Which Strings Are Best for My Guitar?
Written by Jef Joslin
This question seems to be asked a lot when guitar or bass players are looking to change out their strings for the first time. More than likely, the strings they've been playing are the ones that came on the guitar and they have no idea which ones they are, which gauge, which brand etc. In this post, I hope to shed some light on the different kinds of strings, educate you on the materials that go into making strings, and the different sound you'll get out of these different types of strings. By the end, you'll have a better understanding on which strings are best for you and your guitar.
When deciding which strings are best for your guitar, there are some basic principles regarding string materials to understand. Each type of guitar string is made to be used with its corresponding style of guitar and can damage the guitar if used incorrectly. For instance, you wouldn't want to put steel strings on a classical guitar because it'd put too much tension on the guitar that its not built to withstand. Likewise, you wouldn't want to use nylon strings on an acoustic guitar because it'd be too little tension and in the same way, the guitar is not built to be held in place by that little tension.
Acoustic guitars use strings that are roundwound and made out of steel. These are usually a bronze with phosphor or aluminum to help prevent corrosion. Corrosion is what happens when the strings come in contact with with the oils and dirt of the fingers and they begin to wear out and dull. These types of guitar strings will also have a ball end on them that is held down by a pin on the bridge of the guitar.
Electric/Bass guitars use strings that are roundwound and also made out of steel. These strings however are usually nickel plated, made of pure nickel, chrome or sometimes titanium. These also have a ball end and are held in place by the bridge components employed on each particular style of guitar. They can also be flatwound and halfwound, which I'll discuss later on.
Classical Guitars use a combination of nylon strings on the high treble strings (G, B and high E) and a nylon core wrapped in various metal winding materials on the lower bass strings (Low E, A and D). They are easier on the fingers and have a more mellow, relaxed tone. These strings used to be made out of the intestines of sheep and cows. Let's all be thankful that's not the case anymore. Please excuse me while I head to the bathroom for a moment...
String Gauges and Tensions
GAUGES refer to the various weights of each string. These are measured in fractions of inches (millimeters). You'll often hear guitar players say that they play "11's or 12's on their acoustic and 9's or 10's on their electric." This is a measurement of the thickness of the string, usually the high E string. The strings increase in size from there. The high E and B strings are similar on acoustic and and electric guitars, in that they are both unwound, meaning they just have the basic steel without the winding around it. Electric guitars also have an unwound G string. Below are the different gauges and sizes of each string in the sets.
ELECTRICS STRING GAUGES
- Extra Super Light (or 8's) - .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
- Super Light (Or 9's) - .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
- Light (Or 10's) - .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
- Medium (Or 11's) - .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050
- Heavy (Or 12's) - .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054
ACOUSTIC STRING GAUGES
- Extra Light (Or 10 's) - .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
- Custom Light (Or 11's) - .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
- Light (Or 12's) - .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
- Medium (Or 13's) - .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
- Heavy (Or 14's) - .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
On Classical guitars, the various degrees of weight are referred to as tensions. This gives a measure of how difficult it is to push down the string, the tone it creates and the amount tension it puts on the body of the guitar.
CLASSICAL STRING TENSIONS
Low Tension (Moderate or Light Tension)
- Easier to fret
- Have lower volume and projection
- Best for smooth legato techniques
- Have the tendency to buzz
Normal Tension (Medium Tension)
- Usually somewhere between the characteristics of Low and High Tension strings
High Tension (Hard or Strong Tension)
- Harder to fret
- More volume and projection
- More pronounced attack with less note “body”
- Best for strong rhythmic playing
- May cause issues with necks, bridges, and top bracing on fragile instruments
String Winding Types
As I mentioned before, the high E, B and on an electric guitar, G string are unwound. The other strings are wound and can be wound different ways to give various tone and feeling on the fingers and frets.
Roundwound - These strings are the most popular and produce a very bright tone with a lot of attack. They also make more squeaky noise when your fingers slide up and down the strings and tend to wear out the neck more than the other wound styles.
Halfround (or groundround) - Smoother texture with darker tone and less attack than roundwounds.
Flatwound - These strings are popular among jazz guitar players and have a very warm and mellow sound. They also glide easily and feel smoother to the touch.
Coated Strings vs Non Coated Strings
What is a coated guitar string? It is a guitar (or bass) string that has been treated with a polymer coating. This coating is usually Teflon PFT (Polytetrafluoroethylene). Typically the wound strings are coated. The goal of coating the strings is to prevent string corrosion. Bronze strings are highly corrosive and are going to lose their sound over time, which is why you have to change them from time to time. Coating them helps them to last longer.
By keeping the alloy oxygen free, the strings can sound fresh out of the box for months. Whereas uncoated bronze strings can sound dead after a much shorter duration of time (sometimes just days!). In some regards, the coated string has pumped a little more life into the acoustic guitar market. It used to be a real problem for music stores to carry expensive acoustic guitars, left on the wall for a few weeks with bronze strings, only to sound completely dead. The strings would corrode as the guitar hung on the wall. How difficult is it to sell an expensive dead sounding acoustic guitar? It is not easy.
The polymer coating allows string manufacturers to claim reduced finger squeak, reduced fret wear, and better tuning capability. It also gives them the ability to apply colored polymer to achieve the appearance of colored strings.
Elixer makes a great coated string that comes in two types: nanoweb and polyweb. Elixir Strings with Nanoweb Coating sound and feel more like traditional, uncoated strings. They are bright and lively, and the coating is so thin that you can barely tell it's there. Elixir Strings with Polyweb Coating have a warm, "played-in" tone.
Cleartone also makes a coated string that is coated so thinly that it is hard to detect. The goal being to create a string that lasts longer but doesn't impede upon the tone.
A disadvantage of coated strings are that the tone can be diminished and the coating becomes flaky as it begins to tear and wear away as the guitar is played.
The various string materials will give you a variety of different tones. Depending on what you want your guitar to sound like you might want to choose a corresponding material. The list below can help guide you towards the best string for your guitar.
ELECTRIC STRING TONE QUALITIES
- Nickel-Plated Steel: Balanced brightness and warmth with more attack
- Pure Nickel: Less bright than nickel-plated steel with added warmth
- Stainless Steel: Bright, crisp, “edgy” tone with sustain and corrosion resistance. Less prone to finger squeaks.
- Chrome: Warmth with less resonance; often chosen by jazz and blues guitarists
- Titanium: Fairly bright tone with excellent strength
- Cobalt: Wide dynamic range with notable brightness and pickup response
- Polymer-coated: Less sustain than equivalent uncoated strings; corrosion-resistant
- Color-coated: Some coatings have added colorants for visual appeal; tonality varies
ACOUSTIC STRING TONE QUALITIES
- Bronze: They have clear, ringing and bright tone, but age quickly due to bronze’s tendency to oxidize.
- Phosphor Bronze: Warmer and darker than bronze, their sound is still quite crisp and the phosphor in the alloy extends their life.
- Aluminum Bronze: Pronounced bass and crisp highs with greater clarity than phosphor bronze.
- Brass: They have a bright, jangling, metallic character.
- Polymer-coated: Less sustain and brightness than equivalent uncoated strings with good presence and warmth; corrosion-resistant. Some include colorants for visual appeal.
- Silk and Steel: These steel core strings have silk, nylon, or copper wrap wire on the lower strings producing a softer touch and delicate tone. Popular with folk guitarists and fingerstyle players.
CLASSICAL STRING TONE QUALITIES
HIGH TREBLE CLASSICAL STRINGS
- Clear Nylon: Most popular, they’re made of clear nylon monofilament in note-specific gauges and known for their richness and clarity.
- Rectified Nylon: Also made of clear nylon, they are then precision-ground to create a very consistent diameter along the string’s entire length. They have a mellower, rounder tone than clear nylon.
- Black Nylon: Made from a different nylon composition, they produce a warmer, purer sound with more treble overtones. Popular with folk guitarists.
- Titanium: Brighter than traditional nylon with a smooth feel. Often used on guitars with darker voices.
- Composite: Made with a multi-filament composite, they have pronounced brightness and strong projection. They’re popular for use as G strings offering a smooth transition in volume between bass and treble strings.
LOWER CLASSICAL STRINGS
- 80/20 Bronze: Made of 80% copper and 20% zinc, it is sometimes referred to as brass. This alloy has pronounced brilliance and projection. Some manufacturers call them “gold” strings.
- Silver-Plated Copper: The silver plating offers a very smooth feel while the copper produces warm tone. Some manufacturers refer to them as “silver” strings.
How Often Should I Change My Strings?
There's really no right or wrong answer to this question. It is completely up to you. Some funk bass players have been known to never change their strings because "it keeps the funk on there." While this approach may work for a few naturalists, ideally you want to change your strings as often as you want your guitar to feel and play its best. Naturally over time the strings will dull and corrode and will lose their attack and brightness. They'll also start to feel worn under your fingers. Some touring guitarists change strings after every gig. While these guys probably have string endorsements and can afford this frequency, I mention it to illustrate the value of having fresh strings on your guitar. It will play its best, feel its best, and you'll sound your best.
Final Tips About Strings
- Keep a clean cloth around and wipe down your strings after every playing session to prolong their life. You can buy string cleaner and lubricator for fairly cheap. This will help them last longer too.
- Washing your hands before you play your guitar can help prevent string oxidation.
- Buy a string winder; they’re fairly cheap and can help you speed up your string changes.
- If you tend to break certain strings more than others, grab a handful of single strings from your local music store and keep them on hand for such occasions.
- Keep an extra set around in case you can't get to a music store quickly and easily.
Jef Joslin is a Multi Instrumentalist, Artist, Songwriter, Producer and Composer. He is a Sales Associate & Marketing Director at Charles Music Store in Glendale, CA. He is also a proud husband and father.