Acoustic Guitar Strings: Lights v. Mediums, and Martin Marquis v. Elixers

Apr 15, 2001

The Bottom Line In general, I would opt for the heaviest strings you and your guitar are comfortable with. And check out the Elixers for something different.

I am an acoustic player. My two main guitars right now are a Martin D-16 mahogany dreadnought and a Larrivee LSO5, a small mahogany guitar with awesome intonation. My styles ranges from bluegrass flatpicking to Irish fingerpicking.

I was hoping to write a review of Martin Marquis strings, which I've been using for years, and compare them with Elixer strings, which I have on both my guitars right now. But since Epinions has no Guitar Strings category, I'll discuss light versus medium strings, and sneak in a discussion of Marquis and Elixer strings near the end.

For bluegrass flatpicking, I generally use medium strings. Most bluegrass players don't use a lot of bends, and there's a feeling of solidity imparted by medium gauge strings that lights can't quite match. I have heard some players say that mediums project a bit better and last longer than lights, but I can't honestly say that I've noticed a difference.

Another thing I like about medium gauge strings is the fact that you get less pitch variation when you play hard or fret hard. Notes remain true, even up the neck.

For impressionistic (Alex DeGrassi-like) or Irish music, using finger-picking, I generally use lighter gauge strings. There's a delicacy to the feel that suits the music well.

You can also subtly alter your action by your choice of strings. If your action is a bit low, and you are experiencing some fret buzz, you can switch from lights to mediums. The additional tension on your neck will raise your action just a hair. Of course, you can adjust your truss rod for a similar effect.

Just to make things interesting, on my Martin D-16, I sometimes use light strings on the higher four strings (musically speaking), and mediums on my bottom E and A strings. In this way, I can get the delicacy I like for fingerpicking (and easier bends), and the bass solidity I like on the strings I don't bend as much.

Right now, I'm using mediums on my Martin D-16, for bluegrass gigs, and lights on my Larrivee, for Irish music in alternative tunings.

Concerning Martin Marquis strings versus Elixer strings, there are BIG differences.

I have tried several different brands of strings, and always come back to the Martin Marquis. I find them to be really balanced: punchy and loud enough for bluegrass, yet delicate enough for Irish music. At 11.75 per set retail, and 5.95 per set at discount websites like Norwalk music, they are also a decent buy.

But I have found them to last only moderately long before they start to sound dull, and there is an average amount of finger squeak.

Enter Elixers.

The Elixers are high quality strings that come with a "poly web" coating said to lengthen string life, improve playability, and lessen finger squeak.

I have found these claims to be true. Fingers seem to slide easily over the Elixers, increasing playing speed, and there is little squeak. I have also noticed little or no dulling of the sound after several weeks.

But what do they SOUND like? This is the interesting part. They sound a bit less "jingly" than new Martin Marquis strings, as if some of the treble overtones were slightly muted. And the bass may be just a tad more subdued as well. But they also sound remarkably smooth and well integrated. A guitar player friend of mine noted that chords sound more like chords and less like a collection of individual notes, and I agree. And individual notes also sound remarkably smooth and refined.

Some bluegrass players I've spoken with said they weren't loud enough for bluegrass, but I have found them to handle bluegrass just fine. And for some reason, they make my guitars really easy to tune.

But they are expensive. They retail for $26 per set, though they can be had at Norwalk Music for $13 per set.

Overall, I'd recommend you give a set of Elixers a try, especially if you have a good guitar that you'd like to make sound a bit more "civilized."

In conclusion, my general recommendation is using the heaviest strings that you and your guitar are happy with. Of course, if your action is too high, and truss rod adjustment is not a possibility (as with older Martins), then you might switch from mediums to lights.

As for Martin Marquis and Elixer strings, I'd recommend you check out a set of Elixers, just to see if you like them. If you miss that Big Bluegrass Sound, you can always go back to the Marquis (or whatever your favorite might be). But you might be captured by their playability and the smoothness of their sound.

I invite comments about other favorite strings, since Epinions does not have a Guitar Strings category.

Thanks for reading.

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