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Strings on a Guitar: How to Choose the Right Guitar Strings
Posted on July 15, 2019
You may be thinking, “What difference does the type of guitar strings really have? Strings are strings, right? Aren’t they all the same?”
That really couldn’t be any farther from the truth. There are many factors that you need to consider when buying a set of guitar strings, and let’s face it – string manufacturers don’t make things any easier with all of the different brands and types that you may see covering the wall at your local guitar store.
There are some basic points about buying the best guitar strings that apply to every guitar type: electric, acoustic, classical, and even bass guitar. Let’s take a few minutes to navigate the waters and make sure that you are keeping the right things in mind when you’re looking for the best guitar strings to use.
Table of contents
What is the order of guitar strings?
Before diving deeper, let’s cover the basics.
The guitar string order starting from the thickest string is E-A-D-G-B-E. To make remembering the order of guitar strings easier, remember the following rhyme: “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye Eddie.” The first E string is the one closest to you when holding the guitar on your lap, followed by the A string, and so forth.
As you may have noticed, there are two Es in a set of six strings for a guitar. To make the distinction between these two easier, we can refer to these as the low E string and the high E string. In this case, the thicker one creates a lower-pitched sound and is therefore called the low E string. Meanwhile, the thinnest string creates a higher sound which is why we call it the high E string.
How to choose guitar strings?
There are a few things to consider when choosing guitar strings for your instrument which will influence how your guitar sounds and how it feels to play. The type of instrument makes a difference as well. Acoustic and electric guitars require different kinds of strings. You may also consider opting for a special type of strings in case you’d like to use alternative tunings that require thicker strings to sound good. The most important factors to consider when choosing guitar strings are the thickness, material, type, coating, and number of strings.
Guitar string thickness or gauge
Whenever you hear about the “gauge” of a set of guitar strings, that means the actual thickness of the material the strings are made out of. The thickness of guitar strings is typically expressed in terms of thousandths of an inch. For example, a very common thickness for the high E string on an electric guitar is 0.009” (expressed as “nine thousandths”). The strings get progressively thicker, with a common low E string thickness being 0.052”.
Why would you choose a thinner gauge over a thicker one? It all depends on your playing style and the kind of tone you wish to establish. Thinner strings are easier to bend on an electric guitar, but they tend to sound brighter. Thinner strings are also more susceptible to breaking when playing or tuning.
Thicker strings will put more tension on your guitar’s neck due to the extra tension needed to bring the thicker material up to pitch. They also can be the exact opposite of thinner strings, being harder to bend and giving a warmer, thicker tone.
It’s common for acoustic guitar strings to be thicker than electric ones, as you typically don’t make many finger bends with them. The additional thickness can help add volume as well.
All of these points also apply to bass strings, but those are much thicker than electric or acoustic guitar strings. A typical bass string set has gauges ranging from 0.045” to 0.105”.
Some common guitar string gauges, ranging from the thinnest string to the thickest one, include:
- Extra-light: .008” – .042”
- Light: .010” – .046”
- Medium: .011” – .050”
- Heavy: .012” – .054”
These are just some common ranges for guitar string thicknesses, and there can be some variation between different guitar string brands. There are also special guitar string sets, such as ones designed for the drop D tuning where the low E string is relatively thicker, so it can be tuned lower than the other five strings.
The material that your strings are made out of is highly dependent on the type of guitar that you are using. Electric guitar strings are typically made out of a type of high-strength steel (such as nickel-plated, high-carbon, or cobalt), while many acoustic guitar string sets are produced using bronze alloys such as phosphor bronze, which imparts a warmer and sweeter tone than the steel strings found on electric or bass guitars.
Classical guitar strings are unique in that they are typically made from nylon, with the thicker strings having a steel wrap around a nylon core. They are designed to have a much thicker tone than other string materials, and the gauges are relatively thicker than steel or bronze strings.
Classical guitars are designed specifically for these types of strings; you wouldn’t want to try and put steel strings on a classical guitar. This is because a nylon construction means less tension is needed. A classical guitar neck couldn’t physically handle the extra stress.
Type (Winding Style)
“Winding style” refers to the type of wrap that is over the core of the thicker strings. For the most part, the high E, B, and G strings are simple pieces of steel, bronze, or nylon with no wrapping. The low D, A, and E strings may have either a “roundwound” or a “flatwound” design.
Roundwound strings are those where the wire used for the wrap has a circular shape, giving them more “texture” to the touch. They sound brighter and are more prone to finger noise when playing. Flatwounds have a smoother surface and have a thicker tone.
Most electric and acoustic guitars use roundwound strings, and it’s common to find either type on a bass. That being said, flatwounds can be used on an electric guitar – particularly if you play a lot of jazz.
There are also half-round strings that are a mix between the two. However, these are less common, so you’ll most likely use flatwound or roundwound strings.
A relatively new technology for guitar strings are those that have a special type of coating on them. Coated strings are found mostly on electric and acoustic guitars as their main material is metal (as opposed to nylon). The main purpose of coating on a guitar string is to extend the overall lifespan as older strings tend to sound lifeless over time.
The coating helps to keep dirt and grime from building up while also helping to keep rusting and corrosion to a minimum. The tradeoff here is that coated strings can sound a bit duller, as the coating can slightly alter how a string vibrates. Price is a factor as well. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a set of coated acoustic guitar strings that cost several times that of a standard uncoated set.
Number of strings
Your guitar probably has six strings: the familiar E, A, D, G, B, and E. However, some guitars can have more strings than just six. Seven- and eight-stringed guitars are quite popular nowadays among certain musical genres; they are used by many rock and metal bands. Bands that use seven-stringed guitars include alternative metal bands Korn and Deftones. Using an eight-stringed guitar allows some guitarists to play even bassier notes than their six- and seven-stringed counterparts. The progressive metal bands Meshuggah and Animals as Leaders are known for their low-tuned eight-stringed guitars. There are also 12-string guitars where the strings are in six pairs. These are good if you’re using open tunings, for instance.
Acoustic guitar strings and electric guitar strings
One common concern is if you can use electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar or acoustic guitar strings on an electric guitar.
Although you could mix different kinds of strings and instruments, this should be your last resort and done only if there are no other options available. Generally, it’s not recommended to do this, and the most secure way to go is to use strings designed for the purpose.
One difference between acoustic and electric guitar strings is their tension, which is higher for acoustic guitar strings. Because of their different size and body with a sound hole, acoustic guitars may also need thicker strings and a different gauge than electric guitars.
Here we need to consider the material of strings as well, especially as electric guitars depend on the pickups to amplify sound. The material generally used on acoustic guitars is less magnetic. Different kinds of guitar strings may also have an effect on the action of the instrument. Action refers to how close the strings are to the guitar fretboard. When the strings are thicker, they can cause unwanted buzz if they vibrate and hit the guitar fretboard.
Tips for choosing guitar strings
Now you know what to look for in a set of guitar strings. Here are some tips for choosing just the right ones for your instrument and playing-style.
- What kind of guitar do you play? Classical acoustic guitars often use nylon strings as their material, whereas the strings of electric guitars are made of metal. You will eventually have to get used to different kinds of strings, especially if you plan to play an electric guitar. However, for beginners who own an acoustic guitar, it can be easier on your fingers to start off using nylon strings.
- Consider your playing style. If you play heavy riffs or rhythm on an electric guitar and use a guitar pick to play, you should consider thicker strings, especially for alternate tunings. Meanwhile, fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar sounds and feels better with thinner strings that have a lighter gauge. Similarly, playing solos that require bending the strings will benefit from strings with a lighter gauge.
- Guitar strings come in different price ranges and special sets of strings tend to be pricier than regular ones. For example, coated guitar strings will cost more than uncoated strings. However, you can get decent strings for your guitar even on a smaller budget.
- It’s better to buy the whole set of guitar strings at once, even if you only need to change one of the strings. It’s always recommended to have a backup string ready in case you happen to break one while playing or tuning your guitar. Just make sure to replace the string with a corresponding one that has the right thickness.
- Don’t lose your cool when faced with the selection of different strings and brands at your local music store. Different brands offer a variety of different string sets for different purposes. Ask the people who work at the store. They’re sure to showcase different options and help you choose the right strings for your instrument, skill level, budget, and playing style.
Stringing It All Together…
So which type of string is the best for you to buy?
As with many things, the ultimate answer is “it depends.” In order to buy the best guitar strings for your purpose and style, we recommend experimenting with all the different types of materials, wrapping styles, and coatings (depending on what type of guitar you are playing) to see which feel – and sound – the best for your particular playing style. For example, for an electric guitar, try nine-gauge coated strings. They’ll be easy on your fingers and will last longer.
In addition to good-quality strings that are perfect for your playing style, make sure to pick the right kind of instrument as well. If you’re still looking for a good beginner guitar, check out our buying guides for electric and acoustic guitars.
Did you break a string while playing? Lucky for you, we also have a guide with easy-to-follow pictures where we show how to change guitar strings.
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