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Guide to Guitar Strings


Do you get confused on which guitar strings to buy? Why are there so many different types? Surely they are all the same?

These are just some of the questions we get asked. There is a lot of difference between them. Always try and buy recognised branded strings. Cheap far east made ones tend to be of poor quality. Rarely do they vibrate evenly along the length due to poor manufacturing techniques, but also tend to come unwound, snap more often and can even be tarnished out of the packet.

Also be aware of counterfeit deals too. If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Each brand makes their product in a slightly different way, which means they vibrate differently causing slight tonal changes between them. The woods in your guitar will interact with the vibrations made in different ways and you may find (more so with an acoustic) that different strings bring out different tonal qualities of your guitar as well as different sustain qualities.


Guitar Strings, Electric Guitar Strings, Acoustic Guitar Strings, Bass Guitar Strings

Finding a set that suits you, your instrument, your playing style and gives you the sound you want is a bit of a journey, so, try a few different types and gauges and find a set that suits best. There are lots of different manufacturers to choose from. The worlds most popular brands are: Ernie Ball; D'Addario; Rotosound; Fender; Elixir and Martin.


For an Electric Guitar

There are a few materials that electric guitar strings are made from and you can try all these out to find the right sound for you.

 

Pure Nickel

Stainless Steel

Nickel Plated Steel

Cobalt

Soft, mellow tones.
Smooth feel.
Sharp, powerful tones.
Harder than Nickel.
Feels quite rough
Hybrid of pure Nickel and Steel.
Steel coated in thin layer of Nickel
Powerful tone, smooth feel.

Wide range of tones.
Stimulates magnets, stronger signals. Powerful, clean tones
Similar feel to stainless steel, rough.


Electric Guitar String Types

  • Pure nickel. This will give soft, mellow tones. Nickel has a smooth feel.
  • Stainless Steel. This will give sharp, powerful tones. Stainless Steel is a lot harder than Nickel and so feels quite rough on the fingertips.
  • Nickel plated Steel. This is a hybrid of Pure Nickel and Steel. The steel string is coated in a thin layer of nickel. This gives the best of both, with powerful tone but with a smooth feel.
  • Cobalt. This covers a wide range of tones and works with the magnets in your pickups to produce one of the strongest signals. This means you get very powerful, clean tones. They feel similar to Stainless Steel, so are quite rough on the fingers.

One other thing to remember is that the frets on your guitar are usually made of nickel.  Using nickel or nickel plated steel will help your frets last longer, whereas stainless steel and cobalt are a lot harder metal than nickel and so will cause your frets to wear out a lot quicker and can end up meaning you need a costly refret a lot sooner.

Gauges

There are a range of gauges (thicknesses). We tend to talk about gauges based on the thinnest string. For example, Ernie Ball Regular Slinky can be known as EB 10's as the thinnest string is a gauge 10. The gauge is based on Thousandths of an inch. So a gauge 10 is normally written as 0.010.

Lighter gauges give you more treble tones and are easier to play, whereas heavier gauges give more powerful bass tones but are harder to play. This is because they have a lot less tension when tuned to concert pitch (standard tuning E,A,D,G,B,e) compared to a heavier gauge 12.  For example, a D'Addario gauge 9's (when tuned to e) has 5.94kg of tension. A D'Addario gauge 11 (when tuned to e) has a tension of 8.89kg.

Strat style guitars tend to have gauge 9's fitted as standard. Les Paul style guitars tend to have gauge 10 fitted as standard. If you change to a heavier or lighter gauge, you may have to have your instruments set up to accommodate the change in tension otherwise you may end up with strings that are miles away from the fingerboard, or touching the fingerboard.

Have a look at our Electric Guitar Strings Page for more detailed information on each different set.


For an Acoustic Guitar


There are 2 main materials you can choose from for your acoustic strings.  These will give your guitar a very different sound.

Phosphor Bronze

80/20 Bronze

Brass coloured.
Mellow, rounded smooth, full bodied tones.
Copper coloured.
Bright, crisp, sharp tones.

The strings on an acoustic guitar tend to be a heavier gauge than those found on and electric, this is so that vibrations caused can pass into the body of the guitar and make it vibrate thus amplifying the vibrations and making the well known tones of a steel strung guitar. They come in different gauges. and like electrics the gauge is based on the thinnest string in thousandths of an inch. Most steel strung acoustic guitars tend to come with gauge 12's.

If you want more bass tones and volume then opt for heavier gauges (e.g. 13, 14, etc), however they are harder to play as they have more tension. If you are looking for more treble tones and less volume, then choose a lighter gauge (e.g. 11, 10, 9, etc), these are also easier to play.

Depending on you having a Jumbo, Dreadnought or a Folk guitar, will help you decide what gauge to try.  For example, Jumbo's are naturally boomy and bassy, but simply putting on lighter gauges will tone down the bass and volume.  Likewise, the small bodied Folk guitars can sometimes sound thin and lacklustre, in which case try some a heavier gauge and this might give it some extra oomph.

Have a look at our Acoustic Guitar Strings Page for more detailed information on each different set.


For Classical Guitars


Cat Gut

Nylgut

Nylon

Carbon Fibre

Not actually cat gut!
Hard to find as not morally acceptable!
Low Volume.
Short life span.
Traditional sounding.
Close representation to Cat Gut
Longer life span.
Most popular material.
Good tones and widely available at cheap prices.
Made from clear or rectified Nylon.
Clears are extruded then calibrated/
Rectified are extruded then ground to the right size.
Rectified are slightly opaque.
Brighter tone than Nylon.

Firstly, all 6 strings on a classical are made of nylon. 3 of them might look like they are made of metal, but this is just a thin wire (a wrap wire) usually made of silver plated copper, wrapped around a nylon core. This makes them thicker and so makes a lower tone, which is why they are used as the 3 bass strings on the guitar.

There are a few materials that classical guitar strings are made from.

  • Cat Gut
  • Nylgut
  • Nylon
  • Carbon
Cat gut is not what you might think. Yes it's gut, but it's not cat. Even so, it is hard to find as it is not morally acceptable in our country of animal lovers, so Nylon has taken over at the preferred choice.

Cat Gut has a low volume and these do not last very long if you use your fingernails to pluck. If you are looking for that traditional sound, Nylgut, gives a close representation to that of what cat gut sounds like but with more resistance to wear.

Nylon is the most popular material for classical guitars. They have good tones and are widely available from all good music stores and are relatively cheap. they are usually made from either clear or rectified nylon. They are extruded and then calibrated. Rectified nylon strings are extruded and then ground to the correct size. Rectified ones are not clear but slightly opaque.

Carbon Fibre is a new comer to the classical market. They tend to have a brighter tone than nylon.


For Bass Guitars


 The 2 main types of bass string are:

Round Wound

Flat Wound

Traditional, full, bright and rounded.
Can really cut through the mix.
More mellow, Jazz tones.
Very, very smooth! A pleasure to play!

Roundwound is the traditional bass string, this produces full, bright, yet rounded tones that can really cut through the mix.

Flatounds give more mellow, jazzy tones. However they are a pleasure to play as they have virtually no finger squeak and are as smooth as a baby's bottom.

Bass strings are a lot thicker than those found on other guitars, and this is why they produce the low notes. But just like on electric and acoustics, they come in different gauges based on the thinnest, in thousandths of an inch.

The thinner the gauge the brighter, more trebly the tone.  This helps cut through the mix especially if your style is more melodic rather than ploddy. It also means that lighter gauges, like 35 - 90, are easier to play.  The thicker the gauge, the lower tones come through to the point that some gauges can only be felt and not heard. Thicker gauges (55-110) means more tension and so harder to play but can really hit the spot.

Most bass guitars will come with 45 - 105 fitted as standard, but this can vary. Have a look at our Bass Guitar Strings Page for more detailed information on each different set.



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