If you're new to guitar, figuring out which strings you need can be a little overwhelming, but don't worry! You've landed in the right place. We’ll help you group all those different string options into a few simple categories to make life way easier.
- Guitar type
- String materials
- String gauges
- Playing style
Once you know these categories, it’s easier to narrow down your search and pick the perfect set of guitar strings. This guide will walk you through the basics and explain some string terminology along the way.
Types of guitar strings
A set of guitar strings will usually contain two types of string – wound (w) for the thicker strings and plain (p) for the thinner ones.
Commonly (but not always) electric guitars have three wound and three plain, while acoustics have four wound and two plain.
Roundwound strings (w)
These are the most common type of strings used on guitars.
- They have a round wire wrapped around the core of the string, which produces a bright sound.
- These are the lower, thicker strings on the guitar.
Plain strings (p)
Included in most packs of electric and acoustic guitar strings.
- Simply a metal wire with nothing wrapped around them.
- These are the higher, thinner strings on the guitar (the ones that let us do all those big bends!)
- Used on many different stringed instruments including banjos and mandolins.
Far less common, but popular for certain styles of music
- Made with a flat wire wrapped around the core of the string, producing a smooth sound.
- Often used in jazz and blues music and produce a warm, mellow tone.
- Due to their flat surface, they have less of a squeak, when sliding up and down the string.
Guitar string materials
There are many different materials and production techniques involved in making guitar strings. We’ll cover the most common – these make up what 95% of guitarists use.
- Steel is what’s used for plain strings and is at the core of most wound strings. Plain steel strings produce a bright, snappy sound.
- Nickel-plated strings are the most common material for wound electric guitar strings. The wire used to wrap the string is a mixture of around 8% nickel and 92% steel.
- Nylon strings are used on classical guitars. They produce a warm, mellow sound. Nylon strings are also easier on the fingers, making them ideal for beginners.
- Phosphor Bronze strings are the most commonly used for acoustic guitars and have a bright bell-like sound. They’re wound with a mixture of copper alloy, tin, and a tiny amount of phosphorus.
- Coated strings have a thin layer of polymer applied to protect them from dirt, sweat, and oil. It can also extend the life of the strings and help keep the tone brighter for longer – if you’re the type to get sweaty hands, definitely try out some coated guitar strings.
String gauges for electric and acoustic guitars
Choosing a gauge of string totally depends on the player and their instrument. As you progress, you’ll discover what works best for you and your style.
- Guitar string gauge refers to the thickness of the strings.
- The thicker the string, the larger the gauge number.
- Each gauge produces a different sound and feel.
Fun fact: The use of an unwound (plain) G string became prevalent in the UK after blues players visiting from the US stunned audiences by bending the G string as well as the B and E.
Electric guitar strings
There are endless combinations of string gauges for the electric guitar – some people even create their own custom sets by buying individual strings.
Some brands have their own terminology for different sets of strings but most will offer these standard packs:
- Extra light (8-38) – Very soft on the fingers but can sound out of tune if you're too heavy handed.
- Light (9-42) – If you do a lot of bending or find medium strings are a bit tough, try a set of nines.
- Medium (10-46) – The middle ground that many guitarists go for. A nice balance for lead work and rhythm playing
- Heavy (11-48) – Getting tougher! In standard tuning, bending a full tone starts to get difficult for most people around this gauge.
- Extra heavy (12-56) – Metal players use heavy sets like these to keep string tension when drop tuning.
Acoustic guitar strings
With acoustic guitar, string choice is extremely important, because the strings define the overall tone much more than on an electric.
Heavier strings resonate the body of the guitar more and so are slightly louder and produce a fuller tone.
On the other hand, some people prefer the more delicate sound and feel of lighter strings.
- Extra light (10-47)
- Light (12-53)
- Medium (13-56)
- Heavy (14-59)
It’s also worth taking into consideration that heavier strings will require more hand strength – if you’re a beginner or playing for long periods of time, lighter strings might be a better option.
How many strings do guitars have?
The standard 6-string guitar model has been around for a few hundred years, and the “Spanish” tuning that most guitarists use – E, A, D, G, B, e has been the standard since.
- Standard tuning makes it easy to cover a multitude of common chords, without resorting to contortionism!
- Many guitarists like to experiment with different tunings as a source of inspiration or to create a new sound.
- Keith Richards often removes his low E string, and tunes his guitar to a G chord, to get those Rolling Stones-style riffs.
12-string guitars, famously used in Hotel California, and Stairway To Heaven, have some strings paired in octaves, or unison, to get that unique jangly sound.
7- or 8-string guitars also known as “extended range” guitars have become more popular in recent years popularized by metal bands like Meshuggah, and Animals as Leaders, to get that low aggressive “djent” sound.
Choosing the right guitar strings
Picking a set of strings depends on your guitar, playing style, and finger strength. The material of the string is often dictated by the instrument itself, so your main concern is the gauge.
- Extra light gauge strings are ideal for beginners.
- Light gauge strings are best for playing lead guitar.
- Medium gauge strings work well for a variety of play styles.
- Heavy gauge strings are ideal for playing heavy metal and rock music.
It’s important to understand string tension and how it affects tone and play. When the strings are de-tuned (lowered) they have more slack which will alter the sound and feel of the guitar dramatically. Choosing heavier strings will reduce slack.
Check out recordings by Nick Drake, John Martyn, and Joni Mitchell for examples of altered tunings.
Reasons for choosing certain strings over others
- Your guitar – A lot of the time the guitar will choose for you! A classical guitar wants nylon strings and an electric wants steel!
- Playing style – If you play with a lot of force, you might prefer heavier gauge strings. If you play with a softer touch, lighter gauge strings will showcase those little details.
- Musical genre – There’s no question that the type of music you play will have an impact on string choice. Check out your favorite players and see what strings they use.
The best way to find the right guitar strings is to experiment with different brands, types, and gauges of strings to find the ones that produce the sound and feel you prefer.
- Keep a record of the different sets of strings you try – make a note of how they feel and sound.
- Leave the string packaging in your guitar case – you can refer to it when they need replacing.
Keep your guitar strings fresh!
We’re done! Now you know exactly how to choose guitar strings. Just remember – regardless of what you choose, it's important to change your strings regularly.
Old strings lose their tone and intonation, which will make your guitar sound dull and out of tune. As a general rule, you should change your strings every 2-3 months or every 100 hours of play.
Fresh strings will keep you and your guitar feeling slick, and sounding awesome!
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