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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.
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
- Ability of the guitarist
Note that this article is only concerned with steel string acoustic guitars. For information on how to choose classical (nylon) guitar strings visit the link below. There are a few different considerations for nylon strings so I have put this on a separate page.
A Note about Steel & Nylon Strings
If you are looking for nylon classical guitar strings then check the link above – but I thought it important to put a quick note in here to say that if you are thinking of putting steel strings on your classical guitar then you might want to rethink that strategy!
So, nylon vs steel string guitar. Let’s explain it like this: steel strings produce a lot more tension than nylon strings. This extra tension will cause damage to the neck of a classical guitar which is designed to only hold the tension of nylon strings.
This extra tension could also cause damage to the bridge.
Acoustic Steel String Materials
Steel strings can be made from a few different materials (with a steel core and wound in other materials) and come in different gauges (see below) and with different construction methods (see below).
The different materials used will offer up different types of sound, playability and durability. This is especially the case for the wound strings.
The choice you go with will depend upon the sound you are after, your personal preference, the style of your guitar and your ability level.
The most common 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 stings 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 Material Should You go With?
Desired Tone: For a brighter tone bronze is the way to go. Phosphor bronze is great if you still want a bright tone but are happy with it being not quite as bright to begin with but will keep its brightness for longer.
For a softer more mellow tone silk and steel could be an option if it suits your playing style and guitar.
Style of Play: The most common strings are 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. These are well suited to rock,pop, country & blues. But of course there is no reason why you can’t experiment with other types of strings for these styles. For strumming again the bronze and phosphor bronze are the most used.
If you play a good deal of fingerstyle then you might want to give some silk and steel strings a try.
Often folk players go with silk and steel and some types of jazz like gypsy jazz.
Type of Guitar: Silk & steel are often suited to smaller bodied flat top acoustics. They don’t have the oomph to power a larger soundboard or an archtop guitar.
That’s not to say that you can’t experiment but in general larger body shapes (such as dreadnoughts & jumbos) and archtops would be better suited to bronze or phosphor bronze.
Check out the following article to learn more about the different guitar shapes.
Playability: Silk and steel are going to be easier on your fingers. So if you are a beginner it might be a good way to start out.
Check out the page below for a more complete discussion about the best acoustic strings for beginners.
Acoustic guitar strings come in a variety of gauges usually designated from light to heavy as per the table below.
|Extra-Light||Custom Light||Light||Light-Medium||Medium||Medium-Light *||Heavy-Medium **||Heavy|
* can go by other names but essentially these sets have medium gauge for the treble strings and light gauge for the base strings.
** a.k.a. resonator (Elixir), resophonic (D’Addario)
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 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‘.
What Gauge Should you go With?
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, heavy-medium gauges to see if they suit.
Style of Play: If you are looking to play rock, blues, country, or anything with a lot of strumming and/or flat picking then heavier gauges are typically better but not always (and depends on playability and types of guitar).
Lighter gauges are often better for folk – particularly if you are on a non-dreadnought guitar. Lighter gauges are best if you do a lot of fingerpicking.
If you do a mixture of strumming and finger-picking then you could also consider something like a light medium gauge which has a medium gauge on the bass strings (Low E, A & D) and a light gauge on the treble strings (G, B & high E) – see table above.
Type of Guitar: As a rule medium gauge is the standard for dreadnought guitars and light gauge is the standard for grand auditorium shaped guitars.
To extend that rule further, the smaller the guitar the lighter the gauge and the bigger the guitar the heavier the gauge. The tension of heavier gauges may put too much tension on smaller guitars and could cause neck and bridge damage – and the lighter tension from lighter gauges on bigger guitars may struggle to drive the larger soundboard with enough force (so it may sound tinny and weak).
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 strings are wound can also have an effect on playability and tone. Steel strings all have a steel core and are wound in one of the materials mentioned above.
Those materials are typically wound in 1 of 3 main winding techniques.
This is by far the most common and easiest way to wind the strings and most strings will be made with this construction method.
The string material is simply tightly wrapped around the core.
The sound they produce is the sound that most people are used to out of their strings and is therefore familiar and a lot of people prefer this.
However there are some down sides. Notably:
- That a lot of finger noise when fingers run along the strings (though some people do like this extra noise)
- Roundwound strings have been said to cause more wear on fretboards and frets than other method. But whether or not you were to notice this is debatable.
There also upsides:
- The strings have a brighter sound (if that’s what you prefer)
- Strings are easier to bend than flatwound strings
Flatwound strings are made by using winding wire with a more square construction. This means the grooves in the winding wire are shallower. The easiest way to understand this is by looking at the images above and below.
See how the roundwound above has rounder coils with deeper grooves in between compared with the flatwound string (directly above).
The advantages of flatwound strings are:
- Significantly reduced finger noise (great for recording) when compared with roundwounds
- More comfortable on the fingers
- Less wear on frets/fretboard
- Last longer (as the grooves are shallower there is less room for dirt and sweat to get into)
But there are also downsides:
- Less Brightness and sustain than roundwounds
- More expensive due to the more expensive construction process
- More difficult to bend (so maybe not the best if bending is a large part of your repertoire)
Flatwounds are quite uncommon for flat top acoustic guitars and a lot of people find the sound very ‘dead’ on acoustics. Semi-flats (see below) are more common (though no where near as common as roundwounds).
Semi-flatwound (a.k.a. halfwound, groundwound, flat-tops):
Semi-flats are initially made in the same way as roundwounds – starting out with round wire – but then the surface of the strings is polished, ground or pressed until it is flat.
This results in the playing feel of flats and the reduction of string noise you get with flats but with a tone that is brighter than flats – but not as bright as roundwounds.
They cost more than roundwounds but less that flats.
What Construction Method Should you go With?
Desired Tone: For a brighter sound with more sustain, roundwound is the best choice – so long as you don’t mind the extra finger noise.
For a mellower sound with less sustain but eliminating the finger noise try semi-flats.
Flatwounds aren’t typically used on acoustic guitars as they can sound a bit dead. That is unless you have an archtop acoustic then they can work.
Style of Play: If you are doing a lot of bending then roundwound is better as they are easier to grip for bending.
For recording it’s a good idea to go with flatwound or a semi-flatwound set of strings unless you actually want the finger noise in your recordings.
If you are playing a lot then you should consider semi-flats if you are having issues with finger soreness. Also they tend to last longer so if you are playing a lot you won’t have to change strings as often.
Jazz – flatwounds are often used for playing Jazz though more on archtops and electrics. But if you are playing jazz on a flat top you could try semi-flats. A lot of people find flatwounds too dead sounding on a flat top but it’s something you can try.
More modern jazz is often played using roundwounds.
Rock – typically roundwounds but there is definitely no hard and fast rule and you should experiment with semi-flats to see if you like them.
Type of Guitar: This is only really a factor here if you are really concerned about fretboard/fret wear. In which case you should go with either flats or semi-flats.
Playability: For players just starting out semi-flats can be a better choice. They will be easier on your fingers. However they are also more expensive so you’ve got to weight that up too (though they will last longer so the cost should even out a bit).
For bending roundwounds are better, for sliding flats & semi-flats win out.
If you have a brighter sounding guitar, or a brighter sounding playing style, then more mellow/darker sounding strings might be good if you are looking to tone down that brightness. In that case you might want to experiment with silk & steel material or semi flats.
Similarly, if you are looking to brighten up your sound because of a dark sounding guitar or playing style, then brighter strings can help balance your sound. You might want to experiment with 80/20 bronze strings and/or roundwound (this would be the most common set up).
Everyone’s playing style is slightly different. The way you attack the strings on both the fretting hand and the strumming/flat-picking/fingerpicking hand will be unique to you.
And there will be a certain string gauge, string material and type of string construction that will be most suited to your playing style.
The best way to figure this out is through experimentation. Try different string gauges, materials and construction types until you find the best match. You should try to narrow it down first of course – you don’t want to try every single type of string!
The best way to experiment is to try to find one constant and then experiment with the other factors. You should also experiment with different brands to see which you prefer.
How to Change your Strings
If your not sure how to put on new strings, need a refreshers or are looking to fine tune your method check out the link below.
Thanks for reading
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, as are also very welcome.
Photo Credits from top
By Badagnani (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By GreyCat [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By GreyCat [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By GreyCat [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons