I have probably played ten times more Ernie Ball sets than all other brands combined, but I couldn’t really tell you why. It isn’t really that they sound better. Or, I should say: I don’t change strings often enough that I can do a fair and proper comparison. Since I’m not a pro who can get his tech to change strings before every show or session, my strings can and do stay on for months at a time. By that time, the old ones sound like rubber and look like shit, so obviously, any new string set irrespective of brand is going to be an improvement. I seem to recall being very impressed with Dean Markley’s Blue Steel strings a few years ago, they had a really snappy, punchy sound, almost compressed. But for some reason, I developed weird intonation problems with two sets in a row, switched back to Ernie and the problem never came up again. About the only brand I actively dislike is Rotosound. I didn’t detect any notable difference between new Rotosounds and months-old Ernie Balls.
Probably it was just a matter of growing up on Ernie Ball and then sticking with them as a matter of course. All of that changed when I bought my Taylor 214 acoustic, which came with factory-installed Elixir strings. I didn’t notice anything at first. Of course it sounds great, it’s a new guitar with new strings! But then I played the hell out of it, kept on fingerpicking, slipping and sliding for several hours a night for over a month. That would have killed just about any set of strings, but the Elixirs kept sounding fresh and chimy. About a month after that, I bought a new set, but since the old one simply wouldn’t die, the new one just lay around in my gigbag. Finally, I started getting creeped out by the fact that Elixirs don’t appear to wear at all, so I replaced the set. In March of this year, I put an electric set on my Les Paul in March of this year, and that set is still on the guitar!
Truth be told, I haven’t played a proper gig since I switched brands, so I haven’t put my Elixirs through the wringer. Still, the upsides to this kind of string are manifest. Just consider the implications for recording. Previously, it was always a delicate balance between breaking the strings in and keeping them fresh enough for recording. Now, you can just change them, play as usual and record a week later, no sweat. But before the reader starts assuming that I am on Gore’s payroll (I am not!), let me give you the downsides as well. The fretboards on my guitars are visibly deteriorating. Why? Because my old strings used to wear out, and that meant that I had regular access to the necks of my guitars! Another, admittedly smaller, issue is that I can no longer keep my picks secured between the strings for storage. The strings are too slick, the picks simply slide right off, or are catapulted all over the apartment whenever I grab a guitar.
Now you’re probably wondering: at what cost do you get all of this niceness? Well, Heinlein is still right: there just ain’t such a thing as a free lunch. Elixir strings are indeed more expensive. I just don’t think they’re disproportionately expensive considering that they last for months and months. I’ve never kept tabs on my string expenses, but I can ballpark it. In the old days, I probably changed strings five or more times a year on a single guitar. Now, I can cut that down to two. In all seriousness, I wonder if this is really a sound business model. I keep thinking of that computer keyboard manufacturer that went tits-up because their products were so good that no one ever bought any replacements. But Gore has been at it since 1997 and they don’t appear to be slowing down, so there you go.