040 nylon
    4 – D’Addario Silver-plated wound on Nylon, NYL026W
    5 – D’Addario Silver-plated wound on Nylon, NYL031W
    6 – D’Addario Silver-plated wound on Nylon, NYL040W

    Above, plus these for the 8-string (tuned an octave low):
    7 – D’Addario Silver-plated wound on Nylon, NYL045W (7th string = C/D tuning)
    8 – D’Addario Silver-plated wound on Nylon, NYL052W (8th string = A/B/C tuning, or 54 if always tuned to A).

    For a modern classical guitar which can withstand high tension, I use D’Addario EJ46c. For modern instruments with extended bass range (7-10 strings) I use a normal 6-string set for 1-6, and for the extra strings I order single strings – I use D’Addario D=50 (NYL050W), C=52 (NYL052W), B=54 (NYL054W), A=56 (NYL056W). For a period guitar, use lower tensions as noted above.

  • * La Bella ERG#7 – Early Romantic Guitar Varnished Gut, full pitch
    These are expensive, but they provide a pre-packaged set of gut strings which you can safely use at full pitch. They were specifically designed for romantic guitars at full pitch.
  • Seaguar carbon fishing line for strings 2 and 3. b=.66mm/50 pound line/50FC25, g=.81mm/70 pound line/70FC25, both in 25-yard spools (about 25 strings each at about $1 per string). See below. This is a good replacement for the 2-3 strings in the 2001L set. They have a bright and responsive sound, similar to gut due to the similar density.
  • La Bella ERG#1 – Early Romantic Guitar Nylon, full pitch
    These strings are rectified nylon, specifically designed for period guitars. They are more expensive than the 2001L series, and the rectified nylon in my opinion gives a different sound which you may or may not like. They are also very, very low tension.
  • Vanderbilt Music Company Bow Brand Gut trebles E=1st Octave G, B=2nd Octave D, G=3rd Octave D; J45 bass, tuned down 1/2 step. See below for more info. This is what Doug James uses; the gut strings on harps are of good quality.
  • D’Addario J43 Pro Arte Light Tension Nylon, full pitch
  • Aquila 19th Century Style Gut, tuned down 1/2 step
  • D’Addario J45 Pro Arte Normal Tension Nylon, tuned down 1/2 step


Lacote Tuners by Rodgers
Lacote Tuners by Rodgers

Note enclosed mechanism which protects the gears; an ingenious design.
Aesthetics are improved by hiding the ugly gear mechanism.
Lacote tuners are superior to “modern” classical tuners which have improved little since 1823.

International standard pitch today, and the reference pitch you get if you use a standard tuning machine or a pitch fork, is A=440 Hertz, also known as “A440″ or “A=440″. In the past, reference pitches were not standardized, and in the early romantic era, commonly used pitches were lower, or slightly flat compared to A440. The pitch varied considerably by country and year. Pitch was sometimes lower in France, but also higher in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

An interesting article about how the pitch frequency changed over time, and across countries can be found here: History of U.S. Standard Pitch.

Several opinions exist regarding period tuning. Some say it makes no difference. Others point out that the tension level of the strings affects the sound characteristics, and the instruments of the day were constructed with this in mind. There is also a natural range of the human voice, and changing the reference pitch will alter how the melody falls relative to the voice.

Some will advise to tune a period guitar a half-step low using A440, so that the E string is actually tuned to D#, and so forth for the other open strings. Play the music like you normally would of course. Obviously, this will cause problems in ensembles unless everyone tunes accordingly, but works fine in solo situations. The pitch also affects the resonance characteristics of the guitar and its sound, as well as the tension! Douglas James is an advocate of lowering a half step from A=440.

According to John McCormick in his article “Songs with Guitar from the Age of Napoleon”:
Incidentally, we have discovered that in order to perform these songs as they may have been heard in their own time, lowering the pitch by approximately one half step from A 440 not only comes closer to replicating the pitch in use when they were written, but it enhances their sound. The guitar sounds richer and more vocal. The range of the vocal line falls well within the middle range of the average voice, an important consideration for this music. During the time of Mozart and Beethoven, the standard pitch is thought to have fallen somewhere between A 416 and A 430, according to the Oxford Companion to Music. Therefore, lowering the pitch to that range seems quite logical, especially in view of the outcome.

Dennis Cinelli advises that period guitars should be tuned to A=430, rather than a half-step below A440. Most electronic tuning machines allow you to alter the reference pitch, to allow you to set it to A430. However, the LaBella early romantic guitar string series which Dennis designed is intended for A440.

This web site advocates A440 tuning for simplicity, to facilitate playing in ensembles, and to use standard tuning devices. Tension can be adjusted by choosing a different string material or gauge instead of de-tuning.


Crane Fabricatore Gut Strings
Crane: Fabricatore style,
Figure 8 Headstock
Wooden Tuning Pegs
Gut Strings

Basic 19th Century Guitar String Advice

Use only low tension strings for your 19th century guitar. If you start to experiment, make sure you are aware how many kg of tension you are putting on the bridge. You might try going a half-step low until you are sure your instrument can withstand the tension. Usually, the string company will have information regarding their tensions, but not always. This can be more complicated than it looks because tension is affected by scale length, diameter / gauge, material density, and pitch (e.g. A440 or other). A “low tension” classical guitar set is often high tension for a romantic guitar. “Normal” tension classical guitar sets are often too high in tension to consider at A440, though you can sometimes use them by tuning down 1/2 step.

The recommended guideline on this web site for tension at A440 standard pitch is around 6.5kg for e1, and around 5.5kg for 2-6, for a total of 34kg tension.

Tension can go lower; Savarez advises 5kg for romantic guitars, and some players use 4.5kg. Generally the D string is higher tension than 5.5 because it requires a larger diameter otherwise it may snap. Modern classical guitars use much higher tensions; they have different construction and can withstand the stress unlike romantic guitars.

Strings make a huge difference in the sound of your guitar. It is well worth the effort to try different kinds of strings over time and to choose the proper strings for your instrument and playing style. Fortunately there are many fine, world-class companies that provide musical instrument strings of all kinds for period instruments.

String advice by George C. Krick (May 1939) is a fascinating, practical advice column about gut and wound silk string upkeep and usage, written just prior to the advent of nylon strings.

Changing Strings with Bridge Pins

Bridge pins can be easy and fast once you get used to them, but I too have had the joys of snapped strings, pins flying across the room like a bullet, etc., so here are some tips (the most important ones being to hold down the pin while tuning up, and to double-knot the trebles):

1. Knots – 1st string is a problem. D’Addario J43′s snap every time for me, but I have no problem with 2001L. On the first string, tie a double knot so that the knot is bigger. Make sure the knot is tight so that it doesn’t come untied. Clip off the excess string below the knot to avoid rattling inside, but leave 1-2 mm of slack.

2. Push the string further into the cavity more than is necessary, insert the pin, then pull the string up while holding down the pin to let it catch. If the pin is fluted – with a groove, make sure the string aligns to the groove. The groove or flute should face toward the neck.

3. While tuning up, gently put your finger on the pin to hold it down while tuning up.

4. Tune up a little at a time on each string. Move on to the next string while the other one stretches. Don’t go all the way from slack to full pitch immediately, as this temporarily creates too much tension until the string can stretch to pitch.

5. To remove pins, tune down so the string is slack. Clasp gently with needle-nose pliers and wiggle sideways back and forth gently until it is loosened (more like unscrewing it than pulling up). Be careful not to pull upward with pliers on the pin unless the pin is loosened first – the top of an ancient guitar can be old, brittle wood, and you can accidentally pull the top and damage the instrument.

In general use your instincts – don’t push down too hard on the top. With practice it will become natural.

Tension Calculation

Tension is a mathematical calculation. Fortunately the string vendors usually provide this information and there are string calculator programs available. This web site presents information to allow you to select the appropriate material and gauge diameter. Tension is affected by all of these variables (Gauge Diameter, Material Density, Scale, Pitch).

Rules of thumb (approximate but imprecise guidelines):

  • Find out the kg string tension from the vendor for each string at a specific scale length
  • 34 kg total tension is safe for most romantic guitars; try not to exceed this tension
  • Adjust the tension for your guitar’s scale by about .2 kg per 10mm of scale per string, or 1.2kg total
  • De-Tuning 1/2 step lowers the tension around .5 kg to .75 kg per string
  • Each 1/100 of an inch (e.g. from .38 to .39) increase in gauge increases tension about .5 kg per string
  • Baroque A=415 tuning reduces tension about 3.5 kg total from standard A=440 tuning

Diameter / Gauge – Larger diameter = more tension, assuming the other variables are kept constant. The diameter, also called gauge, is the size of the string. If you want more tension for a string, use a higher gauge of the same material. If you want less tension, use a smaller gauge. A rule of thumb is the tension will increase .5 kg with each increase in gauge measured in 1/100 of an inch (e.g. from .38 to .39).

There is some variance in diameter across the length of the string, so that it may be thinner or thicker in certain places; this is also called “tolerance” in materials manufacturing. Savarez states that old techniques using grinding machines resulted in tolerances of .05mm (5/100mm), whereas today’s centerless machines result in tolerances of less than .005mm (.5/100mm or half a hundredth of a millimeter). In strings, a very small change in diameter can produce a very large difference in tension.

It is always best to use tension ratings from individual string manufacturers, rather than rely on calculations. According to the D’Addario Fretted Catalog: “String tension is determined by vibrating length, mass, and pitch. Diameter alone does not determine a string’s tension. By using different raw materials or by varying the ratio between the core and the wrap wire during the winding process, two strings with the same diameter, tuned to the same pitch, could have different string tensions. Comparing a D’Addario .032 string to a competitor’s .032 string may not yield the same playing tension.

The following table shows string gauges in inches and metric equivalents. This is because string companies are not consistent in units of measure. In the USA, a “44 gauge” would refer to .044 inches (also shown as “), or 1.118 mm. In some countries, decimals are represented as commas whereas in others they are points: for example 0,711mm and 0.711mm are equivalent. Savarez designates early instrument gauges as a percentage of millimeter, for example: 71% mm and .71 mm are equivalent.

String Gauge inch to mm Conversion Chart:

0.015 inches =  0.381 mm
0.016 inches =  0.406 mm
0.017 inches =  0.432 mm
0.018 inches =  0.457 mm
0.019 inches =  0.483 mm
0.020 inches =  0.508 mm
0.021 inches =  0.533 mm
0.022 inches =  0.559 mm
0.023 inches =  0.584 mm
0.024 inches =  0.610 mm
0.025 inches =  0.635 mm
0.026 inches =  0.660 mm
0.027 inches =  0.686 mm
0.028 inches =  0.711 mm
0.029 inches =  0.737 mm
0.030 inches =  0.762 mm
0.031 inches =  0.787 mm
0.032 inches =  0.813 mm
0.033 inches =  0.838 mm
0.034 inches =  0.864 mm
0.035 inches =  0.889 mm
0.036 inches =  0.914 mm
0.037 inches =  0.940 mm
0.038 inches =  0.965 mm
0.039 inches =  0.991 mm
0.040 inches =  1.016 mm
0.041 inches =  1.041 mm
0.042 inches =  1.067 mm
0.043 inches =  1.092 mm
0.044 inches =  1.118 mm
0.045 inches =  1.143 mm
0.046 inches =  1.168 mm
0.047 inches =  1.194 mm
0.048 inches =  1.219 mm
0.049 inches =  1.245 mm
0.050 inches =  1.270 mm
0.051 inches =  1.295 mm
0.052 inches =  1.321 mm
0.053 inches =  1.346 mm
0.054 inches =  1.372 mm
0.055 inches =  1.397 mm
0.056 inches =  1.422 mm
0.057 inches =  1.448 mm
0.058 inches =  1.473 mm
0.059 inches =  1.499 mm
0.060 inches =  1.524 mm

String Diameter Chart for early 19th c. guitars

Typical Gauges inch”/mm Labella ERG#1
rectified nylon
LaBella ERG#7
2001L nylon
J43 nylon
Savarez carbon
Alliance KF
string 1 E .024-.028/.61-.71 .025/.635 .024/.61 .028/.71 .0275/.7 .023/.58
string 2 B .028-.0335/.71-.86 .032/.813 .028/.71 .032/.813 .0317/.8 .0335/.71
string 3 G .036-.041/.914-1.041 .0365/.92 .036/.914 .040/1.016 .0397/1 .355/.9
string 4 D .028-.029/.711-.737 .029/.737 .029/.737 .028/.711 .028/.711
string 5 A .032-.034/.813-.864 .032/.813 .032/.813 .0335/.85 .033/.838
string 6 E .040-.042/1.016-1.067 .040/1.016 .040/1.016 .041/1.041 .042/1.067

Material / Density – Higher density = more tension, assuming the other variables are kept constant. The density of the material affects how much tension the string will have. Carbon is more dense than nylon, therefore it will have higher tension at the same diameter as a nylon string, which is why carbon strings are lesser diameter. Gut is also more dense than clear nylon. Rectified nylon is perhaps the lightest density. This is the hardest variable to determine. It varies per string, even the same material by the same manufacturer. In the case of bass strings, the amount of steel winding affects the density for each diameter.

Scale – Higher scale = more tension, assuming the other variables are kept constant. Scale is the string length of the guitar, for example 650mm is the standard classical size, and 19th c. guitars were 610-642mm usually. If you put the same string on a 640 scale guitar and a 650 scale guitar, the 650 scale guitar will have more tension because the string is stretched further. If you find tension measurements from a manufacturer given at 655 scale, and your guitar is 635 scale, the actual tension will be less. A rule of thumb is tension will change about .18 to .21 per 10mm of scale; e.g. 5.4 kg at 630 scale is 5.58 kg at 640 scale (.18 increase).

Pitch – Higher pitch = more tension, assuming the other variables are kept constant. Pitch can be measured in absolute Hertz (Hz) frequency, or in note values (e.g. A, B … G). Of course if you raise a string in pitch, it will increase in tension. Tuning down or up 1/2 step changes the tension between around .5 kg to .75 kg per string. Some players use higher tension strings 1/2 step down, or others use lower tension strings at full pitch.

Reference pitch affects the tension. When we play an “A” note at the 5th fret first string, it rings at 440 Hertz. In the past this was not the case; the “A” note hertz frequency varied by country and year. Standard pitch today is A = 440 Hertz, so that e1 = 329.63 Hz, b=246.94 Hz, etc.. Some early music specialists use a lower reference pitch based on historical considerations. A common “Baroque” pitch is A=415 Hz, so that e1=311.13 Hz, b=233.08 Hz, etc. Changing the reference pitch from A440 will make you out of tune with other players of course, but in tune with yourself. At a lower reference pitch, the strings will be under less tension because they are at a lower absolute Hertz frequency. Because it is important to play with other musicians, and because the standards are so widely adopted, and because the tension can be altered by changing the material or gauge instead of de-tuning, I advocate A440 standard tuning.

Interestingly, there is some debate about whether early guitar strings were truly lower tension. The prevailing practice is to use thin gut strings, but such practice is based on little actual research. Recent discoveries of original strings have come to light, which shows that early strings may have had much greater tension than today, even after accounting for A=415-430 pitch. There is a fascinating article titled Early Classical Guitar Strings that discusses this matter.

However, keep in mind that 100-200 years of age will reduce the elasticity of the wood, and the guitar’s advanced age may not allow you to use the level of tension originally employed when it was new. Luthiers who build faithful replicas of early romantic guitars also advise that the bridge is not capable of withstanding the high tension of thick strings. It is best to play it safe here and use low tension.

PUL – Per Unit Length – This is a term used by Savarez to refer to their wound materials. This is a very good way to describe the materials instead of gauge, since the composition affects the tension. The proportion of winding to core also varies by string diameter, so PUL is a good descriptor. This assures that the right string can be chosen to achieve a tension goal. Per Savarez: “Instead of speaking of gauge, we give the weight per unit of length (called in our charts PUL) of each string, in order to determine the choice of the string according to the desired tension.” This makes it hard to equate to other manufacturer’s materials, but their string calculator makes it easy to select the proper gauge of their materials.

String Calculators – Programs are available to assist in string selection.

I found the following program useful:
Paul Beier’s String Calculator – (zip file).

The Beier string calculator is shareware. The “How to Register” button gives the wrong email address for registration. The correct address is Albert Reyerman, TREE EDITION, and the registration fee to:
Albert Reyerman
Finkenberg 89
D-23558 Luebeck
Phone: ++49(0)451- 899 78 48

The Beier program requires entering a material density. This information is not available, you have to calculate it. To do so, I determined material density by toying with the density value until I got the tension to match the tension listed in the vendor’s catalog at a given scale, pitch, and diameter first. I entered new materials for every string because the density varies by string.

Savarez (France) has a string calculator program, a sophisticated spreadsheet written in VB with macros and dialogs. You can write to them and request it along with the catalog. It is useful to only select materials they sell, not a general usage program.

Multi-bass Guitar Gauges.

As stated previously, romantic guitars require lower tension. For period or period style instruments with 7-10 strings in “romantic tuning” (natural notes) with extra bass strings an octave below the guitar’s lowest basses, you can buy a 6-string set and then buy the low strings individually. The gauge you pick depends on whether the string always remains at its pitch, or if the tuning varies in which case use a maximum of around 5.5kg for the highest tuning. The low string gauge suggestions are (tension given at 642 scale; adjust accordingly):

.045″ = C or D. D= 5.41 kg, C = 4.41 kg. Cheap solution is use a high-tension classical guitar low E string; the tension is fine a whole step down. I use D’Addario J4406 or NYL045W for string 7=C or D.

.050″ = B or C. This 4.72 kg at B, 5.3 kg at C. If tuning remains always at C, you can use a heavier gauge, e.g. up to .050″. Do not use the higher guage if you will ever tune to D; this would be 6.68 kg at D (too high). At A, 3.75kg is a bit low. D’Addario NYL050W is available.

.052″ = A, B, or C. C = 5.73kg (a little high but still OK), B = 5.11kg, A=4.05kg tension. 52-gauge is best for B or C, but it works at A, as my 8-string requires tuning 8= A, B, or C. D’Addario NYL052W is available.

.054″ = A or B. A=4.37kg, B=5.51kg, C=6.18kg (too high). D’Addario NYL054W is available.

.056″ = G or A. G=3.69kg, A=4.7kg. D’Addario NYL056W is available.

Modern instruments can withstand higher tension. I personally prefer D’Addario EJ46C strings on modern classical guitars, but this is a matter of personal taste.

Here is my recommended stringing for a MODERN 8-string guitar, using D’Addario strings:

1 e EJ4601
2 b EJ4602
3 g EJ4603
4 d EJ4604
5 A EJ4605
6 E EJ4606
7 D NYL050W
8 A, B, or C NYL054W

Here is my recommended stringing for a MODERN 10-string guitar tuned in step-wise “Romantic” tuning, using D’Addario strings:

1 e EJ4601
2 b EJ4602
3 g EJ4603
4 d EJ4604
5 A EJ4605
6 E EJ4606
7 D NYL050W
8 C NYL052W
9 B NYL054W
10 A NYL056W

Here is my recommended stringing for a MODERN 10-string guitar tuned in the Carulli Decacorde method, using D’Addario strings:

1 e EJ4601
2 b EJ4602
3 g EJ4603
4 d EJ4604
5 A EJ4605
6 G NYL040W
7 F NYL043W
8 E EJ4606
9 D NYL050W
10 C NYL052W

Terz Guitar Gauges.

Terz guitars have a 530-540mm scale length in order to partially compensate for the extra tension of being tuned 3 half-steps higher than a normal guitar (the shorter the scale, the less tension at a given pitch). Some guitars are identified as “terz” that have 560-570mm scale, but it is unclear if these were child guitars, romantic guitars with a short scale, or terz. Regardless, the correct tension must be applied for the scale of the instrument at a given pitch.

Even at this shorter scale, tension may be too high for normal light tension guitar strings because the terz guitar is tuned 3 half steps higher than a standard guitar. For example, the LaBella 2001L Light tension strings are fine for romantic guitars, but at 570 scale and terz tuning, the tension becomes 7.31kg at the first string versus 6.63 at 642 scale normal pitch.

M. Ophee sells string sets of very light gauge, so that you can string a 650 scale guitar as terz if needed – this is useful if you have an instrument not in service and need to play a couple of terz pieces but don’t want to buy a terz guitar. One could also calculate the tension and buy individual guages, but the packaged string set is a simpler solution.

LaBella sells “Romantic Terz Guitar” sets, with rectified nylon, plain or varnished gut trebles and silver / bronze / copper wound nylon basses: Romantic Terz Guitar String Sets.

I have also used the following Savarez strings per luthier Clive Titmuss; though I believe they are too high in tension. This explains my instinct to take it down 1/2 step; the instrument seemed to really be straining and was difficult to tune with friction pegs at full pitch:

I BRV(boyau rectifié vernis, polished rectified gut) 66/68
III BRV 99/94
IV BFC (boyau filé cuivre, gut overspun with copper) 176
V BFC 300
VI BFC 480

“You can order BFA also, this is silvered copper, boyau filé argenté.”

According to the Savarez string calculator program, these gauges and the tensions are:

.66MM = 8.9599
.79MM = 7.2952
.94MM = 6.4871
176PUL = 7.1478
300PUL = 6.7234
480PUL = 6.0511

42.6646 Total tension (too high)

Savarez advises 5kg/string for romantic guitars, Kresse advises 6.5 for 1, 5.5 for 2-6. Using these guidelines, I came up with the following recommended terz gauges of Savarez materials:

gut PUL TENSION Material
55      6.2222  BRV55
68      5.4050  BRV68
84      5.1803  BRV84
    140 5.6858  BFC140
    240 5.3788  BFC240
    440 5.5468  BFC440
       33.4189 Total Tension

Shown below are baseline gauges which provide 6.5kg on the 1st string, and 5.5kg on the rest. Also shown are the LaBella gauges.

Romantic Terz guitar gauges.

Baseline Carbon
Wound Silver
Baseline Nylon
Wound Silver
LaBella RTG#1
Rectified Nylon
LaBella RTG#7
Varnished gut
.019/.483 .026/.660 .024/.610 .023/.584
.023/.584 .032/.813 .032/.813 .028/.711
.029/.737 .039/.991 .036/.914 .033/.838
.025/.635 .025/.635 .028/.711 .028/.711
.032/.813 .032/.813 .032/.813 .032/.813
.039/.991 .039/.991 .039/.991 .039/.991

The baseline Terz tensions and material densities determine the necessary gauges which can be met by the following materials individually:

Carbon Trebles- Savarez Alliance – KF 047-KF55, KF 060-KF66, KF 074-KF84
Varnished Gut Trebles – LaBella – VG023, VG028, VG035
Wound Silver Basses – D’Addario Silverplated wound on Nylon – NYL025W, NYL031W, NYL040W
Wound Silver Basses- LaBella Silver Plated Wound on Nylon – WS025, WS032, WS040

Material Types

Steel Strings

1832 Lacote with major damage due to steel strings

NEVER, EVER, EVER put steel strings on a classical or period 19th century guitar!!
Steel strings have much greater tension than nylon / gut, and will ruin the instrument because the bracing system, neck, and bridge was not designed for that much stress. High tension strings can tear off the bridge, crack the top, warp the neck, and so forth. Guitars did not use steel strings until around the turn of the 20th century. Steel-string guitars had X-brace systems or used metal tail pieces which extend from the strings to the strap pin. Also, steel-string guitars often have metal cores called “truss rods” to allow the high stress on the neck. Certainly any guitar before about 1900 is a classical guitar and should never use steel strings. The steel string guitar was invented in America; early manufacturers were C.F. Martin and the Gibson company in the late 1800′s / early 1900′s. Do not assume that bridge pins indicate that steel-strings are to be used; most antique classical guitars before 1850 used bridge pins for gut strings, and the tie bridge was only used in Spanish guitars mostly until the 20th century.

Clear Nylon

Clear nylon is by far the most common classical guitar string for trebles. Nylon is a different sound than gut, but it works fine on early guitars as long as the correct tensions are used. Unfortunately, the smallest gauge available is .028″ / .711mm which is a bit stiff for the 1st string, thus you lose some of the responsiveness, character and vibrato. It would be nice if someone finally made .026″ / .660 gauge clear nylon for the first string. Nylon is the most inexpensive classical guitar material. However, musical instrument strings are an insignificant market for nylon manufacturers, thus clear nylon gauges are limited to nylon diameters in use for other intended applications, such as broom fibers, tennis racket threads, rope, and fishing line.

Rectified Nylon

Rectified or calibrated nylon is used for lutes and other early instruments, but is also used for early guitar.

It is manufactured by grinding the sides down so that the material has a precise diameter throughout the entire string. A .028 gauge clear nylon might be rectified down to a .026 gauge, for example. In the process, the coating is removed, and the material becomes a little rough to the touch and cloudy-looking. This process also affects the tone; it has a different tone than clear nylon, and a lower density which allows lighter tensions at a given diameter. I think the tone of rectified nylon sounds a bit thin and dry, but some people like the sound, and it varies by instrument and player. It is the only realistic choice to obtain very low tensions on the first string. LaBella and Savarez offer most diameters of rectified nylon in their early guitar catalog, and D’Addario also offers many guages of rectified nylon. Because the rectifying process starts with a thicker gauge of standard clear nylon and grinds it down to a smaller size, it is possible to obtain rectified nylon material in any gauge.


Gut is fairly dense material and usually has more tension than nylon, so a thinner diameter or tuning down is required to compensate. There are many different kinds of gut strings. Guitarists usually want varnished gut, which is polished and a lot like nylon. Varnished gut density is about 1.234 kg/m3.

Gut strings of course were used back in those days. If you want a “period” sound, there is simply no substitute. Some players are very adamant about this matter: “I have completely given up on nylon; it sounds pathetic and flabby under all circumstances, and is a bane to the existence of period instruments. What’s the point of going to all that trouble, if you are going to use plastic to make the sound?

Gut makes a major difference in the sound. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many experts who specialize in early guitar, gut is a huge improvement on period guitars (modern guitars were designed with nylon in mind, however, and nylon may work best on modern guitars).

Gut strings are a lot like nylon, but they have a bit richer sound and are more sensitive to nuances of touch.

However, not everyone likes gut strings. For one thing, they are expensive: about $8 – $13 per treble string, and wound over gut bass strings are about $20 each. Depending on the string quality, the pitch may not be as reliable as mass-production nylon. Gut strings do not last as long as nylon. One way that gut treble strings wear out is that their pitch will falter. Gut strings will develop pocks and start to shred if you use too much fingernail or if your nails are not filed properly, especially the thinnest string, the Chanterelle (high E string). Gut strings are also sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Often, string players will de-tune when the instrument is at rest because the strings may go sharp and increase tension too much. Nylon players will find they cannot play heavily without damaging the strings; though perhaps this is a good lesson in period performance practice, as this music was played more lightly than today.

Carbon Fiber / Fluorocarbon

Carbon is a newer material for guitar strings. It is primarily used in fishing lines because it is more dense than nylon, allowing a thinner diameter to hold the same tension as nylon, and it sinks more quickly in the water. It is a clear material just like nylon. It was invented by Seaguar, a major fishing line company (interestingly, nylon for guitar strings was originally fishing line also). Fluorocarbon has a bright and responsive sound, similar to gut due to the similar density (the density is about 1.776 kg/m3), and it is often used by early music players as a gut substitute. The material is not sensitive to temperature and humidity like gut, nor does it shred if you use too much fingernail like gut. It is bright sounding, which can be good or bad, depending on your taste (I personally like their sound). The down side is they can start to fray and unravel when they get old, which can create sharp fibers, though this is generally not a problem if you change them when they start to unravel. I have had strings on for more than 6 months and this has not happened. Several string makers offer carbon strings; as far as I can tell they are the same material as Seaguar fishing line.

You can save a lot of money buying bulk fishing line spools versus single strings. You need to know which diameter, etc., to order. I use the following strings for my Kresse Stauffer replica, as luthier Kresse discovered:

first = Toray nylon = 0.66mm diameter = 6.8 kg at 650-scale
second = Seaguar fluorocarbon = 0.66 mm diameter = 6.2 kg at 650-scale
third = Seaguar fluorocarbon = 0.81 mm diameter = 5.9 kg at 650-scale

Savarez, Kurschner, and Hannabach provide Carbon Fiber / Fluorocarbon strings. Savarez by far has the best early instrument catalog of these 3 companies and a wide selection of carbon gauges suitable for romantic guitars.

I have not been able to locate the Toray nylon .66mm line anywhere; it is Japanese fishing line that is not available in the USA. However, the LaBella 2001L top string also works well, though it is a slightly thicker gauge. Rectified nylon can also be used as a substitute.

To obtain Seaguar fluorocarbon fishing line for strings 2 and 3, you can order from “Bass Pro Shops” also at 800-227-7776 in the USA, which has good service and has the item in stock last I checked. Other stores may also carry it. This is a 25-yard spool of Seaguar Fluorocarbon fishing line, for the 2nd b string order .66mm/50 pound line/50FC25 (about $20), for the 3rd g string order .81mm/70 pound line/70FC25 (about $25). The 25-yard spools yield about 25 strings per spool, for under $1 per string. See below. This is a good replacement for the 2-3 strings in the 2001L set.


There are several different kinds of nylon strings that claim to sound exactly like gut, mimic the wave form, etc., including a material called “NylGut” and other kinds of nylon strings. I tried NylGut twice, and they are well-made strings. For my taste, I found them a little too bright, but some players or instruments may find this to be an advantage. In my personal opinion, NylGut sounded nothing like real gut strings. This is purely a matter of personal taste, and you may like them. Also, they may work well on some guitars but not others. I’m not the only one who disliked them: “The new polyester composite strings under the name Nylgut, have a similar sound to nylon, thick, inarticulate, lacking in high partials. They seem to have a low tensile strength too. Many others like them, but not I.” – Luthier Clive Titmuss.

Lynda Sayce adds this: “Aquila’s nylgut strings are very popular with lutenists, Clive Titmuss’s reservations notwithstanding, but there’s one vital bit of information which you need to make optimum use of them. They stretch MUCH more than most nylon strings, so my advice is to work out the gauge you need for the tension you want, then order strings two gauges thicker, and maybe put them on one at a time if your guitar is a really fragile one. They will feel tight for an hour or so, but they very quickly stretch and thin out to something like the gauge you want. You have to be careful to wind the absolute minimum of string onto the peg or roller, because the stretch is so extreme that it’s easy to end up with masses of string bunched up in the pegbox. My feeling is that they would be most useful on Terz guitars, because the thinner gauges are indisputably the most successful.”

Silver Wound Bass

Bass strings are nylon or gut core, wound with metal, usually silver-plated copper. Silver wound nylon bass strings are by far the most common string. They are bright sounding and loud. However, some early music players claim they are a bit too metallic sounding. Savarez and LaBella have various kinds of wound over gut materials.

Copper Wound Bass

Can have a warmer sound, but not as bright.

Bronze Wound Bass

I have not tried these. Any reader comments?

Wound Silk or Gut Core Bass

Most gut string sets have only the 3 gut trebles, but they use nylon core wound metal basses, e.g. ordinary classical guitar strings for the bass. In the 1800′s, the bass strings were gut or silk core with a similar metal overspin. It is very difficult to find silk core strings; I have heard that they do not last very long and break easily, and they are expensive. I tried silk once, and did not like them at all: no real difference in the sound, just playability problems. Gut core basses are available from LaBella and others, but this can get expensive (around $20 per string). Most of the major artists who specialize in 19th century guitar use gut trebles with ordinary classical guitar bass strings. I also use this stringing combination.

Luthier Clive Titmuss discusses the gut cores: “Gut core string is much less stable than what you are used to, but with only three strings on the instrument, you are not looking at the kind of problems you would have if you were playing the baroque lute! They are sure worth a try, as the sound is quite different, much rounder, less metallic and buzzy, particularly for the copper overspun, and in general far less dominating. The guitar’s (and lute’s) penchant for bias to the bass in certainly not to be encouraged, so I advocate their use on period instruments without reservation from the point of view of sound, but less so if tuning is an issue. If you play in public a lot in poorly ventilated humid environments, forget it, but if you play in your cool basement or bedroom, you should try them.”

String Brand Suggestions

As the chart below shows, the tension is measured at a certain scale length. Adjust these to match your guitar’s measurements by about 0.2kg per 10mm of scale per string, or about 1.2kg total for all 6 strings. For example if your guitar is 640 scale and the measurement was taken at 630 scale, add about .2 to the tensions per string or (6 * .2 =) 1.2kg total. If we are aiming for 34kg total tension on the bridge on a romantic guitar, the individual strings can vary a little. This is only for estimating, the precise measurements depend on knowing the exact material density, but this will get close enough.

String Tension Ratings

ERG#1 nylon
ERG#7 gut
Scale Ref - 630mm 630mm 655mm 648mm 650mm 648mm 648mm
string 1 E 6.5 5.4 6.2 6.9 6.71 7 6.85 6.94
string 2 B 5.5 4.8 4.75 5.2 5.08 5.6 5.4 5.26
string 3 G 5.5 4.75 4.8 5.2 5.31 6 5.4 5.49
string 4 D 5.5 6.5 6.5 6.4 6.71 6.2 6.99 7.08
string 5 A 5.5 4.4 4.4 5.8 5.67 6.2 6.8 6.8
string 6 E 5.5 4.6 4.6 5.7 5.99 6 6.26 6.35
- - - - - - - - -
Total kg 34 30.45 31.25 35.2 35.47 37 37.7 37.92

The chart is sorted by tension, lowest on the left, highest on the right. The LaBella’s and the D’Addario J43 are safe. The other strings on the chart are too high in tension to recommend for an early guitar at A440 pitch; you could tune down 1/2 step to use them or they may be suitable for very short scaled instruments.

This is only a starting point. Advanced players will want to experiment to get an optimum sound for their playing style and instrument. Remember to ask the manufacturer for the tensions, first, and use caution. If it looks like the guitar is under too much strain, back off and lower the pitch a half step or use lighter strings – common sense here.


As a quick and easy starting point, the LaBella 2001L Light Tension strings are a good tension, for ordinary clear nylon silver wound bass strings which are easy to find in stores. These are good strings and I use them at full pitch on romantic guitars. They are cheap, only about $7 per set. LaBella’s director of sales advised me these strings are often used for fragile instruments.

LaBella has a full early instrument strings catalog. You can select strings by material and gauge if you know what to order.

Off the shelf, LaBella offers an “Early Romantic Guitar” (ERG) series. The LaBella ERG strings are safe tensions, even for gut, in fact they are a bit on the low side even at full A440 pitch. If you do not know a lot about strings but want to get a more period sound, I suggest starting with the LaBella ERG (Early Romantic Guitar) series, available from the LaBella web site. The ERG#1 uses Rectified Nylon trebles and light core basses, and other sets are available with different bass materials and gut. The ERG#7 is an excellent gut set, but these can get expensive.

ERG #1 Nylon trebles & silver basses
ERG #2 Nylon trebles & bronze basses
ERG #3 Nylon trebles & copper basses
ERG #7 Varnished gut trebles & silver basses
ERG #8 Varnished gut trebles & bronze basses
ERG #9 Varnished gut trebles & copper basses
ERG #10 Plain gut trebles & silver basses
ERG #11 Plain gut trebles & bronze basses
ERG #12 Plain gut trebles & copper basses

The La Bella Early Romantic Guitar (ERG#1, ERG#7, etc.) strings are specifically designed for early romantic guitar. Dennis Cinelli designed these strings for LaBella (see the Recordings and Artists Page). They were tested on authentic and replica versions of Lacote, Stauffer and Panormo – representing 3 major schools of guitar. What makes them different from other classical guitar strings is they were specifically designed for smaller scale instruments with appropriate tension.

ERG#1 and ERG#7 are the ones I personally would suggest. The ERG#1 set is mono-filament rectified nylon, with overspun lighter core silver basses. The basses in particular have a more spring-like, fast and punchy response due to the lighter core. However, you might or might not like the sound of rectified nylon. ERG#2, etc., have different kinds of materials that you can read about in the LaBella catalog, for example if you prefer brass basses, etc.. ERG#7 is the varnished gut set for early romantic guitar with Silver wound basses. The ERG#7 gut strings are more expensive; about $35 per set. Just Strings carries the ERG line of strings. You can also order the ERG strings directly from LaBella. (It is best to request a LaBella Catalog, including the Early Instrument catalog).

The string designer Dennis Cinelli notes that the La Bella ERG line of strings is designed for Early Romantic guitars only – he does not recommend using them on a modern classical guitar with the usual 650 scale. On a modern guitar, La Bella has “Late Romantic Antique Gut” sets if you want to try gut on your modern guitar, and of course the La Bella line of strings. On modern guitar, there are dozens of manufacturers for good nylon strings: Hannabach, D’Addario, La Bella for example.

Labella Early Guitar Individual and Set String Catalog – Individual strings available by gauge. Ordering on-line. The classical strings are not available from here; those are only by dealers: this means unfortunately, you cannot order clear nylon from this site. However, there are many gauges of rectified nylon, varnished and plain gut, and silver/copper/bronze wound over nylon/gut.


D'Addario Strings

This company is a popular vendor for classical guitar, and my favorite strings for modern classical guitar are the J-series composites. There is not much tailored to early guitar, but you can buy individual strings in a variety of gauges. The Pro Arte J43 are mostly safe tension, and they are easily found in stores cheaply. They tend to be consistently made, and I have never had an intonation problem with them.

D’Addario Classic Individual String Catalog – Individual strings available by gauge, including very high gauges for multi-bass guitars. You find the SKU and order it from a dealer.


This company has a lot of materials, but I have had difficulty getting information and materials directly. Therefore I have not considered their strings for early guitar. None of the stock sets seemed appropriate.


Mimmo Peruffo is the gut strings expert for Aquila Strings in Italy and Aquila USA (Carries Aquila strings from Italy, but is based in Portland, OR for ease in ordering in the US.). His research, using in part surviving original string samples, indicates period strings were in fact thicker than widely believed today. I have seen other research backing this conclusion. Also, I have come across 3 antique guitars with extremely old strings, possibly original, which all had very thick strings we joked about as being “cables”. Modern guitar sets, and gut strings from the 1930′s in Pujol’s collection have a strong scaling tension. (Aquila offers a gut string set modeled after Pujol’s 1930′s gut strings, for use on modern classicals.) In the 19th century, the tension was probably an equal tension profile. Thus, the gut strings Aquila sent me to try had much thicker gauges; they have an interesting sound, but in my opinion too quiet and dull, and too much tension to be safe at full pitch:

e .70mm (8.19kg at 630 scale, A440, assuming 1.234 density)
b .85mm (6.78kg)
g 1.12mm (7.34kg)

These Aquila gut trebles are indeed thicker and have a different sound characteristic than the other gut strings. Aquila also makes gut strings at any gauge. They are all fine strings, you may want to experiment to find the best one for your taste, and the ones best suited to your instrument. Gut strings in general give a new experience to playing, by using strings which are closer to the actual period construction. The thickness of the strings, the lower tuning, and difference in tension would make no-nails playing like Sor easily possible, which is generally not possible on modern nylon guitars without significant degradation of tone and volume.

In an effort to replicate period string practice which used silk wound bass strings, I tried the Aquila Silk core wound basses, but they did not work out for me. I was unable to make them hold a pitch, which resulted in an unpleasant, wavering, metallic sound. Perhaps these strings did not agree with my guitar, or perhaps silk is not as good of a material as gut or nylon for bass string cores. I would therefore recommend using nylon or gut core basses, not silk (which is also very expensive).


In addition to selling a popular line of classical guitar strings, Savarez has an extensive selection of materials and gauges for early instruments of all kinds. The catalog and string calculator is very useful. Savarez gut strings, varnished plain gut and also the wound over gut strings, are very high quality.

As you get more familiar with strings, you may go the route of getting your own strings individually. Luthier Clive Titmuss advises that: “I should tell you that I get my period guitar strings from Savarez SA in France, where they are made to order. I prefer the copper wound bass strings on gut or floss core, and they have absolutely the very best varnished gut strings in all sizes. They do not sell sets as such, but you order according to their catalogue, which is very extensive. Recently they came out with a CD which is a string calculator for any instrument. Just type in the type, pitch, tension etc, and out comes the answer. They have provided me with superb service for more than 25 years. – Phillipe Durand is the export manager.”

Savarez Early Instrument String Catalog – Individual strings available by gauge and sets. You find the SKU and order it from a dealer.


Bernd Kuerschner advises that the company makes monofilament strings from natural gut (sizes from .36 mm to 8 mm), rectified Nylon (.38 mm – 1,50 mm) and Fluorocarbon (.33 mm – 1.50 mm). Wound strings are available with gut-, Nylon-, steel- and silk – core.

You can order by phone, fax (+49-6128-8207) or e-mail Payment is accepted in advance (less 5 % discount) or with credit card.

For information check the web-site


This German company supplies all sorts of strings, wound, gut, etc., for all sorts of early plucked instruments. While they do not have an early classical guitar set per se, they can provide guages to suit your needs.

You can order by phone, fax or e-mail

For information check the web-site


Gamut based out of Minnesota has gut strings and gut-core basses.

Harp Strings with Modern Basses

Early Romantic Guitar professor Douglas James recommends tuning 1/2 step low and using higher tension strings. He uses D’Addario ProArte Normal Tension J45 basses, and gut for the treble strings; he recommends Bow Brand gut harp strings from Vanderbilt Music Company, 800-533-7200 as follows: E=1st Octave G, B=2nd Octave D, G=3rd Octave D, with D’Addario bass strings. I have used these successfully. You may want to use a Normal tension nylon for the top string (D’Addario J45 for example) if you find the harp gut string shreds too easily. Douglas says he has tried various kinds of gut strings, but finds the harp strings to be the best quality, in part because they “never stopped making them.” Anthony Glise similarly on his early guitar uses Late Romantic Guitar gut strings, which are high tension, but tunes down 1/2 step to compensate.

The type of gut strings you use is a matter of personal preference to some degree. Harp gut strings are a different polish and twist than guitar gut strings, and the harp strings may be thick for some, but some players prefer them. Personally, I thought the LaBella’s were a little brighter, but I liked the harp strings – it is a matter of personal taste. It is important to make sure whatever kind of strings you use, that you do not put too much tension on the strings.

Emerson Corporation

Making natural gut strings for musical instruments for 60 years in India. Web site

Mr. Sanjeev Kumar Sharma
Emerson Corporation
341, Bhoor
Bulandshahr – 203 001, Uttar Pradesh, India
Phone: +(91)-(5732)-221863
Mobile: +(91)-976002534

General Vendors

Strings by Mail Strings by mail has a selection of the most common brands, and very good prices. They do not have a wide selection but they can get most any string. They are fast and reliable with cheap shipping / handling.

Just Strings Just Strings has a wide selection of classical guitar strings, or strings for any instrument. On-line ordering. Mixed sets, individual / bulk, and sets with two sets of bass strings available. 8-string and 10-string guitar strings available. – Boston Catlines. A one-man shop; various materials and gut strings available; you can ask for assistance choosing strings.

Gut String Technique

: It may be necessary to change your playing style slightly. Players who really specialize in this style “push” the string perpendicular to the sound hole, rather than “pluck” the string. The finger tip joint should yield to the string, rather than stay rigid. Nails are fine, but they should be on the shorter side, e.g. you do not want really long fingernails with gut, and it is best to play in the “sweet spot” with both flesh and nail.

I recently learned the secret to filing your nails from the Early Music wizard, Professor Michael Craddock, who currently teaches early stringed instruments and guitar with Oscar Ghilia in Basel, Switzerland. (Fortunately, Michael has family here in Texas and I try and catch a lesson with him when he is here.) The secret is, put the nail file underneath the fingernail and file from below. Do not apply pressure, because that changes the nail shape. Filing from underneath causes the nail to be a flat plane from the string’s perspective coming from below. Your personal anatomy will decide what shape the nails will be, filing in this manner. Gently go over the sides to get out the thinness if necessary. Last but most importantly, sand the bottoms and edges of the nails with 500 or 600 grade sandpaper. I found that the shredding of gut strings, and bad nail tone in general, was caused by an uneven nail surface from the string’s perspective. This not only helped my gut string playing, but also my modern classical playing.

How are gut strings made?

An extensive and well-researched article on gut strings is by Mimmo Peruffo of Aquila Strings in Italy; “ITALIAN VIOLIN STRINGS IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: TYPOLOGIES, MANUFACTURING TECHNIQUES AND PRINCIPLES OF STRINGING” available by email from the author at or you can email me for an RTF file copy of the article.

Gut strings are made of lamb casings or gut; the name “cat gut” is a myth – gut strings have never been made from cats. There is a story that the “cat gut” name was used as a disinformational tactic hundreds of years ago to conceal trade secrets. Mimmo Peruffo of Aquila Strings in Italy is an authority on gut string research, who provides this explanation:

“Though at first glance the procedures for making gut strings look remarkably like those in use today, there were substantial differences. And what these differences unquestionably suggest is that the earlier strings (and right up to the end of the nineteenth century) were more elastic, and hence better, than those available today.

String making in the past required the use of the entire gut of lamb – of a length of at least 50 feet. After careful cleaning and rinsing in running water for several days, the gut was subjected to a series of treatments to eliminate the non-muscular membranes and fatty substances. This was done by immersing the gut in alkaline solutions of increasing concentration for a few days, after which the undesirable substances were easily removed with the back of a knife or a fragment of cane. The alkaline solution consisted of vegetable ashes/plant ashes mixed with water (potash). The diluted concentrations were sufficient to remove the more easily soluble fatty substances, while the highest concentration was left to the end of the treatment, when more aggressive action was needed to remove all the other unwanted substances. During this stage a small amount of rock-alum could be added; it would have had a shrinking and tanning effect, thus slightly hardening the gut. In other words, the alkaline baths ensured that the organic material underwent a combined process of fermentation and soaping to facilitate the mechanical detachment (using a knife or cane) of the undesirable parts, while leaving the muscular membrane – the part that interested the string maker – free of extraneous matter and perfectly degreased.

After this treatment the guts were carefully selected and grouped together in parallel strips (according to the diameter of the string to be made) and knotted at both ends. The strips were then attached to a special wheel used for twisting the string while the other end was fixed to a peg at the side of a drying frame. After sufficient twisting, the free end of the damp string was disconnected from the wheel and tied to a peg on the opposite side of the drying frame and placed under tension. When the frame was full, it was taken to a special room where the strings were subjected to a process of whitening or sulphurization. This involved burning sulphur flowers* in a basin and subjecting the strings, for several days, to the whitening action of the sulphur dioxide fumes. When this was completed, the strings were further twisted and given a final drying in the open air for just a few hours. The very last stage consisted of smoothing the surface of the strings using a grass with abrasive qualities (equisetum or horsetail) soaked in alkaline solution or “tempra” (hardening solution)*. The perfectly smooth strings were then rubbed with olive oil, cut from the ends of the frame, wound in circular bundles and put into boxes. Each box could contain from 15 up to 30 or more strings soaked in olive oil.”

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