When it comes to guitars, details matter. Strings are a great example: Sometimes, it’s all it takes to make an average instrument sound grand; other times, it degrades even an excellent guitar. This article explains the difference between two common types of strings: pure nickel vs nickel wound strings.
There are many theories about the effects guitar strings can have on your sound, and different guitarists will probably have different opinions about which are better and why.
In this article, I will try to answer the most common questions on this topic and help you decide for yourself which strings will suit your instrument and style of play better.
My Bottom Line Up Front: Pure nickel strings boast a deep and warm sound, but they are weaker in mids and sound a bit tired to some players. Nickel wound strings sound fresh and punchy, but they last shorter and are more prone to corrosion. My personal favorites are pure nickel strings, but each player should decide based on their preferred sound.
Main Differences Between Pure Nickel vs Nickel Wound Strings
The Main Differences Between the Pure Nickel and Nickel Wound Strings are:
- Pure nickel strings have a warmer and mellow sound, whereas nickel wound strings have a sharper, crisper sound.
- Pure nickel strings are made of a steel core with nickel wiring, whereas nickel wound strings are made of steel core and steel wiring with a thin nickel coating.
- Pure nickel strings are great in the bass range, whereas nickel wound strings are stronger in mids and heights.
- Pure nickel strings last a bit longer, whereas nickel wound strings are slightly more prone to corrosion.
- Pure nickel strings are a bit more expensive, whereas nickel wound strings are cheaper.
As you certainly know, the material is not the only characteristic to look for when deciding on your new strings (learn how to choose the right guitar strings). Besides discussing these string types in general, I will also provide you with tips on my favorites from the respective categories.
|Type||Pure nickel||Nickel wound|
|Material||Steel cord core wrapped in pure nickel wiring||Steel cord with steel wiring (98%) plated with nickel (2%)|
|Sound||Warm and mellow||Fresh and crispy|
|Strong in:||Low range||High range and mids|
|Weaker in:||Mids||Low range|
Exploring Nickel vs Nickel Wound in detail
Now let’s focus on each of these options in detail.
Pure nickel strings
When something is ‘pure’, we often automatically jump to conclude that it’s simpler, plainer, and less sophisticated. Nevertheless, that might not be a bad thing when it comes to guitar strings. What are pure nickel strings really good for, and what advantages do they offer? Let’s find out.
Pure nickel strings should be made of pure nickel, right? That is a common misconception, but it is not entirely true. In fact, even pure nickel strings have a core made of steel (it is usually a hexagonal/round cord depending on the brand and type of strings).
It’s because nickel itself is a very soft metal that would not be able to withstand playing for too long. Also, nickel lacks the steel’s tension and ability to maintain its shape. If you bend it, it just hangs, which is not what you want on your guitar.
Sound is one of the main reasons why some musicians strongly prefer pure nickel strings to the other alternatives. In general, pure nickel strings have a warm, well-rounded mellow tone.
These strings are particularly strong in the bass register. On the other hand, don’t expect them to have a massive presence in the mid-range.
Some people like to refer to the sound of pure nickel strings as ‘broken’ or ‘aged’, which might be good or bad depending on your taste and preferences. In my opinion, this sound is full of character. It is a perfect match for melancholic, deep, and raw music.
Nickel is, as I’ve already mentioned, is a relatively soft metal. But that does not necessarily imply that pure nickel strings don’t last.
In fact, if we talk about maintaining the tonal qualities over time, pure nickel easily beats nickel wound strings. Since it already sounds a bit aged to begin with, it will sound consistent even after weeks of use.
Moreover, unlike steel, nickel will not corrode, so you can expect these strings to last longer in general.
Strings are not the most expensive accessories for your guitar, so the price shouldn’t be the main reason for preferring one type to another. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that pure nickel strings tend to be more expensive than nickel wound strings.
On the other hand, since they last longer, it is usually worth the small difference in price.
Top 3 Pure nickel strings for your electric guitar
There are many great pure nickel strings on the market, but if you can’t decide which ones to choose, check out my personal favorites below:
Ernie Ball No. 2253
Ernie Ball 2253 are super slinky pure nickel electric guitar strings made of pure nickel wire wrapped around a hex-shaped tin-plated steel core wire. They come with 9-11-16-24-32-42 gauges and boast excellent accuracy and consistency.
I love the richness and warmth of the sound produced by these pure nickel strings. They also last exceptionally long, which is super important if you dislike replacing strings as much as I do.
Ernie Ball’s Super Slinky string series are also favorites of musicians like Eric Clapton, Steve Vai, Jimmy Page, or Slash, so you’ll be in good company.
D’Addario XL EPN115 are pure nickel electric guitar strings officially recommended mainly to those playing blues, jazz, and some other similar genres. In my opinion, though, these strings are perfectly versatile and suit many other genres and styles of play equally well.
A package of EPN115 strings contains 11-14-18-27-37-48 gauges. Their sound is warm and hearty, and it comes with a decent sprinkle of vintage nostalgia, making it stand out in the crowd.
Check out our Ernie Ball vs D’Addario strings comparison for more details on these brands.
Fender Original 150’s
Fender 150M Original pure nickel strings are super-versatile strings you can grab whenever you cannot decide on anything more specific. M in their name stands for Medium. They feel smooth and slick and perfectly suit both finger play and pick.
This particular type includes gauges 11-14-18-28-38-49. The strings have a ball ending, and they will mainly suit those looking for a slight vintage feeling.
I would recommend them primarily for classic rock, but they are fine with jazz and blues rock too. As for the suitable guitars, you cannot go wrong with combining Fender strings with Fender guitars. I have tested Original 150’s with Fender Jaguar, and they performed great.
Nickel wound strings
Nickel wound strings are also often called nickel-plated, so if you come across this alternative name, know that it refers to the same type of product. What are their main advantages, and who are they primarily good for?
Nickel wound strings consist mainly of steel with a small addition of nickel on the top. Just like pure nickel strings, these strings also have steel cores in either round or hexagonal shapes.
The wrapping wire is steel plated with a thin nickel coating. Typically, the ratio is 92% steel and 8% of nickel. Such a composition makes these strings slightly firmer and tenser, which provides them with their unique sound.
Nevertheless, the thin nickel coating that protects the strings from corrosion tends to rub off when in frequent contact with frets, exposing the steel beneath to humidity, which is obviously not good.
Compared to pure nickel strings’ warm and bass-oriented sound, nickel wound strings sound considerably crisper and fresher. They are powerful in mid-range and offer bright heights.
Players prefer this cutting sound in many different genres. In my opinion, it mostly suits contemporary rock and melodic subgenres of metal. Nevertheless, these strings are perfectly versatile, so you won’t go wrong with them in other genres either.
As I have already mentioned before, nickel does not provide the strings only with smoothness but also protects against rust because nickel is a non-corrosive type of metal.
Since these strings have only a very thin nickel coating, this will eventually start to wear down, exposing the steel beneath.
As a result, strings will come in contact with moisture from your hands and other external factors. They might start corroding, which will shorten their lifespan and also change their sound.
Even though your nickel wound strings might not break, you will probably feel the urge to replace them sooner than you would with pure nickel string.
Nickel wound strings are cheaper than pure nickel strings because nickel itself is more expensive than steel. However, the difference is small, and in the end, if you end up changing your nickel wound strings often, they might even cost you more.
Top 3 nickel wound strings for your electric guitar
Nickel wound strings are statistically more widespread than pure nickel strings, so the market offers an abundance of products from this category. Here are my top picks:
Fender Super 250’s
Fender Super 250 are versatile nickel wound strings for electric guitar with incredibly improved sustain and nice crispiness. They are among my favorite choices for Fender Telecaster (check out my list of the best strings for Telecaster for more inspiration), but they suit other instruments well too.
These strings feel smooth and dynamic at the same time, and their excellent output is ideal mainly for punchy genres like classic rock or metal. Simply put, whenever you need to be really heard, these are the right strings to get.
Fender Super 250’s are very light gauge strings (10-13-17-26-36-46), making them ideal for beginners or fingerstyle-playing guitarists.
Stringjoy Signatures Light Plus
Stringjoy Signatures Light Plus Gauge strings are perfectly balanced nickel wound strings for those who cannot decide between 10s and 11s. They are convenient and flexible, but at the same time strong and bold.
I have tried these strings on my Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, and they seem to add even more character to this great instrument. Their sound is clear and bright, joyful and enthusiastic (like the name Stringjoy suggests).
The brand is also known for its impressive durability. Learn more about it in our Stringjoy guitar strings review.
Ernie Ball Mammoth Slinky
Ernie Ball Mammoth Slinky are nickel wound electric guitar strings with great versatility and distinctive tone. They were specifically designed for ultra-low tuning at drop A, drop B, and C standards.
If you look for dark, low, and dramatic tones with lots of tension and high definition, these strings will make you happy. Expect harmony and richness along with the thickness and raw melodicity.
Mammoth Slinky strings come with 12-16-24w-34-48-62 gauges. I would mostly recommend them to experienced players looking for a new adventure and experimenting with their sound.
Pure Nickel vs Nickel Wound Strings – Pros and Cons
- Maintains tone longer
- Not prone to corrosion
- Lots of character
- Warm and mellow sound
- Strong in the bass range
- Higher price
- Weaker in mid ranges
- Sound a bit aged and broken to some players
- A wider range of products on offer
- Crispy and fresh sound
- Bright heights
- Strong presence in mid-range
- Not so much character in the bass range
- More prone to corrosion
- Tone changes in time
- They usually last shorter
Are there any alternatives?
Pure nickel and nickel wound strings are the most common string types you can come across. Nevertheless, you have some other options too.
Phosphor bronze strings
Phosphor bronze strings are typically used on acoustic guitars, so don’t expect to be able to use them properly on your electric instrument.
They are known for their well-balanced, warm response, whole-hearted mids, and natural feeling. On the other hand, they lack distinctive heights or punchy lows, which might discourage some pickier players. Besides acoustics, they are often used with banjos and other folk instruments.
If you’d like to try them, I recommend D’Addario XS Custom Light.
Nylon strings are commonly associated mainly with classical guitars, but besides classical music, they are also perfectly suitable for country, folk, and some other genres.
You can recognize them by their distinctive soft sound, high flexibility, and responsiveness. Although they are soft and smooth to touch, they can last pretty long – even longer than some steel alternatives.
If you’re looking for first-class nylon strings, try Ernie Ball 2409 Ernesto Palla strings with ball end. They’re my favorites.
Finally, an alternative suitable for your electric guitar. As their name suggests, steel strings are made of steel core (often tin-plated) and stainless steel wiring.
No nickel, no softness, just pure crispy metal sound you’ll love. These strings can produce powerful and loud sounds like no others. Of course, since steel is hard, your fingers will probably hurt a bit more if you prefer fingerplay.
If you’re eager to try great steel strings, go for Ernie Ball 2248 Super Slinky.
Frequently Asked Questions about Pure nickel vs Nickel wound strings
Question: Are pure nickel strings better for frets?
Answer: Since steel is harder than nickel, steel or nickel wound strings will wear your frets slightly more than pure nickel strings. However, this will also depend on the thickness of your strings, your style of play, the quality of the frets, etc.
Question: How long do nickel wound strings last?
Answer: This depends on many factors, including how often and how intensively you play, what type of a guitar you have, whether you play with a pick or fingers, and so on. Nevertheless, on average, nickel wound strings should last between two and six months.
Question: Do pure nickel guitar strings rust?
Answer: No, nickel is non-corrosive metal, so pure nickel strings will not rust. Nevertheless, they can still tarnish over time, so expect some discoloration on older nickel strings too. This should not affect their quality, though.
Our Verdict: Pure Nickel or Nickel Wound Strings?
Nickel wound strings cost less and sound great. But they don’t have so much character and tend to last less time. That is why I prefer pure nickel strings, which are softer to touch, more durable, and come with unique tonal qualities that a trained ear can easily distinguish.
Nevertheless, trying both is probably the only way to find out which would suit you better. Once you know the answer, let me know in the comments below.
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