One of the wonderful things about playing guitar is being able to shape the sound, tone and experience of playing your instrument to be something that’s uniquely yours.
Although we may spend hours researching equipment or finicking with settings on our amps or pedals, one of the most important choices we make is the strings we choose to put on our guitars.
With so many different options available, it can be difficult – and downright daunting to a beginner, to make the choice that is best for them.
Especially when you consider that there are not only plenty of different brands, but also different gauges, materials, winding and coating.
In this article, we’re going to go over each of these in detail – offering an unbias critique on how each of these affect your tone and playing experience. We’ll also offer suggestions to suit your specific playing style.
Before We Begin – Don’t Fall For Marketing Hype
While it’s true that your strings make up a large part of your playing experience – and the right strings can make playing the guitar a lot more enjoyable, understand this:
Strings on their own won’t magically allow you to shred crazy solos, or make cheap amps sound heavenly.
Because strings are something that need to be replaced frequently, manufacturers spend a lot of money trying to place silly ideas in people’s heads or build brand loyalty.
Everything we mention in this article should only serve as general guidelines. We strongly encourage you to try out a wide variety of different strings – even ones you aren’t sure that you’d like as much. Try them out for a while so you can develop an intuitive sense for their similarities and differences.
In the future as your playing style and musical skill further develops, this allow you to have a better sense of which strings to turn to when you decide to purchase a new set.
Guitar String Gauges
Understanding The Numbers
When people refer to the gauge of a guitar string, they are referring to its thickness, which is measured in thousand’s of an inch.
For example, a 10 gauge string is 0.010 inches thick. A set that is advertised as 10-46, has string gauges that range from 0.010 inches (on the thinnest, high E string), to 0.046 inches thick on the largest low E string. You can see this by looking at this example pack below:
On the left side, you can see numbers ranging from 10 to 46.
When talking about guitar strings set, it’s common to focus only on the number of the high E string, to describe the gauge of the whole set.
For example, a 10-46 set will often simply be referred to as ’10 gauge strings’. This is because the gauges will almost always follow a similar pattern.
For reference, here is a table of common string gauge sets. Note that names or titles given to strings – such as ‘extra light’ vary between guitar brands. Strings that are considered ‘extra light’ by one brand, may be a different gauge than ‘extra light’ strings from another brand. Therefore, it is better to look at the numbers (such as 10-46) instead while purchasing.
Electric Guitar Strings:
|Gauge:||Low E||A||D||G||B||High E|
|Super Extra Light (8-38)||.008||.010||.015||.021||.030||.038|
|Super Light (9-42)||.009||.011||.016||.024||.032||.042|
|Regular Light (10-46)||.010||.013||.017||.026||.036||.046|
|Extra Heavy (13-56)||.013||.017||.026||.036||.046||.056|
Acoustic Guitar Strings:
|Gauge:||Low E:||A:||D:||G:||B:||High E:|
|Extra Light (10-47)||.010||.014||.023||.030||.039||.047|
|Custom Light (11-52)||.011||.015||.023||.032||.042||.052|
It’s important to point out that what’s commonly referred to as ‘light gauge’ strings on an acoustic, are different than light gauge strings on an electric. Typically, strings marketed as ‘light’ will have a thicker gauge on acoustic guitars, and a thinner gauge on electric guitars.
Light Vs. Heavier Gauge Strings
With different string gauges comes differences in playability, sustain, and tone, which we’ll cover in this pros and cons list.
However, as a general rule of thumb, most people prefer to play with the heaviest string gauge they feel comfortable with for their style of music. That being said, there is no one gauge that is universally better than the other. Unfortunately, like everything else, there are trade-offs. Therefore, knowing the key differences between them can be useful.
Benefits Of Lighter Gauge Strings
Now that we’ve explained how to read the packaging, let’s talk about the actual pros and cons of lighter vs heavier gauge strings. By understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each, it will be easier to decide which are best for you.
1. There Is Less Tension, Improving Playability
The heavier your strings are, the more force is required to hold them down hard enough to make a sound when strummed.
This means that lighter strings are a bit easier to play, particularly for longer sessions without your fingers beginning to hurt. Although you may develop calluses more quickly with heavier strings, lighter strings are often recommended to beginners who wish to practice for extended periods of times.
Vintage guitars, or guitars with fragile necks may also benefit from lighter gauge strings. Heavy strings on some guitars may cause bowing of the neck. Truth be told though, this isn’t something you really need to worry about until you deliberately start going for string gauges that are beyond normal.
2. Lighter Strings Are Easier To Bend
This one is very easy to notice, and may make a world of difference for your playing.
If you’ve been having trouble bending notes on your guitar, you may benefit from restringing it with lighter gauge strings.
Funny story – when I first started playing guitar, I purchased a second before I really knew anything about guitar strings or the differences between them. I very quickly fell in love with that second guitar not because its sound was significantly nicer to me, but solely because it was so much easier to play bends. I have always been a huge Pink Floyd fan, and being able to actually play some of the solos due to how much nicer the strings felt was significant to me.
If you play a lot of fast solos or want strings that bend very easily, consider going with some lighter gauge strings. 9’s are a good starting point for easy bending, and 8’s are even easier – almost to the point where you’ll find yourself bending them on accident.
We recommend 9’s as a happy medium. Some beginners may still find them difficult to bend a whole step up, but practicing with them helps to build more finger strength. After trying 9’s out for a while, you may find that they are perfect. You will also have a good idea whether you want to move up to 10’s, or down to 8’s.
3. Easier Hammer-ons And Pull-offs
Lighter gauge strings are easier to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on, making it easier to play faster solos on them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to play fast solos with heavier strings, simply that it is easier to do so.
So, those are the primary benefits of lighter string gauges. Note that lighter strings do not make you any less of a guitar player. Many famous guitarists such as Jimmy Page, Chuck Berry, and Frank Zappa all used 8’s without shame. While we certainly recommend trying out a mixture of string gauges at some point, don’t feel bad about wanting to stick with lighter gauges.
Benefits Of Heavier Gauge Guitar Strings
As you can see, lighter gauge strings have some pretty compelling benefits! Of course, heavy gauge strings like 0.11’s, 0.12’s and beyond.
Note that these benefits are all relative. A jump from 8’s to 9’s will still show these benefits to a degree, and they will continue increasing as you move up string gauges.
1. Thicker, Fatter Tone
Many guitarists prefer the tone that comes from thicker strings, describing it as ‘thicker’, ‘fatter’, ’rounder’ and stronger. This is one of the most common reasons why guitarist’s often prefer to use the heaviest string gauge they are comfortable with – the tone is just nicer.
This makes thicker strings popular for rhythm guitarists, as well as those playing heavier genres of music such as hard rock, metal, or punk.
2. Increased Sustain
With everything else being equal, guitars with heavier strings will sustain notes for longer, as the strings will vibrate longer after you stop playing.
This is another aspect of them that makes them sound better to many guitarists, and why they are a popular choice for rhythm guitar.
3. Greater Dynamic Range
With heavier strings, you will have to hit the strings a little bit harder when you play them in order to produce the same volume of sound.
However, there is also more material there to vibrate – meaning you can get more volume out of the strings than you could with lower gauges.
This means that you have a larger dynamic range – or difference between the lowest possible volume and the highest possible volume.
4. Better At Lower Tunings
One popular reason for purchasing heavier gauge strings is that they maintain tension better when playing in alternate tunings.
When detuning the guitar, tension across the strings drops, making them feel looser. Because lower gauge strings already feel loose, playing in tuning such as D Standard or C Standard may cause them to feel far too loose, hurting playability and leading to accidental bending of notes.
Therefore, heavier gauge strings maintain a desirable level of tension when playing at drop tunings.
5. Strings Are Less Likely To Break
Have you ever noticed that your high E string is usually the one that breaks?
This is because it’s the thinnest. And the thinner your guitar strings, the more easily they snap.
If you break guitar strings frequently – particularly if they are breaking due to hard strumming, you may benefit from heavier strings.
This is another reason why heavier strings are popular for hard rock or punk music.
A Note On Scale Length
When choosing string gauge, it’s important to consider your guitar’s scale length. The scale length is the distance between the bridge of the guitar and the nut. A longer scale length means more tension on the strings, making them feel / play as if they were heavier, even while at the same gauge.
Therefore, somebody that uses 11 gauge strings on a Les Paul (with a scale length of 24.75″) may prefer to use 10’s on a Fender / Squier Stratocaster type guitar (with a scale length of 25.5 inches.)
To find your guitar’s scale length, you can either measure it yourself or look up the model of your guitar online. The scale length will usually be posted on the sales page for the guitar.
Mixed Gauge And Half Gauge String Sets
A larger number of string manufacturers now offer mixed or half gauge string options.
Mixed gauge strings are string sets that feature heavier gauge strings on the lower strings – the low E, A, and D, while offering lighter gauge strings on the higher strings – the G, B, and high E.
This offers many of the benefits of both heavier and lighter gauge strings. On the low end, you have heavier strings for playing strong riffs, power chords, and rhythm parts, while the lighter gauge high strings still allow for fast playing and easy bending.
This is a solid option, and may be worth trying out if it’s something that interests you.
For reference, here are some of our top mixed gauge string recommendations for electric guitar:
Half gauge string sets are sets in-between common regular gauges. For example, instead of having to jump from a set of 10’s to 11’s, some manufacturers may offer 10.5’s.
I have not personally tried these out, so I have no real opinion on them. However, the theory behind them makes sense, and I can’t think of any reason why they would particularly be a bad thing other than potentially being more difficult to find in-person (which may be important for a touring musician.)
In A Nutshell
To summarize, consider using light-medium gauge strings if…
- You are a beginner.
- You want to play fast solos, with lots of hammer-ons and pull-offs that do not require as heavy of a touch.
- You are playing vintage guitars, especially if they do not have a truss rod.
- You enjoy fingerpicking (as the strings will be more responsive to lighter touch.)
- Your current strings feel too tight, rough, or hard to move.
Use heavier gauge strings if…
- You are looking for a heavy, thick tone from your instrument.
- You are an aggressive strummer.
- You are an experienced guitarist with tough, strong fingers and are comfortable bending.
- You frequently play in alternate tunings.
- You play with a slide.
Guitar String Metals
With string gauge, the most noticeable effect between them is on the instrument’s playability. With the string material however, the biggest effect is on the guitar’s overall tone.
Most commonly, strings are made out of stainless steel, nickel-plated steel, or just pure nickel. Cobalt, chrome, and titanium are also available. Let’s look at each of these briefly:
The tone of stainless steel strings can be described as ‘bright’ or ‘crisp’. They also have excellent sustain, and higher output. This makes them better for genres that have higher distortion, like hard rock or metal.
As an added bonuses, they are the less susceptible to corrosion.
Pure nickel strings can be described as ‘warm’. They are commonly associated with the classic, vintage sound of older music and blues.
As you can imagine, this strikes a balance between the previous two, making it the most popular choice among guitarists. Most electric guitars also ship with nickel-plated steel strings on them, due to their near-universal nature.
Their availability also means that it’s easy to purchase individual strings for them when one breaks, if you’d rather replace individual strings vs full sets.
Cobalt strings are also described as bright. They also feel really nice to play – very smooth and silky.
Cobalt is very resistant to moisture in general, including the sweat from your fingers. The downside is that cobalt strings are usually more expensive than their nickel-plated steel counterparts. They’re also not very well suited for blues guitar.
Chrome strings are also quite warm. They don’t offer much resonance. This may be either a positive or negative depending on your playing style.
Chrome strings are popular among jazz guitarists.
Acoustic Guitar String Materials
For acoustic guitars, 80% copper 20% zinc (referred to commonly as 80/20 bronze) are a popular choice. They offer a clear, bright, bell-like tone that is very versatile.
Also for acoustic guitars, phosphor bronze offers a warmer and mellower tone. They make a popular choice for folk players, as well as those singing and playing at the same time.
String Material – In Summary
While you may get a tone that is slightly better suited to different genres with different string materials, the difference isn’t enormous. When in doubt, experiment. If you’re completely unsure where to start, just pick up a pair of nickel-plated steel strings, which will be suitable for any music genre.
Coated Vs. Uncoated Strings
Most strings packs you’ll come across are uncoated, which is the most popular option among guitarists.
However, ‘coated strings’ also exist. Basically, these have a thin layer of polymer on top of them, helping to protect them against corrosion. This in turn helps the strings last longer, without them breaking. It also helps the tone to remain more consistent over the life of the string.
Unfortunately, they do not tend to resonate as well as uncoated strings and many guitarists fine the tone to be less desirable. For this reason, they are only recommended if you are breaking a lot of strings and don’t mind the tonal differences, or you’re stringing a guitar you don’t play very often.
Still, we wanted to include some of our favorite coated strings for you to consider, if this is something that interests you:
On the lower strings, wire is wrapped around the string’s core to build the strings. On modern guitars, there are three types of winding:
This is the most common choice, and roundwound strings are the most common type to be shipped on most guitars sold today.
Essentially the wire is coiled around the core in a circle, creating the textured surface.
Because of the divets in the winding, they are susceptible to dirt and grime building up inside of the divets if the strings are uncoated.
Roundwound strings produced a balanced, bright tone. You really can’t go wrong with them and many guitarists have never used anything but roundwound strings.
Flatwounds are made with flat, rather than wound wire. They produce a darker and more mellow tone, making them popular in genres such as jazz.
They also produce less fret wear, less string noise, and less sustain, while also typically lasting much longer than roundwound strings.
Although they feel very smooth to the touch, they are more difficult to bend and provide vibrato to. This is largely due to the increased tension of the strings. If bends and vibrato make up a large part of your playing style, you may wish to opt for roundwound strings instead.
3. Halfwound Strings
Between roundwound and flatwound strings, we have halfwound strings.
As you can imagine, these are kind of a mix between the two.
Underneath the winding of the strings, is the strings core. These come in two varieties – a hex core, or a round core.
Although guitars in the past all had round core strings, today hex core is much more popular.
The primary reason for that is the edges of the hexagonal shape are better at gripping the wiring – reducing slippage and leading to a more consistent, more accurate wrapping process for string manufacturers.
This slippage may also cause tuning issues, and lead to strings breaking more easily.
The largest tonal difference between the two is that round core strings are considered to have more ‘boom’ in the low-end, and less clarity in the high-end.
They are also slightly less stiff, and have a gentler attack.
Most manufacturers primarily sell hex core strings, and these are by far the most common choice to purchase.
String Brands + Our Top Suggestions
Now that we know all of the characteristics that make up guitar strings, let’s talk a little bit more about some of the manufacturers. This list isn’t complete – there are plenty of others, but this section will cover some of the most popular.
In this section, we’ll also give some of our top suggestions, covering our favorite strings from each brand. Note that although string gauges won’t be listed in the tables below, many of them will allow you to select string gauge on the sales pages.
1. Ernie Ball
Ernie Ball strings are perhaps the most commonly recognized strings in the world. Walk into any guitar store across the world, and you’re likely to see Ernie Ball strings lining the shelves.
Although their electric guitar strings are certainly more popular than their acoustic strings, you really can’t go wrong with a set of Ernie Ball strings.
Believe it or not, the D’Addario family has been making guitar strings since the 1600’s! This makes them by far the oldest brand on this list by far.
The original strings weren’t made out of metal though. They were made out of… animal intestines.
How far they’ve come, right?
Offering many lines of quality guitar strings, you can find some of our top picks below.
If you’re looking for coated guitar strings, it really doesn’t get much better than Elixir (which is why they made up the entirety of our coated strings table earlier in this article.)
They offer three different coatings, which are branded as ‘optiweb’, ‘nanoweb’, and ‘polyweb’.
Optiweb strings offer the thinnest coating, with the goal of sounding as close to uncoated strings as possible.
Polyweb offers the thickest coating with the maximum protection to the strings – and also the biggest detriment to the tone.
Nanoweb are in between the two.
Martin makes arguably, some of the greatest acoustic guitars in the world.
They make some pretty great acoustic guitar strings too. Their electric strings aren’t as popular, but for acoustics, Martin strings are fantastic.
Another guitar manufacturer that also makes strings is Fender.
Just like their guitars, their strings are good as well.
Here are some of our top picks:
GHS almost exclusively makes guitar strings, and many people swear by them. Others don’t like them at all.
I say they are certainly worth trying out a couple of their string lines at least once!
Guitar Strings FAQ
Now that we’ve covered almost everything there is to know about guitar strings, I want to end this with a FAQ and some final tips.
How Often Should You Change Your Guitar Strings?
Unfortunately, there is not a perfect answer to this question as it depends on a large number of factors. While professionals may change their strings daily, changing them one to three months is much more common.
We’ve written a more detailed article on this topic, which you can view by clicking here: How Often Should You Change Your Guitar Strings?
What Causes Strings To Break?
Typically, the answer is corrosion, friction, rough fret edges, or issues with the nut or tuning pegs.
Coated strings, higher gauge strings, and restringing more frequently decreases the likelihood that a string will break. Wiping them down before and after playing will also help them last longer.
Why Do New Guitar Strings Go Out Of Tune?
Guitar strings have a certain degree of elasticity to them – they naturally stretch, which throws them out of tune.
Over time, they will stretch fully – typically within hours to days, and stay in tune better.
You can speed up the process by gently stretching the strings your self – pulling upward on them gently from around the 12th fret. Then, tune them again. Repeat the process until they stay in tune better.
How Do I Clean Guitar Strings?
For gentle cleaning, just wipe them down with a rag. This is a good habit to get into before and after playing.
You can also use something like GHS Fast Fret to help keep your strings clean – and smooth!
1. When In Doubt, Go For What’s Popular
Things become popular for a reason. Although the strings that are best for you may not be the global bestseller, you probably can’t go wrong by purchasing what other people are already purchasing.
2. Buy Extra Sets
Guitar strings break, often at inconvenient times. You can often save money by purchasing them in bulk, and you’ll always have a spare set ready and waiting for you when you need it.
3. Don’t Go Cheap, But Don’t Waste Money
Guitar strings make up a large part of your playing experience, so you’ll be best served avoiding low-quality strings just because they’re cheap.
However, there is also no need to drop large amounts of money on strings that are over-hyped by manufacturers. They are just strings. They may make a difference, but in the end it’s not the strings that matter so much as it is the guitarist strumming them.
4. If Changing String Gauge, Adjust Your Truss Rod
Your truss rod should always be adjusted to match the tension of your strings. If you’re going to change string gauges, you’ll need to adjust your truss rod to prevent bowing issues, as different string gauges apply different amount of tension to the neck. This is particularly important if the difference in string gauge is large (going from 9 to 10 gauge strings may not be a huge issue, but 9 to 12 gauge certainly is.)
I hope that you found this guide to guitar strings helpful.
Because this is such a personal and subjective topic, I want to remind you that these are only generalizations, and your experiences may differ.
The best way to discover what strings you like the best are to purchase a few different packs, then swap out for a new type of string when restringing your guitar.
As time goes on, you’ll learn more about what aspects you like in each string, and which you dislike.
It is one thing to read about strings, but it is another to actually experience them for yourself.
If you have any questions about guitar strings or anything mentioned on this list, please feel free to ask them via the comment form below. Doing so will help all of our other readers, who may share the same questions you do.
In any case, we hope you will enjoy your new strings!