What are Guitar Strings?
Your fingers are the single most important aspect of playing the guitar. You might have an incredible amp, guitar or effects pedal setup. But if you don’t have the right guitar strings to suit you, you’ll never play (and consequently sound) at the best of your ability. The only thing between you and your guitar are the strings, so make them count.
Most electric guitars utilise six metal composite strings with varying thickness, referred to as gauge. There are hundreds of brands and variations on offer, all with unique specifications. Some are sweat resistant, others sound brighter, and some are made for drop tunings. As a result, you can’t simply buy any old set without a bit of research.
Part of your guitar string journey comes down to experience and experimentation, but we’re here to point you in the right direction.
What Is Guitar String Gauge?
Gauge determines how thick a guitar string is. You’ll notice that the thickest string on a guitar is used for the lowest notes and they gradually get thinner as you ascend. This is because thicker guitar strings naturally produce more prominent bass frequencies, while thinner strings are more comfortable at high frequencies.
String gauge is measured using a number system which refers to the diameter of the string by 1/1000th of an inch. The higher the number, the thicker it is. Companies sometimes refer to string packs by their thinnest string e.g 9s, 10s and 11s.
This indicates that a higher number pack’s strings will be thicker than a smaller number pack (with the exception of hybrid sets – we’ll get onto these). Each brand puts together packs with slightly varying string gauges per string. Two brands might have a ‘regular’ set, but a couple of strings might be different sizes.
Typically, a thin string gauge pack might consist of:
- .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
Thin strings are generally referred to as better for beginners because they don’t require much finger strength to fret, if requiring a little more accuracy. They’re easy to bend because they don’t hold as much tension across the fretboard as their thicker equivalents.
Thin strings are a good pick for pop music because of their bright tonality, as well as country and fingerstyle due to the easy picking relief.
A standard medium or ‘regular’ set might look like this:
- .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
This is a good balance for a number of musical styles and genres, from jazz and blues to rock and metal, and plenty more. They provide enough thickness to dig in and get a chunky rhythm sound as well as offering a nice tonal balance. They have the best of both worlds; they hold good tension on the neck for tuning stability and are flexible to bend smoothly.
Heavy packs can look a bit more drastic:
- .011 .015 .022 .030 .042 .054
Blues and metal players will naturally gravitate towards heavier gauges. Thick strings can be tuned lower without becoming floppy and it keeps the tone crisp even at drop C and beyond. You'll need some for extended range and baritone guitars because of the longer distance they have to cover.
Tonally, these strings sound warm and resonant. They’re considered slightly more difficult to pick than thinner strings as your picking hand has to cover more ground, but nothing you can’t become accustomed to.
These borrow from two different sets. Here’s an example:
- .010 .013 .017 .028 .038 .048
Hybrid sets are put together from various standard packs in a range. The one exemplified above combines a medium string pack’s top three strings with a heavier low three. These are great options if you feel a standard pack feels slightly off the mark.
The lower strings maintain strength for riffing while the lighter strings have plenty of flexibility for soloing. They’re also excellent for drop and alternate tunings.
What Materials Are Guitar Strings Made From?
Nickel is the most common material used to make strings. It’s favoured by guitarists after classic tone because of its rich body and warmth. The alloy naturally suits blues styles and rhythm playing thanks to how the frequencies blend into a band mix. These strings come in three variations: nickel-wound, nickel plated and pure nickel. The former is the warmest of the three, while pure nickel is more tonally transparent. Nickel plated strings sit in between the two extremes.
Steel strings are bright and punchy. These are a great pick for modern musical styles that require higher presence and attack. They do, however, require a bit of EQ fiddling so they don’t sound excessively brittle. Cobalt is a new type of string introduced by Ernie Ball. They have similar qualities to steel but feel softer on the fingers and have a wider dynamic frequency range.
Coated strings are covered in an almost indistinguishable, extremely thin layer of polymer. Their purpose is to increase the durability of the strings, allowing them to retain their clarity beyond that of a regular set. This method can be applied to both nickel and steel. How long a string lasts does however depend on the sweat your hands produce. Your strings will last longer if you wipe them down with a cloth after playing, no matter what brand or type you use.
How Often Should I Restring My Guitar?
The timeframe is going to be different for every player. If you are a touring musician or record in a studio, you might need to change your strings every day. If you are practicing for less than 1 hour a day, once every month or so should be fine on standard nickel plated strings. If you practice for more than 1 hour a day we would recommend changing your strings once every couple of weeks.
Your guitar has ways of telling you that it needs new strings: it might not stay in tune, there is discoloration to the string and they might produce a dark or dull tone.
What are the Best Guitar Strings?
There are absolutely loads of string brands claiming their products are the best, or they last the longest, they hold the best tuning stability, and so on. Finding what works for you might take a bit of time and experimentation. But here are a few of the biggest and most popular strings in the world, and for good reason.
The most popular guitar string in the world. Ernie Ball Slinky packs standardised string gauge and cover a huge expanse of uses; you’ll find sets suited to playing in E standard or Drop A equally.
They’re nickel-wound but do have a bright tone – part of the reason why so many guitarists from different backgrounds play Slinky. They are also on the affordable end of the spectrum, so you won’t break the bank buying in bulk.
Touted to last twice as long as Ernie Ball Slinky’s. Paradigm strings are covered in a nano coating, making them incredibly strong and reliable. So strong, in fact, that Ernie Ball will replace them within 90 days if they break.
They’re also protected against ‘flaking’ and leaving debris on the fretboard like some other coated strings. Get these if you want to protect against heavy wear for a long period of time.
D’addario are Ernie Ball’s closest rivals, producing strings used by a plethora of pro musicians. XL is the most commonly used series and, like Slinkys, are super versatile.
The high carbon steel core allows them to last through lots of playing time and gives them a distinct bright tone. One of the best choices if you play a variety of music genres.
The latest in string technology. D’addario NYXL strings are break-resistant and give you freedom to play hard without any doubts. Manufactured in New York, NYXLs are touted as to provide a 131% greater tuning stability, an important aspect to consider when buying a good set of strings.
They’re more suited towards modern players who prefer the enhanced mid-range and crunch. Get yourself a pack of these and you won’t have to EQ your guitar tone as hard to get those snappy sounding frequencies.
Some of the top premium strings on the market. Elixir are at the peak of their game with the Optiweb series. They pride themselves on creating long lasting strings without sacrificing the high end frequencies many coated strings lose.
Elixir offer natural feel and indistinguishable sound from a standard uncoated set. As with the rest of the Elixir range, there’s wide array of string gauges to suit whatever style you play.
Curt Mangan strings are specifically made to suit blues and its related genres. These strings sound fat, warm and smooth, with an even resonance across the whole set. They’re using a nickel wound technique over a strong tin-plated steel core.
On that account, it means they’re also great for fingerpicking, where some plucks may be quieter than others. Curt Mangan’s will keep your playing in check and full of life.
What Guitar Strings Should I Buy?
Choosing the best strings comes down to what you want to play, how you play and what tuning you play in. There are some rough guidelines covered here, and if you adhere to them loosely, you can’t go wrong.
Use thinner strings if you’re playing in standard tunings and thicker ones if you drop tune. Don’t be afraid to try out hybrid string packs if you like the feel of two regular packs but can’t decide. Your favourite strings might change over time, but nothing else matters if you like them.