With the vast amount of choices for guitar strings out there (Ernie Ball alone claims to have 200+ different types of electric guitar strings), it’s no wonder my students are often asking me “what strings should I get?”
I’ll do the best I can to give you a better answer than “it depends…” Though you should chat with your guitar teacher first if you’ve never replaced your strings before. It’s not a scary process, and it’s actually quite cheap (under $10).
Keep in mind that my recommendations are simply based on my own preferences and may differ from your own tastes.
As a guitar teacher, it’s hard to resist breaking things down into smaller categories, so here we go….
Short answers (TL/DR):
Q: When to change strings?
A: If you need a hard and fast rule, I’d say change your strings after you put in 40 hours of playing on them OR 90 days have passed.
Q: What strings should I buy?
A: There is no one-size fits all, otherwise there’d only be one type of string.
I’d say for most ELECTRIC players:
“Ernie Ball Super Slinky 9-42 Nickel Wound” in a pink package
“D’Addario Nickel Wound EXL110 10-46 Nickel Wound” in grey & orange package.
For ACOUSTIC players I like Martin strings:
“SP MA170 80/20 Bronze 10-47”
The slightly heavier “SP MA175 80/20 Bronze 11-52”
When it comes to strings, there are 6 things to consider:
–Gauge (how thick are they)
–Alloy (what are they made of)
–Wind (how to they feel under the fingers)
–Core (what’s inside the wound strings)
–Coating (a layer of protection that gets longer life)
–Brand (doesn’t matter much, but steer clear of bargain basement strings)
Once you find a set a of strings you like, save the empty package and write the date on them. Change the strings on your guitar when:
1. you notice they don’t stay in tune like they used to
2. the tone sounds flat
3. you can see gunk on them
4. you need clean your guitar
5. you break a string (change them all)
I’ll start here. There’s a myth, tied to Stevie Ray Vaughn, that thicker ELECTRIC guitar strings produce “thicker, meatier” tone. This has since been proven false by both science and Stevie himself late in his career. Yet for some reason, the myth has stuck around.
Thinner strings equal easier to play and bend. The only real down side to thin strings is if you play exclusively chords, some chords might be out of tune… because they’re SO much easier to hold down, you can actually over-squeeze. Though this is easily fixed by re-evlauating your death-grip.
If you are playing an ACOUSTIC guitar, you do want more mass on the string to keep the top of the guitar vibrating. Go with the heaviest gauge string you can handle. I’d start with 11’s then work up to 12’s.
I’d recommend starting with light strings and seeing what you think. Keep in mind that changing string gauge will require a professional set up. I recommend getting this done professionally.
If you live near Quarter Bend Guitar Studio in Lancaster, PA…You can take your guitar to Tone Tailors in Lititz, PA or Lancaster Instrument Repair on King St in Lancaster, PA. General cost of a setup is $50-$75 plus the cost of strings.
Gauge of strings sets is typically referred to by the diameter of both E strings. For example, an extra light set of strings uses a .009″ high E and a .042″ low E. We call these “9 thru 42” when asking for them in a music store.
Be careful when looking at the “light” “medium” label on the package. String gauges are like the opposite of fast food portions (Large, xtra large, dumpster). String gauges typically come in “extra light” “light” or “medium.” Students often think “I’ll grab mediums because that’s right in the middle” not realizing that these are the thickest strings you can get. Therefor, it’s best to get to know the actual measurements of the strings you like.
Strings are made out of different materials:
- Acoustic guitars use either brass or bronze
- Classical guitars use nylon
- Electrics use nickel or steel
Brass– counter intuitive, “80/20 bronze” strings are the most common but are really bronze. This have a “cutting” treble sound and are good on full sized acoustic guitars.
Bronze– aka “Phosphor Bronze” are more mellow and good for folk and subdued styles.
Nylon- are used almost exclusively on Classical/Flamenco guitars. They are softer, mellow, and have significant less sustain due to the low tension on them. Because many classical and flamenco guitars do not have truss rods, do not ever put any other type of string (brass, bronze, steel, nickel) on these guitars.
Steel- The unwound strings of your guitar (E,B,G strings) are almost always steel, even when the pack says otherwise. Steel strings are bright and have more treble response, which is why they’re the standard choice for those skinny strings.
Nickel- The thick, wound strings on your guitar are usually nickel. Nickel is warmer and little more mellow.
The winding impacts the feel and tone significantly. Your choices are round wound (the standard) flatwound, and halfround.
Round Wound- have more treble and cut through the mix well. Ideal for modern electric guitar music. String have a distinct feel and may “chirp” as your hands glide side-to-side
Flatwound- feel completely smooth and have a dark, mellow sound. Ideal for jazz. Many bass players use flatwound strings as well.
Halfround- are combination of flat and round wound and have a mild, balances tone tone.
The core of the string is just the shape of the inner wire. They are either hex or round. Hex core are relatively new and are a little louder and have slightly better tuning reliability. They are ideal for hard rock, metal, or prog, though are becoming more and more popular in all genres.
Many string brands (Elixir, DR, etc) will add coating to their guitar strings to prolong the life. While I can say that this it’s absolutely true that they last 2x longer, these strings cost twice as much as other strings. Simple math says you aren’t saving any money.
I personally do not like the feel of the strings, especially once they start to wear out. As the coating comes off, they look and feel hairy. I think tone-wise Elixir has done a good job managing to make a layer of gunk on a string sound good.
My personal opinion is that you should be keeping muck off your guitar strings whenever possible, not adding it. Unless you HATE changing your strings and want to do it as little as possible, I don’t see the benefit here. Buy yourself a lint-free guitar rag and wipe down your strings and you’ll make that $6 pack of strings last almost as long.
You get what you pay for. Deals on Amazon or at Guitar Center where you get 5 packs of strings for $5 isn’t likely to pan out well. I like Ernie Ball, D’Addario, and Martin. I am not a fan of Elixirs, but they are of good quality. Each brand has all kinds of different models. Stick with a brand name and you’ll be fine.
My go-tos are…
- Earthwood (Acoustic)
- Slinky’s (Electric)
- Blue Steel (Both)
- Pro Arte (Nylon)
- EJ10 80/20 Bronze (Acoustic)
- Nickel Wound EXL110 (Electric)
- ECG Flatwound (Electric/Semi Hollow/Hollow Body)
- SP series
- Lifespan Series
- Folk Singer (Nylon)
- Phosphor Bronze 600L (Acoustic)
-Eric Dieter, 20+ year guitar teacher