Strings And Things: A Guitar String Buyer’s Guide
By Mason Hoberg
Does anyone else remember how hard it was to figure out which set of guitar strings you needed when you first started playing? From phosphor bronze to brass, and with dozens of different gauges, choosing the perfect guitar string is incredibly overwhelming.
But thankfully, this article should clear up any questions you have regarding guitar strings. We’ll talk about the different tone profiles of varying string materials and gauges, and hopefully we’ll help you track down the strings that will have you sounding your best!
- Guitar String Terminology
- Which Material Is Right For Me?
- Which Gauge Is Right For Me?
- Top Guitar Strings
Guitar String Terminology
Every craft comes with a pretty hefty helping of terminology, and guitar playing is no exception. So think of the section below as something of a glossary, giving a definition of some of the different terms associated with guitar strings.
Keep in mind that the different tone profiles of each string will vary from brand to brand, but the information below will be a great place to start in your hunt for the perfect guitar string.
Bronze: According to general consensus, bronze has a very bright and crisp tone but your strings start to age prematurely due to how quickly pure bronze tends to oxidize.
Phosphor Bronze: Phosphor bronze tends to sound a lot like pure bronze, but generally sports a darker sound. The strings also tend to last a bit longer than bronze, but the difference varies from brand to brand.
Brass: Brass strings are designed to sound very bright, and feature a tight bottom end.
Nylon: Nylon strings are generally used for classical or flamenco guitar, and have a very warm sound. The wound strings (see definition below) are generally a single nylon filament wrapped with bronze or copper, while the non-wound strings are generally just a single nylon filament.
80/20: 80/20 strings are a type of bronze string with a brighter profile than what you’d find with bronze. 80/20 bronze strings are generally considered to be synonymous with brass. The reason for this is that brass is composed of roughly 80% copper and 20% zinc.
The best way to think about it is as a vague term to describe strings brighter than that particular company’s standard bronze set.
Stainless Steel: Used for electric guitars, stainless steel guitar strings are described as feeling smoother but carrying a relatively dark voicing.
Nickel: Nickel strings are generally described as being very bright, though the general consensus is that they don’t hold up as long as their stainless steel counterparts. They’re also used for electric guitars.
Coated: When a string advertises itself as coated, it means that the strings have a special coating used to preserve the life of the string for longer periods, though some say that the coating can lead to the strings sounding a bit dull.
Gauge: The gauge of your guitar strings is how thick they feel, with thicker strings being harder to play and thinner strings being easier.
Wound: Depending on the gauge, generally your three thickest strings are wound. This means that they are wire wound around a separate wire core. Some gauges and brands will also feature a wound 3rd string.
Flatwound: The term “flatwound” in regard to guitar strings is exactly what it sounds like. The way that the wire of flatwounds is wrapped around the core is designed to feel flatter. The tonal profile of flatwound guitar strings is generally described as being warmer than the tone of a standard string.
This type of string is generally used for Jazz exclusively when played on a guitar, though flatwound bass strings are played by a wide variety of bassists.
Which Material Is Right For Me?
If you play electric guitar, your options as far as materials go are fairly limited. As a general rule of thumb, if you have a high quality set of either nickel or stainless steel strings (something along the lines of a D’Addario or Ernie Ball) your string isn’t going to be holding you back.
Some of you may have wondered why you can’t use bronze or brass acoustic strings on your electric guitar. Well actually you can, but you shouldn’t. Magnetic pickups aren’t very good at picking up bronze or brass strings, which is why nickel and stainless steel have become the standard.
Regardless, the tonal profile of your strings can easily be offset by your technique and how you set your amplifier, for proof just look at the staggering amount of players who use Ernie Ball strings.
If you’re an acoustic player however, your choice of string is very important. If you’re a gigging guitarist, I would recommend a coated set of phosphor bronze strings, with the exception of any bluegrass guitar players out there. Coated strings minimize finger squeak when you’re sliding up and down the neck, and they’ll also keep your strings fresh awhile longer.
And I know this might be a bit of a controversial subject because most acoustic guitar players are very particular about their strings, but I think the relatively mild tonal profile of most phosphor bronze strings work better in a live situation. In most bands an acoustic guitar functions more like a sonic pillow, filling out the mix while still staying fairly subtle. So while a really bright acoustic sound might work great for solo accompaniment, it may not be the best fit for a band situation.
The reason that bluegrass players are the exception here is because of the way that a bluegrass band is orientated. Every instrument in a bluegrass band is louder than the guitar except for arguably the double bass, so a bluegrass guitar player needs as much cutting power as they can get.
Aside from that however, it really comes down to personal preference and the construction of your guitar. I like to pair brighter strings with darker voiced guitars (and vice versa) to get a more balanced tone, but your results may vary. You can use your strings to highlight certain tonal qualities of a guitar, or you can use them to offset negative aspects.
The last thing to consider is the hardware you’re using for either amplifying or recording. Everything that you use to either amplify or record your guitar will influence your sound in some way, and you may even need to switch strings to compensate for it if the problem can’t easily be EQ’d out of the mix.
Which Gauge Is Right For Me?
I’ve always preferred thicker gauge strings. A thicker string will give you more volume and a better response in the bass to lower mid frequency range while still retaining a pretty fair amount of high end. A thinner gauge is the exact opposite of that, emphasizing higher frequencies while still retaining some of the lower ones.
However, there’s also the factor of playability to consider. The thicker the string the harder it will be to bend and fret, and the thinner it is the easier it will be. In my case, I actually found moving to a thicker gauge relatively painless with a pretty short period of adjustment. But your experience with changing string gauges may vary based on your playing style and the scale length of your instrument.
Also, if you play a vintage instrument you may want to consider using lighter gauge strings. Some vintage instruments aren’t particularly stable, and using strings that place too much strain on your guitar can lead to serious damage. The best way to figure out which gauge of string you should use for a vintage instrument is to take it to your local luthier, who will be able to give you a recommendation based on the construction and condition of your instrument.
Top Guitar Strings
So the information in this article is a good place to start, but with the positively mind boggling amount of guitar strings available, we figured it’d be helpful to give a few specific recommendations as well.
D’Addario EJ11 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Since the company’s inception, D’Addario has long been a favorite of musicians the world over. Manufactured in U.S.A., every D’Addario string features an exceptional tone as well as a tight bottom end. The strings also come in a corrosion resistant packaging, which guarantees you’ll always receive a fresh set.
Elixir 16182 Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze HD Acoustic Guitar Strings
One of the premier manufacturers of coated guitar strings, Elixir has a well deserved reputation of consistently delivering a high quality product. The strings feature a smooth high end along with some very full lower end frequencies, and the unique coating ensure that the strings will always perform at their best.
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound Set
The guitar strings of choice for an absolutely huge amount of musicians, Ernie Ball’s unique nickel formula guarantees that your guitar will easily punch through a mix without ever sounding harsh. The Element Shield Packaging prolongs string life, ensuring that every string you receive will sound as good as it did fresh off the factory floor.
GHS Flatwound Electric Guitar Strings
If you need a warm yet crisp flatwound electric guitar string, look no further than the GHS Flatwound Set. Boasting reduced string noise and the silky smooth feel you can only get from stainless steel strings, this flatwound set will more than meet the needs of any jazz guitarist.
Unfortunately, no one can tell you what string will be the perfect fit for you. There are just way too many variables to declare one set of strings the best for any situation. But hopefully, with the information that you found in this article you have enough information to make informed decisions on your own.