Ultimate Guide to Guitar Strings – Gauge, Materials and more

Especially for newer players, selecting guitar strings can seem like a daunting task. There are so many options out there, and the descriptions on the packaging can often seem vague at best. For that reason, this guide will introduce you to the world of guitar strings and familiarize you with all of the different types out there.

In this KillerGuitarRigs guide you’ll learn

  • Are strings specific to certain guitar types?
  • What is string gauge?
  • What are guitar strings made from?
  • How are strings constructed?

 Before jumping into the rest of the guide, let’s take a look at these fast facts:

  • Only the bass side guitar strings are wound
  • Heavy gauge strings handle distortion better than light gauge
  • The definition of heavy gauge and light gauge differs between manufacturers

By the way, we have a ton of different articles about strings, from how to clean guitar strings, to our take on recycling guitar strings, how often you should change strings, how to remember the names of different strings, and way more – so stick around!

Are Strings Specific to Guitar Types?

There are very few hard and fast rules when it comes to which strings you can physically install on a guitar, but when it comes to getting the best possible sound, it is best to stick with strings that were specifically designed for the type of guitar you have. Putting acoustic strings on your electric guitar isn’t going to yield the best possible tone, and of course, classical nylon strings attach in a completely different way to steel strings, meaning they aren’t even compatible with electric guitars or steel string acoustics.


What is String Gauge?

Guitar String Gauge

One of the most important factors in a guitar string is its size, which is not referring to its length, but its width. When asking a guitarist what strings they play, they might say I play 9’s, or I play 11’s. This number that they are referring to is the measurement of the smallest string (measured in 1000ths of an inch), and this is the gauge of the string – the packaging is also labeled with the gauges of the other strings, but they are rarely mentioned. The gauge a player uses is a completely personal choice, but it’s often influenced by the type of guitar, the genre of music you play, and how long you’ve been playing.

As well as gauge, strings are also sometimes sized in terms of weight, ranging from extra light to extra heavy. This is more of a rough guide because an extra light string from one brand may be .09 gauge, and another may call it .10 gauge. Additionally extra light strings for an electric guitar will be noticeably lighter than extra light acoustic strings.

Now that we know a little more about the sizing, it’s time to answer the question, “which guitar string gauge should I use?” The answer to this question is a little nuanced, but there are some guidelines or rules of thumb that can help you to decide.

Light and Extra Light Gauges

There are some players and specific niches that will definitely benefit from lighter strings, be it light or extra light. With electric guitars, extra light and light strings are usually .008-.038 and .009-.042 respectively. On an acoustic guitar extra light is normally .010-.047 and light somewhere around .012-.053. Remember, this is an average, and definitions change between manufacturers.

Beginners in particular will enjoy lighter strings, firstly the tension is lower, therefore it’s easier to play notes, and secondly, because the tension is lower, these strings are less harsh on the fingertips, making them more comfortable to play while calluses start developing on the fingertips.

Lead guitarists and anybody playing a lot of individual notes with bends and vibrato also tend to gravitate towards lighter strings as they’re much easier to manipulate than heavy strings. They are especially popular with blues players for this reason (be sure to check out our picks for best blues strings).

Folks who play vintage guitars, especially ones without truss rods, tend to lean towards lighter strings, too. The low tension puts a lot less stress on the guitar’s neck, and can help to prevent damage to the instrument.

Fingerstyle players benefit from lighter strings because first of all, they’re more comfortable, and second, they’re able to play more expressively due to the improved responsiveness over heavy strings.

Heavy and Extra Heavy Gauges

Heavier electric strings tend to range from .011-.048 at the heavy end through to .012-.056 at the extra heavy side. On acoustic guitars, you can expect heavy strings to come in at around .012-.059, and extra heavy at around 0.13-.062.

If you strum hard, you’ll almost certainly want to use heavier gauge strings. Not only are they physically stronger (read: less likely to break), but they are louder and project much better than lighter strings, especially when played acoustically.

Slide guitarists also tend to opt for heavier strings. Not only does the extra string weight sound better with a slide, but this style calls for a high action, and the extra strength of heavy and extra heavy strings will assist with tuning stability at the high tensions required on guitars set up for high action.

If you play styles like jazz, that require accuracy, but don’t necessarily call for bends and vibrato, heavy strings will provide the precision you need. Additionally, they tend to have a warmer, mellower sound, which is ideal for jazz.

Shredders and metal players also usually lean towards heavier strings as the extra tension means they hold up well to the drop tuning commonly used in this genre.

If you find yourself somewhere in the middle, and you’re still not set on a single style that you want to focus on, then a medium gauge set might be a great starting point. Alternatively, if you want the best of both worlds, you can even mix sets or buy individual strings. Some guitarists want the tension and durability of heavy bottom strings, but still want to be able to play bends and vibratos at the treble side, so they go with a heavy bottom, light top selection. They are sometimes sold in packages known as hybrid sets.

Classical players don’t tend to worry about the gauge as much as they do the tension. They are available in low, medium and high tension, and each comes with its own list of pros and cons.

Low Tension

These are usually the quietest of the classical strings. Much like light gauge steel strings, they are easiest on the fingers, and are less damaging to the guitar over time, making them a great choice for players with valuable antique instruments. Low tension strings do tend to buzz more, which might not work for everybody, but if you play flamenco style, fret buzz is actually desirable.

Medium Tension

Medium tension strings offer a nice middle ground. They’re comfortable, and easier to manage than high tension strings, but still offer more volume and less buzz than low tension.

High Tension

Players looking for maximum projection and volume tend to opt for high tension strings. They are better suited to strumming than they are fingerstyle. Of course, they are the most difficult to play, and can cause damage to guitars not designed for high tension strings, so caution should be exercised.


What Are Guitar Strings Made From?

Acoustic Guitar "String" Comparison - 80/20 vs Phosphor Bronze vs Silk & Steel vs Flat Tops

The material that a guitar string is made from is the single most influential factor in its overall sound and tone. With a couple of exceptions, you’ll find that most strings are either made from metal, or nylon. With metal strings, a variety of different types of metal are used, and each has its own particular set of properties that makes them attractive to certain players.

Electric Guitar Strings

There are three commonly used metals and alloys in the manufacture of guitar strings:

Nickel plated steel strings are the most common, most affordable, and are great all rounders. They are favored by guitarists looking for a middle ground between warmth and brightness, as well as string responsiveness to picking.

Pure nickel strings lose some of the brightness found in nickel plated steel, but this is beneficial if you are looking for more warmth in your sound. They can be quite costly, and corrosion happens quickly, but some guitarists find that a fair trade for the tones they get.

Stainless steel strings are amongst the brightest of all the electric guitar strings. They’re great for lead, thanks to their excellent sustain properties and high output, and because they’re less prone to finger squeak, they are also useful during recording.

Acoustic Guitar Strings

There is just as much variety in the alloys used for acoustic strings as there are for electric strings. Some of the more common materials used include:

Phosphor bronze strings are warm and mellow, and as a bonus they have excellent corrosion resistance, meaning their lifespan is longer than most acoustic strings.

80/20 Bronze strings offer a bright and shimmering tone. They get their name from the makeup of the alloy used – bronze made with 80% copper and 20% zinc. The biggest downside to these strings is their short lifespan. Because of their susceptibility to rapid corrosion, they can start to sound dull in as little as a week with heavy use.

By the way, check out our guide to the best acoustic guitar strings, as well as our article on how to change strings on an acoustic guitar!

Classical Guitar Strings

Early guitar strings, like many things, were originally made from animal byproducts, typically lamb. While genuine animal gut strings are still available today, they’re rare, and expensive, although they are prized for their delicate nuances and warm tone.

Nylon replaced natural gut as the mainstream string choice for classical guitars around the 1940s. Nylon strings are bright and clear, and respond very well to fingerstyle playing.

Silver Strings take nylon strings and give them a silver plated copper wrap around the three bass side strings. This improves responsiveness to strumming and provides a warm tone.


How Are Strings Constructed?

How It's Made-Guitar Strings

There are two primary elements to the construction of guitar strings; the core, and the wind.

Core

Guitar strings at the bass end of the instrument are actually made of 2 parts, the winding (discussed later) and the core. There are a few materials used in the construction of cores, including silk, nylon, and most commonly, steel.

As well as differences in the material used for the core, there are also differences in the shape that have influence over the sound. Traditionally, round cores were always used. With a round core, the wrap is completely in contact with the core. This makes the string more flexible, which adds warmth and softens the attack. Because there are no gaps between the core and the wind, the string behaves as though it was a single piece, which also adds sustain. The tone from round core strings is normally associated with the vintage sound, so they sound great with minimal distortion. Round core strings do require a bit of know how when restringing, too – it’s essential to be fully tuned to pitch before trimming loose ends, otherwise you run the risk of the wrap unravelling as tension is applied.

A more modern invention is the hex core string. With hex core, the wrap is better able to grip the core wire, which improves durability and provides a much more consistent tone between string sets. Hex core strings tend to be stiffer, which makes them tonally brighter, with a stronger attack. Sustain isn’t as pronounced, but their performance is overall much more predictable.

Winding

As well as different core shapes and materials, there is also winding to consider. There are two main winds that you’ll find when shopping for guitar strings – roundwound and flatwound. You’ll find much more in depth information in our flatwound vs roundwound guide, but for now, here are some quick differences between the two.

Roundwound guitar strings are by far the most popular. The wire used to wrap the core is cylindrical, hence the name roundwound. They are widely available and for the most part, inexpensive and come in a wide range of metals. They are prone to finger squeak, and because of the grooves between the winds, they collect dirt readily and don’t take long to become dull. They’re popular because of their versatile tonal range and prominent upper harmonics, as well as their increased sustain.

Flatwound guitar strings are most popular on bass guitars, but are still available for 6 strings. They use a winding wire that has undergone a process to flatten it out, leaving the surface exceptionally smooth. The net effect of the smooth finish is a more comfortable string that lasts longer, and is a little more comfortable to play. The downside is availability, and of course, the price – a set of flat wounds can cost around 4 times as much as a packet of roundwounds. Flatwounds are much stiffer than rounds, which reduces vibration and gives a warmer tone, a feature that makes them very popular with jazz guitarists.

Coated Strings

A middle ground for players looking to get the longevity of flatwound strings with the benefits of a roundwound is to go with coated strings. Some string makers have coated their products in a special polymer that resists the accumulation of oils, dirt, and grime from the fingers. This can significantly improve their lifespan, and the polymer coating also helps to reduce the finger squeak that plagues roundwounds. The tradeoff is a loss of brightness, although not by as much as a flatwound string. Coated strings are also pricey, but again, they’re still cheaper and more widely available than flatwounds. If you’re interested, we have a guide to our picks for the best long life guitar strings.


Final Thoughts on Guitar Strings

As with most guitar consumables, strings can be a deeply personal choice, and experienced players will tend to like what they like and won’t be told otherwise! Given that changing strings is quite cheap, the best thing you can do is to experiment. Try new strings, different materials, different cores, different winds, until you find a set that suits your style and sound.

Andrew Bell

I don't think I'll ever stick to one instrument - but the great thing about life is you don't have to.

Andrew Bell has 78 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrew Bell