When chasing guitar tone, it’s easy to think about amps, loads of effects pedals, and all the build details of the guitar itself. But it really starts with the strings. Let’s explore this most important of guitar essentials, shall we?
What comes in a guitar string pack?
Guitar strings are commonly purchased in full packages or individually. Since six-string guitars are the norm, most packs have six strings, But there are also sets available for alternative guitars such as seven- or eight-string models, along with 12-string packs for 12-string guitars.
Bass strings typically come in packs of four (obviously). But just like with guitars, they can also come in five- and six-string packs, depending on your type of bass.
Acoustic and electric guitar strings, with only a few exceptions that we’ll discuss below, have a ball end. And most guitar string packs contain a combination of plain strings and wound strings. Here you’ll learn about the differences between them, as well as the varieties and what they’re made of. That way you’ll be able to choose the type of string that’s right for you!
A plain string is a piece of steel wire with a ferrule (the “ball end”) on it. That’s really all there is to it.
While some string makers may note that they’re actively searching for ways to improve the plain string with different metal formulas and different ways to get the string to the desired gauge, the process is ultimately very similar from manufacturer to manufacturer.
While there’s not much difference in the plain strings, acoustic or electric, a wound string’s construction can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer and are meant for specific types of guitars. Let’s take a look at what goes into crafting a wound string:
A wound string is made from two wire components: a round or hexagonally shaped steel “core” wire and a “wrap” wire wrapped around the core.
One difference from brand to brand is the method by which the string diameter (or gauge) is achieved. The thicker the core wire, the string is stiffer overall. 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.
Another difference 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.
You’ll typically find both plain and wound strings in a pack. Generally, the lower three strings on a six-string guitar (E, A, D) are wound strings, while the upper strings (G, B, E) are plain. If you look closely, you’ll be able to see the little wraps on the wound strings.
For an easy way to remember: Low strings are wound; high strings are plain.
Practically all bass strings are wound.
Find your ideal sound and feel — the different metal alloys in guitar strings
Unless you choose nylon strings for your acoustic (which we’ll get to), the core of most strings will be made of steel. However, there are tons of different metal alloys you can use for the wrap wire, and they 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.
Let’s break down the different alloys for both acoustic and electric guitar strings.
Popular acoustic guitar string wrap alloys
If you weren’t paying attention earlier, wrapped strings for acoustic guitars are designed to maintain volume and provide a specific tone. These are the most popular materials for acoustic guitar strings and what they can do for your playing:
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 hindering 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.
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 and 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 more mellow tone, similar to that of the wound strings on a classical guitar. Used by professional players, they’re also popular with beginners who enjoy the ease of playability.
Popular electric guitar string wrap alloys
Now that we know all about acoustic guitar strings, it’s time to take a look at their magnetic cousin: the electric guitar string! Electric guitar strings are designed to work with the magnetic field produced by the guitar’s pickups. The different materials interact with the magnets differently, producing a variety of tones to suit any playing style.
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 is what most electric guitarists use and what comes stock on almost all new instruments.
Pure nickel was the standard in the 60’s and is recently experiencing resurgence. Pure nickel provides a warmer tone with less brightness. It’s also the easiest on your frets, since it’s made of the same material.
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. Due to stainless steel’s relative strength compared to the guitar’s nickel frets, you can expect a little more fret wear over time.
Alternative strings to consider
Although the above are the most popular acoustic and electric guitar string materials on the market today, there are a few alternative materials used for very specific purposes.
Flatwound and half-round
Flatwound strings provide a very different playing experience. Unlike with round wound strings where 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 smoothness is accomplished by the use of flattened steel or tape as a wrap wire. The string is then ground smooth. The result is a very dark, warm-sounding string that’s 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 with brightness that lies somewhere between its round and flat counterparts, while providing the feel of a flatwound string.
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.
A single filament of nylon is used 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 with 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 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 material that’s commonly known by the brand name Teflon®. The same material that causes your egg not to stick to the frying pan makes for a helpful string coating that blocks out moisture and keeps the alloy free of oxygen, inhibiting corrosion and extending the string’s life.
Taking a vibrating string and coating it with even the thinnest polymer will result in a somewhat less bright sound, so take that into consideration. Different brands and models use a different thickness of coating, the tradeoff being a thinner coat will sound brighter but wear quicker.
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.
It's all about sizing — string gauges and what they mean
In addition to the alloy, string tone is also derived from its diameter, or gauge, measured in thousandths of an inch. A thicker gauge string will have a stiffer feel when picked or strummed and produce more volume. Conversely, thinner strings will be more flexible, and are easier to press down or bend.
Which is the best string gauge for you? It’s purely a personal taste based on your playing style and your desired tone. The majority of electric guitarists use what are referred to as 9’s (9-42) or 10’s (10-46) — the shorthand is based on the gauge of the thinnest string — while most acoustic players prefer a slightly heavier gauge like 12’s (12-53) which offer more projection and volume.
One important thing to keep in mind as you change strings, is that you’ll likely need to make regular adjustments to your guitar. Over time, heavier gauge strings put more pressure on the neck than lighter ones. Manipulating the truss rod and adjusting the bridge can correct this.
How to change guitar strings
Now that you know everything there is to know about guitar strings, it’s time to actually put them on your guitar. It might seem like a daunting task, but changing your guitar strings is actually very easy. No need to take it to your local music shop!
Start at the base of the bridge, placing the ball ends in the slots secured with bridge pins (acoustic) or by feeding them through the body (electric). Then you run the string up the neck, position it in the slotted nut, and then guide it through the opening of its matching tuner, tightening and wrapping until it is tuned to pitch.
If you’re looking for visual step-by-step instructions for changing strings, check out this handy video:
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.
First, you should know that new strings 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.
Over time strings get caked with dirt, sweat and oil from your hands. The environment also plays a big part in string deterioration. Too much humidity will accelerate corrosion. The wrap wire on nickel strings will rust, and brass and bronze strings will tarnish. The steel core wire in acoustic and electric guitar strings can also rust. You’ll lose tonal clarity, experience decreased sustain, and diminished harmonics. The instrument may also tend to have a rough or gritty feel when you play.
Rust and corrosion also lead to weakness and ultimately 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’s no science behind this; it’s simply Murphy’s Law. Having extra strings in your case is an absolute must for any guitar player.
Changing strings doesn’t have to follow a ‘set in stone’ schedule. Here are a few observations that will help you know when a change is necessary:
- Does your tone seem dull and lacking brightness? It’s time for a change.
- 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. If you see it, change them!
- 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 a dirty fingerboard will start 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, dirt, and grime.
- Use one of the many string cleaning solutions that are available.
- Wash your hands before you play.
- Try coated or treated strings. They last many times longer than uncoated. Elixir is a great brand for coated strings that sound great and last (almost) forever!
Find your perfect string match
There are tons of types of strings out there. We get it; the search for the right string can be daunting. But the only way to find your perfect string match is to try them out!
Think about what tone you want to achieve, and buy a set of strings to match. If you don’t like them, try a different material for the next go-round. Keep shopping around until you land on a tone and feel that fits your style.
At AMS, we have guitar strings to suit every player — even you! Take a look at our collection of acoustic and electric guitar strings to see what looks (and sounds) good to you. We guarantee your perfect fit is in there somewhere. And if you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to the AMS Gear Nerds. We’re standing by to answer any and all your string- and guitar-related questions.