There are almost limitless factors that affect the guitar tones that you’ve listened to in records, at live venues, and the ones that you have crafted yourself using the equipment you have at your disposal.
The guitar itself and the amplifier are logically the most important pieces of the equation, but these go deeper into specifics that end up playing a major role in how your overall tone is going to sound. There are different kinds of neck joints on guitars, different bridges, pickups, electronics, and one that is sometimes overlooked – the strings.
Guitar strings aren’t all the same, and they do not differ in gauge alone. While it is true that a heavier or a lighter string gauge will affect your sound and the general feeling of the instrument (string tension, ease to bend, etc.), you should also consider the materials that the strings are made of.
Keep in mind that choosing the same strings as your guitar hero is not going to single-handedly change your tone to something immediately in the ballpark of what you are going for, but it can definitely be a great step in the right direction.
This guide will cover the surface of the different kinds of guitar strings you are likely to find at your local guitar store, but the main focus will be what we know as “pure nickel strings“. The objective is to understand what sets these strings apart from the rest, and check a few examples from different brands that you probably already tried in the past.
Bottom line up front: Pure nickel strings will have a warmer and rounder tone compared to other types of strings such as nickel wound, often called nickel-plated strings as well. Many guitarists that prefer this kind of tone usually like having pure nickels on their guitars. Their mellower sound contrasts the brightness and sharpness of a fresh, new pack that isn’t a pure nickel set.
There are differences in the way that the strings feel as well, since their outer wrapping is made from a different material. Check out our full guide on how to choose between Pure Nickel vs Nickel Wounds.
Ultimately, all of this comes down to taste, so you should just try as many strings as you can until you find the ones that sound and feel the best in your hands.
Guitar Strings Overview – Different Types of String Sets for Guitar
When you visit your local music shop, you are probably faced with a wall that has dozens of different string sets. Before you decide which brand or which string gauge you are going to pick, it might be wise to think a little about what kind of strings you want. Depending on the job you want them to do, some are more well-suited candidates than others.
Let’s have a look at some of the main kinds of strings that you are likely to encounter, and some of their qualities.
Pure Nickel Strings
The focus of this guide. “Pure nickel” actually refers to the wrap wire of the wound strings of the set. This means that this designation really only affects 3, occasionally 4 strings out of a full set, since the other strings are left plain.
The core of these strings can still be round or hexagonal, regardless of the coating.
In summary, pure nickel strings are known for having a more mellow, vintage oriented sound. They are warmer sounding, less crispy and sharp than nickelwound strings, as if they had already been played for a bit. If this is the sound you’re going for, these could be a great starting point for you.
For example, the legendary guitarist Robby Krieger from The Doors preferred a duller sounding string set to the fresh, bright sound that you usually get from a new set.
You should try out a set of these strings if your guitar idols play blues, classic rock or even jazz, since many of them used them all the time.
Nickelwound strings, also known as “nickel plated strings”, are among the most commonly found guitar strings at music stores. It is most likely the kind of strings you have played the most, in case you have never paid much attention to this detail.
Contrary to the pure nickel wrap wire that is featured on the strings we’ve just discussed, the wrapping on nickelwound strings is composed of mostly steel, and a smaller percentage of nickel.
Nickelwound strings tend to have a little more bite than their pure nickel counterparts. They sound sharper, have a more accentuated mid-range, and they are brighter.
However, they do lose some of these qualities over time, and start sounding duller as they suffer from oxidation.
As far as playability goes, nickelwound strings have the advantage of being more flexible, which will make them more comfortable to play. You will not need to use as much pressure when fretting notes, and bending is also noticeably easier.
Although flatwound strings are seen more frequently on bass guitars, there are also sets for electric guitars. They can also be called “ribbon wound” strings, since the main characteristic of this kind of string is the ribbon shaped cross-section of the string winding.
You can tell these strings apart from roundwound strings (most of the strings available) easily by looking at the strings or touching them. They feel very soft to the touch and you can barely see the tiny ridges on the bass strings due to their unique outer winding.
Some of the features you can expect from a set of flatwound strings are:
- Durability – these strings last far longer than roundwounds, retaining their original tone for a much longer time, even if they are played a lot.
- Increased Price – flatwound strings tend to be more expensive than their counterparts, but at least they make up for it by lasting longer.
- Duller Sound – one of its main selling points, as many guitarists prefer to have a tone that isn’t particularly bright, such as in a jazz context.
- Less Sustain – flatwound strings have significantly less sustain than roundwounds, which can be an attractive feature or not, depending on what kind of sound you are going for.
- Less String Noise – since they are much smoother than roundwound strings, you won’t get as much noise from running your fingers through the strings while you’re playing. This can be interesting to experiment with if you’re trying to achieve a very clean guitar sound in a recording.
Flatwound strings have a very specific sound, so try them out to see if they are right for you. Many guitarists primarily use flatwounds, and others like to have a guitar with a set on for certain occasions.
Stainless Steel Strings
Stainless steel strings sit at the top of the brightness spectrum among guitar strings. As the name implies, they are made from stainless steel.
This type of composition is what gives them their main attributes:
- Durability – since stainless steel is naturally resistant to corrosion, your strings will have a longer life than most other sets of different kinds.
- Volume – they are also known for being louder acoustically
- Brightness – arguably the most noticeable trait of stainless steels is their high brightness, which contrasts heavily with flatwound strings.
- Harder on the strings – since they lack the same kind of coating as other strings, stainless steels tend to wear out the frets on your guitar at a higher rate, so keep that in mind if you use these sets regularly.
- Different feel – the different composition of these strings also affects how they feel on your fingers. They are somewhat dryer to the touch and not as slippery as nickelwounds, for example.
Although monel strings aren’t as easy to find today as they were in the past, you can still find a few manufacturers that offer this option.
Monel was the name that was given to an alloy that is composed of mostly nickel and copper, among other components that appear in small quantities.
This alloy was used for guitar strings due to some of its positive traits:
- Significant tensile strength (less likely for the string to break)
- Natural resistance to corrosion (longer string life)
Unfortunately, this alloy proved itself to be expensive to produce and use, and so, manufacturers ended up turning to other solutions that were more cost effective, which led the industry to some of the strings that we are used to seeing today.
In terms of their tone, you could describe monel strings as something sitting in between pure nickel and nickelwound strings. If you think this is a good compromise for you, then you should definitely give monel strings a try the next time you decide to change your strings.
Coated strings were born out of a need to preserve strings for a longer time before they start sounding dead. The basic concept is having them treated with a coating that drastically slows down the process of corrosion and oxidizing, as well as not accumulating dirt as easily. One of the best-known brands for this kind of strings is Elixir.
They are substantially more expensive than other string sets due to this special treatment, but it is true that they last for much longer too. This might be worth the investment for you if you find yourself going through new packs of strings too frequently.
Some people sweat more from their hands than others, or they might live near the ocean, where strings inevitably get corroded faster. Those people can really benefit from a set of coated strings on their guitars for these reasons.
What Are Guitar Strings Made of?
After looking at so many types of different strings, one might think that they have completely different compositions in order to give them their characteristic sound qualities and feel, but they are actually quite similar between them. Let’s take a closer look so that later we can dive deeper into what pure nickel strings can bring to the table for you.
The vast majority of guitar strings are made from steel wire. Each brand has a slightly different version of it (the main differences tend to be the manufacturing methods and the composition of the wire itself). At the end of the day, it is as if the composition of this wire is the “secret recipe” of each brand so that their strings are unique in sound and feel.
For the most part, 6 string sets follow the same rule: the core of every string is made of steel, but the 3 heaviest strings (E, A and D, or 6th, 5th and 4th strings) are covered with a different material.
Over the course of history, there were also changes to this steel core. The first strings had a round core, meaning that it was 100% in contact with the material wrapped around the string. The resulting string is denser due to this increased surface contact area.
Later, during the 70s’, in order to improve stability and increase production efficiency, the industry adopted hexagonal cores as a standard in string production.
These also offered more durability and intonation stability, making it a logical decision from anyone’s point of view.
So, in summary:
- Guitar strings are mostly made out of a steel wire (often called string/music wire), and its composition varies slightly from brand to brand
- The material used to wrap around the 3 lowest strings (sometimes 4) can be different between string sets
- The core of a string can be round or hexagonal. Hexagonal cores offer advantages related to durability, intonation and production efficiency
Pure Nickel Strings – How Are They Unique?
Put simply, the detail that sets pure nickel strings apart from other sets is the fact that the wound strings (6th, 5th and 4th) are wrapped in pure nickel, as opposed to what we can see on nickelwound strings, which have a winding made from a mixture of nickel and stainless steel.
Because of the name “pure nickel” some people end up interpreting that the string itself is made out of this material exclusively, but that is actually far from the truth.
These strings still have a stainless steel core, otherwise they wouldn’t be strong enough to be used as strings on an instrument, rendering them useless.
Still, this tiny difference has several repercussions on how the string sounds, and also on how it feels when you are playing.
Many legendary players such as Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman were known to use pure nickel strings throughout their careers, as these were some of the most popular strings among blues, rock & roll, country and even some jazz guitarists.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these strings’ attributes.
In terms of sound, pure nickels are widely known for their warm, mellow tone. Right out of the box, you get a somewhat “broken in” sound that you don’t have on other sets of strings. Instead of sounding bright, spanky and crisp, they will sound darker, rounder and less snappy.
This is totally subjective though. What might be extremely atractive to you might discourage someone else from trying out a new piece of gear, so try it out for yourself if you have the opportunity!
Pure nickels are also commended for their longevity. The reason for this is quite logical: they are only covered by nickel, which is not affected by corrosion.
Since the other types of strings are wrapped around a mix of nickel and steel, after some playing, the small percentage of nickel is removed due to friction with the frets, leaving the exposed steel a more vulnerable target for oxidation.
This is a great advantage to have, since it can even save you money in the long run by allowing you to change strings less often while retaining the tone you want to have for longer.
One of the downsides of pure nickel strings is that they are almost always more expensive than other more common picks such as regular nickelwounds. However, you can argue that since you don’t need to change strings as frequently due to their longer life, they eventually pay for themselves.
A pure nickel winding also affects how the strings feel against your fingers as you play your guitar. Once again, this depends on each person’s individual taste.
These strings, just like flatwounds, feel stiffer, harder to press and bend, which could be deterring to some players. To compensate for this, some people like to slightly lower from their usual string gauge.
Recommendations of Pure Nickel Guitar String Sets
If you are getting curious about pure nickel strings and you want to know what are some of the options currently available on the market, check out some of the suggestions presented below:
Fender was one of the responsible companies for making pure nickels popular back in the day with their “Fender Rock & Roll” strings.
This set is more modern, but still features the pure nickel coating. They come in .009, .010 and .011 string gauges.
D’Addario offers a range of pure nickel guitar strings as well. If you have a very bright guitar such as a telecaster with a maple neck, these could help you tame some of its higher frequencies and round out its tone a notch.
The Pure Blues set from DR Strings will get you into the territory of vintage sounding strings, due to its round core that was frequently found in strings back in the day.
GHS also includes pure nickel strings in their catalog. This particular set is an Eric Johnson signature set based on his personal preferences. It is a .011 set, so take that into account in case you need to have your guitar setup for a new string gauge.
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions about Pure Nickel Guitar Strings
Question: What is the main difference between pure nickel guitar strings and other sets?
Pure nickel strings are wound with pure nickel, as the name implies. Nickelwound strings, on the other hand, feature a mix of nickel and stainless steel, which results in a different sound, feel, and overall life expectancy of the string.
Question: What is the difference between a round core and a hex core string?
Answer: In practice, hexagonal core strings offer better intonation and improved durability in comparison to round core strings. These are known to be denser and to have more vintage oriented sound properties.
In round core strings, the entire string is touching its wrapping (whether it is nickel plated or pure nickel), and when you have a hexagonal core, the wrapping sits on a lower surface area.
Question: How do pure nickel strings sound in comparison to other string types?
If you love the clear, bright and cutting sound of a fresh pack of strings, you won’t find as much of that one a pure nickel set.
However, if you’re fond of a warmer, darker tone, you’ll find that pure nickels can not only provide that to you out of the box, but also maintain those properties for a longer time.
Question: Should I use pure nickel strings on my guitar?
Closing Considerations about Pure Nickel Guitar Strings
To sum it up, pure nickel strings can be an amazing choice for you if you’re looking for a mellow sound with less brightness and crispness that you often find on nickelwound/nickel plated strings.
Their darker tone paved its way into the guitars of countless musicians who like the sound of warmer strings. The ability to last longer while retaining most of their original tone is also an enticing aspect to take into account when choosing a string set.
Take into account that a round or hexagonal core also has its impact on the way that the strings will sound and feel, so make sure to do a little bit of research or trial and error if you want to find the perfect string set for you. Don’t forget to also consider string gauge accordingly to your guitar, tuning and personal preferences!