Guitar String Buyer's Guide

History

With depictions dating back to tomb paintings in ancient Egypt, guitar-like instruments have been a ubiquitous part of the musical instrument landscape for quite some time. And where there are guitars there are strings, though the strings used all the way up to the mid 1800’s would hardly be recognizable to today’s players.

Sometimes referred to as “catgut” (though no cats were harmed during the making of these strings) or simply “gut,” these strings were made from sheep intestine. Aside from being pretty gross, gut strings lacked volume and consistency. Intonation was spotty at best and their cost was exorbitant. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s when the Larson Brother’s instrument designs evolved, thus providing the much-needed additional strength for the steel string guitar to be born. Steel strings were louder, more durable and about 1/5th of the price of gut strings, making guitars in general more affordable to the masses.

Gut strings continued to be refined and remained popular for classical and flamenco guitars through the early part of the 20th century when a worker at Dupont accidentally discovered Nylon in 1935. Through a collaboration between Dupont and Albert Augustine, Nylon was adapted for guitar string use by the late 40’s with Augustine being the first string company to offer Nylon strings. This helped the classical guitar to become more affordable and not something only available to society’s elite. Andrés Segovia was an early adopter, lending credibility to the material. Gut strings remain available to this day but are a rarity rather than the norm.

The Plain Truth

Are you ready? The plain truth is that not only are the plain strings on your electric guitar identical (and interchangeable) to those on your acoustic guitar, in most cases they are pretty much the same from manufacturer to manufacturer. Let that sink in for a moment. There is little to no difference in the plain strings between different brands. Blows your mind, right?

To understand why this is, you need to have a cursory understanding of how plain strings are made. A plain string is a piece of wire with a ferrule or “Ball end” on it. That’s really all there is to it. A guitar string company buys a spool of round tin coated Swedish steel music wire in the desired gauge, cuts it, and installs a ball end on it. And that’s it. It’s a guitar string. Add to this the fact that there are three, count them … three, companies that manufacturer this kind of wire, and that one of them is the biggest player with the lion’s share of the business, and you’ll realize that most string manufacturers are buying the same wire from the same place, attaching the ball end, and putting it in a package.

If you’re paying close attention you’ll notice that I stated plain strings are “pretty much the same from manufacturer to manufacturer.” That leaves a little wiggle room and this is found in the precision in which the ball end is attached. For most companies this is an automated process, though there are still differences in the amount of turns after the wire circles the ball end, as well as the overall neatness and tightness of the twist between different manufacturers. Some string manufactures are actively searching for ways to improve the plain string with different metal formulas and different ways to get the string to the desired gauge. When chasing tone, it really starts with the strings.

Wound Strings

While there’s not much (if any) difference in the plain strings between acoustic and electric strings, or from those of different manufacturers, the making of wound strings is where your string company makes its bones. Putting aside for a moment the different alloys and their affect on your sound (covered elsewhere), a wound string’s construction can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Let’s take a look at what goes into crafting a wound string.

A wound string is made from two wire components; a steel “core” wire and a “wrap” wire wrapped around the core. The steel core string can be either round or hexagonally shaped.

The more popular hex core wire provides a better grip for the wrap wire as it grasps the six edges or points of the hex shaped core on each pass. The big advantage here is that there is less slippage resulting in a very tight wind. The downside is that the wrap only makes contact at these points, leaving a gap between the wire being wrapped and the flat sides of the hex where dirt and oil can collect.

Wrapping a round wire around the more traditional round core wire results in 100% contact between the two wires with no gaps and results in a more flexible string.

One of the differences from brand to brand is the meticulousness with which the one wire is wrapped around the other. A smooth tight wrap is preferred for the best feel and tone. Some brands are wound using precision machines while others promote the fact that they are hand wound. Both methods can produce a high quality product.

Another difference is the method by which the string diameter (or gauge) is achieved. To make a .024 string, a common pairing would be a .012 core wire and a .006 wrap wire. You can also achieve the same diameter by altering both the core and wrap. A .014 core and a .005 wrap would give you the same diameter but with a stiffer, heavier feel. The thicker the core wire, the stiffer the string. Using a thinner wrap wire results in more wire and more turns wrapped around the core string which can affect both the feel and tone.

Alloys

The alloy used in the wrap wire will have a dramatic influence on the sound your strings produce. There are also differences in the longevity of the strings due to different corrosion rates of various alloys.

Wound acoustic and electric guitar strings are made from different alloys to suit different purposes. Though tone is a key component of both, acoustic guitar strings need to project volume whereas electric guitar strings are constructed of ferromagnetic metals, like steel, to interact with the pickup’s magnetic field.

Popular Acoustic Guitar String Wrap Alloys

Phosphor Bronze
The most popular alloy for acoustic guitars, phosphor bronze wrap wire is made of 92% copper alloyed with 8% tin. It contains less than 1% phosphorus added to remove oxygen, thus adding longevity by hampering corrosion. Phosphor bronze wound are the best strings for those who desire a rich, warm tone. Their appearance leans slightly more towards red than gold.

80/20 Bronze
Sometimes known as 80/20 Brass, this combination is considerably brighter than phosphor bronze due to its combination of 80% copper and 20% zinc. Popular among recording guitarists, these are the best strings for those requiring a bright, crisp tone. The high percentage of zinc results in a more golden or yellowish appearance.

Silk and Steel
Silk and Steel strings have a low-tension, soft feel that’s great for fingerpicking styles. A silver-plated copper wire is wrapped around a silk covered, thin steel core providing a lower volume and mellower tone similar to that of the wound strings on a classical guitar. Used by professional players, they are also popular with beginners who enjoy the ease of playability.

Popular Electric Guitar String Wrap Alloys

Nickel Plated Steel
This is the overwhelming favorite among electric guitarists. By virtue of being electric, these guitars necessitate different demands of strings than do acoustics. Whereas an acoustic guitar’s strings need to produce a lot of volume, an electric’s strings require strong magnetic properties for proper interaction with the instrument’s pickups. Nickel Plated Steel, often referred to as “Nickel,” is composed of 8% nickel electroplated to the steel for a smooth, warm sound. This is what most electric guitarists use and what comes stock on almost all new instruments.

Pure Nickel
Pure nickel was the standard in the 60’s and is recently experiencing resurgence. Pure nickel provides a warmer tone with less brightness. It is also the easiest on your frets, being made of the same material. In the war of strings vs. fret wear it’s more of a level playing field.

Stainless Steel
Stainless provides the brightest, “springy” sound as well as enhanced volume and sustain. It also boasts the longest lifespan of uncoated strings, tending to be more durable due to reduced tarnish and corrosion. On the downside, you can expect a little more fret wear owing to stainless steel’s relative strength compared to the nickel frets.

Flatwound and Half-Round

Flatwound strings provide a very different playing experience. Whereas with round wound strings you can actually feel (and hear) your fingers pass over the windings, flatwound strings are smooth to the touch and emit none of the familiar squeak associated with round-wound strings. This is accomplished by the use of flattened steel or tape as a wrap wire. This is then ground smooth. The result is a very dark, warm sounding string that is slightly stiffer to the touch. Common materials used in the wrap wire are nickel, stainless steel and monel, an alloy of nickel and copper.

Half-Round strings, as the name implies, provide a middle ground between round and flatwound. Half-Rounds are comprised of a round wire wrapped around the core which is then ground and polished flat and smooth. While the playing side of the string feels smooth, the side making contact with the core wire is still round. This results in a sound whose brightness lies somewhere between its round and flat counterparts while providing the feel of a flatwound string.

Nylon Strings

Found only on classical or flamenco guitars, Nylon strings have a much softer feel than steel strings. They provide a lower volume and mellower tone with a lot less bite. Replacing the traditional gut strings when first introduced in 1948 by Albert Augustine, a single filament of Dupont Nylon is used in almost all brands of nylon strings for the three treble strings. The wound strings consist of a fine Nylon threadlike filament core wound with silver-plated or bronze wire. The result is a string that is very low tension compared to a steel string. Gauges for nylon strings are delineated as “tensions,” as in “Medium Tension” or “Hard Tension” with even the hardest tension feeling much softer (75 to 90 pounds, about 50% less tension) than steel strings.

When it comes to installing them, nylon strings come in two varieties. The most popular type is the traditional “tie-end” string where the bridge end of the string is tied onto the bridge/tailpiece. Nylon strings are also available with a “ball-end” similar to those found on steel strings.

Coated and Treated Strings

One of the biggest and most recent developments in acoustic guitar strings (and to a much lesser extent, electric guitar strings) is the coated string. In an effort to combat the harsh effects of the elements on your strings, some manufacturers now offer strings coated with a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene, commonly known by the brand name Teflon®. If you’ve ever cracked an egg into a frying pan, you’re probably familiar with Teflon®. The same material that causes your egg not to stick to the pan makes for a handy string coating that blocks out moisture, the bane of your string’s existence. The coating keeps the alloy free of oxygen, inhibiting corrosion and extending the string’s life by as much as five times that of an uncoated string. Not all manufacturers use the same process and how the coating is applied does make a difference. Some coat the string after it’s complete and others coat the music wire before the string is wound, and the coating does have some effect on the sound. Taking a vibrating string and coating it with even the thinnest polymer will result in a somewhat less bright sound. Different brands and models use a different thickness of coating, the tradeoff being a thinner coat will sound brighter but wear quicker.

Several acoustic guitar manufacturers ship their instruments with coated strings. One major benefit to this is having their instruments sound fresh after extended periods hanging on your local music store’s wall. Dead strings on their demo models would surely hinder sales.

The other option for extended life strings is the treated string. Where a coated string has a coating covering the alloy, a treated string has its molecular composition altered making it more resistant to corrosion. Because the string is not covered in a coating, it retains its original brightness. There is also a school of thought that coating an electric guitar string interferes with the magnetic draw of the pickups. Altering the molecular structure avoids this issue entirely and provides a string with much slower oxidation.

Common Gauges

String tone is derived from both its alloy and its diameter, or gauge, measured in thousandths of an inch. The thicker the string, the fatter the tone it will produce. Conversely, a thinner string will be easier to press down or bend. A thicker gauge string will have a stiffer feel when picked or strummed and produce more volume.

The majority of electric guitarists use what, based on the gauge of the thinnest string, are referred to as 9’s (9-42) or 10’s (10-46) while most acoustic players prefer a slightly heavier gauge like 12’s (12-53) which offer more projection and volume.

Which is the best string gauge for you? It’s purely personal taste based on your playing style and your desired tone. Here’s what some of our favorite electric guitar players have used, though many have experimented with different gauges over the years.

Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Brian May, Peter Frampton, Tony Iommi, and Jeff Beck have all used 8’s, though Beck has consistently gone heavier and now uses 11’s.

Carlos Santana, Steve Lukather, James Hetfield, and Eddie Van Halen use 9’s.

Danny Gatton, David Gilmour, Brian Setzer, Duane Allman, Joe Walsh, and Buddy Guy all prefer 10’s.

Then there are the guys who like ‘em heavy. Slash, Allan Holdsworth, Robert Cray and Pete Townsend all like 11’s, though Pete used 13’s early on. Stevie Ray Vaughn has used 12’s and 13’s for that thick, piano string, tone.

One important thing to keep in mind is that if you change string gauges you will most likely need to make adjustments to your guitar. Heavier strings put more pressure on the neck than lighter strings. If you switch from light to heavy, you may experience a bowing of the neck where the strings become very high around the midpoint of the neck making it difficult to play. Conversely, switching from heavy to light may cause a back-bow where the middle of the neck shifts toward the strings, possibly so much so that the strings buzz when played or even rest on the fretboard. Either way, manipulating the truss rod and adjusting the bridge can correct this.

How Often Should I Change My Strings?

That’s a pretty good question, though the answer to how often your strings should be changed relies on several factors. Let’s begin with why you should change your strings.

Unless you’re one of the few who enjoys their string tone “broken in,” your instrument will usually sound its best when its strings are fresh and in good condition. This is when they will produce their brightest tone, most volume and longest sustain. They’ll also have the smoothest feel and a little extra spring in their step due to their ability to vibrate freely.

As your strings get dirty or are degraded by the elements, several bad things happen. They can rust or get caked with dirt, sweat and oil from your hands causing them to lose their brightness. You’ll also experience decreased sustain and diminished harmonics. The instrument may also tend to have a rough or gritty feel to it.

The wrap wire on nickel strings will rust and brass and bronze strings will tarnish; neither of which is good for your tone. Both electric and acoustic strings have a steel core wire, which can rust. This is the most problematic because it will lead to breakage. If there’s one thing to know about breaking a guitar string it’s that it will almost always happen at the most inopportune time. The chance of breaking a string at home in your room is low. The chance of breaking a string during the first few bars of your big solo in front of a packed house is extremely high. There is no science behind this; it’s more Murphy’s Law.

The act of pressing your metal string against your metal fret also does damage to your strings. The underside point of contact develops pitting, causing the string to vibrate unevenly.

Here are the two biggest factors that determine how fast your strings deteriorate and will need to be replaced. The first is the environment. A very dry environment is very bad for your guitar. Among other things, it can cause an acoustic guitars soundboard (its top) to crack or can make your frets feel like they are sticking out the sides of the fretboard with sharp ends. A little bit of humidity is a good thing. Conversely, your strings contain metal and too much humidity is their enemy and will accelerate corrosion. The type of humidity is also a factor. If you play shows at the beach, be prepared to change your strings often. Salt water is not only a problem for your strings, but your chrome parts also become an endangered species. The second factor is you. More specifically, the amount of acidity in your perspiration. When your PH is low your body secretes acid to level it off and this is present in your sweat. This can be extremely corrosive and wreak havoc on your strings. Some people can practice for hours on end and play several shows a week without having to change their strings for a month. Others can corrode their strings in a single sitting. It’s something most of us never give much thought but if you’re putting on fresh strings, and they’re not staying fresh for very long, the problem may be you.

Here are some signs that it may be time to change your strings.

  • Does your tone seem dull and lacking brightness? It might be time.
  • Run a tissue or napkin against the underside of the string within the first five frets. If you see a lot of black residue, it’s time.
  • Look for rust, pitting or discoloration. Change them before you break one.
  • If you break a string, it’s time to change them all. They’ve all been exposed to the same sweaty hands and harsh environment so breaking one means breaking another soon after. Always change complete sets.

There are a few things you can do to extend the life of your strings.

  • Clean your fretboard when you change strings. Pressing fresh strings into the dirt on your fingerboard is one of the surest ways to shorten their lifespan.
  • Wipe down your strings after playing. This includes the underside of the strings. Run a microfiber cloth between the fretboard and strings and then down their length on top of the strings to remove perspiration, oil, or dirt and grime.
  • Use one of the many string cleaning solutions that are available.
  • Wash your hands before you play. It actually makes a difference. I find I always play better with clean hands anyway.
  • Use coated or treated strings. They last 3x-5x longer than uncoated.

About the Author - Michael Barberich

Michael Barberich

A New York guitar phenom from a young age, Michael still smiles looking back on playing his first bar gig at the ripe old age of fourteen. By eighteen, his acrobatic guitar style had caught the attention of a popular local band (whose members were all ten years older) and together they quickly conquered the legendary Long Island music scene, playing six nights a week to large audiences. Says Michael of this period, "To fill time, the band would often throw me two solos per song. I did the math recently and realized I was playing about sixty solos a night times six nights a week. That's three hundred and sixty solos per week! That's really where I learned to play, on stage every night in front of lots of people."

As comfortable playing or producing in the studio as he is on the stage, Michael's varied career has afforded him the opportunity to work with many of his heroes including Steve Vai, Justin Hayward, Gary Brooker, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Howe and Cheap Trick. Always happiest with a guitar in his hand, you can find Michael showing his versatility performing with LI Hall of Fame inductees Barnaby Bye, Macca Nation (a tribute to Paul McCartney & Wings) or his kitschy 70's band, the insanely popular, 45rpm (voted Long Island's best cover band for 2013 and 2014.)