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Most people don’t pay much attention to their strings. After all, they’re the one guitar accessory that you routinely throw away. But think about it: strings are what you actually fret, pick, and strum. Without them, the nicest acoustic is just an oddly shaped box, and the snazziest electric is just a funny-looking plank of wood. Once you learn to sort through the various string options—material, coating, and gauge—you can make your guitar easier to play, louder, stay in tune better, or have a different sound.

guitar strings

What Is It?

Electric and acoustic guitar strings are made of a steel core wrapped in metal wire. (Classical guitars use nylon strings, but we won’t cover them here.) The wrap on electric guitar strings has to contain iron so the magnetic pickups can sense the strings’ vibrations. Many popular sets, like the D’Addario XL series and most Ernie Ball Slinky sets, are wrapped with nickel-plated steel.

Back in the 1950s, electric strings were made with solid nickel windings, which produced a slightly mellower tone, and nickel-wound strings like Fender 150 Series or GHS Nickel Rockers can help you capture that vintage tone. Many string makers also offer strings wound with stainless steel, which has a brighter, snappier tone.

Although acoustic guitar strings are usually labeled something like “brass,” “bright bronze,” or “phosphor bronze,” they are wrapped in a copper alloy. As with electric strings, the wrap has a subtle effect on tone. Phosphor-bronze strings, such as Martin Acoustic SP phosphor-bronze, have a dark color and the mellowest tone, while brass strings are a golden color and the crispest sounding.

Coated strings, pioneered by Elixir, are the latest innovation in string technology. Now offered by most string makers—including Cleartone, Dean Markley, GHS, and Black Diamond—these strings are coated in a material like Teflon that makes strings sound better for longer by preventing dirt or moisture from getting to the strings. If your strings go dead and start to sound dull more quickly than you like to change them, try switching to coated strings.

The other key element in choosing strings is gauge, or the relative thickness of the strings. The heavier the string, the tighter it will feel under your fingers and the harder it will be to play. The catch is that heavier strings often sound better than light ones.

Complicating things, electric strings are lighter than acoustic strings: the high E is .010 inch in diameter on a light electric set but .012 inch on a light acoustic set. Lighter strings make certain techniques that are associated with electric guitars, such as string bends, easier to execute. Acoustic guitars need heavier strings to make the wood resonate and produce volume.

Most beginners start out with extra-light sets—a set of “nines” (those with a .009-inch high E string) for electric or “tens” (a .010-inch high E) for acoustic—because they’re easier on the fingers.

How to Use It

To make the most of your strings, keep these three things in mind.

USE THE RIGHT STRINGS FOR YOUR GUITAR. Check the packaging before you pay for your strings to make sure you get the right ones. You won’t be happy with your sound if you put electric strings on an acoustic or vice versa. And never, ever, put a set of steel strings on a classical guitar; the extra tension could rip the bridge off.

BEWARE OF THE BUZZ. Switching from lighter to heavier gauges, or vice versa, changes the tension on your guitar’s neck and can affect the action (the distance between the fretboard and the strings), possibly making it buzz or be more difficult to play. A professional guitar repair person can tweak your guitar’s truss rod to either lower the action (to make it easier to play) or raise it (to prevent buzzing). If you play an electric with a whammy bar, you may also need to have a repair person reset the whammy bar for the new string gauge.

CHANGE ’EM REGULARLY. Strings are like socks: they feel nicer when they’re clean, and, as they age, they stretch out of shape and lose elasticity. This can make it harder to keep them in tune. Also, grime that accumulates in the winding can act as an abrasive and can cause premature fret wear. Worn frets make it harder to get a good, clear tone, and frets are expensive to replace.

Change your strings about once a month, perhaps more often if you play more than a couple of hours a day. (To learn how to change your strings, check out this article: Time to Change.) Putting on a fresh set of strings is the easiest thing you can do to make your guitar sound better. It also gives you a chance to clean the fretboard, which is good because a clean guitar is a happy guitar.

clean guitar

A Smattering of Strings

Don’t let that wall of guitar strings at your local music store intimidate you. Start your search with one of these five classic string sets.

Acoustic Strings

D’Addario EJ16 Many guitar builders put these light-gauge phosphor-bronze strings on their new instruments ($12.49 list/$6 street).

DR ZAE12 Zebra Designed for acoustic guitars with piezo undersaddle or magnetic soundhole pickups, these strings ($17 list/$7.99 street) have a double winding of nickel for the pickup and phosphor bronze for a mellow acoustic tone.

Elixir Polyweb Light-Medium The coating on Elixir strings cuts down finger squeaks and extends string life. Sometimes called a bluegrass set, this set ($28 list/$11.99 street) combines the three lower strings from a medium set for strong bass runs and the upper strings from a light set for easier bends.

Electric Strings

Ernie Ball 2223 Super Slinky Super Slinkys ($8.25 list/$4.50 street) were among the first sets of extra-light electric strings available.

Fender 150R These sets ($9.50 list/$4.99 street) boast pure nickel windings, just like the strings Fender used on their guitars back in the 1950s.

List price is the manufacturers’ suggested retail price, and street price is an estimate of the actual cost before taxes.