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This article was originally published in issue #12
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Elixir completely shook-up the string market when it launched its polymer coated strings. Now well established, the Elixir range has just been improved with new coating technology. But can our resident Bassment dungeonmeister, Dan Veall, tell the difference between the nickel and stainless versions? We set him the test...
In issue nine we enjoyed our first bass string review. To be honest, it was something we were a little unsure about undertaking. The good news is that it went well and you, dear readers, gave us much positive feedback! So, when we were contacted by Elixir Strings about new developments to its coated strings range, we hopped right on it to bring you a working comparison guide between the two new types.
Elixir provided us with two identical Ibanez basses, one strung with the brand new Nanoweb coated stainless steel strings and the other with the coated nickel strings. Just to clarify, these both featured the new Nanoweb coating, but the stainless steel sets are completely new, nickel having always been available from Elixir but now coming with the new coating.
Given the cost of bass strings, particularly coated premium quality ones, we felt this is a test that you'd not be able to do very easily at home. After all, how many of us have two identical basses that we can strap different types of strings onto, then compare back and forth?
So first up. What of Elixir and why coated strings?
Elixir, owned by the WL Gore company (they of the fabulous Goretex waterproof fabric beloved of outdoor types), has been producing coated strings since 1995 and has carved-out a sizeable chunk of the guitar and bass string market, despite having to persuade musicians to spend more than they were used to for strings and having been a completely new name entering an already crowded field.
Clearly, players were impressed. Now, Elixir says its strings are even better.
Elixir's strings feature a 'microscopically thin' Nanoweb fluropolymer coating that the company says is the only type that covers the entire outer string surface, whereas quote: "other string manufacturers offer coatings that protect the wrap wire going round the core but neglect the gaps between the windings, allowing deterioration to occur." This deterioration is the result of dirt, sweat, oil and skin debris being rubbed in to the windings every time we play our instruments. For some, even a single high energy gig in a hot sweaty venue is enough to take the brightness and life out of standard uncoated strings.
Let's take a closer look at each of the sets of the strings in for this review. First, have a look at the video. I specifically plugged the basses directly in to the studio DI and not an amplifier because I wanted an uncoloured sound for you to hear. All of the settings on both basses were set identically. Both pickups are full on and EQs were set flat. Once again I didn't 'shred' but kept my playing simple, so that you could hear the tone of each of the sets of strings.
Visually, it was obvious up close which set was which. The stainless steel Elixirs had the usual more grey look in comparison to the nickel strings, which have a richer 'tinge of gold/yellow' colour.
We (myself and my crew) had an opportunity to listen to the strings acoustically too before recording and found that there was a noticeable, yet subtle, difference in the sound. Though we actually found it difficult trying to describe that sound, I have to admit!
The stainless steel strings still sounded rich, but with grittier mids, while the nickels sounded sweeter and had a more refined top end. I guess, in short, the nickels sounded like you'd hope nickels would and the same for the stainless. That's a good thing and certainly justifies offering two different types - the coating being an added benefit and not inhibiting the essential nature of the string beneath.
I want to talk about the string's physical attributes before we get to plugging in and listening. Both sets feel balanced and of an even tension across the neck. The most noticeable difference between the strings was certainly one of the key points that Elixir is very keen to stress. The nickel strings felt silky in use and finger slides were smooth and effortless up and down the neck. Swapping the basses over, I'd expected to feel the more usual 'textured' finish of uncoated stainless steel windings but was very pleased to note that the Nanoweb coating really does make a difference here. I think it's safe to say that for those who really are looking for a stainless steel string sound but have been put off by the rough feel, this could very much be the way forward. Smooth and again easy to change positions!
Are they worth the premium price? Elixir insists that, averaged out, its strings are cost effective because they last so long. This isn't quite such an issue for six string guitarists as the investment per set is so much less than it is for bass players so buying a set to test doesn't hurt as much! To be fair, the only way we could make a direct comparison in terms of longevity would be to have taken these two basses on the road - one with coated strings and one without. Maybe we'll try that one day but for now, we're happy to report that these newcomers sound as different from each other as you hope, the stainless set is more comfortable to handle than stainless strings usually are and, if past precedent is a guide, both sets will stay fresh sounding for a lot longer than conventional strings. If maintaining new string tone is your goal these must be high on your list - and now you have the choice between stainless and nickel.