Best Acoustic Guitar Strings: A Comprehensive Gear Guide
Though they may be a relatively small and inexpensive purchase, guitar strings are a fundamental aspect of your tone - acoustic guitar strings even more so than electric guitar strings. The tone you hear from an electric guitar is often very colored by an amp and pedals, making it nearly impossible to hear the strings. Acoustic guitar, on the other hand, is frequently played without amplification or loads of effects pedals. The guitar strings you choose color the tone much more evidently, so it’s important you love the raw sound you’re getting. With the wrong string set your guitar is not going to live up to its full potential.
Thankfully, if you’ve ever had a hard time choosing the right acoustic guitar strings for your needs (whether you’re just starting out or an experienced player looking for a change), you’ve come to the right place. In this guide we’ll give you all the information that you need to make an informed decision, as well as give you five very thoroughly researched recommendations.
- What Are Acoustic Guitar Strings?
- Types of Acoustic Guitar Strings
- String Gauge and You
- Why You Should Trust Us
- 5 Top Rated Acoustic Guitar Strings
What Are Acoustic Guitar Strings?
To state the obvious - acoustic guitar strings are strings that go on an acoustic guitar. However, acoustic guitar strings use copper based alloys1 while electric guitar strings use nickel and steel. Copper is a better metal for preserving the tone of an acoustic instrument while nickel works better with electric guitar pickups.
There’s no reason you can’t use nickel strings on an acoustic guitar if you feel the need to do so, it’s just not going to sound as good as using strings made from a copper based alloy when you play your instrument unplugged. You may get a bit more output if you use nickel based strings in conjunction with a soundhole pickup like the L.R. Baggs M80, but it’s not going to do that much to improve your overall sound.
Dozens of manufacturers make acoustic guitar strings, from giant brands down to small boutique shops. D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Martin, Elixir, Gibson, and Dean Markley are amongst the ones you may already be familiar with.
An alloy is a mixture of metals or a mixture of a metal and another element (from Wikipedia).
Types of Acoustic Guitar Strings
We urge you to read through this section, or at least save it as a reference when shopping for acoustic guitar strings. There are some confusing terms, and understanding what’s what will make choosing the best acoustic guitar strings for you FAR easier.
When we say “type” of string, that really just means the string composition, i.e. what materials it’s made of (as you’ll shortly read). Different alloys have different tonal characteristics, and you’ll see them described as warmer or brighter or mellower. Your own personal taste dictates what you should look for, as well as what acoustic guitar you’re putting them on. A big bass-heavy jumbo body guitar could match up well with some brighter strings, to balance out a boomy bottom end. You get the idea.
So, there are several types of acoustic guitar strings, but only really two MAIN types; The first is 80/20 Bronze and the second is Phosphor Bronze. Let’s talk about what these all are:
- 80/20 Bronze: These are made of 80% copper and 20% zinc, which technically known as brass, so the music industry calling them “80/20 Bronze” is actually incorrect! 80/20 Bronze strings sound quite bright and bell-like, and more heavily emphasize the high end frequencies of your instrument. It’s a great fit for something like a jumbo guitar, which benefits from a set of strings that tighten up the huge low end that type of guitar is known for.
- Phosphor Bronze: Phosphor Bronze are 92% Copper and roughly 8% Zinc, with a small amount of Phosphorous. These strings are a bit richer and warmer sounding, and slightly more resistant to the corrosive properties of the oil on your hands. A good set of Phosphor Bronze strings is great for taming a guitar with too much high end, but it may also not be a good fit for a guitar that’s more heavily geared towards low end frequencies.
- Silk and Steel: Because these steel core strings have silk, nylon, or copper wrap wire on the lower strings, they produce a mellow tone, and are very well suited for fingerpicking.
When you’re looking for the perfect guitar string, you’re also going to consider whether or not you want a coated set. Coated strings are coated in a thin layer of plastic. This helps prevent oil and dirt from building up in the grooves of your string. However, coating a string definitely cuts some high end frequencies and overall volume - to put it bluntly it robs it of some tone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something you should consider. For example, lots of players use coated Phosphor Bronze strings to keep a Martin or Taylor guitar from sounding tinny or thin. Some players also use coated 80/20 strings as a happy medium between the two types. This type of string isn’t objectively better or worse than a non-coated string, it’s just different.
At the end of the day, you’ve just got to know how you want your guitar to sound. If your guitar doesn’t have the low end you want to hear you should try a set of Phosphor Bronze strings. Likewise if you’re sound is too dark or muddy you’re going to want to try a set of 80/20 strings to brighten things up.
String Gauge and You
The String gauge you choose is just as important as the string type. String gauge refers to the thickness of a string. A thicker string is more difficult to play because it’s under more tension, but because it’s under more tension it generally causes your guitar to vibrate more which results in a sound that’s both louder and fuller. A thinner string is much easier to play, but your sound may suffer depending on the type of guitar that you play.
This is another thing that you’re going to have to experiment with, because there’s a lot of variation in how a guitar will react with a certain string gauge. For example, if the string places your guitar under too much tension it will actually have a dampening effect which will cause your guitar to vibrate less. The effects of string gauge can also be offset by your playing style. If you play really softly you may not notice a difference between heavy and thin strings. Likewise, if you play pretty hard you may be getting the perfect amount of energy from a thin gauge string.
String gauges follow a general pattern, but some manufacturers slightly deviate. When you talk to other acoustic guitar players, you’ll notice they’ll refer to their preferred string gauge either by the word or by number. “I play with 12’s” is the same as “I play with lights”, both of which refer to the string gauge set that starts with the .012 string. Here are the common string gauges:
|Extra Light||.010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047|
|Custom Light||.011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052|
|Light||.012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054|
|Medium||.013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056|
|Heavy||.014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059|
For the beginners out there who are still working on strengthening their hands and building up those callouses, make sure not to go too heavy on string gauge. Stick with Lights, or even Extra Light if you’re having a tough time.
Why You Should Trust Us
Alright, now that we’ve (hopefully) demystified the world of acoustic guitar strings, it’s time to make a few recommendations. But before we do that, we want to make sure you know how we get our information, so you know this advice is coming from trusted, reliable sources! If you’ve read any of our other buying guides, you know our research process is very long and in-depth. It does, in fact, start with extensive online research. We scoured forums and user communities where acoustic guitarists hang out, places like reddit’s r/guitar, and The Acoustic Guitar Forum. We then hunted down posts where people are talking about and debating the best acoustic guitar strings (we try to not go past the last 4 years or so). From there, we made note of what brands and models people are recommending. Armed with this information, we talked to our musician friends who have been playing acoustic guitar for many years, and got their take. We cross-checked that with reviews from publications and online music stores (like Musician’s Friend, Amazon, etc), and of course with our own experience (prior to starting Equipboard we’ve had a combined 16 years or so experience playing acoustic guitar, and have tried LOTS of different strings). After narrowing down the winners to about 10 sets of strings, we purchased all 10 ourselves and did a final test, which helped us narrow down the top 5.
5 Top Rated Acoustic Guitar Strings
Now that you know just about all there is to know about acoustic guitar strings, and how we tested and selected our recommendations, let’s dive into our reviews! But first one quick note.
This is how we recommend you go about finding the best sounding acoustic guitar strings for you: We laid out our recommendations in a Top 5 fashion. The great thing about strings is that it’s not something you only buy once. If you actually play your guitar, you’ll have to buy many, many sets of strings over the months and years. So, if you’re clueless and are just starting out, start with our #1 top pick. Next time you need to change your strings, try our second recommendation, then our third recommendation the time after that... you get the idea! That way, you’ll not only nail down the best strings for you, but you’ll be able to help other people out with your experience. You can jot down some notes about your experience with each set you try so you can remember later, but it’s not necessary - most guitarists just get that warm, fuzzy, good feeling when they string up a guitar with a new set. Everything will just feel right and sound great when you find the best strings strings for your playing style and your acoustic guitar.
With that, let’s talk about the 5 best acoustic guitar strings out there!
Elixir 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, NANOWEB Coating
Gauge we recommend: Light (.012-.053)
By far, Elixir seems to be the favorite brand of strings for the majority of acoustic guitarists. Why? In one word, Longevity (i.e. they last much longer than other manufacturers’ strings). How? Because they’re coated so they degrade and rust much slower. The specific strings we - as well as most guitarists - recommend more than any other are the Elixir 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings with NANOWEB Coating.
Elixir is a company that only makes instrument strings, and as such has really specialized and honed their craft, to the point of getting recognition by recording and touring artists around the world. They make electric guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo strings as well, but their claim to fame is definitely their acoustic guitar strings. In terms of materials, they offer both 80/20 Bronze (which you will recall ring brighter and clearer) and Phosphor Bronze (a bit darker and warmer).
Perhaps one of the most debated choices guitarists need to make when selecting Elixir strings is if they want NANOWEB Coating, or POLYWEB Coating. The coating is what really sets Elixir apart so it’s worth discussing. While the coating is responsible for giving these strings a longer-than-average lifespan, it’s also what makes a lot of people dislike them. Simply put, some players just don’t like the feel of coating on their strings. It absolutely has a distinct feel from uncoated strings, and perhaps it’s a more “purist” point of view to prefer the raw, uncoated steel. Conversely, many people love the feel of coated strings. They’re a bit more slippery leading them to be more forgiving on the skin of your fingers. The coating also eliminates some of that “squeak” from moving around the fretboard. As far as NANOWEB vs. POLYWEB, NANOWEB are less coated, and feel a bit more like traditional uncoated strings. POLYWEB are probably the most coated strings that exist, and while they last a very long time, you definitely feel that abundance of coating. It comes down to personal preference; Personally, we’ve found that most people (us included) like the coating, but prefer the NANOWEB since it’s not so extreme.
Proponents of uncoated strings claim Elixirs don’t sound as good - while we can concede that your guitar’s absolute truest tone comes out of uncoated strings, Elixir strings still have an amazing tone; very clear and resonant. That’s partially why we’re recommending 80/20 as opposed to Phosphor, to get back some of that brightness and sparkle the coating might take away.
One of the downsides of Elixir strings is that they cost 2-3 times as much as competitors. Keep in mind however that one of the primary reasons these are so well-loved is because of their extreme durability. If you play every few days, there’s no reason a set of Elixir NANOWEB shouldn’t last you a few months. Let’s say you play 3-5 days a week; It’s not uncommon for a set of Elixir strings to last you 6 months, whereas you would need to change uncoated strings every month or so. Regardless of how much you play, you won’t see rust or dirt anytime soon, so you’ll definitely be changing these less than other brands of string. The cost will even itself out (you might even come out ahead).
Bottom Line: If you’re just getting started shopping for acoustic guitar strings, we recommend the Light (.012-.053) variety for the best mix of loudness and tone while at the same time going easy on your fingers. We like NANOWEB since they’re not quite as heavy on the coating, and 80/20 to maintain some of that sparkle. If you’re absolutely not a coated strings type of person, then don’t worry, we have other recommendations for you. If you are, however, you’ll agree with this reviewer:
“My favourite aspect of Elixirs is that they are slippery and don't threaten to tear chunks of skin off. Also much less string noise when moving up and down the neck”
And if you need more proof about who else loves these, they are one of the highest rated strings on Amazon, averaging 4.5 stars out of 5, with a staggering 3000+ reviews. We recommend trying out all the strings we recommend in this guide, but Elixirs last so long (and sound so good), that it might be a while until your next string change!
Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Gauge we recommend: Light-Medium (.0125 - .055)
Next up in terms of number of recommendations is Martin, the Ying to Elixir’s Yang. If you like Elixir coated strings, chances are these aren’t for you, and vice versa. Martin is best known for making exquisite acoustic guitars, dating back to the 1800s. It’s safe to say they know a thing or two about what makes an acoustic guitar great, and that knowledge extends to their string manufacturing. While they, like other string manufacturers, make numerous strings, one of the most recommended and dependable models is the SP line, available in 80/20 Bronze, and 92/8 Phosphor Bronze. We love the Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, and in particular the Medium/Light gauge (we’ll talk about why shortly). And no, you don’t need a Martin guitar to fully enjoy these strings!
Coated strings have a very particular feel that tends to be pretty polarizing amongst acoustic guitar players; either you love it or you hate it. Martin does make lightly coated strings in their LIFESPAN SP line, but their bread and butter is definitely uncoated strings. The Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze are often regarded as the quintessential uncoated string, and as a result they sound incredible. It would seem most players enjoy the sound of the Phosphor Bronze as opposed to the 80/20 when it comes to these, as you get a very warm and raw tone out of your acoustic.
Of course, what you gain in tone improvement, you lose out in durability. If you play several times a week, be prepared to change these every month or so. No coating means corrosion will more easily attack the surface of the strings, and gunk from your fingers will clog the gaps between the windings. There’s not much you can do to get around this, it’s simply the tradeoff.
One thing that’s particularly interesting about this set of strings is the Light/Medium gauge: .0125, .0165, .0255, .0335, .0435, .055. It’s not a gauge range that’s widely available, and yet it makes a lot of sense. If you find Medium strings too stiff and tough on your fingers, yet Light strings too brittle and quiet, Light/Medium is a perfect compromise. This user’s review describes them perfectly:
“They exert exactly the right amount of pull on my guitar (the tension is midway between the lights and the mediums) and the tone and volume are FANTASTIC. These strings are bright, even, and somewhat chimey-sounding on my guitar, and nicely LOUD.”
Bottom Line: If you’re new to stringing an acoustic guitar, you’re sure to notice how different the Martin SP will feel and sound from Elixir strings. The Martin SP Phosphor Bronze are a good value for the money, considering how good they sound. If you pick up and play your acoustic frequently, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’ll want the best tone available, and uncoated strings are more “true” in that sense; On the other hand, you’ll frequently be changing your strings due to dirt and corrosion, which costs money and time.
D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Gauge we recommend: Light (.012-.053)
Coming up behind Martin by a very small margin as the most recommended and best sounding acoustic guitar strings are USA-made D’Addario strings. D’Addario strings are actually often compared to Elixir, and are the perfect choice for players that want the same sort of slick feel of coated strings, but don’t actually want the coating. If Elixir are on the coated far end of the spectrum, and Martin strings are on the far uncoated end, D’Addario are somewhere in the middle. D’Addario makes a lot of good strings, and it was difficult to name the best one, but the ones we recommend above all others are the D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings.
To clear up confusion: Elixir is not the only game in town making coated strings. D’Addario makes some too in its EXP range, if you care to check them out. In this case however, we’re recommending their uncoated strings. D’Addario Phosphor Bronze strings are somewhat of an “industry standard”; they’re reliable, inexpensive, they sound great, and they are very resistant to breakage. You can think of these as the acoustic guitar strings for those that don’t want to think too much about their acoustic guitar strings. They are not the clear winner in any one particular category, but they do just about everything well.
There are a handful of “perks” that make D’Addario strings stand out from the rest. First, in a string package all 6 strings are in their own corrosion-proof sealed bag, to make sure they don’t oxidize as they sit on the shelf at the music store. Next, they have color-coded ball ends, which is a nice visual indicator when stringing up your guitar that you’re putting the right string in the right place (we’ve all grabbed the wrong string at some point). Finally, they have a cool Players Circle rewards program where you can collect points to eventually trade in for gear and merchandise.
So, why Phosphor Bronze? In the mid-1970s, D’Addario actually introduced Phosphor Bronze to the string making process. Phosphor Bronze strings are composed of 92% Copper and 8% Zinc, and the small amount of Phosphorous in the alloy is corrosion-resistant and extends their life. In terms of tone, Phosphor Bronze strings are often referred to as more warm as opposed to more bright.
These particular strings are also known for not breaking very easily. If you play loud and with a heavy hand, you’ll appreciate that these strings can take some punishment. This is partially because of their superior construction; they are wrapped with the correct tension (not too tight or loose) around a “hexagonally shaped, high carbon steel core.”
Bottom Line: If you’re somewhere in between coated Elixir and uncoated Martin strings, D’Addario’s Phosphor Bronze strings might just be the perfect acoustic guitar strings for you. Nobody does Phosphor Bronze better than D’Addario, since they invented the process. Unless you have a strong preference in gauge already, we recommend the Light (.012-.053) variety, or what D’Addario calls the EJ16 (the model number changes depending on gauge - the Custom Light Gauge for example is called EJ26). The D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze strings are a #1 Amazon Best Seller, and have a 4.5 star rating from 2000+ user reviews and counting.
Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Gauge we recommend: Medium Light (.012-.054)
Next up is another acoustic guitar string in the “you can’t go wrong” category. Ernie Ball is a very trusted name amongst guitarists and bassists, manufacturing guitars, basses, pedals, accessories - and of course one of their most popular products, guitar and bass strings. Ernie Ball’s electric guitar strings are probably the most used, and while their acoustic guitar strings don’t quite enjoy the same level of popularity, it doesn’t take away from them being very high quality, and a fantastic choice for stringing up your acoustic. In particular we recommend the Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings.
Ernie Ball Earthwood Phosphor Bronze strings are made in California, U.S.A., and are composed of 92% copper, 7.7% tin, 0.3% phosphorus wire. These strings have some considerable star power behind them, with artists like Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Billie Joe Armstrong, and James Bay all using them... so they must be doing something right!
In terms of feel, Earthwood strings are actually quite comparable to the D’Addario Phosphor Bronze. They are good compromise in feel between Elixir and Martin strings. As one reviewer puts it:
“I'm not a huge fan of the slick feel of Elixirs and these are not grabby or slick, kind of in between. The sound is warm and resonates well, and for whatever reason these just feel better on my fingers than most other strings I've tried.”
Tone-wise, they sound great. Nice and rich, warm, clear, with just the right amount of brightness for our taste. They’re also packaged well, with Ernie Ball’s Element Shield Packaging ensuring they stay fresh and don’t prematurely oxidize.
Bottom Line: A very worthy competitor to D’Addario Phosphor Bronze acoustic guitar strings. If you need a good starting point, we like the Medium-Light gauge (.012, .016, .024w, .032, .044, .054). As a testament to how well-liked these are, they have over 500 reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars.
John Pearse 600L Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Gauge we recommend: Light (.012-.053)
While it became obvious what the top 4 acoustic guitar strings should be in our guide, the 5th was not so obvious. Rotosound, Cleartone, and Dean Markley were worthy contenders, but in the end the one that felt best both to us and the experts we spoke to are the John Pearse 600L Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings.
“Possibly the best acoustic guitar strings that you've never heard of,” says one reviewer. To be fair, plenty of people have heard of John Pearse strings, but they do lag far behind in popularity against the likes of Elixir, D’Addario, Ernie Ball, and Martin. Marketing may not be John Pearse’s forte (the Website still looks like it was designed in the early 90s), but they make fantastic strings.
Tonally they are excellent, right up there with Martin strings. They sound very clean and clear both on our inexpensive Ibanez acoustic, and high-end Taylor. While their longevity is less than coated Elixir strings, they last a reasonably long time, and still tend to sound good even as they’re approaching the end of their life.
Bottom Line: As we mentioned, we recommend trying out acoustic guitar strings in the order we listed them in this top 5 list. While it may take you a while to get down to the 5th string change, we definitely think John Pearse are excellent, and worthy of taking for a spin. We really enjoyed the Light gauge with these (.012, .016, .024, .032, .042, .053, with the two thinnest strings being plain, and the rest wound).