You may be thinking, “Why would I need a bunch of information on what are the right guitar strings for me to buy? I mean really… 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 regarding buying the best guitar strings that are applicable to every guitar type – electric, acoustic, classical, and even the bass. 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.
(It’s important to note that these tips aren’t in any particular order of importance, as what may be more relevant to one player may not mean that much to the next.)
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 (more on that in a bit). It 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 progressively get 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 get. Thinner strings are easier to bend on an electric, but they tend to sound brighter, and they are also susceptible to breaking easier.
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 do not make many finger bends with them. Also, the additional thickness can help with adding volume as well.
All of these points also relate the same to bass strings, but those are much thicker than electric or acoustic strings. A typical bass string set has gauges ranging from 0.045” to 0.105”.
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 and you wouldn’t want to try and put steel strings on a classical guitar. One of the biggest reasons against that is because 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 electrics and acoustics use roundwounds, and it’s common to find either types on a bass. That being said, flatwounds can be used on an electric – particularly if you play a lot of jazz.
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); their main purpose is to extend the overall lifespan as older strings tend to sound lifeless over time.
They help to keep dirt and grime from building up and also really help 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. It’s not uncommon to see a set of, for example, coated acoustic guitar strings that cost several times that of a standard uncoated set.
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 would 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 9-gauge coated strings. They’ll be easy on your fingers, and will last longer.