How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings – Types & Options GUIDE

Published Categorized as Acoustic Guitar String Selection, Buying Guides

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How To Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings
By Badagnani (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Choosing the right strings is going to have a significant effect on the sound you produce (this is especially the case with acoustic and classical guitars) and will affect playability.

Table of Contents

The question of how to choose acoustic guitar strings comes down to 3 main considerations:

  • String Material
  • Gauge of String
  • Construction Techniques

Which material, gauge, and construction technique you go with will depend on a number of things. This page will recommend the best gauges and material depending on the following:

  • Type of Guitar;
  • Desired sound;
  • Style of playing;
  • Playability; and
  • The ability of the guitarist

What is a String Gauge (and How Do You Choose the Best One for You)?

Acoustic guitar strings come in a variety of gauges usually designated from light to heavy as per the table below.





Extra-LightCustom LightLightLight-MediumMediumMedium-Light *Heavy-
Medium **
Heavy
E.010.011.012.012.013.013.016.014
B.014.015.016.016.017.017.018.018
G.023.022.024.024.026.025.028.027
D.030.032.032.032.035.032.035.039
A.039.042.042.042.045.042.045.049
E.047.052.053.053.056.053.056.059
  • can go by other names but essentially these sets have medium gauge for the treble strings and light gauge for the bass strings.

** a.k.a. resonator (Elixir), resophonic (D’Addario) (see below)

  • “extra light” – .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
  • “custom light” – .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
  • “light” – .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
  • “medium” – .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
  • “heavy” – .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

You can also get ‘baritone’ gauge strings which are like a super heavy gauge – which might be .016, .022, .029, .048, .060, .070. These would be good for anyone who tunes down their guitar. The heavier gauge allows the strings to keep tone even when much looser than normal.

A warning is that you should make sure you have a guitar that can handle the kind of tension that these would exert. The heavier the gauge, the more tension that is exerted on the guitar.

As well as being referred to by their gauge in terms of light, medium, etc gauges are often referred to by the number of the high E string. For example, a set of light gauge strings that have a .012 gauge high E string might be referred to as ’12’s’.

How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings for Beginners: By Material

Steel strings tend to have steel at the core but the bass strings have an extra material wound around them. This winding material comes in a few different materials.

The most common are Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, and Silk and steel. The most common of those three are Bronze and Phosphor bronze.

However, as a beginner, you should start with silk and steel. Why? Simple, they are easier on your fingers.

All new guitarists will get finger soreness until they build up enough calluses. This can reduce the amount of time you play and put you off playing. Whilst any string you get is going to cause some sort of soreness (yes even nylon strings) silk and steel strings will minimize that soreness compared to the bronze varieties.

Silk and steel strings have steel as their core but are wrapped in either nylon, silk, or copper that is silver plated and has silk running through it. This makes for a smooth playing experience and is easier on your fingers.

Material Types

The most common steel string materials are Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, Silver Plated Copper/Steel & Silk. Each one is outlined below:

Bronze

Bronze strings produce a bright tone but can degenerate quickly meaning you have to replace them more often and they will lose their tone quicker. This is because they are prone to oxidization.

These often start out very bright (too bright for a lot of people) but lose that brightness within a few hours of playing.

Often bronze strings are composed of 80% Copper and 20% Zinc known as 80/20 Bronze and sometimes known as brass – just to confuse things.

Related: How Often Should I Change My Strings

Phosphor Bronze

Phosphor Bronze strings are bronze strings that have phosphor added to them. This added phosphor prolongs the life of the strings and the life of the tone. They have a warmer (less bright sound) than bronze strings – but they are still quite bright/crisp sounding.

Silk & Steel

These are still steel strings and have a steel core but the bass strings are wound in silk, nylon or copper that has silk through it or is silver plated. This makes them easier on the fingers and produces a softer, warmer more subtle tone.

Coated or Uncoated?

You can also get strings that are coated or uncoated. Coated strings tend to be pricier but are more durable and keep their tone for longer. This is because the coating protects the strings from dirt and sweat in the fingers.

You pay more but they last longer so it evens out and you’ll get a better sound for longer. Some people prefer the sound of uncoated strings though.

What Gauge Acoustic Guitar Strings Should You Buy?

There are a number of factors to consider here.

Desired Tone

The higher the gauge the ‘meatier’ and louder the sound will be. So if that’s the sound you are after then the heavier you go the better. However, you will also need to take into account your guitar type and playability matters.

It’s also a good idea to experiment with some of the light-medium, medium-light, and heavy-medium gauges to see if they suit.

Style of Play

Fingerpicking is, for example, easier with thin strings, so if you are playing delicately fingerpicked folk tunes, consider using thin strings.

If you tend to primarily strum the guitar, thick strings will more often than not be the better choice for reasons pertaining to volume and rigidity.

If you play both styles, a good choice may be the “Light” set, which contains gauges .012-.054, as it works well for both styles. This tends to be the most commonly used string gauge. However, keep in mind that this varies from person to person, and may not be the right choice for you.

A lot of finger pickers also love smaller body guitars with lighter strings while slide and dobro players go for the heavy strings.

Acoustic blues players, on the other hand, love to bend, so they tend to go light or extra-light gauge. Classical and flamenco players, conversely, choose different string tensions and wrap materials for a specific tone and feel. These are rough guidelines, and the final sound relies on the materials used in the string, as well as the gauge and tension.

Type of Guitar

As well as guitar string sizes, you would do best to consider the size of the body of your guitar in relation to how many strings it has. Most acoustic guitars will come standard with 12-gauge strings and while 12s are a great choice, you always have the option to go with a heavier string like 13s or a lighter string such as 11s.

When it comes to 13s, you can expect a heavier string that is typically found on an archtop, dreadnought, or a jumbo acoustic. These types of guitars are usually larger and that means they are able to support the extra tension that the 13 gauge string causes.

This extra tension helps drive the top to provide a larger body of tone. Typically, these strings are used by bluegrass players who are heavy flat pickers. If you can handle the extra resistance from the strings, then you can expect a bigger and louder sound from your guitar. 13s could be used on any style of guitar, but the extra effort might not always be worth the tonal benefits.

Going the other way by selecting 11s will also provide substantial differences with your guitar as 11s are going to be much easier to play than 12s or 13s, though it does come with a sacrifice.

The tone of the guitar will suffer because there is not enough tension from the strings to get that big, full sound. That is a choice you will have to make because maybe the extra hour of playing you receive outweighs the amount of tonal diminish.

One thing to keep in mind while changing the gauge of strings on your guitar is the setup. When going from a lighter to a heavier gauge, it is important to make sure the nut has enough room to support the extra girth from the string.

When going from a heavier to lighter gauge, you may experience some buzzing from the guitar. It may be a good idea to take your guitar to a luthier or another kind of guitar technician for a setup after changing the strings.

Playability

Lighter gauges are easier to play. If you are just starting out playing guitar, start on a lighter gauge – it may or may not produce the sound you want but it will be easier on your fingers to begin with and you can always move up to a heavier gauge as you progress (assuming your guitar can take the higher gauge).

How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings for Beginners: By Construction Method

There are a few different methods manufacturers use for winding guitar strings – roundwound (rounds), flatwound (flats) and semi-flatwound (semi-flats, a.k.a. flat-tops or halfwounds).

Roundwound strings

Roundwound strings

Flatwound strings

Flatwound strings

String Construction for Beginners

Rounds are the most common type but aren’t necessarily the best for beginners.

Flats have a flatter surface which makes them easier on the fingers so better suited to beginners.

Flats also reduce the string noise that is created when your fingers slide across the strings. This can make it easier for the beginner to create a cleaner sound.

Flats are harder to bend but this shouldn’t be something that a beginner is doing yet so this isn’t a problem.

The biggest problem with flats is that they can sound a bit dead on most acoustic guitars. That’s where semi-flats come in. They have the same or at least similar benefits as flats but sound brighter.

It’s also important to note that you probably won’t find any flats or semi-flats that are also silk and steel (see materials above) – not sure if anyone even makes them.

This isn’t a problem though. Choose either silk & steel or semi-flats. You don’t need both.

One more thing about semi-flats is that they tend to be more expensive than rounds. However, they are also more durable so that cost should even out, at least somewhat, in the long run.

How to Change Your Strings

If you are not sure how to put on new strings, need a refresher, or are looking to fine-tune your method check out How to Re-String a Guitar.

Final Tones

Thanks for reading and hopefully this article has helped you narrow down your range of different strings so you can find a starting point to experiment with.

If you feel like I’ve missed anything out here or if you have anything to add it’d be awesome to hear what you think. Just leave a comment in the comments section below. I would like to make this resource as thorough as possible.

Any other comments or questions, as always, are also very welcome.

FAQs How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings

How do I know what acoustic strings to buy?

This will ultimately depend on your own stylistic preferences, as well as your relative experience on the instrument, and how comfortable you are on it too. Certain types of string lend themselves to certain types of music and levels of player, so it is best to do as much research as possible before purchasing anything.

What acoustic guitar strings are right for me?

No one can tell you which guitar strings are right for you. Rather, you can make some educated guesses based on your stylistic preferences and the level you are at as a guitarist. If you are only just starting out, you won’t, for example, want to use a heavy gauge of string unless you absolutely need it for the sake of volume.

What gauge strings should I use on my acoustic guitar?

If you are unsure, you can scarcely go wrong with just striking a middle ground which is, bizarrely enough, just called a light gauge. This is a great place to start as a beginner to see whether or not you desire something lighter or heavier based on your stylistic preferences and ability to play.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

7 comments

  1. This is an extremely informative page. Not to mention, I love the site! Sleek and smooth! I play some classical guitar myself and found this information extremely valuable. Thanks for the great content. Favorited your site! Looking forward to seeing whats next!

  2. Hey Nate
    I’m going to have to steel some info here.
    Mind if I just copy/paste your site to mine.
    You out did my info Nate.

    Ya got me nerves, LOL!!

    Awesome site!!

    What do you think of the Chord Buddy??

    Larry

    1. Hey Larry – thanks for visiting and the kind words.

      I don’t know a whole lot about the chord buddy but my initial impressions are that it’s a bit gimmicky and I can’t really see the value in it. I’m not sure how it can speed up the learning process.

      But I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

  3. what is the best acoustic string if i use the dava picks( they’re
    steel tip) They sell at GCenter and Musicians friend..
    Seems to shred the phosphor right off and with
    an hour the D&G are fried.. which is a bummer because
    I like that punch it brings out on the high mid/low treble..
    Any string that would be a good choice?

    1. Hi Tim

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your question.

      I have to admit I haven’t had any experience with steel tip picks. But I would imagine that they would wear strings down quicker (just a guess) and produce a brighter sound.

      So you probably want to go for something durable – so maybe something like phosphor bronze – though you say they get shredded pretty quickly. You could even consider semi-flats though the sound might be too dull for what you are after but worth a try if you haven’t tried them before.

      Sound-wise it really depends on the sound you are after.

      Hope this helps a little but like I say I don’t really have any experience with steel tip picks.

  4. Thank you very much. This is a very informative site. I always thought I knew more but now realized that I know only 10% of anything acoustic…LOL 🙂

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