Guide to Guitar Strings for Acoustic/Electric Guitar (Beginner Tutorial How To)

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As guitar players, we all know the importance of a good set of strings…

Don’t we?

We’ve all heard the difference between cheap ones and the good ones.

And we’ve heard the difference between old ones and fresh ones.

(And if you can’t hear the difference…try recording them through a nice condenser mic, and listen back on some good studio monitors.)

The difference will be OBVIOUS.

But ask a guitar player WHY he uses his particular make and model of strings…

And you’re not likely to receive much of an answer.

Because the truth is…

The vast major of guitar players simply don’t know shit about their strings.

So the goal of today’s post is to solve this problem.  If you’re shopping for strings, whether it’s electric, acoustic, or classical, and you’re not sure what to buy…THIS POST IS FOR YOU.

Let’s begin. First off…

The Key Factors Affecting Tone

A guitar string’s tone comes from a mix of 5 factors:

  1. Gauge
  2. Metals
  3. String Core
  4. Winding Method
  5. Coating

So let’s discuss each one in more detail, starting with…

1. String Gauge

string gaugesWhen comparing string gauges, you often hear labels such as:

  • Extra Light 
  • Light 
  • Medium 


There are no set-in-stone definitions for anyof these terms…

  • Light strings on an electric guitar will have smaller gauges than light strings on an acoustic guitar.
  • And light strings for either can vary greatly between one manufacturer and another.

That is why…it’s far better to compare the actual diameters of the strings.

So here’s how it works:

Measured in 1/1000th’s of an inch, string gauges commonly range anywhere from .008 on the lightest 1st string, to .056 on the heaviest 6th string.

For example:

  • Extra Light – (.009/.011/.016/.024/.032/.042)
  • Light – (.010/.013/.017/.026/.036/.046)
  • Medium –  (.011/.015/.018/.026/.036/.050)

To make things simpler, guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string.  So according to the previous example, a set of medium strings would simply be an “11“.

With classical strings, it’s a bit different.  While the specific gauges are still shown, they aren’t nearly as important as the string “tension“.  The 3 standard options to choose from are low, medium, and high tension.

So how do heavy strings differ from light strings?

Heavier gauges are generally better for:

  • Heavy strummers – because they offer more durability, more sustain, and less breakage.
  • Slide playing/drop tunings – because they hold a tighter string tension.
  • Low-action guitars – because they have tighter vibrations, and are therefore more resistant to fret buzz.
  • Unamplified acoustic playing – because they’re louder.
  • Jazz – because that style of music doesn’t use much note bending.

Lighter gauges are generally better for:

  • Beginner playing – because it’s easier if you haven’t yet developed hand strength and calluses.
  • Blues/Soloing – because it’s easier to bend notes.
  • Vintage guitars – because they put less stress on the neck.
  • Small-body guitars – because they just sound better.
  • Fingerpicking – because they’re more responsive to delicate finger-work.

Many manufacturers also offer a “hybrid gauge” known as light-medium strings, which use lighter gauges on G,B,E and heavier gauges on E,A,D.  These are intended for players who use a good mix of picking and strumming.

Up next…

2. Metals

guitar string metals

With electric strings, the 3 most common metals used are:

  • Nickel-Plated Steel – which has a good combination of warmth and brightness, a strong picking attack, and is the most popular option.
  • Pure Nickel – which is warmer than nickel-plated steel, and has a classic old-school vintage sound.
  • Stainless Steel – which is most resistant to corrosion, least prone to finger squeaks, and has a good combination of both brightness and sustain.

Other less-common metals for electric strings include titanium, cobalt, chrome and copper.

With acoustic strings, the 3 most popular options are:

  • 80/20 Bronze (aka Bronze, Brass) – which is 80% copper/20% zinc, and is the most popular option.  It has a bright, clean sound, but can lose some of its brilliance after only a few hours of play, as the metal corrodes quickly.
  • Phosphor Bronze – which is similar to 80/20 bronze, but with phosphor added to prevent oxidation and increase the life of the strings.  The trade-off is that they’re a little less-bright in comparison.
  • Silk and Steel (aka “compound strings”) – which have greater flexibility and lower string tension, resulting in gentler, mellower sound.  They are commonly referred to as a hybrid between traditional metal strings, and the nylon strings of a classical guitar.

With classical strings, the most common materials used are:

  • Gut (aka “catgut”) – which is derived from the intestines of sheep and other farm animals (NOT cats).  Although much less common today, before 1940, all strings were made from gut.
  • Nylon – which is the material that eventually replaced gut because it was cheaper, and easier to mass manufacture.  Common types of nylon include: rectified nylon, black nylon, and composite.  Although clear nylon is the most popular by far because of its brightness and clarity.
  • Silver-Plated Copper  (aka “silver strings”) – which is wrapped around the nylon core of the bass strings, and is the most popular metal for this purpose because its warm rich tone.
  • 80/20 Bronze (aka “gold strings”) – which is preferred over silver-plated copper by some players because of its brightness and projection.

Up next…

3. String Core

hexcore roundcore

Beneath the outer winding of the bass strings (E6A5D4 and sometimesG3)…

There is a solid core wire that comes in 1 of 2 varieties:

  1. Round Core
  2. Hex Core

Check out the diagram above to see how they look from a cross-section view. (This part refers only to electric and acoustic strings…not classical).

Originally all guitar strings had round cores, until D’Addario pioneered the first hex cores.

After that, it didn’t take long for hex cores to become the industry standard with almost all major manufacturers.

The main reason being:

The sharp edges of the hexagonal cores were good at “gripping” the outer wire, thus preventing slippage, and making machine-winding more accurate and consistent.

This is why today, it’s much more common to see round core strings assembled by hand.

Now here’s how these two core types compare in terms of performance:

hex core round core comparison

NOTE: One key detail to remember with round core strings is…you must tune them up to pitch before trimming them.  Otherwise, the outer wrapping will slip and unravel.

Got it?  Good.  Moving on…

4. Winding Method

guitar string winding methods

The wire that wraps around the solid core comes in 1 of 3 varieties:

  • Roundwound – which uses a roundwire to create a textured-surface string (shown in the diagram).
  • Flatwound – which uses a flat wire to create smooth-surface string.
  • Halfround – which is a hybrid of the previous two.  Using techniques such as mechanical grinding (groundwound) or roller compression (rollerwound), the round wire is partially flattened, but not completely.

Of the 3, roundwounds are  the most popular by far.  They’re  also the cheapest, with the widest selection to choose from.

Flatwounds are 2nd most popular, but are usually more expensive.

Halfrounds are the least popular, and you can pretty much disregard them when shopping for strings.

Now here’s how roundwounds and flatwounds compare in terms of performance:

roundwound vs flatwound sound

NOTE: While not in the scope of this article, you might care to know that with bass guitars, flatwound strings are more popular.

Up next…

5. String Coating

elixir stringsBack in 1997, the Elixir company revolutionized the guitar string industry…

By introducing the entirely new concept of “coated strings“.

By covering their strings in a micro-thin polymer coating…

They created a barrier that protected the metal from damaging substances such as oil, sweat, dirt, and skin.

And the result was…

  1. Their strings lasted several times longer than uncoated strings.
  2. They had a smoother feel, with less squeaking.  

But rather than try to explain it in words, check out the cool visuals in this Elixir promo video:

Now despite their popularity, Elixir strings aren’t loved by everyone

According to their critics:

  1. There is a slight loss of brightness and sustain as a result of the coating.
  2. The supposed benefits do not justify the added cost.

And both of these are reasonably valid points.

Yet they’re still popular enough that other brands have since developed their own copycat versions.

And while those copycats might be just as good, it’s still commonly accepted that Elixir is the go-to brand for coated strings.

Currently they offer two varieties of coating:

  • NANOweb – a light coating with a feel and sound closer to uncoated strings.
  • POLYweb – a heavier coating with a smoother feel and longer lifespan.

For acoustic guitars, here are your options:

And for electric guitars:

NOTE: As you can see, Elixir doesn’t have very many options to choose from.  Personally I love this, because it makes the buying process much simpler.

But as you’ll see, it gets a little tough with the other brands I’m about to show you.

So up next…

The Other 6 Brands to Know

guitar string brands

Now that you’ve been properly introduced to Elixir strings…

We might as well cover the other BIG companies.

Among the dozens of brands on the market…

There are a select few in particular that have dominated the competition, and together make up probably over 90% of the market.

They are:

  1. D’Addario
  2. Ernie Ball
  3. Martin
  4. DR
  5. GHS
  6. Fender

Apologies if I left out your favorite brand here.  Because as folks will argue, there are many other “lesser-known” brands out there that are just as good, if not better.

Having said that…

If you don’t already have one of those brands in mind…why not limit your options to those who’ve already established themselves as industry leaders?

So anyways, here’s a closer look each one, in no particular order…

1. D’Addario

Daddario stringsThe oldest string-makers on the list, BY FAR…

The D’Addario family has been in the string-making business since way back in the 1600’s…

Just starting out in a tiny farming town in Italy known as Salle.

Over the years they expanded, eventually moving to New York, and abandoning gut strings in favor of synthetic.

And in 1956, they became one of the earliest companies to start producing modern day electric guitar strings.

Today, D’Addario is arguably the most influential string manufacturer in the world, as they literally have strings for just about any instrument you can think of.

For guitar, here are their top options:



Up next…

2. Ernie Ball

Ernie ball stringsWhen a man by the name of Ernie Ball was first introduced to Leo Fender back in 1953…

He saw for himself the huge potential that the electric guitar had to offer.

And from that day forward he dedicated his life and business to helping it become the most popular instrument in the world.

His most notable contribution is undoubtedly his line of Super Slinky electric guitar strings.

Originally developed back in 1962, they are still today perhaps the most instantly recognizable brand on the shelf of any guitar shop.

Their acoustic strings aren’t nearly as popular, but here are the top options for both:



Also check out their popular m-steel line made of cobalt alloy for higher output:

Up next…

3. Martin

Martin stringsFew folks can argue that the Martin&Co Guitar Company makes anything other than the best acoustic guitars in the world.

And for the past 175 years, that’s pretty much all they’ve done.

Therefore it’s no surprise to learn that they make some pretty awesome acoustic guitar strings as well.

Their electric strings aren’t nearly as popular, and wouldn’t be my first choice…

But here are the top options for both:



  • Nickel plated:

Up next…

4. DR

DR strings

At a time when machine-wound strings dominate the industry…

DR sets themselves apparent by being one of the few companies that still winds the bulk of their strings by hand.

As they firmly believe…the sound and feel of a hand-wound string is worth the extra effort.

While DR may not be quite as popular as most of the other brands on this list…

What they ARE known for…is their bass strings.  Because as they claim, the differences with handwinding become much more apparent as strings get larger.

They also seem to be the industry leaders in this new “neon string” fad.

But anyways, here are their top options in each category:



Neon Electric:

Up next…

5. GHS

GHS stringsNamed after the company’s original founders (Gould, Holcomb, and Solko)…

The GHS Company has been making strings for all kinds of instruments since back in 1964, out of Battle Creek, Michigan.

Calling themselves “the strings experts” might seem like a bold claim…

But unlike some of the other big brands…

With GHS, it’s pretty much all they do.  And they’ve been around for a long time so they’re probably pretty good at it by now.

Before we get to the recommendations, I’d like to show you an awesome video they did, showing you exactly how guitar strings are actually made in their factory.

Check it out:


Pretty cool huh?  Anyways, here are their strings:



6. Fender

fender stringsAs the only true “household” name on the list..

And the name probably most synonymous with the electric guitar…

Fender has been perhaps the biggest driving force in the industry since they started way back in 1946.

Today, they make not only guitars, but a ton of other instruments and music related products as well.

And yes, their strings are just as good as everything else they make.

Here are their most top models:



Up next…

When to Change Your Strings

dirty vs fresh stringsIf you know a lot of guitar players…

I bet you can think of at least one who changes strings every other week…

Possibly by choice, but probably because he breaks them that often.

On the other hand, I bet you can also think of another guy who has never changed his strings once since he bought the guitar!

So when exactly is the right time to change your strings?

If you play…

  • heavy/often
  • with lighter string gauges
  • in multiple open tunings
  • with lots of bends
  • in a humid tropical climate

…your strings probably break often, in which case, it’s obvious when to replace them.


If they don’t break on their own, it’s up to you to decide when they need changing.

And it’s tough, because the look, feel, and sound of your strings deteriorate so gradually that you often won’t even notice how bad they are unless you have something to compare it to.

When you finally do restring them, it suddenly becomes crystal clear how bad your old strings truly were.

As such, everyone has their own rule of thumb as to when it’s time to change up their strings:

  • Some do it by time – such as once every month or two.  The problem is…strings get worn out quicker with frequent play.
  • Others do it by playing hours – but that method isn’t great either.  Because strings get worn out over time even if you don’t play them.  A guitar sitting untouched for 2 years will surely need a new set of strings once you start playing again.

So here’s what I do:

I keep a spare set of strings close-by, and occasionally compare them to the ones on my guitar.

Once I start to see a noticeable difference in the color and texture, I change them up.

Up next…

Extending the Life of Your Strings

To maximize the life of your strings, you’ll often hear tips such as:

  • wash your hands before playing
  • wipe down your strings after playing

While tips such as these may be true…

Personally, I know I’ll never do that stuff on a regular basis.  And I bet most other people won’t as well.

The ONE tip though, that makes a HUGE difference in the life of your strings is…

You need to make sure you wind them properly.

It may be a hassle to create those perfectly spiraled coils on your tuning pegs.  And some people might even think it looks cool to do a sloppy job…

But that sloppy job is the reason strings break prematurely.  And it’s the reason so many people leave bad online reviews about a perfectly good set of strings.

Getting good at stringing guitars takes some practice, so if you want to get better, here’s a good video by Fender that explains how it’s done:

Some Final Tips

  1. Don’t skimp on strings – The difference between your ideal string and something lesser will only be a few dollars, but it will make a big difference in your sound.
  2. Buy them in bulk – Strings are like toilet paper…you’ll always need more eventually, and they never go bad.  So if you want to save money…do it by purchasing them in bulk.
  3. Don’t choose nylon or light-gauge strings because you have weak fingers – while this advice does help initially, it doesn’t help in the long run.  You need to build up those calluses eventually so you might as well do it now.
  4. Don’t become obsessed with strings – try a few different ones out, pick something you like, and move on with your life.  They are just strings, after all.
  5. If you’re a beginner, pick what’s popular – it makes no sense to try comparing strings if you aren’t even comfortable holding a guitar yet.  So play for a few years, develop some reference experience, and THEN start comparing strings to find the ones you like