One mistake that many beginners make is they do not realize how vital the strings are on their guitar.
Well…back up a second…yeah – it’s obvious that strings are essential, right? It’s kind of hard to play the guitar without them!
We’re thinking more along the lines of what factors are involved when deciding what strings are the best ones to choose for your playing preferences. There’s a lot more to what makes a set of guitar strings the ‘right’ ones for you than just being a length of wire…
Let’s take a look at some of the most important things to consider the next time you find yourself needing a fresh set of strings. They aren’t in any particular order, mind you; they are all important in their own way.
For the most part, each kind of guitar has strings made from materials that are best suited for their application. Using the wrong strings on the wrong guitar would just be…wrong, and you certainly won’t get the performance out of them that you’re looking for.
Electric guitars are probably the most straightforward as far as string material selections go. They are typically made out of some sort of steel, such as nickel-plated steel, cobalt, or even a high carbon alloy for extra strength.
Sure, you can use steel strings on an acoustic guitar – it’s not uncommon. But we’d recommend using a set that was explicitly meant for the warmer tone that an acoustic guitar can produce. You can get there using one of several bronze alloys (phosphor bronze is a popular choice).
The strings that you need to use on a classical guitar are a whole different thing. Nylon is the material of choice, and it has several benefits.
First, it produces that smooth tone that is a hallmark of classical guitar music, as metal strings may be too bright and piercing in tone.
Second, they take a lot less tension to get to pitch.
Third, they are thicker than the strings found on an electric or an acoustic. These two reasons are prevalent factors as to why some beginner guitar players may start out learning on a classical guitar – they are easier on your fingertips and may keep them from hurting so much when you are first developing those all-important calluses.
Another point to make – never, ever try to put steel strings on a classical guitar. Why? Reason #2 above – classical guitars are not made to withstand the higher tensions that steel strings require. You could risk significant damage to your instrument, affecting the neck and the bridge in particular.
Types of guitar strings
Thickness, or ‘gauge.’
Sets of guitar strings can be purchased in a wide variety of thicknesses, or ‘gauges’. There are pros and cons at each end of the spectrum that you should keep in mind. Many times it all boils down to personal preference.
As a side note, you’ll typically find string gauge represented in terms of thousandths of an inch (0.001” = one-thousandth). We’ll primarily be talking about electric guitar strings here, with the high E on some sets going as low as 0.008” and as high as 0.013”. It may not seem like much of a difference, but you have to experience the difference for yourself.
Yes, there are different gauges for acoustic and classical guitars as well, and many of the same principles will apply.
Thin strings have less of a beefy feel under your fingers, and they may be more comfortable to play. On an electric, they also may be a lot easier to bend since they take less tension to get to pitch. The tone is a factor as well, as they may sound a bit brighter than thicker ones.
Taking all of that into consideration, a big downside is that they can be more susceptible to string breakage and reduced string life since there’s less material to deal with.
Many famous players have chosen to go with thicker strings, with Stevie Ray Vaughan being a prime example.
They produce a warmer tone than thinner string sets, and they are certainly more durable. That’s important if, like Stevie, your playing style is reasonably aggressive and you like to dig in a bit.
Since thick strings require more tension, you will have to develop more finger and forearm strength if your playing style includes a lot of bending and vibrato.
Modern strings typically are constructed with the top three strings being simple pieces of the chosen material. The bottom three have a metal ‘wrap’ around them that gives them the bass tone that is needed. How this wrap is configured can have a significant effect on your guitar’s tone.
Roundwound strings are simply where you have a core string with round wire for the wrap. These strings have a bright tone and are by far the most common choice that you’ll see.
A few downsides are increased string noise from your fingers sliding over them, and the little gaps between the windings themselves are prime places for dirt and grime to accumulate, which will affect your tone and overall string life.
Flatwounds use a rectangular wire for the wrap.
The wire’s shape produces a less ‘rough’ surface on the string, and it also provides a warmer tone that is cherished by many jazz players. Flatwounds are a popular choice for many bass players as well.
One relatively new type of guitar string is ‘coated’ strings. As the name implies, they are typically metal electric or acoustic strings (classical nylon ones need not apply here) that have a very thin (as in microscopic) coating applied to them. This coating is usually composed of a Teflon structure.
The result is guitar strings that are far less prone to corrosion and deterioration of tone over time. Have you ever noticed that your new strings may lose their ‘zing’ reasonably quickly – especially if you play a lot? Coated strings are designed to last longer and sound more consistent over time.
Sounds great, right? Well, some players may not think so. There may be a slightly duller tone right from the get-go when putting a fresh set on (but that same tone will last a lot longer).
And then there’s the price factor – a good set of quality coated strings can cost many times that of a standard uncoated set. It’s a balancing act though…they may cost more, but you may find yourself changing strings a lot less often.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to picking the right set of guitar strings than you may think. Playing style, tone preferences, and cost can also factor into what you eventually settle on as ‘your choice’.
We’d recommend taking the time to experiment with different types. You may be hesitant to try, for example, thicker strings when you’ve always used thinner ones. By going out of the box a little, though, you may come across something that feels better to your fingers and sounds better to your ears. And that can inspire you to play more and become a better player!
Ask about the best guitar strings in our talk guitars forum.