I can honestly tell you that when I started playing guitar I didn’t even bother to change strings at all that first year. I didn’t even know how to do it, let alone which type of strings to go for.
I was clueless about the various types and gauges, and what their purpose was, how they felt and sounded. Realising what an absolute jungle it was, I ended up postponing my first string change for another few months.
That is of course not going to happen to you, so read on and learn all you need to know about how to choose guitar strings.
The Key Factors Affecting Tone
When it comes to how to choose guitar strings it’s good to know what affects the tone. There are 5 factors that determine the tone of a guitar string, so without further ado let’s take a closer look at them.
A guitar string’s gauge is simply the string’s physical diameter measured in inches, or rather in 1/1000th’s of an inch. They typically range from .008 for the high E string (or first string) to .056 for low E string (6th string). There are of course thicker and thinner ones on the market, but they are not as common and not used as much.
If you hear people talk about string sets in terms of “Extra Light, Light, Medium or Heavy, this is usually what they mean:
Extra Light .009 – .042
Light .010 – .046
Medium .011 – .048
Heavy .012 – .052
Most string brands also have Hybrid string sets, with heavy lower strings and skinny ones on top
To simplify things when talking about strings, guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string. For example, a set of .009 – .042 is simply called a set of 9’s
Worth noting here is that light strings on an electric guitar will have smaller gauges than on an acoustic guitar. The light gauges you find for electric guitars are too thin and weak. So, on acoustic guitars expect the light strings to start from a .011 gauge to a heavy .014.
Bottom line is; A lighter-gauge string will not sound as full as a heavier one. Heavier strings are able to produce a louder, thicker sound than lighter strings. One reason some players gravitate towards heavier string gauges is because they offer a more round, balanced sound.
Most Popular String Gauges
By far the most popular gauges are 9’s and 10’s, as they usually come stock on the guitar you buy. These gauges are great to start with before you begin experimenting with thinner or heavier strings.
On a general note, 9’s come on your Fender guitars, superstrats and metal guitars, or any guitars that have a longer neck, or a 25.5 inch scale length. This is to compensate for the higher tension.
Guitars with shorter scale lengths (24.75) such as most Gibsons and Epiphones, typically come with 10’s
For electric guitars, the three most common metals used are:
- Nickel Plated Steel
- Pure Nickel
- Stainless Steel
8% of the finished wire on Nickel Plated Steel strings is nickel and 92% is steel. In Pure Nickel strings the wrap wire is…yup, you guessed it, pure nickel.
And the difference in sound? Well, generally speaking the Pure Nickel strings are warmer and more bass heavy, with less mid range. Nickel Plated ones are a little brighter, a little snappier and crisp.
Stainless Steel strings are quite bright sounding, with the added feature of being more corrosion resistant.
For acoustic guitars the most common ones are:
- 80/20 bronze
- Phosphor Bronze
- Compound Strings
Most common and popular by far is the 80/20 Bronze, which is 80% copper and 20% zinc. They are best described as having a crisp and bright sound. Unfortunately they corrode quite quickly, sometimes already after a few hours of playing
So, to counterbalance that corrosion we have the Phosphor Bronze. With the added phosphor the strings do get a longer lifespan, but the trade off is a less bright sound.
Compound strings are best described as a combo between steel strings and nylon strings, resulting in a more mellow sound
We’ve talked about the wrap wire already. The core is exactly what the name implies, what is underneath the wire. There are two different types of string core, round ones and hexagonal ones.
The main difference between the two, is that the Hex Core is stiffer. This results in a string with less sustain built for a brighter, more modern tone. The Round Core is more flexible, making for a more warm, vintage sounding string with a little more sustain.
Ok, so here we’re talking about Roundwound strings and Flatwound strings. Roundwound is the most popular and common one. As implied by the names it’s about using a round wire or a flat wire around the core.
Roundwound strings have better grip for bending, better upper harmonics and longer sustain. On the downside they have a shorter life and cause more fret wear.
On the flipside of course, flatwounds don’t cause much fret wear at all, and last a lot longer. They are, however, not as easy to grip for bending, and have shorter sustain. All this, and their warmer sound, have made them very popular in jazz.
In the late 90’s, a company called Elixir started to cover their strings with a thin polymer coating. This resulted in a much greater lifespan for the strings. Now protected from all the sweat and dirt on your hands they lasted a lot longer than uncoated strings.
Most notably it created an insanely smooth feel, without all the noise from moving your fingers across the fretboard. Unfortunately it also dampened the brightness and sustain of the sound a little.
In my humble opinion, this is more of a comfort/feel thing than it is sound, but you would have to be the judge yourself.
Which String Gauge is Best for You?
Now that you know EVERYTHING there is to know about strings, your choice is easy, right? If not, have no fear my friend. Here’s what we can deduce so far.
Lighter String Gauges
The reason people go for lighter gauges are many, and some of these reasons are definitely worth considering.
They are easier on the fingers, period. If you’re a beginner, and haven’t worked on your calluses yet, thinner strings are nicer to play.
While the lighter gauges don’t provide quite as much to grab onto, they do make it easier to play fast, using a lighter touch. Many shredders out there play thinner gauge strings for this simple reason.
Soloing and bending will be a lot easier, and you will be able to bend the strings at larger intervals. Their responsiveness also makes them great for finger picking.
Heavier String Gauges
If a heavier, fatter sound is what you’re after, then moving up to heavier strings would be the best way to go.
Because they hold a higher string tension, heavier strings are great for drop tuning, and also slide guitar.
Considering they vibrate with tighter vibrations they are ideal for a low action, as fret buzz is easier to avoid.
Needless to say, a heavier set of strings are going to work your fingers a lot harder, requiring stronger hands. Practice, practice…
Your playing style plays a big role in your choice of strings. Do you have a delicate touch and a soft pick attack? Or do you grab the neck like an angry caveman, and dig deep into the strings with a ferocious pick attack?
An aggressive playing style will make lighter strings go out of pitch as you play, and it will sound really horrible. I tried playing with 8’s once, and it sounded ridiculous as I was pressing down the strings way too hard.
What type of guitar do you play? As already mentioned, the longer 25.5 inch scale length means that the extra tension this brings is often compensated by lighter strings.
Of course, some guitarists use heavier strings on these types of guitars. I believe Stevie Ray Vaughn had 13’s (and probably hands of solid steel). But, most players prefer not to push these guitars to the maximum tension, for the sake of playability.
Most Gibson guitars (if not all) have 24.75 inch scale lengths, and on these shorter scales 10’s and 11’s will feel a bit looser and easier to handle. These string gauges also work well on even shorter scale lengths.
Not a game changer, but worth considering.
Since the production processes differ from one manufacturer to the next, the sound and feel of a guitar string can vary greatly. Even considering all the general facts about strings we’ve just covered.
What I mean is, even two strings that are the same gauge and wrap, can have tiny variations in the metals and the wrapping process. This can create two completely different sets of strings, as far as how they feel and sound.
Choosing a brand that feels and sounds perfect to you is of course very important. What it pretty much comes down to is experimentation. Yup, it is the only way to really know for sure what you like best.
However, I would like to say this; staying with well-known brands can assure better consistency. Especially if you play live a lot. The brands below are all excellent in their own right, and more or less dominate the market.
Having said that, these are of course not the only brands out there. I‘m pretty sure there will be a one or two of you who have opinions about not including more brands. “This one is just as good if not better”. I’m not going to argue, I’m just saying why not leave it to the ones who have been doing this the longest. You simply cannot go wrong.
- Ernie Ball
Some Final Tips
It’s time to round this off. What do you say we go through some final thoughts on this topic? Yeah, why not.
Switching string gauge
If you decide to switch string gauge, like going from 9’s to 11’s or vice versa, there are a few things worth considering. Make sure you don’t rush your decision. Spend some time testing out other guitars with that particular string gauge on them. Try to get a feel for it.
After you switch your string gauge, you should be patient. Even if it doesn’t feel or sound the way you expect it to, don’t switch back right away. Give it some time. Practice with the new strings on your guitar for a week or two, and play as many different things as possible.
Also bear in mind that changing string gauge might require a neck or bridge adjustment. Moving to much lighter strings can shock the neck of your guitar and cause the wood to warp.
What to do? Adjusting the truss rod to lower the tension will prevent this from happening. Not sure how to do that? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Of course, if you don’t feel capable of doing this yourself, please get a qualified guitar tech to do it for you.
When to change strings
Well, unless you break them and it becomes obvious, I have to say it is up to you. Some guys change every week, others once or twice a year. If your strings sound and feel great don’t change them!
But be aware, strings deteriorate gradually. You may not actually react to when “the expiry date” is passed. In fact, guitar strings drop in quality with enough time passing even if you don’t play at all. So always make sure you have strings available, so that you can change when you feel it’s time. Which brings me to the next point…
Buy them in bulk
Yes, always by big packs. Always. As you progress as a player you’ll find yourself changing more often, and it’s so annoying to run out of strings. Simple as that.
Don’t buy poor quality strings because they cost less
The brands I’ve already mentioned don’t really cost that much more, but can really make a big difference in your sound. It’s worth the money, I promise.
What To Do Next
Having decent knowledge about strings is of course a good place to start. However, finding the best strings for you comes down to experimenting, and trying out the various brands, types and gauges based on what you know.
You’ll probably develop a taste for different strings, especially if you own several different guitars.
Experimenting with different strings also means you’ll get very good at stringing your guitar. If this is something you feel a bit uncertain about, check out this great video of how to string a guitar properly.
Once you start experimenting with strings, adjusting the action on your guitar might be the next logical step. So feel free to go and check out our guide on Guitar Action