Acoustic Guitar String Guide [Strings Explained]

guitar-string-guide
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The kind of strings your guitar uses tremendously affects how it sounds. So much that you could make an inexpensive acoustic guitar sound astonishingly good for the money with the right set of strings. But if you are inexperienced to do that you can fairly rely on our acoustic guitar string guide for better understanding.

Acoustic Guitar String Guide

In this little guide, we are going to examine in-depth what makes guitar strings. In the end, you should be able to pick the right set of strings for your instrument easily.

First of all, keep in mind that you can’t just take and slap any string set onto your guitar. For an untrained eye and ear, all guitar strings may be very similar to each other. But that’s not how things go.

Strings: Acoustic vs classical guitars

The very first thing you need to understand is that acoustic and classical/flamenco guitars use completely different kinds of strings, even though these instruments are similar in appearance.

The construction difference between acoustic and classical/flamenco guitar is the reason why they are fitted with different kinds of strings. Acoustic guitars generally use steel strings, while classical/flamenco guitars use nylon strings.

Classical guitars just aren’t built tough enough to withstand the tension of steel strings. This means, in the end, that acoustic and classical guitar strings are not interchangeable.

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We have a detailed article on Acoustic Vs Classical Guitar to addressed the age-old dilemma of every beginner, you can check that out too.

String Gauges

The string gauge is basically its thickness. Gauges are denoted in thousandths of an inch, e.g. a 13-gauge string has a thickness of .013 inches. String gauges typically range from .010 to .059, and the sound varies widely across the gauges.

acoustic guitar string gauge

Lighter Gauges

The thinner lighter gauges are generally easier to play, which is why they are more suitable for beginners who don’t yet have sufficient finger strength.

In addition, it is much easier to bend notes and do fretting on them since they aren’t as rigid as heavier strings.

Lastly, light gauges exert less tension on the guitar’s neck, which makes them safer to use with weaker necks and possibly with vintage guitars.

On the other hand, lighter-gauge strings break easier and are more prone to buzzing, especially in guitars with low action. And they overall produce less volume and shorter sustain than heavier gauge strings.

Overall, light-gauge strings are suitable for:

  • Smaller-body acoustics.
  • Fingerpicking or subtle strumming.
  • Producing treble notes.
  • Older, frailer guitars.

Heavier Gauges

Heavy-gauges pretty much mirror the features of light gauge strings.

Heavy strings are more rigid than light strings, which generally makes them harder to play. Usually, heavy-gauge strings aren’t used by newbies. Instead, they are chosen by more experienced musicians who need more volume and sustain and who have the strength to play on such strings.

On the other hand, heavy gauges exert more tension on the guitar neck. This means that you would need to make sure that your guitar’s neck is strong enough to support heavy-gauge before buying them.

Heavy-gauge guitar strings are suitable for:

  • Larger and more durable acoustics.
  • Producing accentuated bass.
  • Hard strumming.

Acoustic Guitar String Gauge Chart

Every acoustic guitar manufacturer is going to designate their string gauges in their own way. It is going to vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but here is the typical gauge range for acoustic guitar strings:

 EBGDAE
Extra light.010.014.023.030.039.047
Custom light.011.015.023.032.042.052
Light.012.016.025.032.042.054
Medium.013.017.026.035.045.056
Heavy.014.018.027.039.049.059

What to consider when choosing string gauge?

Choosing the right gauge for you can be a lot of fun. But first, as a newbie guitar player, you need to concentrate on developing your skills early on first. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules here, all you got to consider is your guitar playing style, the songs you love to play, and the tone you want to achieve.

acoustic guitar strings explained

There are a few standard gauges that you need to choose from, extra-light, custom light, light, medium, and heavy. Other than the gauge, you also need to consider the string material you’re buying. Different gauge and material combinations may yield different tones as a result.

And lastly, consider the guitar you’re using. Are you playing a small-bodied acoustic guitar? Or a dreadnaught? What tone are you trying to achieve, mellow, rock, soft, bluesy, purely acoustic, or country?

These are some considerations that you have to make. When in doubt ask your local guitar tech or guitar shop employee. Also, you always have Google and YouTube to take advice from. There are tons of tutorials online.

Follow a guitar player you idolize and imitate his or her sound at first then take it from there.

String Materials

Acoustic guitar strings can be made from a variety of materials. The most common materials used are:

Bronze, which imparts a bright and ringing tone to the strings. Age relatively quickly due to bronze’s tendency to oxidize. Try Stringjoy NB1152 Natural Bronze string.

Phosphor bronze, which is a bit warmer than bronze yet still quite crisp. The phosphor alloy is added to extend the strings’ lifetime. Both D’Addario XT and Ernie Ball Earthwood are the best choices for Phosphor Bronze-type strings.

Aluminum bronze. These strings have a pronounced bass and highs crisper than in phosphor bronze strings. A top choice for Aluminum Bronze would be Ernie Ball 2568 Light String Set.

Silk and steel. These compound strings have a steel core and a silk, copper, or nylon wrap on the lower strings. A combination of silk and steel produces a more delicate tone and is soft to the touch, confirm lesser string tension which makes them popular among finger-picker or fingerstyle players and folk players. Check the performance of Martin Authentic Acoustic MA130 Silk and Steel Folk.

Polymer-coated. Polymer-coated strings have less brightness and sustain in them than comparable uncoated strings. The benefit of the polymer coating is the added corrosion resistance. So the reduced brightness basically is the trade-off of the corrosion resistance. you can try Elixir Strings for a better experience.

Brass. Brass strings have a metallic and bright character. Check this Brass option from Stringjoy BB1152 Bright Strings.

Steel and Nickel. When we say nickel-plated steel that means that the steel strings are then wrapped in nickel for the low E, A, and D string. These strings will have lesser tension than bronze strings and may exhibit a brighter or even livelier tone. Nickel strings have a richer tone too. They are perfect for rhythm sections and best for a variety of musical genres, namely metal, rock, or even country. It’s like the sweet spot for acoustic guitar strings when it comes to low-end response and tonality. Experience John Pearse P3000 Nickel Plated Strings.

Nylon. Nylon strings are utilized by classical guitar but their sound is versatile enough to not just be played for classical music also for pop and love songs too. Nylon-stringed acoustic guitars are even used for playing slow rock songs. Nylon has got a laidback, warmer, and more relaxing tone. These strings at first may be a bit hard to play on if you’re not used to it and may not be as tonally rich as steel-string guitars but it’s got a fuller sound that a lot of guitarists love. Check out Fender Classical/Nylon Guitar Strings.

What’s the difference between coated and uncoated strings?

Well, really simple, uncoated strings or otherwise known as plain strings do not have any additional layer of protective string coating. Coated strings, on the other hand, are then treated with a layer of polymer. It’s applied on core wire, wrap wire, or an entire string.

Coated strings have corrosion resistance that can prevent premature degradation. As we all know, a lot of things can cause your electric or acoustic guitar string to degrade namely, oil, sweat, dirt, humidity, and the climate in your area.

The buildup will for sure speed up that degradation process. Coated strings will have an extra layer of protection against such factors. But, coated strings are not as perfect as they seem.

Uncoated strings are more responsive and do not have dampened tone compared to coated ones. Uncoated strings even feel better at least for most guitar players and retain the integrity of their tone throughout their service life. Also, coated strings get a bit slippery to play on at times.

But of course, due to the abundance of choices and the improvement in guitar string technology nowadays, standards can change and so the quality does too.

A pro tip, listen to an artist whose sound you like to replicate, research their gears including string choice and take it from there. Sometimes, whether you’re using coated or uncoated won’t even matter. It just takes time to practice your ear and practice your musical aesthetic.

String Winding

The core of the string is wound with a wire in one of the three methods:

  • Flat wire is used to create a string with a smooth surface. Flatwound strings deliver warmer sound, shorter sustain, have a longer life, higher string tension, less grip for bending, and generally cause less fret wear. These strings are generally better for jazz.
  • Round wire is used to create a string with a textured surface. Roundwound strings typically have a shorter life, lower tension, brighter sound, longer sustain, more grip for bending and cause more fret wear. These strings are more suitable for music like rock n roll.
  • This is a mix of the previous two techniques, with the round wire flattened only partially.

Among these techniques, the most popular and the cheapest is the round wound. Half rounds are the least popular, and most people should just disregard them when looking for strings.

String core

There is a solid core wire beneath the outer winding of the bass strings. This wire can be of two types: round-core or hex-core.

The first guitar string cores have been all made round. But one day, D’Addario introduced hex strings to the market. In a short time, hex-core became the industry standard for the majority of manufacturers.

The reason for the popularity of hex cores is that their sharp edges grip the outer wire very well, which prevents slippage. The hex shape also allowed to make machine winding more accurate and consistent. Partly due to their inconsistency, round-core strings are very commonly assembled by hand nowadays.

Overall, hex cores:

  • are stiffer.
  • deliver a consistent, modern, and brighter tone with less sustain.
  • have a stronger attack.

Conversely, round-core strings:

  • are more flexible.
  • deliver an inconsistent, vintage, and warmer tone with more sustain.
  • have a gentler attack.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can shorten the life of strings?

Dirt, grime, oil, sweat buildup are only a few things that can degrade the quality of your guitar strings and ruin it prematurely. That’s why simple yet gold advice seasoned guitarists give to beginner guitarists is to wipe their guitar’s fretboard after every session. That goes a long way for your strings and your fretboard in general.

Don’t play your guitar with wet hands and store it properly. Even improper playing of the guitar can cause the string to break prematurely.

What is the difference between 80/20 and phosphor bronze?

The main difference between these two types of guitar strings is in tonality. 80/20 bronze offers a brighter as well as a bell-like tone to it while phosphor bronze offers a warm tonality to your guitar playing. Fun fact, 80/20 bronze strings are actually a misnomer as these strings’ metal wrap is actually 80% copper and 20% zinc.

What is the best gauge for acoustic guitar strings?

There’s really no such thing as the best gauge for acoustic guitar strings because music is not a fixed or definite art form. So, it would depend on your playing style, tone, and genre. For newbies, you may try light or custom light gauge and take it from there. Refer to our chart above for gauge sizes.

Do thicker guitar strings sound better?

Not necessarily. As mentioned, it’s really based on the genre you’re playing and your personal preference. It’s all about tone and feels.

Guitar strings with a thicker gauge will naturally yield more bassy tones and are perfect for heavier music like rock or metal. They are perfect for power chords but maybe a bit hard to play with more tension.

Thicker strings are also ideal for down tuning for heavier metal or rock songs. They are versatile for sure but you’ll trade away some mids and highs for it. Probably not suitable for mellower song genres.

Conclusion

This is pretty much everything you need to know about acoustic guitar strings to get started. We’ve gone pretty deep in our guide, but it doesn’t mean that you should start looking for the right wind as a beginner, for example. Only go as deep as your playing style requires.

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