Guitar String Basics-Sorting Through the Options

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time playing guitar, chances are that at some point, you’ve either broken one (or several) or worn them in enough to the point they no longer hold their tuning. Either scenario is a good time to change out strings, but another good indicator would be if they’ve lost the “tone”, or the brightness and sound quality they exhibited when they were first put on.

These days, there’s an almost overwhelming number of options available for players in the way of picking a decent set of guitar strings, varying in material, gauge (aka, “thickness”), winding, coating, as well as color. Fortunately, the vast majority of options available, with a few exceptions, are likely to at least be decent quality. Naturally, some options are better than others, and here you’ll find a simple outline covering the need-to-know elements to picking a new set of strings.

In terms of string changing technique, we’ll be covering that down the line. For now, just know that it’s a good idea to change your strings every 30 hours of play. This number is actually determined by many guitar manufacturers, instead of string companies. This timeframe is intentionally conservative-old guitar strings will cause unnecessary wear to your guitar’s fingerboard.

Color

Easily, the least consequential or all the different options. Color will hardly effect the sound, although the paint used to coat the string will almost definitely effect the strings’ feel. Eventually, though, this coating will wear or chip off, sometimes ending up on the guitar’s finish. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of before spending the extra money on them. At this time, easily the most popular colored guitar strings are by DR Strings, and are available in orange, pink, green, blue, red, black, and silver (which is silly, as normal strings are pewter-nickel wound, but hey, they apparently sell!) Be aware that they are currently only being made for electric guitars. Will it harm your acoustic guitar if you slap on a set of colored electric strings? No, but it will make your guitar’s sound come out a bit tinny sounding.

 

Metal

Perhaps second to how the strings are wound, the aspect of the strings that most dramatically effect the strings’ sound is the metallic compound that makes up the string. Frankly, there isn’t a material better for beginners any more than one is better for professionals. The materials used in manufacturing acoustic guitar strings are different than those used in making string for electric guitar strings. Here’s a quick and dirty comparison of the different guitar string materials.

They’re divided up accordingly:

Electric Guitar

Steel: Or specifically, stainless steel strings are very bright and therefore ideal for many forms of rock and country. They’re the longest lasting, and resistant to corrosion, rust, as well as moisture and oil. Unfortunately, they wear down your frets quicker than any other string and aren’t entirely smooth in feel. As such, they’re somewhat of an acquired taste for some of us.

Pure Nickel: To be fair, “pure nickel” isn’t actually pure nickel. It’s the name of the alloy that stuck back in the 50s when they were innovated. But hey, they sound great-mellow and warm, and feel smooth and are good for any number of musical styles. They’re a great all-around string.

Nickel Plated Steel (aka Nickel Wound, or NPS): Not surprisingly, NPS strings blend the previous two strings, taking the strength and some of the brightness of steel at the string’s core, and wound with nickel wound around it. The result is a versatile, long lasting string that feels as good as it sounds. These strings account for guitar string sales these days. Again, they’re excellent for just about any musical style.

 

Acoustic Guitar

80/20 Bronze: Easily the most popular on the market today. 80/20 is a simple reference to the metallurgical composition of the string, meaning they consist of 80% copper and 20% zinc, making the string an alloy. Copper is extremely susceptible to corrosion, and the zinc counteracts much of that sensitivity. The result is a very bright out of the box sound, but a pleasant, long-lasting warmer sound once the strings are “broken in” after a few hours of play.

Phosphor Bronze: My personal favorite, phosphor bronze acoustic guitar strings are known for their well-balanced sound. Due to their lower zinc content, however, they tend to be darker and warmer than 80/20 bronze strings. As an aside, and perhaps it’s in my head, but I find the percussive scrape of the guitar pick is slightly less than with 80/20 bronze.

 

Gauge

String gauge is an indicator of each string’s “thickness”. At this point in history, it’s not necessarily the smartest thing to rely on each manufacturer’s definition of “light” or “medium”, since those definitions aren’t yet standardized. In other words, D’Addario may call their NPS electric guitar strings “light” (which would be .10 gauge) but Ernie Ball may call their .09 gauge “light” as well. It’s best to rely on the actual numeric to minimize confusion or an accidental purchase.

For beginners-specifically, and especially beginners on the acoustic guitar-it’s best to stick with .10-.12 gauge, for no other reason other than to gradually build up finger strength. Starting with .13s is bound to end in frustration and unnecessary discomfort. The downside to thinner strings is their weakness, of course. But if you’re not beating the crap out of your strings, then they should last as long as their brightness does. For beginner electric guitar players, .09-.10 are usually just fine. Which is what many long time players prefer anyhow.

As a point of clarification, when guitarists refer to which string gauge they want, they usually simply refer to the gauge of the thinnest (high E) string. Each string has its own thickness, of course, since it’d be incredibly strange to see a guitar with 6 identical guitar strings.

It’s tempting to view thicker string gauge as an indicator of guitar playing advancement or skill, but really it is a matter of player preference. In terms of tone, it’s unlikely that the normal human ear will be able to detect the difference between one set of strings and another, with less than 1 mm of difference between sizes. Some would argue this, of course, swearing up and down that thicker strings produce thicker bottom end or transmit more ferromagnetic energy or what have you, but in my humble opinion, I think a lot of that is purely psychological. Kind of like how your car seems to drive better after you’ve increased your car tire PSI by all of 5 PSI. Perhaps, but marginally, and hardly enough to make an enormous difference.

 

Other Considerations

Like I said, this is a quick and dirty outline of the basics about guitar strings. Some other factors to consider, which I’ll address down the line, are:

  • Coated Strings
  • String winding; flat wound, half round, round wound, etc
  • Classical and silk & steel strings
  • Guitar string evolution
  • Obscure guitar string alloys (pure copper, etc)

 

-Dane Whitley