Guitar strings can be, well … a bit confusing. If you’ve ever spoken to a friend that has played guitar for years or have done any research online you’ll notice that everyone has an opinion on what’s “right” for a certain guitar. 9s or 10s, coated, bronze, electric, acoustic – it just keeps going.
I aim to help clear up some of the murky waters surrounding the myriad of myths regarding strings and empower you to make informed decisions for your instrument.
1. Do I really need to change my strings?
In short, yes. Eventually.
String changes are part of regular maintenance of most any stringed instrument. This is due to a couple of factors:
First, the material your strings are made of (be it bronze, nickel or nylon) will stretch. This material is under constant stress for an extended period of time and, according to the laws of physics, will eventually begin to fail. In the case of a guitar this results in a comparable “dull” tone from the string.
Also, when we play guitar we transfer all kinds of things from our hands to the instrument. This results in small particles embedded in string winds and corrosion of the string material. These changes affect the sound of the string and also playing comfort.
Does your guitar just not have that “brightness” that you remember from when it was new? Does it leave dirty, brown marks on your fingers? Do notes just not ring out as long as they used to?
Chances are you could use new strings.
2. I keep hearing about string “gauges.” What’s that?
Most people talk about strings by the gauge, or size, of the string. When you hear the term “10s” or “11s,” this refers to the gauge of a string. Specifically, the smallest string, and it’s measured in decimal inches.
A “set of 10s” means a full set of strings in specifically paired, common gauges, where the smallest measures 0.010” in diameter. As this reference numbers gets larger, so do the strings. A set of 12s is larger, or “heavier” than a set of 9s, which are “lighter.”
3. So, how do I know what gauge strings to get?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? First, let me say that there really isn’t a “wrong” string size. For your typical guitar player, any of the usual options will work just fine. It really comes down to preference.
Using smaller strings makes the guitar play easier. Fretting and bending takes less force. But this comes at the sacrifice of volume, or output. On an electric guitar it’s pretty easy to compensate for this. Just crank up the amp! But, on an acoustic guitar you rely on the strings to provide the volume. So, lighter strings are quieter.
The opposite is true for heavier strings. They require a little more force to fret and bend but provide more output.
Sustain, or the amount of time a note will ring out, is also impacted by string size. The larger the string, the more mass it has and the longer it will continue to move after you pluck it.
4. Was my guitar designed for a certain string size?
This is a little trickier.
As I mentioned earlier, you can use several different string sizes on a guitar. But, as you change string sizes the guitar may need adjustments to make it the best it can be with the new strings.
When you change strings sizes the tension of a string for a given note also changes. Larger strings require more overall tension to reach a given note. So, if you change from 9s to 12s on your guitar, you will need to make the 12s “tighter” when tuning to get the guitar in tune.
This changes the amount of tension on the neck of the guitar and may require adjustment for the best playing experience. In our example the strings would likely be farther from the frets after the string change due to the increased tension. The reverse happens if you put on smaller strings. The strings will be closer to the frets and may begin to “buzz” when playing without neck adjustment.
Another consideration is changes to what’s called “intonation.” This is how well the guitar plays in tune as you fret up the neck. A drastic string gauge shift can cause some notes to go flat or sharp. This, again, can be adjusted and corrected on nearly all electric guitars. It’s a little trickier on acoustic guitars but some adjustment is possible.
Lastly, you may encounter a physical limitation at the “nut” which holds the strings at the far end of the guitar, near the tuners. The nut is slotted at a specific size when the guitar is built. Usually the nut is fine with strings from 8 to 11 gauge on an electric or 11 to 14 gauge on an acoustic.
You may encounter problems if you go too large. The strings can get stuck in the nut and cause tuning problems. The nut can even break in some cases.
If the nut is cut for larger strings and you install strings that are too small, you may get a buzzing noise or strings that don’t ring out properly.
If you encounter any of these issues a guitar tech can help adjust or replace the nut to correct it.
5. Well, what about all of these different kinds of strings? Materials? Coatings?
While this seems like the most difficult aspect of choosing strings for your guitar, it’s actually the simplest. You only need to know the type of guitar you have between electric, acoustic or classical. As long as you’re getting strings for the correct type of instrument it’s hard to go wrong.
Electric guitar strings are made of ferrous metals because they have to excite the coils in the pickups to make sounds. Acoustic strings on an electric will have very weak output to the amplifier and nylon strings will make no sound through the amp at all.
Acoustic strings don’t need to be ferrous so there are a few different material choices that directly affect the tone of the string. You can put electric strings on an acoustic but they are usually not quite as loud or as “full” in tone as an acoustic string. An “electric acoustic” guitar in most all cases has a special type of pickup that doesn’t use a magnet to make sound, so you can use standard acoustic guitar strings.
Classical guitars generally use nylon strings which are quite different from the metal strings used on other guitars. The guitars are built differently and using metal strings can actually damage the guitar by applying excess force across the bridge and along the neck.
Strings will nearly always be marked as “electric,” “acoustic” or “nylon/classical.” As long as you install strings for the correct type of guitar you’re good to go!
Within these categories you’ll find all kinds of options, such as alternative metal combinations, specialty coatings, lengths and even colors. Have some fun and try different options to see what you like. Manufacturers are pretty good at marketing, so the string packaging will generally give you some info about the benefits of the specific features such as extended string life or reduced chance of breakage.
And there you have it! Using the info you’ve learned here you can better make your way through the sea of options available and comfortably try out some different options to find the best string for your guitar.