Guitar String Guide – Picking The Best Guitar Strings
Picking Strings For Your Style Of Playing
It could be argued that guitar strings are the most important components of a guitar, because, without them, you can’t play the guitar…. Apart from my terrible attempt at humor, I stand by the statement that strings are very important to guitar tone, playability, and overall sound.
When I first started to pick strings out it was overwhelming to say the least, I found it really hard to know what string would be the best for my sound, and felt like the guy at the guitar shop was just trying to sell me his favorites.
Type Of String
Nickel Wound Steel
Nickel Wound Steel
So I wanted to write a guide for picking the best guitar strings for your style of playing, whatever that may be. By giving the basic facts about what strings are and what they are made out of I am hoping you will be able to decide for yourself what is best for you.
Through my travels to the guitar store I have found different kinds to be better for me and I have stuck to playing with those. But I feel I have an overall picture of what types of strings are out there and have done some research to gain a better understanding technically.
(Truth be told, I barely ever go to the guitar store anymore as I have found better deals online, so keep that in mind if you find something you like.)
When picking strings I think it is first important to understand:
Your style of playing
What level of guitar player you are
How strong your fingers are
The tone you want the strings to bring out
What kind of feel you want the strings to have.
The below guide will help you decide what kind of strings will be best for you. Let me know what you think in the comments section!
The Components To Picking The Best Guitar Strings
In my opinion, guitar string characteristics can be broken down into three basic categories. These categories combine to change the sound and feel of the string and by understanding them we can use them for guidelines on how the string will sound, and what it could be used for. The categories are:
Gauge Of The String:
The gauge of a guitar string defines how much metal is used to make the string. Technically it can be defined as the diameter of the string, which makes it easy to understand because as the numbers get bigger the string diameter gets bigger. Bigger number thicker string.
There are many variations of string gauge set-ups but there are four that are pretty commonly put together in string packs. We will go over the usual combination in each of the four common string sets, however, some manufacturers are different so just be mindful.
Extra light (.009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042)
Extra light strings would be the smallest strings out of the four main categories of gauges. There are lighter strings out there for sure but this is a rough guideline.
They would be the most flexible on the neck and when you are playing. They would bring out the brightest tone and probably would break the easiest, nothing against them just the truth.
These strings are great for beginners because they provide an easier action while playing so your hands don’t get as tired. This way anyone learning can practice for longer and be able to shred that much quicker!
Light (.010, .013, .017, .026, .036, .046)
As you can imagine light strings are similar to extra light strings, but a bit larger in diameter overall. They are still prime for beginner players and may even be better since they are easy to play, but bring out more of the tone spectrum.
They are great for if you want to really shred the neck and play really fast. However, some metal guitarists use heavier gauges due to the fact they use lower tuning structures.
Medium (.011, .014, .018, .028, .038, .049)
Medium strings can be seen used for rock and blues quite often. In these genres, guitarists may look for strings that offer the flexibility to bend the string combined with the rigidity of a heavier gauge to get a solid rhythm and bring out more of the tone spectrum.
Heavy (.012, .016, .020, .032, .042, .054)
These strings are the heaviest and largest in diameter. They provide a thick sound and bring out the full tone spectrum in the string. They can be used really well for strong rhythmic picking, in playing where you don’t need to bend the string to get the right sound, and where smoothness is your goal. These strings can be found used by many jazz guitarists who often get flat wound heavy gauge strings.
They are also the hardest strings to play and require the guitar player to have strong hands in order to play for a while. As a beginner, tread carefully with heavy strings or you could be faced with some sore hands.
Custom String Gauge Variations
A cool thing about strings is as you get to know different kinds you will find gauges that suit what you like for each string. If you like certain gauges on the top end of your strings and a different gauge on the other, you may be able to find a pack of strings with that gauge combination.
There are many combinations that can be found straight out of the pack. Another option is to find deals on different gauge packs and combine what you want from them. If all else all of those string packs could provide for some handy “just in case” strings.
The Material The String Is Made Out Of:
String material will make a big impact on the sound of your plucking and how it feels to play the guitar. It is important to understand the different string materials that are out there so you can avoid bringing home undesirable strings.
Each string type is unique in its own way and some are very different from others, but I have found sticking with the popular strings for the respective guitar and genre is a good way to go. The list below isn’t fully comprehensive either as it sums up what you would find at most guitar shops.
Nylon – Nylon strings are predominantly used for classical guitars and acoustic guitars. They are made out of nylon (duh) so they are basically plastic strings. But don’t be fooled and associate plastic with cheap.
When playing classical guitar nylon strings become absolutely essential and getting the best nylon strings can be a make or break to getting the perfect tone. These strings can also be used for folk, bluegrass, and other mellow and round sounding uses.
Nickel Plated Steel
Nickel-plated steel strings are most common for electric guitars and basses. The steel provides a solid and bright sounding tone and the nickel rounds it off and also provides protection.
Plain steel strings will give the most twang out of the bunch. If you get a pure steel string I would caution you as they can become damaged and can age really quickly.
Plain nickel strings are a bit rounder sounding and can be muffled compared to the twang of pure steel or a string with steel in it. Pure strings can also be pricey so watch out if cost is an issue!
Cobalt is a very precise string material. It is perfect for ripping a solo or if you want a string that will pick up all the subtle nuances in your playing. Cobalt strings could be a bit too precise if you are aiming for something a bit dirtier.
Chrome is similar to stainless steel wound strings. They are brighter and provide a bit more twang. This is because these are harder metals so they are less forgiving.
Polymer coated strings are found primarily on Elixer strings but also other manufacturers offer them. They offer enhanced protection to the string so the string stays true longer.
These strings are pretty much just fun. They can be coated with different colors to add more flare to the look of your guitar. I knew someone with the below strings for their bass and it looked pretty awesome.
How The String Is Wound
Winding can produce a great deal of variation in the feel of the guitar string as well as the tone. It is a feature that is often overlooked but if you are serious about getting the perfect feel on the fretboard then definitely understand the three main types below.
Round wound strings have the largest ridges where the string has been wound with another material. These strings are the brightest and most balanced toned string. They are also found on most guitars and are the most common way a string is wound with a secondary material.
Half round strings are a mix between flat-wound and round wound strings. So as you could piece together the sound and tone you get from them is a mix between those two as well. They are a bit brighter than flat wound, but a bit smoother than the round wound strings. Sometimes sitting on the fence isn’t a bad idea.
These strings are rarer than round wound strings but are used fairly often within the jazz community. They are a very smooth string and are the best string to use if you want to properly use a violin bow like Jimmy Page. They produce a somewhat rounder and warmer sound but can be viewed as dull. These strings are especially great on a bass guitar. If you own a fretless guitar as well then flat wound strings would be a must, and probably came stock on the guitar!
Some Of The Top Guitar Strings
The regular slinky nickel wound strings from Ernie Ball are a top favorite among many guitar players. They are a bright sounding string made of steel and wound of nickel. The .010 - .046 custom gauge combinations makes for a solid playing experience. They also are reasonably priced so you can afford to pick up some “just in case” stings.
Check out the super slinky and hybrid slinky as well for a bit of a different take on a classic nickel wound string.
Elixer strings come stock with their famous nanoweb coating. They are often found on acoustic guitars with a bronze wind but the nickel wound strings for electric are pretty solid as well. Bronze has a softer tone than nickel so is great for acoustic.
D’Addario Strings: AKA The XL Strings
D’Addario make some really vintage sounding strings. They have a bright sound but avoid any unwanted overtones and shrill. Some could also say these strings have a bit more sustain than others, but I think that comes down to personal taste and rig setup.
How Often Should Guitar Strings Be Changed?
I am a big believer in testing a string on a guitar to know if it should be changed. There is a certain sound and feel an old string gives that makes me know it is time to get rid of them. However, that advice is pretty brutal so in order to know if your guitar strings should be replaced the following are telltale signs to a replaceable string:
Sound: you will start to hear the string become dull over time. It will lack the same crisp sound new strings have out of the pack. Your bends won’t be as solid and strumming won’t be as impactful.
Look: it is fairly easy to physically see if strings need to be replaced as well. If they start to look frayed in any areas, rusted or discolored, or if there is any gunk built up around the frets.
Time: old strings get old, that is just the way it is. Sometimes it is just time to replace your strings, especially if you have a gig coming up and haven’t replaced your strings in a while. Old strings are prone to breaking and the last thing I want is to have to fix a broken string in the middle of a set.
How Often Should Guitar Strings Be Changed?
If you are a new player, putting on strings can seem like an uphill battle. If you are a seasoned vet putting on strings can be a serious nuisance. Ultimately it is a task that needs to be done and if you do it smart it can be easy as eating an apple pie on Sunday.
To get the strings off and then on again quickly, look for a tool like the one below that will assist in turning the tuning keys. This can be a really annoying part of replacing strings and the quicker you can get it the better.
Once you have the string in place and ready to tune, try to stretch the string out a bit before tightening it to the right pitch. Do this by carefully, very carefully, taking your thumb on one end of the string, and nest the rest of the string in your palm to create tension. Apply enough tension to stretch the string a bit but not enough to break it. Move up and down the neck and then tighten the tuning key to tune once it is stretched just enough.
When changing strings you may notice a variation in the action on the fret board. This is because some variations of gauges, brands, and string materials alter the height on the fret board and against the neck or bridge.
You may notice some buzzing and clicking if you really hate the sound you can take it to a guitar tech to get it fixed. I’d find a set of strings you really like and then get your guitar set for those. Avoiding a few unwanted back and forth trips from the shop without a guitar!
Hope this guide helped in terms of narrowing down your choices for choosing the best guitar strings. Check out some of our other articles on guitar pedals if you are keen to increase your sound!