Hypoallergenic electric guitar and bass strings?
November 8, 2019 10:45 AM   Subscribe

I have a nickel allergy. I also have a cobalt allergy. I might have a chromium allergy as well (am currently looking at getting tested for that). Do electric guitar strings without any of these metals even exist? And if they do, do they exist in heavy gauges (12+ on the high E ideally)? What about bass strings?

I am aware that the frets on my instruments are probably somewhere in the region of one-fifth nickel. It's not something I can currently afford to do much about - hypoallergenic fretwire isn't that expensive, but the refretting work is, and is absolutely not something I'd be comfortable attempting myself (I have looked into this).

Similarly, I am aware that polymer-coated strings exist. However, my experience is that these are actually worse than useless - the coating wears off, and I get even worse reactions than to straight up nickel strings (maybe the coating is making micro-abrasions in the skin when it flakes off?) so they're basically out.

I've found all manner of stainless steel or cobalt wound strings that claim to be nickel free, but I'm suspecting a chromium allergy as the ones I've tried still set my hands off pretty badly (even from just holding the strings in my hand straight from the packet, so I know it's not just the frets).

Am I basically going to have to throw in the towel on playing, or does someone make strings from like, pure carbon steel or something?
posted by Dysk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a bass player, but don't have a nickel allergy, but I know there has been discussion of this on talkbass.com. You should be able to search there without being member.

This string store mentions a few types that are nickel free.

There are also numerous tapewound strings, but of course, those have a totally different sound.
posted by jonathanhughes at 10:57 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Actually had this conversation IRL.... I have a nickel allergy and have a friend with a nickel allergy that he discovered via guitar strings. He said he's been fine with the strings on an electric guitar, it was just the acoustic that was doing it to him. Though he didn't mention specific metal content or recommend any particular strings. I tried to learn electric guitar for awhile and never had issues with that myself to know it was an issue.

However, it sounds like the chromium might be more of the issue here for you?
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:07 AM on November 8, 2019

Potentially a different approach - a very thin glove. Don't know if you've come across Scott of Scott's Bass Lessons, but he wears a glove on his left hand due to, I believe, a neurological condition. It doesn't seem to affect his ability to play. He is apparently also a very friendly approachable person so may be willing to share details of suppliers.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 11:32 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

The strings have to be be able to affect the magnetic field around the pickups. That usually means being made of steel (since most other conductive metals are softer), which in turn usually means containing nickel, cobalt or chromium.

There are bass strings available with enamel or plastic coatings (the first page at that link may not have relevant results but subsequent pages will). They're just like regular bass strings plus an outer jacket. I don't have any personal recommendations but many of the major brands sell coated or wrapped string sets.

There are some bass players who wear gloves when they play (like Étienne Mbappé, who's famous for his black silk gloves), although unless they're fully sealed or your allergies are mild I don't think they'll entirely help.

You can contact the string companies directly to ask for recommendations. Many of the American companies (GHS, D'Addario, and so on) are known for being responsive especially about questions like yours.

The frets will also be a steel or nickel blend, and the tuners and bridge may be nickel plated. These may or may not be relevant depending on what you're playing and how sensitive you are.
posted by ardgedee at 11:37 AM on November 8, 2019

2nding tapewound bass strings. They have a really smooth unique feel and can be fun to play. I also own a Gold Tone MicroBass that has polymer strings
posted by gnutron at 12:09 PM on November 8, 2019

I found these fingertip protectors and you might find them interesting.
posted by amtho at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

A question for the OP, since yours is a problem I don't have a lot of knowledge about. Are stainless steels safe for you? They tend to have higher chromium content but are also chemically inert relative to carbon steels. If so, you would be in luck, as stainless steel strings are common, and stainless steel frets and other guitar hardware are also available.
posted by ardgedee at 12:36 PM on November 8, 2019

Didn't there used to be some bass strings that had a copper alloy winding?
posted by thelonius at 1:14 PM on November 8, 2019

I found Dorgal round wound carbon steel strings.
posted by soundguy99 at 1:19 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've played bass with nylon coated strings. I liked the way they felt & sounded, vaguely like a fake upright. Not over expensive. But you totally loose all of the rasp edge, so you'll make that sacrifice if you go that way.
posted by ovvl at 1:51 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

For reference: I have indeed had bad experiences with stainless strings that the manufacturer (Rotosound) told me were completely nickel free, and with coated strings (as mentioned in the original ask).

I'll look into gloves, though I can see that being a bit more of a struggle on guitar than bass potentially? Worth a try at any rate. The nylon wound strings look cool too, but won't work for some of the bands I play in - might see if I can get a set for one of my basses though.
posted by Dysk at 2:42 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have indeed had bad experiences with stainless strings that the manufacturer (Rotosound) told me were completely nickel free, and with coated strings (as mentioned in the original ask.

I dunno, man, I gotta bad feeling that you might have to do a bunch of trial and error, try a bunch of different string manufacturers and see if someone's got a stainless or coated string with a particular composition that works for you - actual info about various materials is thin on the ground, and everyone swears that their coating and/or wrap wire is different. Which may or may not be true - like I found a silver-plated set from DR, or sets from Ernie Ball that supposedly use some kind of enamel and/or titanium plating, or even gold-plated. (Note that I found those gold ones via the Stringsdirect.uk site johnathanhughes linked to in the first comment, which has a bunch of sorting options for finding strings.)
posted by soundguy99 at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The nylon coated string bass thing only works with smooth genres like trad jazz, country, folk, basic pop; but it doesn't have that kinda bite that you really need for funk, fusion, bright pop, heavy rock, etc. Might be worth experimenting with if you have more than one bass guitar in your setup.
posted by ovvl at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2019

You can get lighter sets of tapewound bass strings now that are a bit snappier - I usually play D'Addario ETB92s, and I've also tried Status's own-brand strings that are similar (and cheaper!). They're a different beast from the heavy Rotosound RS88s or La Bella tapewounds, which are nice in their own right but not much like regular bass strings.
posted by offog at 2:13 PM on November 10, 2019

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