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An Introduction to Guitar Strings

A Brief Overview of Guitar Strings

No matter what type of guitar you play, or what your style of playing is, there is one fact that cannot be ignored: Your choice of strings is going to be a large determining factor in the sound you will be making. If you are new to the guitar or are looking at the possibility of altering your sound by changing the type of string you use, this overview may be of help to you. Please note: it is not advisable to use a type of guitar string not intended for your guitar (e.g. acoustic strings on your electric).

Nylon Acoustic Strings

Classical guitars traditionally use nylon strings. Unlike metal strings (see below), nylon strings are measured by tension rather than string width. Normal tension strings are the easiest to play, but may get a bit floppy if you are playing loud or fast. Hard tension strings are better for faster playing but are harder on the fingers. Extra hard tension strings are best for very loud playing, but are a bit harder still on the fingers.

classical nylon strings

Classical nylon strings

Metal Acoustic Strings

Standard acoustic strings come in either bronze or phosphor-bronze. Standard bronze strings are both brighter in color and in sound than their phosphor-bronze counterparts. Bronze is softer than steel but it still resists corrosion pretty well, especially around saltwater or humid climates. Phosphor-bronze, as the name suggests, have phosphor added to the strings. This alters the color to a more reddish hue and gives the strings a more rich and robust tone. Popular brands of acoustic strings include D’Addario, Dean Markley, Ernie Ball, Fender, GHS and DR.

Acoustic Guitar Strings

Acoustic Guitar Strings
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Electric Strings

Electric guitar strings come in 3 types: Nickel plated, pure nickel and stainless steel. Nickel-plated strings are probably the most common type of electric guitar string in use today. The winding on the thicker strings is made of nickel-plated steel. The steel that the string is made of is great for the magnets in the pickups to “pick up” while the nickel-plating helps to balance out the bright sound of the steel. The nickel also helps to keep the string smooth and protects it from corrosion.  Nickel is a bit softer than steel, so nickel or nickel-plated strings won’t wear your frets out as quickly as stainless steel strings will. Pure nickel strings are commonly used in jazz and classic rock. They have a warmer and mellower sound than steel or nickel-plated strings. Stainless steel strings are very durable, weather resistant and bright in tone. They are not as smooth on your fingers as nickel string s and can be harder on your frets, so be cautious. Popular brands of electric strings include the brands listed above, along with Dunlop and Rotosound.

Coated vs. Non-Coated Strings

In an effort to prolong string life, many string manufacturers now offer strings with an added polymer coating or webbing. Although these coated strings can be considerably more expensive, they can also last 2 or 3 times longer without losing their sound or feel. If you have corrosive body chemistry or live in a humid environment, you may want to consider investing in coated strings for your guitar. Keep in mind, however, that non-coated strings are till the norm.

String Gauge

A critical factor in determining the sound your guitar makes is the thickness, or gauge, of the strings. Gauge is usually measured by the thousandths of an inch. Typically, a set of strings will be named after the thickness of the first, or thinnest, string in the set. You may hear someone say that they use “10’s”. That just means that they are using a set of strings where the first string is .010 of an inch thick. Acoustic guitar string sets typically range in gauge from .010 to .013. The corresponding range for electric guitar strings is .008 to .013. Custom string sets are available in thinner or thicker gauges.

Such a seemingly small difference in measurement makes a very big difference in both feel and sound. Thinner gauge strings are easier to play, but don’t have quite as robust a sound as thicker strings. Of course, this also means that thicker strings are harder to play, but play louder and more robustly.

Roundwound vs. Flatwound Strings

Another factor to consider when choosing strings is whether they are Roundwound or Flatwound. Roundwound is the standard type of string. It simply means that the metal on the thicker strings is wound around, much like taking a paper clip and wrapping it around another. These generally give off a bright tone when played.

Flatwound strings are gaining in popularity and use. Like the name implies, the winding on the thicker strings is flat rather than round. They give off a much mellower tone than standard Roundwound strings. They also last longer because there are fewer crevices in the strings for oil and grime to build up in.

So, Which Strings Should You Use?

With such a wide variety of brands, materials, gauges and winds available, it may be hard for you to make a choice. The best thing to do is visit your local guitar shop. They will typically have examples available for you to try out, or they may simply advise you on what is the best string based on your guitar, your preferred genre and your playing style.

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