Without question, phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze are the two most popular acoustic guitar string alloys—but what are the differences between them? Today we’re talking about the different alloys that are available for acoustic guitar strings and what those mean for the sound and playability of your guitar.
Watch our shootout to hear how they compare:
Every guitar player has had the same problem, especially when starting out: there’s a bazillion acoustic guitar string types out there, and short of trying them all—how the heck do you figure out which one is right for you? Well, if you’ve got the budget, we certainly recommend trying them all and seeing what works best for you, but that takes some serious scratch. And truth be told, often times, the quest to find the perfect string gauge and type is an ongoing process throughout your playing life, due to changes in taste and preference over time.
While there are a couple different alloys used in acoustic guitar strings—phosphor bronze, 80/20 bronze, monel, even just standard nickel-plated steel—throughout history, the debate has come down to two heavy-weights, the all-time most popular acoustic guitar string types: Phosphor Bronze vs 80/20 Bronze.
For us at Stringjoy those alloys can be found in our Naturals, which is our phosphor alloy, and our Brights, which is our 80/20 alloy.
Plenty of big-time guitarists are fans of each of these alloys, and the differences between them can have a huge impact on your tone. What are they actually made of? What do they sound like? How do you know which one is right for you? Let’s delve into the details of these two acoustic guitar string types and see if we can’t answer a few of those burning questions, and put a rest to the Phosphor Bronze vs 80/20 Bronze debate—as far as what’s best for you, anyway.
Just looking for the high-points? Scroll on down to the bottom where we’ve summarized the major difference between phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze into bullet points.
Acoustic Guitar String Types Through History
Straight off, you should know that 80/20 bronze strings were the original acoustic guitar string in the annals of guitar history (for the steel string acoustic, anyway). The 80 and 20 represent the ratios of copper and zinc present within the wrap wire, respectively (for the most part, all guitar strings use the same core wire, known as Music Wire or Piano Wire, whether acoustic, electric, or bass). Also known as brass, this 80/20 copper to zinc alloy was chosen by John D’Adarrio Sr. and John D’Angelico in the 1930’s. It was the first popular and commercially available acoustic guitar string.
The bright, crisp, yet bass-heavy tone that 80/20 strings impart—think a bit like a scooped EQ, with less mids than other strings—is one that many guitarists love, but these strings are not without drawbacks. Copper is highly corrosive which causes the strings to age very quickly. The zinc within the alloy helps slow the aging process a little bit, but ultimately the short life cycle of these strings forced string manufacturers to try and find a new alloy that would retain its tone longer.
In 1974, D’Addario released a new line of strings known as phosphor bronze. These strings were specifically developed to address the issue of the quickly-aging 80/20 strings. Consisting of about 92% copper, 8% tin, and 0.2% phosphorus (the phosphorous and tin are what keeps the alloy from tarnishing so quickly), these strings produce a much different tone than 80/20 strings and now make up the majority of acoustic guitar strings on the market today.
Tone Compared: Phosphor Bronze vs 80/20 Bronze
While history is always good to have, when it comes down it, what matters most in the phosphor bronze vs 80/20 bronze debate is how they sound, and how they feel.
As mentioned above, 80/20 strings produce a crisp, bright, and projecting tone that many vintage guitar enthusiasts love. These strings provide the quintessential acoustic guitar tone that was heard on many records from the 1960’s and 1970’s—bright, bass-y, and without much mids.
Often times, due to their bright and brilliant nature, 80/20 strings are best paired with dreadnought-type acoustic guitars including models by Martin, Taylor, and Gibson. Guitars with generally darker tonal qualities lend themselves well to these strings to produce a well-balanced tone.
Phosphor strings have a darker, fuller tone than 80/20 strings and add a bit of warmth. A good rule of thumb is that once they settle in after a few hours of use, they have about 80% of the brilliance of a new set of 80/20 bronze strings. The added phosphorus gives a bit more tonal softness compared to other string types and the pick attack is generally less pronounced than in their brighter counterparts.
As with 80/20 strings, for most folks, the best type of acoustic guitar paired with phosphor strings is one that has the opposite tonal qualities of the string. Since phosphor strings produce a darker tone, they pair well with brighter-sounding acoustic guitars such as models manufactured by Taylor, Ibanez, Alvarez, and Takamine.
Which of the Acoustic Guitar String Types is Right For You?
Making the choice between 80/20 strings and phosphor strings is mainly up to personal preference. All guitarists, big and small, have their own opinions on what strings sound good to them.
Since both 80/20 strings and phosphor strings have their own unique tone, the great debate of phosphor bronze vs 80/20 bronze comes down to a matter of personal taste. If you like a bright and brilliant acoustic tone and/or play a darker-sounding acoustic guitar, 80/20 bronze strings like our Brights may be better for you. If you prefer a darker, mellower, or more natural tone, you might enjoy phosphor bronze strings like our Naturals.
Every guitarist has a different style, different ears, and different expectations out of his or her guitar, so when it all comes down to it, the best advice we can give is to try both acoustic guitar string types, in different gauges, and see which you prefer on your own guitar.
So in summary, here are the high-points on each of these two acoustic guitar strings materials:
80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
- One of the most popular alloys throughout the middle of the 20th century before phosphor bronze was brought to market in the 70s
- Bright, scooped sort of tone with plenty of bass
- Probably the less popular of the two alloys these days, though a lot of players do still really like it
- The main drawback to 80/20 bronze has always been and probably always will be that it really just doesn’t last as long as phosphor bronze
- 80/20 bronze’s lifespan can vary on the player, but some players with very acidic sweat find that it only lasts for a couple days before it kind of wears out a little bit on them
Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
- Quickly supplanted 80/20 bronze in popularity once it hit the market and players became aware of it.
- Phosphor bronze is 92% copper, 8% tin and contains trace amounts of phosphorous, which is what makes it a little bit more corrosion resistant compared to 80/20 bronze.
- Balanced, rather warm response. A touch more mid-range than you see in 80/20 bronze.
- Longer overall lifespan compared with 80/20 bronze, with a more consistent tone over the course of its life.
What do you think?
Obviously everybody has their preferences, nothing is right for everyone but that’s the beauty of having all sorts of different options for acoustic guitar strings—everyone can try things and find what they like. Be sure to share your experience, let us know what you really like down in the comments.
I have a Taylor 358LTD 12 string, Canadian Larrivée D03 and a Gibson j200. Both the Larry and the Taylor are great PB strings but not Gibson j200. The J200 comes alive with 80/20, jumbo maple bodies are warm, focused and balanced, they need the extra brightness and scoop the 80/20 provide. These older Gibson jumbos (j200 date back to 1937) were built for 80/20’s.
My experience has been the opposite: I find the Phosphor Bronze to be far too bright, trebly and tinny, and they seem to lose their initial brightness fairly quickly. They also squeak loudly at the slightest repositioning of the fingers and have a dry feel to them, whereas I’ve always found the 80/20s to sound more full and warm, and they seem to hold their tone far longer than the Phosphors, which may explain why they’ve historically been the traditional choice for acoustic guitar. I play mostly Yamaha acoustics, which I would highly recommend to the commenter who likes his Harley Bentons. In my opinion, the A.R.E. Yammies (which woods have been factory “pre-vintaged”) sound and play better than Taylors, Martins and (California) Larrivées, and cost FAR less.
I swore by medium gauge 80/20’s for years. Wound up trying the Naturals because I was curious about the balanced tension approach, and y’all weren’t making 80/20’s at that time. I wound up preferring them, a preference that remained once your Brights were available and I gave them a go. I’ve also stepped down to lights after comparing how both gauges record, and I used to HATE lights. We change. Guitars change. Needs change. Just goes to show how important it is to never settle and always be open to try new things. I have to remind myself of that often.
For my taste, I prefer phosphor bronze. There seems more going on. With that said I put on your 20/20 bronze on a big Dreadnaught style guitar, I build and I’m pleased with the sound. I usually build smaller tighter waist guitars like the Gibson 185 and L-00. I’m a finger picker and fall prey to those small wasted round bottom guitars. That’s almost a Freudian slip.
I can’t wait to try those 20/20 strings, I just don’t know who sells them!
Even the most expensive guitars, sadly don’t sound any better than Harley Bentley’s, running 10 times cheaper 🙂
I own 12 acoustics and 2 electrics, amoung those are a few Taylors, Martins, Gibsons, yet the rest is Harley Benton’s, and when comparing them during rehearsal or preparing for live events, NO ONE can tell the difference, and becomes shocked, when you tell them the price difference 😛
I find that hard to believe, but admittedly I want to try a Harley Benton acoustic now…
As a wizened old geetar player I do have a bit to add. What the advent of Phossy strings did—and still do—is, they became a “great equalizer” type string. That is, you can make beginner guitars and cheaper guitars with no inherent tonal quality of their own still sound pretty good.
With the old standard 80/20s you’re going to hear the sound of the guitar itself more than with phosphor bronze strings. If you have a Martin D series or a jumbo Guild or a Gibson Hummingbird and you want to hear why they are so coveted, wind on a set of 80/20s
Phosphor Bronze strings can cover up many sins.
I hear that! There’s definitely a cutting mid-range to phosphor strings that sort of takes over the tone, and I think that’s probably what’s covering up those sins you referred to.
You repeatedly refer to “80/20 Bronze” guitar strings. I am a retired engineer who has used many metallurgical samples throughout my career, and what you are saying is technically incorrect. “Brass” is an alloy made up primarily of copper and zinc (as you state the 80/20 mix is 80% copper and 20% zinc). “Bronze is an alloy that is composed of copper and tin – and 20% tin would be an extremely high percentage of tin in a phoisphor bronze alloy (non-existent for all practical purposes). You say that certain terms used for guitar strings are interchangeable…maybe, but “brass” and “bronze” are not. One has zinc and no tin, and the other has tin and no zinc (aside from perhaps a trace). So you see your 80/20 strings are “brass” and your phosphor bronze are truly “bronze”, and ne’er the twain shall meet…technically.
Thanks for reading John! You’re 100% correct and we’ve talked about this countless times on the blog. “80/20 bronze,” as the industry has called it for decades is not bronze, it’s brass. That’s why our Bright Brass (our “80/20 bronze” strings) are called brass. That said, the term “80/20 Bronze” has been used in the guitar string industry for so long that we have to refer to it so that players understand what we’re talking about. It’s crazy, we know.
Has anyone noticed any difference in fret wear between 80/20 and Phosphor Bronze?
“80/20 Bronze is probably the least popular of the two alloys these days, though a lot of players do still really like it. Really if you’re looking for a really, really bright and articulate sound, this is the gauge for you.”
80/20 isn’t a gauge, it’s a composition.
Good eye Steven, thanks! We know that, just had a typo. Fixed now.
After a fair bit of comparing it’s 80/20 for me all the way and I’m not looking back. PB strings sound dull to me from the very start; moreover, they seem to be inherently lacking the dazzling string separation and definition I’ve enjoyed with at least five different 80/20 sets.
Do you guys have any monel nickel strings? I’d be interested in trying some if you have any. Never tried any of stringjoy products but I would assume that based on the price they are comparable to other similar priced phosphor bronze strings on the market. I’m really trying to find a good nickel string.
Thanks for reaching out Patrick! We don’t currently offer any Monel strings.
I am thinking of trying some 80/20 with a coating to compensate for the length of time they hold up. I really like nickel bronze strings like D’addario and I’m getting some Martin retro this week. I like to change my strings often because I like the crisp and bright tone of the new strings and I have yet to find a string that retains it longer than a week or two at most so I might go cheaper and more often as opposed to pricy because it’s expensive to change $12 set of strings once a week but I really like the D’addario nickel bronze.
Have 1980 Gibson Custom Acoustical, play folk, rock,blues,,. What strings would you reccomend I use to create upbeat sound.
Thanks for reaching out Patrick! No set of strings will have any effect on tempo ? But joking aside, typically I recommend folks start with our Natural Bronze alloy in Super Light or Light gauge.
I have purchased and installed Stringjoy products on the three Acoustic guitars I own and I love them all, thank you.
I appreciate having the transcript of the video!
I often skip videos tho will read some to see if I’m interested
I am now a Stringjoy guitarist!
I currently use Elixer phosbronze in my Taylor 914. So I am pretty happy with the sound it produces. I think the 80/20 doesn’t match up well with the Taylor and no way for nickel. I just received my first set of Stringjoy PhosBronze. I will be changing out to them this weekend to see how they compare. I haven’t played acoustic strings that weren’t coated for awhile. It will be interesting.
How about a mix? What would we see if we went with the highest four strings in phosphor bronze, then the low A and E in 80/20 to bring out a bit more bass?
So plain strings are the same reagrdless of the set, it’s only the two middle you would be mixing. Anyway, buy some singles and try it out!
Couldn’t discern much difference. If any, the phosphur bronze seemed more pleasing to me.
This post that arrived at my mail was a big coincidence, I purchased 80/20 and phosphor bronze together from amazon just a week ago and was going to put them on today. Whoa. Simply can’t believe it.
Couldn’t tell much difference between the 20/20. bronze & the phosphorus/bronze but the nickel wound sounded much weaker & darker. Didn’t care for the nickel.