Some players claim that stainless steel bars have a better sustain than polymer bars. "A myth," according to Henriques. "My bars sustain equally as well as steel bars and have an audibly better string separation in the sound, also the dreaded third string whine that's the bane of E9th players is almost completely eliminated." Henriques continues, "They're also FAR far easier to hold and have virtually none of the string noise associated with steel bars."
What also needs to be taken into consideration is the type of pickup employed on the steel guitar. Many discussion forums mention that pickups that produce higher output have stronger magnets that produce larger magnetic flux fields which can influence the vibration characteristic of a string under certain conditions. Lower output pickups, e.g., those that require an internal preamp, have weaker magnets and produce smaller magnetic flux fields that have less influence on string vibration.
Basil Henriques is a polymer bar manufacturer. His Eezee~slide steel guitar bar is manufactured by work hardening hi-density DuPont type polymer with a precision insert balanced with a special core. According to Henriques, "It seems than some people think the Ezzee~slide Tone Bar is a metal core that's coated, whereas in fact it's machined out of a solid casting of medical grade polyoxymethylene (POM-H), bored out, and turned down, sanded with various grades of wet and dry and then goes through 4 stages of polishing. It's VERY far removed from a FINISHED metal bar that's dipped into a coating." Ezzee~slide bars are available in black or white.
Henriques also offers a comparison among various types of bars.
Clinesmith, another manufacturer of polymer bars, claims that their bars are made from wear resistant and strong thermoplastics and can produce excellent tone, experience low friction , eliminate unwanted bar noise and are easy to grip. An added bonus: polymer bars are available in black or white.
Todd Clinesmith describes his bars: "The polymer bar I make has a lot of excellent qualities that I prefer over a steel bar." Clinesmith adds, "The most important for me would be reduced friction. This reduced friction makes for a lot cleaner tone. Less unwanted bar noise and a very smooth effortless vibrato are a few other benefits of a bar with low friction qualities." Clinesmith goes on to say, "The tone of the bar is very warm and round. It is easily gripped and feels very natural in the player's hand."
Various Polymer Bars. From left: Clinesmith, Ezzee~slide, and Tribo-Tone™
In 1995 Eric Ebner purchased a vintage Oahu Hawaiian guitar and found a Nick Manoloff tone bar inside the case. The revolutionary design of the Manoloff tone bar was such that it received a patent in 1936. Says Ebner, "This slide bar produced incredible tone but was constructed from materials that showed an unacceptable amount of wear. It did what it promised to do in terms of reducing string noise but durability, construction, and proper weighting had yet to be perfected. The Manoloff design was a great idea but came before modern engineering plastics were available."
Ebner continues, "Today there are hundreds of choices in engineering and aerospace 'plastics' and each formulation has a unique set of features, prices, properties, and possible applications." In 2001, Ebner built his first slide dedicated to reducing string noise. According to Ebner, "The quality, craftsmanship, and chosen materials for the Tribo-Tone™ slides are the result of research, experiment, some creativity, and years of refinement."
While stainless steel and polymer tone bars come in a variety of lengths and weights, the "standard" Pearse bar that is designed for Hawaiian playing is 2¾" in length, 5/8" in diameter, and weighs 3½ oz. Clinesmith bars begin at 3" in length, ¾" in diameter, and 4½ oz. in weight, and Ezzee~slide bars begin at 3" in length, ¾" in diameter, and 4-5 oz. in weight, so the polymer bars are larger and heavier. The cost of stainless steel bars varies depending on the quality of the bar and its characteristics, all of which affect the resulting sound. Basil Henriques, engineer and steel guitar authority, has this to say about stainless bars: "If you try the John Pearse Thermo-Cryonic tone bar you would hear the difference.... chalk and cheese !! Cheap, usually is just that."
Another manufacturer of steel bars, BJS Bars, has this to say about size: "¾" bars are used predominately by lap steel players, and dobro players. You will find them listed in a standard length of 2 7/8" and in two different nose configurations. The Jerry Byrd version has a tapered, somewhat pointed nose made popular by Jerry Byrd himself. The other is a rounded nose with no point."
Regarding the selection of the "perfect" bar, the BJS website has this to say:
"Many players want to feel the butt of the bar fit comfortably in the pocket of their hand, which is created where the index and middle fingers meet. From this position, the length of your fingers may suggest a longer or shorter bar length. Typically, the nose of the bar should extend beyond the end of your index finger. The size of your hands and your ability to grip and hold the bar can also be a factor. A larger diameter might be easier to grip for someone with large hands. A heavier bar might require less downward effort from the hand and wrist. From another perspective, bigger and heavier bars can feel sluggish and slow. Smaller, lighter bars can be easier to maneuver and control up and down the neck. In the end it will come down to feel and personal preference. And this may change as you play and progress."
Achieving the "perfect" bar can require some monetary investment, with the cost of polymer tone bars approaching four times (or more) the cost of the most inexpensive stainless steel bar. This is an investment for perfection.
Every steel guitarist has his or her own personal playing preferences, so the use of a steel or polymer tone bar (or bars of other composition) varies. There is no one correct solution except that which applies to the player.
Bobby Ingano commented, "I tried the Polymer bar once and I like my Zyrconium bar better, much smoother. But lately, I've been using my metal tapered bar, more comfortable."
Comments solicited on Facebook include these:
"Since I play acoustic, I use polymer, metal too noisy…Loving my Ezzee~slide from Basil, also use smaller, lighter Tribo-Tone from Eric." — Dave "DK" Kolars
"I got a couple of polymer steels, Ezzee~Slide, from Basil Henriques, and I love them. Before that, Dunlop Jerry Byrd steels." — Jack Aldrich
"Polymer for me. 2 Tribotone, one Basil bar, one Clinesmith. They sound great and they're easy to hang on to. I've been trying to buy talent all my life." — Jim Newberry
"I've been playing the Tribotone exclusively for a few years, I only play a steel bar as a spare when the Tribotone is in the other guitar case. It's been so long since I played a steel bar that I forgot what it was like. Today I tried a Dunlop 919 for comparison. Results: It's slower and it sounds scratchier. The steel bar has more friction and takes more effort to move. I have four wound strings and four plain strings and the extra effort to move up and down the strings is noticeable. I suspect this is not a coincidence, the "tribo" part of Tribotone refers to the study and application of the principles of friction, lubrication and wear." — Mike Bonnice
"Polymer. Silent on the wound strings." — Gerald Ross
"Shubb SP-2. Stainless. Why? Easy to hold on to!" — Robert "Konabob" Stoffer
Bill McCloskey from New York said this on a Facebook post:
"Just got my ezzee-slide bar from Basil Henriques so I have been able to compare this bar with Todd Clinesmith's bar. The white one is Basil's and the black one is the Clinesmith. Both come very nicely packaged, with Basil getting extra points for providing a nice wooden box to carry the bar and picks in. Both provide fabric carrying cases to protect the slides, and Basil adds as second pouch for picks I assume.
"The clinesmith weighs in at 7 ounces, the ezzee-slide at 6.55 (Basil will make them any weight, I went with his recommended size and weight). I think they are both about the same length. "First: both bars are the two finest bars I've owned. You would not go wrong with either choice. Both make me play better, both great.
"The differences are a bit more subjective and subtle (ie. minute). Basil's bar is incredibly comfortable to play. It was the thing I noticed about it when I first played Howard Pineapple's ezzee-slide. Just light years beyond anything else I'd tried and my playing was immediately better, just by having a better grip. The lighter weight of the ezzee-slide made it a tad easier to manipulate than the clinesmith, especially when tilting the bar. So from the standpoint of ease of playing, ever so slight advantage to the ezzee-bar.
"As far as tone goes, of course, they are both great. But perhaps because of the extra weight, the clinesmith sounded a bit more solid and full. Again, we are talking very very subtle things that I doubt an audience would ever notice. So on tone, very slight advantage to the Clinesmith.
"I'm not giving up either one. And I will just be switching back and forth often. Each has its advantages and my strong suggestion is to just get one of each."
This article is not designed to encourage the use of particular playing equipment or technique. It was designed to explore some options that are available for tone bars, and uses one player's experiences as a basis for discussion. In this case, one certain type of bar works for his style of playing and what he prefers.
Every player has his or her own preference and comfort when it comes to selecting instruments and equipment. Le says, "All views are important and should be taken into account. I made a video only to explain why I prefer the polymer bar. Because to express my feeling, I must play slow and so I need a pure sound, without interference. That's true for me but certainly not for many others."
Tone Bars: Stainless or Polymer? The answer lies in your own individual preference. Your own experimentation and discovery will help answer that question.
Part 1 discussed tone bar choices and explored one player's experiences with various tone bars. Read PART IFEATURES
June 9, 2018 - Windward Mall, Kaneohe
Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikiki Steel Guitar Week
July 9-14, 2018
Monday-Thursday - Nightly Evening Performances
Friday-Saturday - Festival Ho'olaule'a Performances
Royal Grove Stage, Royal Hawaiian Center, Waikiki
Hawai'i Island Steel Guitar Festival
September 7-9, 2018 - Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, Kohala Coast, Hawai'i
Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival at Ka Makana Ali'i
February 16, 2019 (tentative) - Ka Makana Ali'i Shopping Center, Kapolei
Kaua'i Steel Guitar Festival
March 1-2, 2019 - Courtyard Kaua'i at Coconut Beach, Kapa'a, Kaua'i
Maui Steel Guitar Camp
TBD (tentative) - Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, Lahaina, Maui
Maui Steel Guitar Festival
TBD - Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, Lahaina, Maui
TBD - Queen Ka'ahumanu Center, Kahului, Maui
HIMELE is a Hawai'i non-profit corporation that supports music enrichment and education for people of all ages. Our purpose is to educate, promote, and perpetuate Hawaiian music, Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian musical instruments.