How to Choose Guitar Strings

By Mark
Published on

We’ve talked about how an acoustic guitar works, how to tune your strings, and even how to learn how to play the guitar.  Let’s talk about how to choose strings for your guitar.  

This was one of the things that was confusing about the guitar.  I once thought that all the strings are the same.  I quickly learned that I was wrong.  Like guitars, strings come in all different shapes and sizes.  What metals they are made of and how they are made can make all the difference in sound.  Today we’re going to look at the following aspects of guitar strings:

String Gauge

String Metals

String Winding Method

String Coating

When you should change your strings

How to extend the life of your strings

What next?

Today we’re going to give you some general information on what aspects to be aware of when buying strings. 

String Gauge

The first thing that we want to talk about when choosing strings is string gauge.  There are a few common types of string gauges:

  • Extra-light
  • Light
  • Medium
  • Heavy

What you will need for your guitar will vary based on your preferences and the music you play.  Lighter strings are the choice of beginners because of how easy it is to play them.  The light gauge strings are also popular among lead guitarists that love to play solos and use plenty of bends.  The light gauge comes with a few downsides.  You’ll be needing to tune your guitar more often and because they are so flexible they tend to break easily.

Heavier gauges produce a fuller tone whereas lighter gauge strings sound more brittle and thin sounding.  One reason for switching over to heavier gauge strings is that you like to play heavier, as in striking the strings harder.  As a result you’ll break less strings.  Another reason for switching to a heavier gauge is because you are playing in drop tunings more often than not.  Jazz players commonly play heavier gauge strings for its full sound.  

If you’re a beginner, you’ll want to stick with lighter string gauges because they are softer on the fingers.  As you become more experienced playing the guitar you can experiment with what string gauges you’ll like the most.  

D'Addario Acoustic String Package

String Metals

The next thing that affects a string’s sound is the metal that it is made of.  There are many different metals that make a string but we’ll talk about some of the more popular choices.  

Nickel-plated steel is the most commonly used metal for strings.  These strings are wound all the way around by a thin piece of nickel with a steel core in the middle.  These types of strings have a bright and snappy quality to the strings when they are fresh on the guitar.  As they age they tend to lose that quality.

Another type of metal commonly used in strings is pure nickel.  Pure nickel strings produce a warm and smooth tone.  Contrary to nickel-plated steel, pure nickel has a consistent tone quality and gradual dulling for its lifespan.  

The last type of metal used in strings is stainless steel.  Stainless steel strings produce a brighter sound and have more sustain.  Its material makes it less prone to squeaks while playing.  Because of stainless steel’s corrosion resistance they last longer and are less affected by dirt, air, sweat and other elements.  

Fender Pure Nickel Strings

String Winding Method

Another aspect of strings to consider is how they are wound.  There are 2 common types: 

  • Roundwound
  • Flatwound

Roundwound are the more common type of string winding.  As mentioned earlier, nickel-plated steel is one of the most commonly used metals in strings.  A hexagonal core or a round core wire is wrapped in an outside nickel-plated wire. These strings have a rigid texture and their sound produces more bite and more sustain.  Because of the roundwound method the strings have more pronounced upper harmonics compared to flatwound.  

Flatwound strings made differently creating different sounds.  Instead of wrapping a normal wire around the core of the string, the wrapped wire is flattened.  These strings have a longer string life.  They have a smooth texture as opposed to rigid.  Because of the smooth texture, they are less responsive to picking dynamics, have less grip for bending, and create less string noise.  These are the ideal choice for jazz and blues players.  

String Coating

The last thing that we are going to take a look at when it comes down to choosing strings is string coating.  Coated strings have a micro-thin polymer that helps the strings last longer and protects them from dirt, sweat and other types of corrosion.  The coating also creates less string squeaking and produces a brighter tone.  Because of the coating the strings are twice as expensive as normal strings without the coating.  

Most brands sell coated strings but the most popular of these coated strings are from Elixir.  At first, I was skeptical about the coating but now I’ve grown to like not only the tone but also the feel of the strings.  I wouldn’t switch over from my regular strings to Elixirs but considering the lockdowns and global situation with Covid, it helps to have strings that don’t need changing often.  

Elixirs for Electric Guitar

 

When you should change your strings

There are some easy indicators for when you know it’s time to change your strings.  

  1. It’s more difficult to tune your strings and keep them tuned
  2. Discolouration and dirt on the strings
  3. You simply just haven’t changed them in a long time

How to extend the life of your strings

Here are some easy things that you can do to prolong the life of your strings.  

  • Wash your hands before you play the guitar
  • Wipe the strings down after you play the guitar
  • Use a string cleaner

What next?

We talked about string gauges, metals, winding techniques, and how all of these can affect the sound or playability of your guitar.  When you feel like your strings are sticky or rusted you’ll know how to find the right set of strings for your guitar.

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