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Everything you ever wanted to know about Guitar Strings

Not satisfied with the tone of your guitar? Usually when this happens the focus of our attention is firmly placed on the pickups, electronics (e.g. pots and wiring) and upgrading hardware, especially your bridge and nut as these are the first and last points of contact for your strings.

But, did you know the most cost effective and least challenging experiment you can undertake to influence tone and playability is to simply try a different set of guitar strings?

For between $10 - $30 you can often make changes to the playability and tonal output of your guitar, and unlike swapping out your pickups, it takes less than 5 minutes work and you won’t need to fire up your soldering iron.

In the following article we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of guitar strings, including differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings, strings for, 7, 8 and 12 string guitars, strings for bass guitar and some information on string maintenance including how to make your guitar strings last longer, and how to restring your guitar the right way.

There’s a lot more to guitar strings than most guitarists realize, so, if you’ve never really considered the impact guitar strings can have on your guitar, and how to get the best out of them, stay tuned!

What are Guitar Strings Made of?

Before C. F. Martin & Company introduced steel guitar strings in the early 1900s guitar strings were mostly made from catgut. Which, although not actually made from cat, was made from the walls to the intestines of horses and cattle.

Classical and flamenco guitar strings aside which are made from nylon (or similar synthetic) wrapped in silver or bronze windings (bass strings) strings are now made with steel cores.

The windings used for the bottom four strings on acoustic guitar, and bottom three on electric guitar now utilize materials such as 80/20 composites of copper and zinc, bronze, nickel, nickel plated steel and stainless steel.

Are Electric Guitar Strings the Same as Acoustic?

Acoustic Guitar Strings

One of the first questions a new guitarist usually has in relation to guitar strings is, are there are differences between electric and acoustic guitar strings?

The answer is yes, quite a bit in fact.

String Gauge

One of the first obvious differences between electric and acoustic guitar strings is the string gauges available for each. While you can put lighter gauge strings on your acoustic guitar and heavier gauge strings on electric guitar, you may not like the results. There’s a couple of reasons for this:

Resonance

On larger acoustic guitars such as dreadnoughts and jumbos heavier gauge strings create more tension than light gauge strings and require more energy to play.

This additional energy is transferred to the body of the guitar via the bridge, which in turn creates more movement of the soundboard. This means, the heavier strings make the top of the guitar vibrate more which in turn enhances resonance and accentuates mid to low frequencies which give the acoustic guitar greater volume (loudness) and projection (the distance sound travels), and warmth.

Playability

While there are exceptions guitarists usually approach acoustic and electric guitars differently. As a result, with a greater demand on resonance and projection, acoustic guitars tend to use heavier gauge strings.

Electric guitars on the other hand, with more of a focus on bends, and playing fast runs across the fretboard, typically use lighter gauge strings, although again, there are exceptions.

Wound V Unwound Strings

Another key difference between electric and acoustic guitar strings is the addition of a third wound string, the G string on acoustic guitar.

Previously almost all sets of guitar strings (acoustic or electric) included a wound G string. But as songs began featuring extended guitar solos and more of the spotlight was placed on flashier playing, some guitarists began removing their low E string (6th) and using the 5th string in its place instead.

At the same time they would replace the high E string with a lighter gauge banjo string. As each string moved up one position, this meant the third string was no longer a wound string, as it was now the 4th string.

Wound and unwound strings offer advantages to both acoustic and electric guitars, providing the same advantages offered by heavier gauge strings compared to lighter gauge strings e.g. less finger strength required on electric guitar and greater resonance on acoustic guitar.

Although not as common, guitarist’s can source sets of guitar strings with an unwound 3rd for acoustic and wound third string for electric guitar. But, keep in mind this will very likely have an impact on the guitar’s intonation. You may need to make adjustments to your saddle position on the electric guitar and consider if it is worth the effort of changing or adjusting your current saddle if playing an acoustic guitar with a compensated saddle.

String Winding Material

As previously mentioned, on the electric guitar 3 of the strings are wound and 3 unwound. The windings are wrapped around a steel core. This is the same for both acoustic and electric guitars.

The difference is the materials used in the construction of the windings.
Electric guitars rely on electromagnetism to produce sound, as a result the windings must be made from materials that possess magnetic properties e.g. nickel or stainless steel are good examples.

Acoustic guitars produce sound through resonance, so the most resonant materials are selected, as there’s no need to use a ferromagnetic material. In this case, windings will usually be made from bronze or brass as these have good resonant capabilities.

Do acoustic guitar strings work on acoustic?
Yes, the steel core of both electric and acoustic guitars is magnetic, so both electric and acoustic guitar strings will work on electric guitar but acoustic guitar strings will provide less output. The windings materials if not ferromagnetic will shield and reduce the output of the signal from the guitar. In the case of nylon strings, no output would be registered at all as they do not contain steel cores. This is why classical guitars with pickups utilize Piezo pickups which detect changes in pressure rather than relying on electromagnetics.

Why are guitar strings wound?

Windings add mass to guitar strings allowing them to be tuned to the correct pitch without damaging the neck of the guitar.

If your strings were unwound and we instead relied on the steel core being thicker to compensate the guitar neck would quickly become a major problem, not to mention the guitar would be far more difficult to fret when tuned to standard concert pitch.

Your three highest strings (E, B, and G) don’t require this additional mass as they are tuned to a higher frequency and are therefore unwound.

Types of Electric Guitar Strings

There are a number of different types of electric guitar strings, categorized mostly around differences in winding materials, string core shape, winding type and whether the string has been coated with a polymer coating.

Winding Materials - Nickel and Steel

Electric guitars will typically utilize steel or nickel coated strings.

This doesn’t mean we are given the choice of steel or nickel cores, nickel really isn’t strong enough to be used for the core of a guitar string. But, when used as a winding material for the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings will accentuate mid to low end frequencies more than steel, giving the guitar greater warmth and richness due to a greater abundance of overtones produced in comparison to the fundamental tone of the string.

Unsurprisingly, strings with steel windings tend to accentuate high-end frequencies, giving the guitar greater clarity and brightness, and making it a better option for lead guitarists or guitarists who simply prefer a brighter tone.

String Core Shape

The steel core used for guitar strings is either round or hexagonal. The majority of strings feature a hex core but this wasn’t always the case. And, in case you wondered, strings that utilize round cores are also still available. So why the change and what’s the difference in terms of tone and playability?

Hex core strings, due to the 6 hard edges of the hexagonal core, grip the outer windings more effectively than strings with round cores. This also makes them easier (The windings won’t slip), and less expensive to produce.

They tend to ‘deaden’ considerably faster however, due to the gap between the edges of the hex core and the windings which can build up with corrosive material from our hands e.g. sweat and dirt.

While the more cynical nature might think it’s a no brainer for string manufacturers e.g. hex core strings are cheaper to produce and guitarists replace them faster, this is perhaps also why coated strings were invented which we’ll discuss shortly.

In terms of tonal differences, hex core strings are generally brighter, but offer less sustain, decaying quicker than round core strings. But, are credited with greater consistency.

Round core strings, on the other hand, tend to sound a little warmer and offer more sustain.

If you do want to try round core strings, keep in mind they are not ideal for guitars with locking tuners, but guitars with Floyd Rose style tremolo systems are usually better suited to modern styles of music anyway.

Winding Type

Round and Flat Wound Strings

We’ve already discussed winding materials above, but the shape of the individual winds also play a big role, mostly in terms of playability.

Guitar strings typically come as round wound or flat wound. As you can probably imagine, flat wound strings, by virtue of offering a flatter surface for the fingers to interact tend to not be as noisy e.g. less friction between the fingers and the guitar strings result in less string noise compared to round wound strings.

They will also be less abrasive on your guitar's fret wires. They also tend to sound much the same, new or old and won’t deaden quickly.

They are, however, more difficult to bend due to the increased tension introduced. They also decay (opposite of sustain) faster than round wound strings, and produce a stronger fundamental and less in the way of overtones. They also tend not to be available in lighter gauges.

For these reasons flat wound strings are more suitable for jazz guitarists who favour clarity and brightness, prefer faster decay of notes and are less concerned with techniques such as bends.

Round wound strings are far more common mostly due to being less expensive to manufacture. They offer better sustain and brightness, and are available in a wider variety of string gauges and materials.

Coated V Uncoated Strings

Coated strings have been available since the early 90s and almost all major string manufacturers now offer them. As the name suggests, the strings are coated with a polymer coating (Polytetrafluoroethylene) which reduces the corrosive impact of sweat and dirt from our hands.

In that regard they tend to work well, increasing the life of a set of guitar strings by up to four times and resulting in less build up of gunk on the fretboard. But, they also tend to cost three times the price of a regular set of guitar strings, so while there is a cost advantage it isn’t all that much.

While they offer advantages with regard to lifespan, many guitarists prefer not to use them as the coating tends to affect the tone of the guitar, reducing brightness and clarity, although, just how much impact this has is debateable.

They are also thought to reduce the output on both acoustic and electric guitars as the strings are less resonant due to the coating.

They also tend to feel smoother on the fingers, which can be either a good or bad thing depending on your playing preferences. For example, acoustic guitarists benefit from using coated strings as the surface of the string, thanks to the coating, is smoother.

Elixir (one of the biggest names associated with coated strings) coats the entire string so there is far less of a buildup of gunk between the individual windings. This results in less string noise which otherwise can be a frustrating issue to overcome when recording using a microphone.

For beginners, coated strings are also easier on the hands, but perhaps the biggest advantage to using coated strings is they retain their resonant capabilities longer. Regular strings sound great when new but tend to dull over time. Coated strings last considerably longer before they begin sounding dull.

Bass Guitar Strings

Much like regular guitar strings, the materials, string gauge and construction method of bass strings can also have an impact on playability and tone. Perhaps even more so due to the different techniques bass players use e.g. slap bass.

Before we dive into the different types of bass strings available, obviously, the first consideration is the number of strings your bass guitar has. 4 string bass guitars are still the most common but 5 and 6 string basses are also commonplace, especially in heavier styles of music.

String Gauge

The strings you choose for bass guitar can have a big impact on tone. For example heavier gauge bass strings tend to produce more low end, which is ideal in most circumstances when playing bass. But, due to the heavier gauge also introduce additional tension to the neck making the strings more difficult to fret.

This additional tension also affects the straightness of the neck, so moving from a light gauge to heavier gauge string may require a truss rod adjustment.

When choosing bass strings, the gauge of the string is defined by the 4th string (E string). For example a medium gauge set of bass guitar strings would usually be .105 inches while a heavier gauge set would usually be .110 inches.

Scale Length

It’s also important when ordering bass strings to understand scale length, the distance between the nut and bridge of the guitar. This is the length of the section of string able to vibrate when played.

Short scale basses (30 - 32”) require short scale bass strings, while standard bass guitars (34” scale length) require long-scale bass strings. If unsure, you can simply measure the distance from the nut of the guitar to the 12th fret and then double the length.

String Materials

Core

All bass guitar strings feature a steel core and come in round and hex, with the latter providing better grip for the windings but adding more tension to the neck making them slightly hard to fret. Round core bass strings tend to offer more sustain and are easier to bend.

Windings

Unlike regular guitar strings all bass guitar strings are wound, as unwound strings would place too much tension on the neck. The most common winding materials used for bass guitar strings are stainless steel and nickel steel alloy as both are ferromagnetic.

Bass guitarists tend to favor steel for a brighter, clearer tone while nickel/steel strings are best if chasing a warmer tone from your bass guitar.

Winding Type

Bass guitar strings come in flat and round wound options, with flatwound providing less friction between the strings and fingers, and therefore feeling easier to play for some bassists.

They are a good option for fretless bass guitars as they are less destructive to the fretboard material over the lifetime of the guitar as the surface of the strings are less abrasive.

7 and 8 String Guitars

The popularity of 7 and 8 string electric guitars is undeniable. But, 7 string guitars are nothing new. Steve Vai was one of the first ‘guitar heroes’ to begin using them, with his signature 7 string Ibanez Universe UV7 on the album ‘Passion and Warfare” released in 1990.

Recommended: DIY 7 String Guitar Kits: 3 Great Options

String Gauge

In Steve Vai’s case he was using 9 to 42 gauge strings (0.009 inches) sometimes venturing up to 10's while on tour.  This meant he extended the range of the guitar on the treble side.

Nowadays many proponents of 7 and 8 string guitars utilize a lower gauge 7th (or 8th) string. This is especially the case in nu-metal and other progressive forms of metal where drop A and A♭ tuning is frequently used.

Most 7 string guitars are tuned exactly the same as 6 string guitars, with the addition of a B string as the 7th string, extending the bass range of the guitar.

8 string guitars, most notably played by artists such as Tosin Abasi from Animals as leaders and youtuber Rob Scallon feature an additional 8th string tuned to F♯ although many also choose to tune the 8th string to low E.

Scale Length

7 string guitars often have extended scale lengths, ranging from the standard 25.5 inches found on many standard electric guitars up to 27 inches. 8 string guitars typically start at 27” and beyond, making them ideal for drop tunings.

Availability

When it comes to selecting a set of strings based on string gauge, many 7 and 8 string guitarists use a regular set of electric guitar strings and purchase an additional 7 and 8th string if required.

In practical terms this means a guitarist may buy a set of 10 - 46 gauge strings and add an additional B string, somewhere in the vicinity of .60”.

Of course, 7 and 8 string guitar string sets are also available, especially if shopping online and many of the options available for regular 6 string guitars including coated strings and choice of winding materials are available from established string manufacturers such as D'Addario, Ernie Ball and Elixir.

Strings for 12 string guitars

If you haven't played 12 string guitar before you night assume each string increases in string gauge from the 1st to 12th string. But, unlike standard guitars,12 string guitars utilize ‘courses’ of strings, similar to some baroque era instruments including baroque guitar.

However, if you removed the second course of strings, a 12 string guitar would be tuned exactly the same as a 6 string guitar. It’s the additional strings, tuned to a higher octave than the string they accompany or tuned to unison for the B and high E strings that give 12 string guitars their distinctive sound.

Aside from the difference in total number of strings, the same factors (gauge, winding materials, construction method) all affect how the guitar sounds and plays.

Guitar String Maintenance

Clean hands = clean strings

Regardless of your choice of instrument, number of strings and winding materials the strings are constructed from, if you properly maintain your strings (and fretboard) your strings will last longer, saving you money and the annoyance of having to change them too often.

One of the simplest things you can do to preserve the life of your strings is to wash your hands before you play. This reduces the amount of salt residue left on the strings, mainly between the windings after the sweat from your hands evaporates which would otherwise be corrosive to your strings.

Washing your hands before playing not only extends the life of your guitar strings but will also help preserve the fretboard of the guitar, particularly around the steel fret wires which over time can otherwise loosen due to a buildup of gunk that can affect the fretboard.

It’s also a good idea to wipe down your strings after playing, particularly if you sweat a lot or try using coated strings, which as mentioned offer up to 4 times the lifespan of regular strings.

I also recommend cleaning the fretboard every time you change strings on your guitar, and depending on how regularly you play conditioning the fretboard if made from unsealed wood such as Ebony or Rosewood.

Changing Guitar Strings

The way you restring your guitar can affect tuning stability and sustain. The main consideration when restringing is how the strings wrap around the tuning posts, how much materials to leave on the posts, and at what point they break from the posts to the nut. 

A good way to measure how much length you should leave on the string is to install the string and then thread the string through the tuning peg hole and add an additional 1.5” of slack to the string (approx. the width of most electric guitar first frets).

This provides sufficient material for the string to grip the tuning post and for us to direct the exit point for the strings as low on the post as possible.

Begin by winding the string onto the post while placing a finger to direct each subsequent wind lower on the post than the previous one, eventually causing the string to exit the post from the lowest position on the tuning post.

The benefit of restringing this way is it increases the break angle of the string when crossing over the nut, which aids tuning stability and due increased break angle of the string over the nut is believed to increase sustain. Although like most things on guitar, this is subjective.

Recommended: How To Maintain Your Fingerboard

Stretch your strings

One last tip I recommend doing whenever you put new strings on your guitar is to stretch your strings. This removes the slackness in the strings, preventing the need to constantly retune new strings.

The best way to go about doing this is to tune to regular concert pitch and then stretch the strings and tune up again. Repeat this 2-3 times and in most cases your new strings will be more stable.

Summary

Guitar strings have come a long way since the early days of catgut and new options are being developed and improved upon. So if you are new to the guitar give some thought to your next set and see if you notice a difference in tone and playability. As we mentioned at the start of this post, it’s one of the easiest and least expensive ways to experiment with your guitar.

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