If you’re looking for guitar strings to replace the ones you have, you probably have some idea of what you need. If you’re brand new to the instrument, you may be approaching the subject tabula rasa.
Either way, so many guitar string options exist that even the seasoned player may walk to the string wall at her local guitar shop and think, “Where on earth do I start?”
You need different strings for different kinds of guitars. It’s a lot to process, again, even for the pros. Let’s look at the world of guitar strings and help you untangle (see what I did there?) the issue.
Players often spar over the best instrument— Fender? Paul Reed Smith? Gibson?— or the model (Strat vs. Tele, maybe), but gloss over the strings they use. But since the strings are the actual source of the guitar’s sound, they end up as pretty important parts of the equation. Electrics use steel strings.
Most electric guitar strings consist of a steel wire. The smaller (higher-pitched) strings get plated with nickel, and the larger (lower-pitched) strings have an outer layer of metal wrapped around the steel core. Steel strings give a bright, powerful sound that works well in electrified situations, as those guitars often get used in rock music, which can get pretty loud.
No nickel appears on a stainless steel string, and these are becoming more popular among players for a couple of reasons:
- Stainless steel lasts longer than nickel-plated strings.
- They produce an extremely bright tone, making them better for harder rock than the more mellow sound produced by any nickel.
- You’ll get less squeak from stainless steel when you slide your fingers over them.
In your nickel-plated strings, the nickel used to wrap the core of the lower-pitched strings is actually nickel-plated. Only about 8 percent of the wire wrapped around the core is nickel; the rest is steel. Pure nickel strings, then, use a 100 percent nickel wrap.
As we mentioned above, this matters because nickel produces a mellower sound. A pure nickel wrap will be much more mellow and have a darker tone. These strings find lots of use in jazz and blues playing and on some older guitars to help recreate a more period-accurate tone.
Here’s a video going over types of guitar strings:
Acoustic guitar strings are metal, as well, but use different materials. The metal used in electric guitar strings only needs to produce sound vibrations with no consideration of volume or projection of that sound since the strings rely on the guitar’s pickup to amplify the sound.
But an acoustic guitar needs strings that can produce larger sounds that bounce around in the instrument’s body. This resonance means the guitar needs no electricity to be heard. Nearly all acoustic guitar strings have a steel core.
Brass strings have steel cores wrapped or plated, depending on their size, with an alloy of copper and zinc. Many are labeled “80/20 Bronze,” although they are considered brass strings. The “80/20” refers to the ratio of materials in the alloy : 80 percent of the wrap is copper, and the remaining 20 percent is zinc.
While brass strings give a bright tone, players who want their acoustic tone with some edges knocked off turn to phosphor bronze strings. The composition of the alloy in these is similar to brass strings, though they sound pretty different.
Phosphor Bronze strings have a tiny amount of phosphorus but more copper than brass strings— about 92 percent. The remaining eight-ish percent is zinc. The phosphorus and the higher copper content produce warmer tones. Due to this mellower sound, phosphor bronze strings are best for rhythm playing.
Classical guitar strings are almost always nylon, thicker ones wrapped in metal. Because they’re nylon as opposed to steel, they apply much less tension to the structure of the guitar. They also give the classical guitar its distinctive sound.
Classical guitars are played with the fingers and seldom with a pick. Nylon strings aren’t louder than steel strings, but steel strings don’t project quite as well when plucked with the fingers.
The First Three Strings
Looking at a classical guitar, you’ll see that usually, the strings appear to be from different sets. You’ll see the bottom strings— the low E, the A, and the D— are some version of metal, and the top three (D, B, and high E) are often somewhat transparent.
Clear nylon strings produce the higher notes and are the most popular choice of classical players for their first three strings.
Black strings make a warmer sound and are made from another nylon type than the clear strings. They’re not just dyed black, so the sound is, in fact, different.
When nylon strings get produced, they often have variations in their diameters over the length of the string. Even the most discerning player probably won’t be able to tell by touch, but the variations in the strings affect how each string vibrates and can change the response of the string.
Rectified strings are strings that have been ground down to size, ensuring uniform diameter over the entire string. As a result, they feel different to the touch. They have a texture to them that makes them feel rough.
The Bottom Three Strings
Still nylon strings, the larger strings on a classical guitar have a nylon core wrapped with metal— silver, bronze, or brass. Even though the strings have metal on them, the nylon core doesn’t have the high tension of steel strings.
Bronze or Brass
Usually labeled as “gold,” even though there’s no gold in them, classical strings wrapped in brass or bronze have a long sustain conducive to playing the classical literature most often performed on this type of guitar.
Yes, actual silver gets wrapped around these strings’ nylon cores. Devotees to these strings love the warmth of their tone and how smooth they feel under the fingers.
String sizes are expressed in gauge, an expression of 1/1000th of an inch. A high E string on an electric guitar might be listed as a 10 gauge, which means its diameter is 0.010”. The bigger the gauge number, the larger the string. On the opposite end of that electric guitar’s 10 gauge is the five-string electric bass’s low B string, which might be 130 gauge (0.130”).
Different gauges have pros and cons, and many players have their preferences. In general, though, thinner strings (lighter gauge) are easier to play and lend themselves more to bending notes, though they are more prone to breaking and don’t produce quite as much sustain as heavier-gauge strings.
Heavier gauges are more durable, but they’re tougher on the fingers and more difficult to push when it’s time to bend a note. They’re louder and give a longer sustain, but they put more tension on the guitar.
The best string for your guitar will only find you through your trial and error. You may try the ones your hero plays and hate them, or you might have heavy-gauge strings that put too much stress on your fingers. Asking around about who plays which strings can help you make a decision.
So many variables exist, but when you find the strings that work on your guitar, feel good under your fingers, and sound exactly right, your toil and the process of elimination will have yielded results.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.