OK, a little background - standard steel acoustic guitar strings have the lower 4 strings “wound”, that is, the string is a steel core with a wire wrap around the string rather than a really heavy gauge solid steel string. The two most common types sold are “phosphor bronze” and “80/20 bronze” wound, although other things are available (monel metal wrapped are sold by Martin as “retro” strings).
Thing is, if you dig into the alloys actually used by the manufacturers, you find something curious - the “phosphor bronze” is what the metallurgist would agree with - mostly copper with about 8-10% tin plus a trace of phosphorus. But the “80/20 bronze” is described as 80% copper, 20% zinc. That’s not bronze, that’s brass. Specifically, it seems to match an alloy usually called “low brass”. What do the manufacturers have against labeling the things as “brass wound”? Nothing wrong with the strings - they sound fine, although some people prefer the phosphor bronze (80/20 strings are a bit brighter, tend to go dead faster). I’m just curious why they call it “bronze”.
Actually, some strings strings manufactured specifically for acoustic-electric hybrid guitars exhibit another mislabeling. These instruments usually have an acoustic transducer or piezo pickup as well as a magnetic pickup like an electric, and are often strung with nickel wound electric string sets (typically a heavier “jazz” set with a wound third). To work with the magnetic pickup, electric strings have to be wound with a magnetic metal, nickel being a popular choice. Some manufacturers make hybrid guitar strings advertised as sounding better through the acoustic pickup while still working with the magnetic pickup. GHS manufactures what they call “white bronze” wrapped strings for these instruments, further explaining that they use “alloy 52”. Alloy 52 turns out to be a iron-nickel alloy. “White bronze” is more properly applied to an alloy of copper, tin and zinc with a copper content low enough that it doesn’t color the alloy. Non-magnetic, and wouldn’t work with a magnetic pickup.
I don’t have a factual answer but I’m sure it’s marketing and how people respond to something that’s “bronze” (sculptures, tans, and classy stuff) vs. “brass” (knobs, railings, and utilitarian stuff). I have bought Aranjuez Gold for a nylon string but for 8 bucks a set I don’t think there is a significant amount of gold in them, if any.
It might also be relevant that, in music, “brass” is routinely used to refer to an entirely different category of instruments.
If the answer isn’t ‘tradition’, then I don’t know what it is. As to your last question, IANA lawyer, but I suspect ‘we’d been calling then so and so for a long time before we figured out they were better described as such and such’ would be a pretty viable defense.
I was curious so I went poking around on google and this is my best guess as well.
The earliest guitar string advertising and packaging that I could find on google dated from the 1950s. 80/20 strings were invented in the 1930s, but google stubbornly insists that if I search for anything prior to 1950 that I only want to look at guitars themselves and not strings (stupid google…)
Anyway, the 80/20 “bronze” strings were developed by John D’Addario and John D’Angelico back in the 1930s. I wasn’t able to find what they were marketed as. By the 1950s, both Gibson and Fender were referring to 80/20 strings as “bronze”.
That might not be technically correct, but that’s what they have been advertised as for at least 60 years now.
I also found that in the 1930s, a lot of different alloys used for guitar strings were just called “copper”, even if they would be more properly called bronze or brass. Naming alloys according to proper metallurgical terminology apparently wasn’t a thing back then.
The exact origin of calling them “bronze” strings may be lost to history at this point. I suspect that someone started calling them that in the 1930s or 1940s and the name stuck. Might have been D’Addario and D’Angelico themselves that gave them that name. Once a term becomes popular, if your company tries to call it something else, it doesn’t matter if your name is more technically correct. Your customers won’t recognize what it is and won’t buy it. At that point you’re stuck with the name, regardless of its accuracy.
The Guinea Pig isn’t from Guinea, French Horns aren’t from France, Chinese Checkers didn’t come from China, and dry cleaning involves liquids and therefore isn’t dry. Bronze/brass strings is just one more to add to the list.
Thanks. About par for the course. The “white bronze” thing for an iron-nickel alloy is sillier, and presumably doesn’t have tradition to back it up. “Just called copper” is interesting.
And Panama Hats are from Ecuador.