Guitar String Guide
Strings are the “life blood” of your guitar. Just like you can have a body and head but would be useless without that life giving, oxygen carrying substance of blood; your guitar can have a great body, neck and headstock but is useless without strings. Besides the obvious fact that you can’t actually play your guitar without them, having the correct strings is very important when it comes to tone, volume, playability, and staying in tune. This post will attempt to cover the basics of strings and provide you with some suggestions and examples.
Guitar String Gauge
String gauge simply means “string thickness”. There are two main general rules of thumb regarding string gauge:
- The thicker the string, the more volume and projection your instrument will have. Sacrificing some ease of play.
- The lighter the string, the easier it is to play. Sacrificing some tonality and volume.
Acoustic guitars generally have thicker gauges than electric guitars. This is just due to the nature of both instruments. However, depending on personal preference (playing style, tuning choice, etc.) this may not always be the case. Acoustic guitar gauges usually range from .010 at the thinnest to .013 at the thickest. Getting much thicker than that can be a pain to play. Thinner strings are easier to do bends, note slides, pull-offs, and other technical skills. They are also simply easier to press down against the neck.
Electric guitars generally have thinner strings than acoustic guitars. Most electric guitars are built with lower action to increase speed and ease. This means that you can get by with much lighter strings than you can on an acoustic guitar. It is much easier to play Van Halen’s “Eruption” with light guitar strings, and it is much easier to play it on an electric than an acoustic. Typical ranges are .008 to .012. Thicker gauges are often used by those playing heavy metal, and deep alternate tunings.
Guitar String Material
Acoustic guitars generally have three options when it comes to string materials: bronze, Phosphor Bronze and nylon. Bronze strings are a mix of mostly copper and some tin. Phosphor Bronze strings are just like bronze strings but they have added phosphor to protect against corrosion. Nylon strings are often used on classical guitars and are measured by tension rather than gauge. Since nylon strings aren’t common among open d players we won’t go into much detail here.
Electric Guitars generally come in: nickle-plated steel, pure nickle, or stainless steel. Nickle-plated steel is the most common. It is easier on your frets than stainless steel.
Many string brands offer an option of “coated strings”. This means they have been coated to protect against corrosion. They cost more money but they last much longer than non-coated strings.
After research and polling done by opendtuning.com, the following is a break down of string brands by popularity. Revealed are some trends in the public opinion regarding pros and cons of various guitar string manufacturers. This list focuses on brand, not specific gauge or material. This is a subjective topic as it is, getting into every detail would not be very productive. Keep in mind, this information is fully based on anecdotal evidence and subjective sources.
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Just in case the above table doesn’t load (or you simply aren’t good with charts!), below is a write up of our unscientific findings.
- Pros: Mentioned often in our research and polling, Elixir strings generally have a god reputation. There are many people who swear by them, and many others who don’t use them consistently but say they are still quality strings.
- Cons: Some claim that while being good strings, their quality doesn’t match the reputation. In other words, how much of Elixir’s appeal is marketing?
- Pros: Often mentioned by electric guitar players, and often mentioned for having quality in their thicker gauge options. Players who like to play deeper and “chunkier rhythms” often referenced Slinky.
- Cons: Not much bad said about Ernie Ball Slinky’s, but they were nowhere near a unanimous number one pick. Not mentioned much among acoustic players.
- Pros: Constantly brought up, especially among electric guitar players. These are a popular choice and can often be found in packs of three. Personally, my local music shop always carried these at a discount so I’ve used them often.
- Cons: Again, not mentioned much among acoustic players. Evidently aside from my local shop, these strings can run just slightly over other comparable sets.
- Pros: Fans of DR strings seem to be pretty convinced. These were not the most popular stings, but supporters were pretty vocal about their opinions.
- Cons: Depending on what type and gauge you get, these can run a little more than others.
Honorable mentions: Dunlop, Martin (for acoustic).
Hopefully that gets you off to a good start in terms of better understanding your instrument.
For a full in depth instructional on guitar strings and their importance, check out “Professor String’s” ebook here.