Types of Acoustic Guitar Strings

Published Categorized as Tuning Restringing & Maintenance

Have you ever wondered just how many different types of acoustic guitar strings there are? How are they categorized and organized? And which is the best acoustic guitar string for you?

Let’s find out, as we explore as many different types of acoustic strings as we can within the limited confines of this article.

What is a String Gauge?

This is simply the relative thickness of a string. As a general rule, the thicker a string is the warmer its response will be and the more volume it will produce, though thicker strings are also stiffer.

This makes it harder to fret the string and makes it more difficult to execute heavy string bends. Thinner strings are generally brighter and easier to play. But on some instruments, they can sound thin and tinny.

You can tell whether or not strings are of a thin or thick gauge based on the numbers on the package. The smallest number, which is the gauge of the thinnest string, will usually be .9 or lower on thin gauge strings, a number that refers to 1/1000th of an inch.

Which is Better, Light or Heavy?

The debate between light and heavy gauge strings is one that has been around for many years, with no clear consensus emerging, especially since the answer will entirely depend on your own personal preferences.

Lighter strings are great for string bending, easy playability, and bright tone. Metal shredders and beginner players should rejoice. Light gauge strings, however, can be more prone to breakage, and they may not hold up as well under heavy usage.

Heavy gauge strings, then, are favored by electric guitarists and those who play in heavier styles. They are thicker so if you want more volume, less string breakage, a big bass tone, and more sustain, heavier strings will provide all of that.

They do, however, require more pressure to press down so are more challenging to play, and may cause hand cramps or pain for those who are not used to them, so use them at your own risk.

Four General Types of String Gauge

Electric guitars and acoustic guitars vary in tone when you alter the gauge of their strings. Thicker strings tend to be better for strumming, while thinner strings work well for fingerpicking. Three-string gauges are especially popular:

1. Extra-light: For acoustic guitar strings, the term “extra-light” typically refers to .010 to .047 gauge strings (referring to the diameter in inches on the highest and lowest strings). The latter are also called “custom-light” strings. They’re known for their easy playability but also their tendency to break.

2. Light: “Light strings” means .012 to .053 gauge for acoustic guitars. A “light” set of strings tends to be more durable than an “extra light” string set while maintaining durability and a pleasing tone.

3. Medium: Medium-gauge strings start at .013 on an acoustic guitar. They’re popular in blues and rock, and they provide a substantial tone while still allowing for some degree of string bending.

4. Heavy: Heavy-gauge strings start at .014 on an acoustic guitar. They’re popular in jazz music, which tends to emphasize a bass-forward guitar tone and minimal string bending. Some rock and blues players use heavy-gauge strings, but then detune their guitars by a half-step or a whole-step to create a heavy tone with easy-to-bend strings. In acoustic guitar music, heavier strings produce more sustain and overtones, but they require more finger strength from the player.

What are Acoustic Guitar Strings Made From?

One of the single things that most distinguishes the different types of acoustic guitar strings is the material from which they are made – the differing materials have varying acoustical qualities that will affect the overall tone of the instrument.

Historically, strings were actually made from the guts of animals, though this is thankfully almost entirely not the case anymore.

There are now two main types of string: metal and nylon. Nylon strings are pretty straightforward but metal strings branch into many different types, bringing the total number of differing types of guitar strings to about five (Steel, Nickel, Brass, Bronze, and Nylon).

While steel and nickel strings are generally used on electric instruments, brass or bronze strings are commonly used for acoustics. These steel string types are further divided into subcategories, based on the alloys used and their inevitable assembly.

Steel & Nickel

These are the most common types of electric guitar strings. The vast majority of electric guitar strings are steel wires with the three thickest strings being plated in nickel.

Pure nickel and pure steel strings have, however, become more popular in recent years – these are pure in the sense that the thickest strings aren’t plated with a different metal.

Steel strings are generally brighter and livelier than their nickel counterparts, while also exhibiting more high-end response, allowing them to cut through a mix better. Hence, why steel strings are the go-to type for modern rock, pop, et al.

Nickel strings, on the other hand, have a richer tone with more body, a warmth that is especially pleasing when used to play older genres of music featuring blues licks.

In this way, they are a great fit for rhythm work because the warmth inherent to these strings helps to increase the overall body and richness of an instrument in a mix.

Nickel-plated steel is the middle ground between these two extremes. When plated with nickel, strings have a lot of body in their low-end response while maintaining that cutting lead tone on the treble strings – the best of both worlds, so to speak!

Brass & Bronze

There are, then, two main types of acoustic guitar strings: brass-plated and bronze-plated. The actual wires are still made from steel, hence why they are called “steel string acoustic guitars.” What really sets brass and bronze apart, though, is their voicing and response.

Brass guitar strings are generally brighter than bronze strings. Though many brass strings go by the moniker of “80/20” bronze, these strings are actually one and the same. Brass, or 80/20 bronze as it’s often known, is made from 80% copper and 20% zinc. Of the two acoustic guitar string types, Brass produces a bright and cutting voice.

D'Addario Guitar Strings - Acoustic Guitar Strings - 80/20 Bronze - For 6 String Guitar - Deep, Bright, Projecting Tone - EJ11 - Light, 12-53

But this bright voice sometimes isn’t a good fit on guitars, especially those that already have a prominent high-end response. In such instances, it can make an instrument sound thin and tinny.

The best results involve using brass strings on a full-sounding acoustic guitar, including OM guitars, dreadnoughts, jumbos, and other big-body variations.

Phosphor bronze guitar strings have a warmer sound, the guitar string material bearing a smooth (if somewhat understated) high-end response. This makes them a great fit for genres that benefit from a mellower tone, like a lot of folk or finger-style work, while also pairing well with small-body guitars. Many musicians who play more relaxed genres prefer these strings on large-body guitars as well.

D'Addario Guitar Strings - Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings - EJ16 - Rich, Full Tonal Spectrum - For 6 String Guitars - 12-53 Light

Nylon Strings

Nylon guitar strings are generally made of composite materials. Yes, gone are the good old days of using animal gut – they now often combine nylon with silver-plated copper or tungsten.

Thus, they feel soft and are easier on the fingers and they have a warm tone that has become the standard for classical and flamenco guitar music.

During World War II, there were restrictions on the materials used for traditional gut strings which led to the development of nylon guitar strings. Andres Segovia played a key role in their creation and he influenced a major shift among guitar players and manufacturers toward this new variety of string.

Today, the nylon guitar string has all but replaced gut as the apt material. Nylon strings are now the standard string set for classical and flamenco guitar playing. They have also made their way into various modern guitar builds. This made them versatile enough to fit into genres such as Pop, Latin, RnB, and others.

D'Addario Pro-Arte Nylon Classical Guitar Strings, Normal Tension (EJ45)

Guitar String Construction

There are, though, other ways by which guitar strings are categorized beyond the mere bounds of the materials by which they are constructed. Indeed, the way in which they are constructed is of equal importance in this matter.

String Core

A string’s core is the shape of the wire, of which there are two main types:

Hex core strings are brighter and louder featuring a more modern tone – i.e. post-1980s rock or metal – hence why they are considered by many as the best guitar strings for metal. These strings also feel a bit stiffer than round core strings, though the difference isn’t overly noticeable.

DR Strings Electric Guitar Strings, Hi-Beam, Hex Core 9-42

Round core strings, on the other hand, have a more mellow tone which makes them a great fit for blues and classic rock. They also have more sustain than hex core strings, though the difference isn’t huge unless you are going to be a connoisseur about it.

DR Strings Tite Fit Electric Round Core 10-46

String Winding

There are three types of windings used on modern guitar strings: roundwound, flatwound, and half-round.

If you play standard guitar strings like the D’Addario EXL110, odds are you’re using round wounds. These strings have a textured surface and a bright tone.

D'addario XL nickel wound medium gauge EXL 115

Flatwound strings have, as the name suggests, a flat surface. These strings are very popular among jazz guitarists because they have a dark and understated tone, though they can be more difficult to play. These strings are generally not as good a fit for rock or blues because of their stiffness and dark tone, making them harder to cut through the mix and pull off the intricate runs and bends that define blues, rock, and metal.

D'Addario Guitar Strings - XL Chromes Electric Guitar Strings - Flat Wound - Polished for Ultra-Smooth Feel and Warm, Mellow Tone - ECG24 - Jazz Light, 11-50, 1-Pack

Half-Round strings are the middle ground between flat and round wounds, though they still aren’t a good fit for modern genres and are still harder to play than round wounds. While they are brighter than flatwounds, they’re still widely considered to be too dark for modern genres, though you should really make a decision based on your own tastes.

D'Addario Guitar Strings - XL Half Rounds Electric Guitar Strings - Semi-Flat Wound - Bright Tone, Smooth Feel, Reduced Finger Noise - EHR370 - Medium, 11-49

With these things in mind, it should be noted that many bassists actually use flat or half-round strings in modern genres which works because bass guitars don’t need to cut through a mix too much. The additional warmth produced by flat or half-rounds results in a fuller bass sound that’s great for recordings and live performances, though many still prefer a round-wound bass string when it’s at home.

D'Addario D'Addario ECB80 Bass Guitar Strings - Chromes -Super Light- Reg Scale - 1 Set

String Coating

To refer to “coated strings” is to refer to a standard guitar string that is coated with a plastic polymer, something that helps such a string to last significantly longer than an uncoated string.

The general downside to coating such as this is that it tends to cut the high-end response somewhat, and while coated strings do last longer than non-coated strings, they’re also more expensive.

Elixir Strings - Acoustic Phosphor Bronze with NANOWEB Coating - Elixir Acoustic Guitar Strings - Light (.012-.053)

Coated strings can last about twice as long as non-coated alternatives. Since they’re also about twice as expensive, I don’t save any money using coated strings. However, depending on how acidic your sweat is and how much you enjoy changing your strings, your experience with this technology may vary.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling ready and able to get out there and pick the right acoustic guitar strings for you based on your own tastes and preferences.

FAQs Types of Acoustic Guitar Strings

Are there different types of acoustic guitar strings?

Indeed there are and they are assembled by a number of different categories. The most common way to denote different types of acoustic guitar strings is by the thickness of the string (string gauge), though they are also bifurcated in the way that they are assembled as well as the materials from which they are constructed.

Which type of strings are best for acoustic guitar?

This will entirely depend on your own personal preferences of feeling and musical style – what’s good for some guitarists will undoubtedly put another in A&E for being too hard on the fingers, and vice versa.

Does it matter what acoustic guitar strings you use?

If you are just looking for a guitar to strum away on without much care, then probably not, though if you are looking to sculpt your tone a little more, then the strings that you use to do this will no doubt be incredibly important.

What is the difference between phosphor bronze and steel guitar strings?

The longevity of the strings and the individual quality of the sound depends on the type of metal and/or material used. Bronze: Bright, clear tone with a relatively short life. Phosphor bronze: Longer life than regular bronze strings with a slightly darker, warmer tone. Silk and steel: Mellow tone with a soft feel.

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 :-)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *