What Guitar Strings are Right For You?

Guitar String Ball End

Guitar strings come in all kinds of sizes, styles, and even colors. Every brand claims that its guitar strings are the best and give your guitar the best tone, but what strings are actually the best? Maybe a more important question is what guitar strings should you use?




Guitar String History

Before we answer some of these questions, we should probably start at the beginning. Guitar-type instruments like the lute have been around for hundreds of years. Before the 20th century, guitars and other stringed instruments used "gut strings" or strings made from animal intestines. These gut strings are the ancient equivalent of the modern day nylon classical guitar strings. It wasn't until the industrial revolution that metal and wires became commonly available to manufacture strings. Once the modern steel guitar string was born, there was no turning back. Steel strings are louder, fuller, and less likely to break than the old, traditional gut strings. Steel strings are definitely the most popular style of guitar string, but nylon strings are still used today. Let's take a look at what goes into making a guitar string.



How are Guitar Strings Made?

Modern steel guitar strings are made from steel wire. Steel is forged into wires of varying thicknesses for each string gauge. The wires are examined under a loop to check for inconsistencies and possible weak areas. The steel wire is then fitted with a string ball. Usually the wire is wrapped around the ball and then twisted a few times to secure it in place. And thus, a guitar string is born.

On most string gauges, the first three strings are solid steel wire-- strings e, B, and G. The larger strings-- strings 4, 5, and 6-- start out with a steel wire core that gets wrapped with nickel or phosphor bronze plated wire. These "wound" guitar strings come in many different types: roundwound, flatwound, and halfwound.

Roundwound Guitar Strings

Roundwound guitar strings are the most simple wound string. They start with either a round or hexagon shaped core that is wrapped tightly with a round, plated wire. The outside wire that is wound around the core is always a round wire. Roundwound strings are easy and inexpensive to manufacture.

Flatwound Guitar Strings

Flatwound guitar strings are made the same exact way that roundwound guitar strings are made except flatwound strings are not wrapped with a round wire. Flatwound guitar strings are wrapped, you guessed it, flattened wires. A cross section of the flat wire actually looks like a square with rounded edges. Because of the flat winding wire, flatwound strings have smaller ridges that tend to reduce the amount of string squeak. Many guitarists find flatwound strings to be more comfortable than roundwound strings. Flatwound strings also don't wear frets down as quickly as roundwound strings.

With all the advantages of flatwound strings, there are several disadvantages. Flatwound strings are not as bright and are more difficult to bend than the more traditional roundwound guitar strings.

Halfwound Guitar Strings

Halfwound guitar strings are a combination of the flat and roundwound strings. Basically, a halfwound string is a roundwound string that is ground down, pressed flat, and polished. The grinding can take half of the wound material off the core, hence the name halfwound. Halfwounds are generally viewed as the perfect median of the two types. They are flat and comfortable with less string squeaking and maintain some of the brightness of a roundwound.



Guitar String Gauges

The gauge of a guitar string simply refers to its thickness. Guitar Strings come in all kinds of different gauges for every different kind of playing style. There are good qualities to every gauge guitar string from super light to super heavy. However, the choice between light or heavy strings is definitely a trade-off.

Typically heavier gauge strings produce a fuller and more profound tone than light strings. This only makes sense because the heavier strings have more mass to vibrate with. Heavy strings also have drawbacks. They are much more difficult to bend and chord than light strings. Light strings might sound twangy, but they are much more friendly on you fingers.

I don't know about you, but I like to have medium gauge strings. This way I get the best of both worlds. I can have a little tone boost from the heavy strings and still have some skin on my fingertips when I am done playing. You might have to experiment with some string gauges before you settle on "your" string gauge. Here's a list of the most common string sizes shown in inches. The shaded boxes represent strings that are wound.

Higher Gauge strings Pros and Cons

  • Bigger Strings
  • Higher Tension
  • Bigger Tone
  • More Sustain
  • More Volume
  • Harder and more painful to play

Lighter Gauge strings Pros and Cons

  • Smaller Strings
  • Lower Tension
  • Not as Good of Tone
  • Less Sustain
  • Less Volume
  • Way easier and more effortless to play


Electric Guitar String Gauges

String Gauge 1
(e)
2
(B)
3
(G)
4
(D)
5
(A)
6
(E)
Extra super light (8-38) .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
Extra super light plus (8.5-39) .0085 .0105 .015 .022 .032 .039
Super light (9-42) .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
Super light plus (9.5-44) .0095 .0115 .016 .024 .034 .044
Regular light (10-46) .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
Extra light w/heavy bass (9-46) .009 .013 .016 .026 .036 .046
Medium (11-48/49) .011 .014 .018 .028 .038 .048/49
Light Top / Heavy Bottom (10-52) .010 .013 .017 .032 .042 .052
Medium w/wound G string (11-52) .011 .013 .020 .030 .042 .052
Heavy (12-54) .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054
Extra heavy (13-56) .013 .017 .026 .036 .046 .056


Acoustic Guitar String Gauges

String Gauge 1
(e)
2
(B)
3
(G)
4
(D)
5
(A)
6
(E)
Extra light (10-47) .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
Custom light (11-52) .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
Light (12-53) .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .053
Light/Medium (12.5-55) .0125 .0165 .0255 .0335 .0435 .055
Medium(13-56) .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056


Bass Guitar String Gauges

String Gauge 1
(G)
2
(D)
3
(A)
4
(E)
5
(B)
Light or "soft" (40-100) .040 .060 .080 .100 .120
Medium (45-105) .045 .065 .085 .105 .125
Heavy (50-110) .050 .075 .095 .110 .130


Classical Guitar Strings

Classical guitar strings are a totally different story. Modern classical guitar strings are made out high-tension nylon. Nylon has many clear advantages over its ancient gut string predecessor. Obviously, they are easier to produce, less destructive, and more consistent. Not to mention, they are far less gross. Nylon strings typically don't have ball ends because they are wrapped and tied around the guitar bridge instead of being pinned in place like steel strings. Nylon strings are a great alternative to steel strings for people who have weak hands or extremely tender fingers. Although not as loud as steel strings, nylon strings are much more friendly on your fingers.



What Strings Should you Use?

Now comes the age old questions. What is the perfect guitar string? The truth is there isn't a perfect guitar string. There are only guitar strings that fit guitarists. Everyone is different. We all have different playing styles, hands, and fingers. Some people enjoy the deep tone of heavy strings and can handle the harshness on their fingers. Other people can't use heavy strings and prefer light gauges. We are all different.

I can't tell you to go out and buy one type of guitar string. It's just not right. You need to test out all kinds of strings, brands, and gauges until you find the one that fits you perfectly. Trust me. After a while, you will know when a set of strings fits your playing style. I hope this article helps you understand guitar strings a little better and helps you decide what strings you want to try next.

Keep playing and keep trying new things. You'll find the right string for your guitar.

Check out some guitar strings that I recommend on my guitar string page.




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