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Guitar strings… what’s the difference?

If you’re relatively new to the guitar-slinging world (or even if you are an experienced campaigner) you may, at some point, have wondered: what’s the difference between the various types of guitar strings available?  You may have even browsed the ‘wall of strings’ at your local guitar shop for a while and then decided to settle on the same set of strings you’ve been playing for 10 years, purely out of fear of the unknown.  My intention with this month’s article, is to provide some useful information that will assist you with making that decision easier and to help you make the right choices for the appropriate instrument (and for the tone goals you have in mind).

I will start by giving a brief summary of the basic string fundamentals of both acoustic and electric guitars.

*Note: I have excluded bass guitars and will focus solely on standard 6 string guitars.  No offence, bassists, but this may be a future topic on it’s own!

Acoustic Guitars

*Heavier gauge strings are often used (they are louder and more receptive to heavy strumming)

*Common materials are bronze/brass, phosphor bronze, silk/steel, also nylon/combination for classical styles.

*Heavier strings also means harder string-bending

*Good for slide guitar also

Electric Guitars

*Light to medium gauges are more often used

*Common materials used include nickel-plated steel, pure nickel, stainless steel.

*The combination of type of guitar body, strings and amplifier means a much wider palate of tonal variety is achievable.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, the following categories detail some of the specifics of guitar strings and their common purposes:

  1. STRING GAUGE

Firstly, it’s important to note that the gauge scales are slightly different between acoustic and electric guitars (but the same terminology and unit measurements of 1/1000 of an inch are used).

Acoustic Guitar gauges:

0.010 – 0.047 (often labelled ‘Extra light gauge’, however these terminologies may vary amongst difference manufacturers)

0.012 – 0.053 (Light Gauge)

0.013 – 0.056 (Medium Gauge)

0.014 – 0.059 (Heavy Gauge)

Electric Guitar gauges:

0.009 – 0.042 (Super Light Gauge, great for Strats and for easy string bending)

0.010 – 0.046 (Regular Light Gauge, the perfect all-rounder)

0.011 – 0.050 (Medium Gauge)

0.012 – 0.052 (Heavy Gauge, often used for jazz)

*changing string gauge may require a fresh guitar set up (often requires truss rod/neck adjustments and subsequent adjustments to the playing action and intonation.  Particularly if you are increasing the string gauge to heavier strings).

  1. STRING CONSTRUCTION/WINDING METHODS

Round Wound – Most commonly used and great all round strings suitable for most styles.  Bright sounding, comfortable texture and good grip for string bending.

Half Rounds – A combination between round wound and flat wound, the tops are cut and ground down to give a smoother feel.  Less commonly used, they work well for slide guitar or if you’re after less finger noise on the strings.

Flat Wounds – most commonly used on bass guitars for their smoother, quieter sound.  They tend to have less sustain also, the tone is quite mellow and jazz players often use flat wounds.

  1. STRING MATERIALS

Steel – Bright sounding and superior resistance to corrosion, often favoured by rock/metal players.

Nickel-plated steel – Considered the industry standard for electric guitars, a great balance between comfort, tone and versatility.

Pure nickel – Great for vintage enthusiasts, as this was the primary material used in the 1950’s/60’s.

80/20 Bronze (acoustic) – Popular all-rounder that records well, as it’s both bright and deep sounding, also great for playing live is they project well.

Phosphor Bronze – perfect if you’re looking for a warmer acoustic tone, balanced sound and they last.

Silver plated copper – often used in folk/classical styles for both their warmth and comfortable feel.

So, how do I choose?

Firstly, there are absolutely no set rules!  Now that you are furnished with some basic information, decide on your tone goals and start experimenting!  I would suggest playing a set of strings for a month to see how they feel in various environments and also how they play after being worn in. You will find strings can significantly change in tone and feel over time.  For maximum ‘shelf life’, be sure to wipe down your guitar and strings after usage and store in a case, preferably in a dry environment as humidity can also affect guitar strings.  Aside from that, it’s all trial and error, so don’t be afraid to keep trialling until you find your ultimate tone!

Until next time,

Mike

 

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