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Country icon Johnny Cash is noted for his flat-picking rhythm guitar and his heartfelt songwriting, as well as his careworn voice.
The man in black nearly always performed with an acoustic guitar, but what strings did Johnny Cash use?
Johnny Cash played many guitars throughout his long career, and he played using many different types of strings on those guitars, but his favorite guitars were long Martin acoustics, and he also liked to use Martin Lifespan 2.0 strings on those guitars.
Let’s look at how Johnny Cash’s string choice, along with his guitars, his playing style, and even his pick choice, all affected his sound.
What Kind Of Guitars Did Johnny Cash Play?
While he was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany, Johnny Cash bought a Hofner Congress archtop guitar for $5 and began to perform with others.
There’s not much information about what strings he used at the time, but most Hofners came with flatwound strings at the time, as players like George Harrison and Paul McCartney found out a few years later.
Cash would keep that guitar after his return to the United States, and it would be the instrument he would use to write both some of his earliest hits, like “Hey Porter,” as well as some of his most iconic songs, including “I Walk the Line.”
He would replace it with a Gibson J-200 after 1959, but the Hofner would stay in the rotation of the instruments he used for years to come.
In addition to the Gibson, Cash is well known for playing Martin acoustic guitars. He started playing a Martin D-28 around 1961, and used that guitar regularly for decades, even having it spray painted back in the early 1980s.
Another D-28 that he played around the same time stayed in its original natural color.
But it’s no surprise that the Man in Black loved a black guitar. He got one from Martin when he got a black D-35, but it was so unusual at the time that the guitar was painted without the knowledge of the company president.
That guitar was so popular and iconic that eventually, Martin issued a D-35 Johnny Cash signature guitar, also in black. And a few years later, an even more special guitar came out.
The D-42JC from Martin was issued in 1997 and was in black, just like the custom and signature D-35s before them. But as any Martin aficionado knows, the 42 series guitars are a step above even the D-35, with intricate detail work, pearl embellishments, and a higher level of handmade workmanship.
What Kind Of Guitar Strings Did Johnny Cash Use?
As I just went over, Cash was long a Martin guitar player. It’s probably not a huge surprise then, that he used Martin strings, at least toward the end of his career.
He played Martin Lifespan 2.0 strings, in medium gauge. I’ll expand more on the gauge shortly, but first, let’s look at the strings themselves.
Lifespan 2.0 strings from Martin are still available, and Martin is one of the few guitar companies that actually make their own strings, with most other companies now just re-branding a set of strings. They come in either 80/20 bronze or phosphor bronze.
Martin claims the strings are longer lasting because of the special coating applied. That keeps the strings from getting dirty or corroded, making them sound better for longer.
The company markets them as having a significantly longer life than uncoated strings without affecting either the way the strings feel or how they sound.
Medium gauge Lifespan 2.0 strings, which run .013”, .017”, .026”, .035”, .045”, and .055”, from high E to low E, are one set of strings we can be sure Cash played.
While there isn’t a tremendous amount of documentation about the brands of strings Cash used before those, it’s likely he always used medium gauge strings, both because of how widely available they are and because of his sound.
What Type Of Pick Did Johnny Cash Use?
The other aspect of Cash’s sound came from both what kind of pick he used and how he played.
This video looks at Cash’s distinctive rhythm playing and strumming pattern.
The way he played, both the mix of up and down strokes and the alternating bass strings, give so many of Cash’s songs their driving feel. The picks he used also helped to shape that rhythm and sound.
Cash regularly used rounded triangle picks that were .5 mm thick and made by Clayton from Acetal, a plastic made by DuPont. According to the company’s founder, Steve Clayton, Cash liked how the Acetal picks felt but didn’t want them in white, which was the only color available at first.
The company was able to have the material made in black and made thousands of picks custom for him, in black with his signature printed on the pick in white. When Cash died in 2003 the company had about 2,000 picks ready to ship to him, and the owner decided to never sell them to anyone else.
Cash’s choice to play with a relatively thin but very sturdy pick made the rhythmic strumming stand out without risking breaking strings, something that might happen with very thick picks and hard playing.
The sturdiness of the pick is the most essential part. Using a different material might call for a different thickness to get the exact sound Cash was going for without breaking strings or notching the pick.
That’s likely one reason he preferred the Acetal picks to ones made from celluloid or other common materials.
Unlike many other players, where the guitar strings they used were an integral part of their musical sound and, in some cases, even their identity, Cash’s sound is much more influenced by other things.
The fact he played mostly dreadnought sized acoustic guitars with medium gauge strings made his playing stand out with good volume and projection. His use of sturdy but relatively thin picks and his distinctive strumming pattern helped to give his songs a pulsating feel that kept them moving forward.
If you want the Johnny Cash sound, those aspects are essential. Playing on a D-28 with Martin Lifespan 2.0 strings and using a .5 mm Acetal pick from Clayton would make that sound even more historically accurate.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.