As guitar players, we all know the importance of a good set of strings…
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…
A guitar string’s tone comes from a mix of 5 factors:
So let’s discuss each one in more detail, starting with…
When comparing string gauges, you often hear labels such as:
There are no set-in-stone definitions for anyof these terms…
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.
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:
Lighter gauges are generally better for:
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.
With electric strings, the 3 most common metals used are:
Other less-common metals for electric strings include titanium, cobalt, chrome and copper.
With acoustic strings, the 3 most popular options are:
With classical strings, the most common materials used are:
Beneath the outer winding of the bass strings (E6, A5, D4 and sometimesG3)…
There is a solid core wire that comes in 1 of 2 varieties:
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:
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…
The wire that wraps around the solid core comes in 1 of 3 varieties:
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:
NOTE: While not in the scope of this article, you might care to know that with bass guitars, flatwound strings are more popular.
Back 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…
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:
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:
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…
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.
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…
The 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:
When 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:
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:
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:
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:
As 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:
If 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…
…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:
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.
To maximize the life of your strings, you’ll often hear tips such as:
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: