Choosing Electric Guitar Strings
he humble guitar string doesn’t get much credit in the guitar world. Despite it being the biggest consumable product for guitarists, players tend to stick to what they know without often considering what they are using and what effect it is having on their playing. I’m not about to tell you that certain guitar strings will turn you into BB King overnight, but considering guitar strings are the main tactile connection you have to a guitar, it’s worth at least knowing the basics.
Whilst good guitars strings aren’t necessarily going to make a bad guitar any better, poor guitar strings can definitely make a good guitar and feel worse. A pet peeve of mine is guitar strings that either need replacing or are not in good condition. I once played a friend’s Eric Clapton signature Fender strat, but hated it because the strings were covered in grime and some sort of corrosive gunk. It was awful, such a shame that a $2000 guitar played like rubbish because the owner wouldn’t spend $10 on some new strings!
Before we talk about the main factors in buying guitar strings, lets consider what you should look for from a guitar string:
- Firstly, the basics, such as it must stay in tune and it mustn’t break prematurely.
- Secondly, it must feel good to play (more on this when we talk about material).
- Lastly, it must provide sustain, harmonics and clarity. This is all about sound, and some string materials have been known to give very different results.
There are three main factors that differentiate guitar strings, string gauge, material and construction.
Gauge is something that I have touched on in my post on scale length. The following list shows the typical sets that are available today. Each number refers to the thickness of each string in that set.
- “extra super light” : .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
- “super light” : .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
- “light” : .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
- “medium” : .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050
- “heavy” : .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054
These sets are usually referred to by the lightest string, eg “eights”, “nines”, “elevens” etc. So if you hear someone say they use “tens”, it usually means a “light” set from the list above. In addition to those I’ve listed, there are hybrid sets which allow you to mix two weights. For example, a heavy/medium set would have a combination like .012 .016 .020 .026 .036 .050. People choose these sets because they are after a very specific feel.
For me, string gauge is all about feel. Some say that you can hear the difference between a set of 8’s and a set of 9’s. The jury is out on this for me. There are several side by side tests that refute this myth, including this Rob Chapman video where he plays all major gauges side by side and concludes that the only real difference was feel. If you can hear tone difference with different gauges, fantastic, I have no issue with that.
A less discussed or understood factor in guitar strings is material. The 4 main string materials currently available are:
- nickel plated,
- pure nickel,
- steel and
There are probably some other exotic materials, but these are the main ones. Quite simply, these just refer to the metal alloy that is used to make the string. Over the years, these have been found to produce the most consistent results based on what you need in a string (see my list at the top of the post).
So what are the main differences in these materials? Well, not surprisingly, this comes down to individual preference. Manufacturers will claim that certain materials last longer or sound better. It is a fact that some metals will react more strongly to the magnets in your pickup (a claim made for Cobalt strings), which would produce a higher output. though this is difficult to test in the real world due to variables such as string height (action) and pickup type.
Pure nickel is often said to be slightly warmer in tone than nickel plated. Though to be sure about this, you should try them out with your gear and make your own mind up.
The last factor in guitar strings is how they are constructed. I won’t go into the manufacturing process in detail here, but there are a number of main options available.
- flat wound,
- half round,
The most common type of electric guitar string is the wound string. A plain core string, typically made of steel is wound with steel, nickel or cobalt to produce a strong, durable and responsive string. Something you’ll no doubt notice is that on a set of wound strings, only the 3 thickest strings are wound, the thinnest 3 are not. Those thinner strings will have the same steel core and will usually be plated with something like tin to protect against corrosion.
Flat wound is the same process as wound, however the string that is wound has a rounded square profile. This results in a smoother feel to the string, hence less squeaking as you slide up the string. they will also last longer as there are less grooves to catch oils and dirt from your fingers. Flat wound strings are said to be harder to bend and more expensive than traditional round wound strings.
Half round is like a regular wound string, however after it is wound, it is then ground down or polished until it has an almost flat finish, like flat wound.
Regarding the core, these will either be a round steel core or a “hex core”. A “hex core” has a hexagonal shape, which means that the winding is less likely to slip.
Different construction methods result in different feel as you play the guitar. The best way to find the string that suits you is to try a popular set from makers such as D’Addario, DR, Ernie Ball, Elixir or Dean Markley and see what you think. The good thing is that strings aren’t expensive, so it won’t break the bank to try a few sets over the space of a year (depending on how often you play).
Hopefully this post has taught you a little about guitar strings and what effect they can have on your playing. By trying different gauges, materials and construction methods, you can find something that feels and sounds great as well as lasting a long time (relative to how often you play). If I can leave you with one more tip, don’t let your strings deteriorate. If they are getting corroded or grimy, either replace them or clean them. Your playing and your sound are both likely to improve.
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Feature image courtesy of wikipedia.