Choosing the Right Guitar Strings

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Cross, Dan. "Choosing the Right Guitar Strings." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/choosing-guitar-strings-1712271. Cross, Dan. (2017, March 3). Choosing the Right Guitar Strings. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/choosing-guitar-strings-1712271 Cross, Dan. "Choosing the Right Guitar Strings." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/choosing-guitar-strings-1712271 (accessed October 23, 2017).
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Choosing the Right Guitar Strings

Six String Guitar
Jeffrey Coolidge/Iconica/Getty Images

The type of guitar strings you choose, and how often you change them will not only dramatically affect your tone, but also impact the playability of your guitar. By learning about the different string options available for your guitar, you can find the strings which strike the best balance between great tone and playability. The key components affecting tone and playability come from string gauge, string winding method and the string construction material.

String Gauge

String gauge refers to the thickness of the guitar string. This thickness in thousandths of an inch. The larger the gauge, the heavier the string. When describing gauges, guitarists typically omit the decimal, and speak only of the number (they will say an "eight" when referring to a string gauge of .008). There are both advantages and disadvantages to using lighter/heavier gauge strings.

  • the lighter the string gauge, the easier it is to bend the string
  • ligher gauge strings are easier to play
  • lighter gauge strings are more prone to breakage
  • lighter gauge strings cause more fretboard buzzing when neck action is low
  • heavier gauge strings are more difficult to press down
  • heavier gauge strings perform better in de-tuned situations (like "drop D tuning")
  • heavier gauge strings provide more sustain, volume and a bigger sound

Electric Guitar String Gauges

Most new electric guitars tend to ship pre-strung with "super light" guitar strings. Depending on your technique, and the style of music you play, that string gauge may or may not be too light for you. The following is a list of the standard string gauges included with each set of electric guitar strings. Note though that different manufacturers include slightly different string gauges in their sets of strings.

  • typical set of "extra super light" electric strings: .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038 ("eight to thirty-eights")
  • typical set of "super light" electric strings: .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042 ("nine to forty-twos")
  • typical set of "light" electric strings: .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046 ("ten to forty-sixes")
  • typical set of "medium" electric strings: .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050 ("eleven to fifties")
  • typical set of "heavy" electric strings: .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054 ("twelve to fifty-fours")

Acoustic Guitar String Gauges

Many acoustic guitars come equipped with "light" gauge acoustic guitar strings. This is probably a good place to start - if you are a heavy strummer and find yourself breaking strings often, you may want to consider buying slightly heavier gauged strings. The following is a list of the standard string gauges included with each set of acoustic guitar strings.

  • typical set of "extra light" acoustic strings: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047 ("ten to forty-sevens")
  • typical set of "custom light" acoustic strings: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052 ("eleven to fifty-twos")
  • typical set of "light" acoustic strings: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 ("twelve to fifty-fours")
  • typical set of "medium" acoustic strings: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056 ("thirteen to fifty-sixes")
  • typical set of "heavy" acoustic strings: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059 ("fourteen to fifty-nines")
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String Winding Method

guitar strings close up
Daryl Solomon | Getty Images

All guitar strings are either "unwound" - a single solid strand of wire or nylon used on the high E, B and sometimes G strings, or "wound" - a core with a winding-wire wrapped tightly around it. The method used to wind the strings leads to differences tone and also impacts the playability of your guitar.

  • Round wound strings - "bumpy" feeling, with the most sustain and "bite". The vast majority of guitarists use round wound strings.
  • Half round (ground round) string - feel smoother to the touch. Darker tone than round wound strings.
  • Flat wound strings - completely smooth to the touch. Tone is flat and very dark. Flat wound strings are more likely to be used by jazz guitarists.

Unless you are an experienced guitarist looking to find new ways to impact your tone, stick to buying round wound strings. The round wound string type is so common, it is often not even mentioned on the packaging.

String Construction Material

The material used to create the guitar strings not suprisingly has a major impact on the resulting tone of the guitar. While the core of wound strings is almost always made of steel, different materials are used in the windings surrounding this core. Each of these materials change how the string vibrates, and thus affects the overall tone.

Electric Guitar String Materials

Nickel plated steel strings are probably the most common choice for use on electric guitars, because of their volume and resistance to corrosion. The following are other types of common string materials for the electric guitar:

  • Nickel Plated Steel -very bright and warm
  • Pure Nickel - bright (although not as bright as nickel plated steel) and warm
  • Stainless Steel - very clear and bright with "bite". Stainless steel's oxidation resistance extends string life
  • Chrome - warm and flat. Most often preferred by jazz guitarists
  • Polymer coated strings - technically less sustain, although there is some dispute of the practical implications of that. String life is extended dramatically

Acoustic Guitar String Materials

Bronze is the most popular string type amongst acoustic guitarists, although they tend to have a short lifespan. The following are also popular string types on the acoustic guitar:

  • Bronze - Very bright and crisp. Bronze string age quickly because of the corrosive nature of the metal
  • Phosphor bronze - Still bright, but warmer and darker than bronze strings. Phosphor extends the life of these strings versus standard bronze strings
  • Brass - Bright and metallic.
  • Polymer coated strings - technically less sustain, although there is some dispute of the practical implications of that. String life is extended dramatically