How to Choose the Right Guitar Strings

How to Choose the Right Guitar Strings

When deciding between what type of guitar strings you’re going to purchase, there are several things that you should know before making a final purchase. The type of string you choose has a major impact on your guitar’s sound
and playability.

We’ve created this guide to help you, a beginning guitarist, decide what type of strings you should purchase.

Firstly, you need to choose your guitar strings based on what type of guitar you’re playing. You should not purchase a pair of electric guitar strings for your acoustic guitar! Your choice in strings also depends on what type of sound you’re looking for and how easy of a time you want to have playing the guitar (thinner strings mean less effort from your fingers).

We’ve created a quick and easy step-by-step guide on how to choose your guitar strings.

  1. Figure out what type of guitar you have. While this may seem like a silly step, you need to figure out whether you have an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar.
  2. Decide what type of tone you want your guitar to have. If you want a broader, thicker tone, you’re going to want to choose a heavier string gauge. Choosing a heavier gauge just means that your string is thicker! If you’re a beginning guitarist, I would suggest that you go with a lighter gauge (thinner string). This is because thinner strings are easier to play on and don’t wear your fingers out as quickly.
  3. If you happen to have an electric guitar, it’s the common practice in the industry to have nickel wound strings. 10-46 is the most common gauge!
  4. If you have an acoustic guitar, look into purchasing steel strings. On the other hand, if you have a classical guitar, you’re going to want to pick up a pack of nylon strings!

A Little About String Selection

Nylon Strings

As for the different strings themselves, nylon strings have a mellow and soft tone but are also very easy on your fingers. Nylon strings are commonly paired with classical guitars.

If you’re looking to become a folk guitar player, you’re going to want to purchase a pack of pick ball-end nylon strings, which are heavier than regular nylon strings and will withstand a little bit of the extra abuse you’re going to put it through with your vigorous strumming.

Bronze strings are also a good choice to make if you’re looking to finger pick while playing on a folk guitar. If you plan on finger picking a lot, choose a lighter gauge, and a heavier gauge if you plan on strumming often.

Strings for Finger-Style

If you want to play finger-style, silk and steel strings are your best bet. They are easier on your fingers compared to regular metal strings; however, you should not use these on electric guitars. Flat-polished strings are an excellent choice to make if you’re looking for strings that are easy to play on and these are available for both electric and acoustic guitars!

Monel Strings

Monel strings are a step up in the string world; if you have fingers that are strong enough to handle the metal strings, you’re going to receive a sharper and louder tone than what nylon produces. If you’re a beginner, I would suggest that you purchase a set of medium-light
gauge strings.

However, the thickness does come in several options! Just make sure that you don’t use Monel strings if you plan on playing electric or classical guitar. If you’re looking for a tone that’s harsh, sharp, and crisp, buy yourself a set of brass strings.

Options for Electric Guitars

Out of the string options for electric guitars, I would suggest that you purchase flat wound strings. While flat wound strings are a popular choice for jazz guitarists, they are extremely comfortable to play and provide a very smooth tone when they are amplified.

Compared to round wound strings, flat wound strings have a tone that’s more mellow; the only downfall of flat wound strings is that they are hard to grip when playing bends, due to the smoother surface of the wrap wire.

Some Other Tips on How to Choose Guitar Strings

Make sure that you purchase the correct type of strings for your guitar. While this may seem like a silly statement to make, it is very important! For example, if you purchase acoustic steel strings for your classical guitar, you’ll end up damaging your classical guitar; this is because the steel strings have a string tension that is too high for a classical guitar!

Nylon strings won’t produce enough vibration to vibrate the top of an acoustic guitar, which means that there won’t be a lot of sounds produced. As for electric guitar strings, they have a completely different makeup compared to acoustic guitar strings. This is in order to ensure that the pickups on the electric guitar function properly.

If you plan on playing your guitar in different tunings, you may want to purchase a set of strings that are going to retain the same amount of tension on the strings as you alter your tuning.

For example, if you plan on playing a lot of music in the metal genre, it’s common for guitarists to play in D/C/B/A tuning or D/C#/B/A tuning. Choosing a heavy gauge of strings will help to ensure that your strings keep the same amount of tension on them, even as you switch tunings.

If you plan on playing slide guitar, drop G tuning is common tuning for many slide guitarists to play; I would suggest that you purchase a set of strings that have a high amount of tension on them- that way, it’ll be comfortable for you to play slide on them.

Acoustic Guitar Strings: A Quick Overview

Strings come in two main categories: strings for acoustic guitars and strings for electric guitars.

For an acoustic guitar, there are:

  • Steel strings
  • Nylon strings
  • Bronze strings
  • Phosphor Bronze strings
  • Brass strings
  • Aluminum Bronze strings
  • Silk and Steel strings
  • Polymer-coated strings

Steel Strings

Steel strings on an acoustic guitar are often combined with a blend of bronze and nickel, or just straight up bronze, in order to introduce more clarity to the guitar’s sound. On an acoustic guitar, the steel strings that are used are heavier than the ones that are used on electric guitars.

Acoustic guitars depend solely on the sound chamber, as well as the thickness of the strings, in order to produce a maximum amount of sound.

Nylon Strings

Nylon strings are commonly found on flamenco and classical style guitars. However, they can also be used on vintage instruments. The reason why you can’t use nylon strings on electric guitars is because the nylon material doesn’t collaborate with the magnetic field that is produced by the pickups, which means that there will be no sound produced.

If you’re looking for a unique, mellow, and warm sound produced from your acoustic guitar, pick up a set of nylon strings!

Nylon strings are commonly found in folk music, jazz, country, flamenco, classical music, and bossa nova; this is because the nylon strings have a mellow tone and respond well when touched. It’s common for newer players to use nylon strings when they’re first starting out because nylon strings cause less tenderness on your fingers.

However, whatever string a beginning player chooses, they’re going to feel some tenderness and discomfort until they build calluses. The only downfall with nylon strings is that the stretch more than steel strings do, which means that they need to be tuned more often than other strings; this is especially true when they are first installed.

Also, nylon strings are very sensitive to changes in the weather, like temperature and humidity, which affect the tuning of the strings.

Bronze Strings

As for bronze strings, they have a bell-like tone- they’re clear and bright. The only downfall with bronze strings is that they age very quickly because bronze oxidizes easily. Phosphor Bronze strings have a darker and warmer tone compared to bronze strings and sound crisp like bronze strings, but the phosphor extends the life of the strings.

Brass Strings

Brass strings have a bright tone that has more of a metallic sound. Aluminum Bronze strings have a good bass and treble balance, with the higher tones produced with better clarity compared to Phosphor Bronze strings.

Silk and Steel strings have a steel core and are wrapped in silk on the lower strings; this produces a delicate tone that’s popular among finger style players and folk guitarists.

Polymer-coated strings have a certain presence of warmth, but have less sustain and less brightness because of the coated strings; the strings are coated in order to reduce corrosion.

When it comes to the thickness of a string for acoustic guitars, thicker strings are always going to produce a broader sound. Thinner strings on acoustic guitars will cause the acoustic guitar to lose a lot of its ability to project sound, especially if the guitar doesn’t have the correct
string tension.

If you’re first starting out, however, I would suggest you try using thinner strings. Your fingers are going to become tired easy and it’s going to take a while to build up your stamina.

There are no pickups or amplifiers on an acoustic guitar in order to help produce a large sound; this is why acoustic guitar strings are bigger compared to electric guitar strings. Since the strings on an acoustic guitar are bigger, a louder and larger sound is produced.

Electric Guitar Strings: A Quick Overview

For electric guitars, there are:

  • Round wound strings
  • Flat wound strings

Round wound strings are constructed by wrapping wire around a metal core; however, this is only done for the three (sometimes four) thickest strings. The thinnest strings have no wrapping around the core and are referred to as “plain” strings.

These type of strings are known for their bright sound; most round wound strings are wrapped with nickel-plated steel. However, it is also common for round wound strings to be wrapped with pure nickel, as this produced a warmer tone that’s often described as ‘vintage’ sounding.

As for flat wound strings, they are also constructed by wrapping metal around a steel core. Flat wound strings are commonly found in jazz music because they produce a warm, smooth tone.

Acoustic Electric Guitars

What happens if you’re playing an acoustic electric guitar? What type of string should you purchase? Well, that depends on your specific guitar and the manufacturer of your guitar’s pickup. Thankfully, guitar manufacturers have made things easier for you! There are a few manufacturers sell strings that are made only for acoustic-electric guitars.

String Gauges

Now that you understand what type of string that should be used on your guitar, it’s time for you to learn how string gauges.   Strings are made with a variety of thicknesses; the thickness of the string is called the gauge.

The differences in the gages are down to thousandths of an inch. The gauge of a string largely influences the sound, tone, and ease of playability for a guitar, whether it be acoustic, classical, bass, or electric.

Let’s start talking about the differences between light gauge strings and heavy gauge strings!

Light gauge strings:

  • Are easier to play
  • Tend to break more often
  • Make a safe choice for vintage guitars
  • Are easier to bend notes and fret with
  • Are more prone to cause fret buzzing; this is especially common on guitars that have low action
  • Easier to play at faster tempos
  • Apply less tension on the guitar neck
  • Produce less sustain
  • Produce less volume
  • Don’t hold tuning very well
  • Aren’t the best strings to drop tune on

Heavy gauge strings:

  • Produce larger amount of sustain and volume
  • Are harder to play
  • Great if you want to play your guitar in drop tunings
  • Require more finger strength to play, fret, and bend notes
  • Apply more tension on the neck of the guitar

When going shopping for guitar strings, manufacturers describe string gauges in a set by using terms like “heavy” or “extra light”. Exact gauges do happen to vary just a little bit depending on the manufacturer, I have provided you with a list of gauge ranges that are typically found for electric guitar and acoustic guitar string sets:

  • 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, .035, .045, .056
  • Heavy: .014, .018, .027, .047, .059

Things to Consider Before Making That Final String Selection

Before you even go about deciding what gauge string you’re going to purchase for your guitar, there are other factors that you need to consider before making a final decision. Some of these factors include:

Age and condition of your instrument.

When it comes to vintage instruments, they are often very frail. The high amounts of tension that heavy gauge strings causes vintage guitar necks to bow, the bridges to lift, and the neck to shift. If you’re not certain what gauge of string would be too heavy for your vintage guitar’s neck, bring it to your local guitar shop, a guitar luthier, or talk to the guitar’s manufacturer.

What your desired tone is.

Heavy gauge strings will produce the deeper, bass tones that dreadnoughts are known for. Light gauge strings will highlight the treble notes in a guitar, which is popular among finger picking and strumming techniques.

Body style of your guitar.

It’s a common rule in the guitar world is to string smaller guitars with lighter gauge strings and guitars with larger bodies with heavier gauge strings.

A full bodied dreadnought or a jumbo dreadnought is going to sound better with medium gauge strings, because these strings have the ability to resonate better, which allows the guitar strings to take advantage of the larger sound chambers of the larger body.

What’s your playing style

With lighter gauge strings, styles like finger picking are a lot easier to play. If you plan on strumming often, medium gauge strings will hold up better to that exercise, even though as a beginner, you may find that your fingers get tired easily.

If you plan on having a mix of finger picking and strumming, I would suggest that you pick up a pack of light medium gauge strings; light medium gauge strings have light gauges on the top three strings and heavy gauges on the bottom three strings.

Low Tension and High Tension

You’re also going to see some manufacturers place words such as “low tension” or “high tension” on the package of guitar strings. Here’s what that means!

Low tension:

  • Also called light tension or moderate tension
  • Produces less volume and projection
  • Best used for smooth techniques
  • Easy time fretting, especially on guitars with high action
  • Doesn’t produce pronounced attacks
  • Very common to produce buzzing noise

Normal tension:

  • Also called medium tension
  • Is a combination of high and low tension strings

High tension:

  • Is also called strong or hard tension
  • Produces high amounts of projection and volume
  • Best used for rhythmic playing
  • Produces pronounced attacks
  • Difficult time fretting, which is more common with guitars with high action
  • Causes issues with bridges, necks, and bracing on vintage/fragile instruments

You can also find that some string manufacturers produce extra light and extra high tension strings, as well as other options such as medium hard or medium light. Whenever you’re finished playing your guitar, you should always detune your strings.

This is especially important for those who play with high tension strings; by keeping your guitar in tune while you’re not playing it, you’re more likely to warp your guitar’s neck and ruin your guitar’s top bracing and bridge.

How do I know when I need to change my strings?

Your strings will sometimes show that it’s time for a change. Some of these signs include:

  • Visible discoloration or rust on the strings
  • Your tone sounds flat
  • You’re seeing the string wraps unwind, which exposes the core of the strings
  • You’re having a hard time tuning your guitar and keeping it in tune
  • You’re having a hard time remembering when the last time you changed your strings was
  • You break it

There are a number of things that effect the longevity of your strings. Some of these factors include:

  • You play your guitar often
  • You sweat a lot when playing
  • Your sweat is acidic
  • You change your tunings often
  • You smoke
  • You play in environments that are smoky
  • You bend a lot

Here are some other tips that you should know about know about caring for your strings:

  • Always, always, always keep an extra set of strings in your guitar case. This will give you an extra string in case one breaks
  • Invest in a string winder; they’re really helpful to have when you’re changing your strings
  • Keep a clean cloth in your case and make sure to wipe down your strings after every time you are finished playing
  • Make sure to wash your hands and dry them before you start playing; this will help to prevent string oxidation
  • Buy single strings in bulk; this will help you to save money, especially because light gauge strings break more frequently

What happens if you’re taking good care of your guitar and your strings, but they keep breaking? It’s a common for guitar strings to break and the reasons for string breakage can range to several major reasons. Some of these reasons include:

  • Playing your guitar too aggressively: this is the most common reason strings break
  • Over tuning your strings; by winding the peg too much, you’re going to break a string. Don’t worry! This problem even happens to highly experienced guitar players. Try tuning your guitar away from your face in order to minimize the chances of a guitar string snapping in your face.
  • The age of your strings: the longer your have your strings on your guitar, the more the material degrades. If you leave your strings unused for long periods of time, they’re also more prone to rusting, which makes them break easier.
  • Leaving your guitar out of the case exposes it to more humidity, which eats away at the strings.

What happens when a guitar string breaks?

When you’re first starting out, you’re going to go through a lot of strings. That’s totally okay! You’re learning what about the body of your guitar, the abuse your guitar can take, and how to apply to techniques to your instrument.

It’s easy to break your strings and it’s even easier to change them! I know that it looks and sounds very intimidating, especially if you’re a beginner. Knowing how to change your strings is an essential part of learning how to take care of your guitar. One of the funniest thing about playing guitar is that the strings seem to break at the most inconvenient times.

It’s a common fact to know that older guitars improve as they age; however, the same cannot be said about strings. If you’ve noticed that your strings sound dull, are harder to tune, and aren’t super easy to plan, you need a new set of strings.

A new set of strings will remedy this! I personally would suggest that you change your strings every three to four weeks, if you’re playing five times a week. If you’re playing more, change your strings more! If you’re playing less, change your strings less.

When going shopping for strings, you’re going to find that string sets are sold in both in sets and individually, as well as being available in several different gauges. Before you change your strings, make sure that you have a set of replacement strings.

If this is the first time changing strings, make sure that you pick up a few packs, just to be safe. You’re also going to need:

  • Tuner
  • Soft cloth
  • A quarter
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Wire cutter (or a pair or scissors)
  • A string winder is suggested, as it makes changing strings a lot easier, but you don’t need it in order to change your strings

Some people suggest that you change all six strings at once, in order to apply even pressure on the fretboard. Other people suggest that you change your strings on at a time, in order to not to apply too much pressure tension on the neck.

Changing the Strings: Some Tips

If you do happen to change all of the strings all at once, make sure that you use all this time to clean your guitar. The oil on your fingers leaves build-up on your fretboard over a period of time. Use a rag or an old toothbrush to clean that oil off of your guitar. You should also take this time to polish the face of this guitar.

You’re going to want to clip the strings from the tuning pegs and unwrap the small amount of wire that’s left wrapped around the tuning pegs. Next, you’re going to want to pop the bridge pins out of the guitar; you can do that by using a pair of needle nose players or a quarter to pop up the bridge pins. Next, you’re going to pull the guitar strings out of the guitar.

After that, you’re going to take your new guitar strings and slide them into the guitar, place the bridge pins on top, and pull the guitar string tight. This is to make sure that the guitar strings aren’t going to pop out of the bridge pins.

Next, you’re going to run the string up the fretboard, settle it into the nut, and wrap the string around the tuning peg. Slowly, begin to turn the tuning key counter clockwise, in order to wrap the string.

When you’re first starting to turn the tuning key, do it slowly. Once you have a little bit of tension on the strings, stop turning the tuning key. You need to give you strings time to adjust to the new tension and stretch properly.

Once you have all of the strings stretched, you’re going to notice that you have a bit of a problem, keeping them in tune.  Over the next few days, you’re going to have to keep re-tuning your guitar. Since you have a new set of stings on your guitar, you’re going to want to protect and prolong the life of your strings with a string cleaner and conditioner.

The oil on your fingers is what causes a lot of wear and tear on the strings, so you’re going to want to make sure that you wipe down your guitar strings after you finish playing. You can use an old t-shirt or a rag to wipe down your strings and your neck.

Summary

Before purchasing strings for your guitar, make sure you know what tension your guitar can handle, what type of guitar you’re playing, and what gauge you want to start playing on. Light gauge strings are easier for beginners to play on; once you’ve had some time on light gauge strings, you can build you way up to medium or heavy gauge strings.

And that’s a wrap! I hope you’ve learned a lot about all of the different guitar string options and how to properly take care of your strings.

About the Author Danny Trent

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