If you’ve recently started taking guitar lessons, then you’re probably going to need to change your guitar strings before too long. But getting a new set of strings isn’t as simple as sauntering into your favorite Portland guitar shop and saying, “One set of strings, please! Which kind? Oh, guitar!”
There is a dazzling selection of guitar strings available, so you’ll need to know which kind to get. Fear not! Here’s a handy-dandy guide to guitar strings.
The Basic Types of Guitar Strings
Before getting into which strings are best for your guitar, let’s talk a bit about the different styles of guitar strings you’re likely to encounter.
Bronze and Phosphor Bronze Strings are for acoustic guitars. Generally speaking, phosphor bronze strings sound a bit more “crisp” and “full-bodied” than your usual bronze strings, but they’re also a bit tougher on your fingers.
Silk and Steel Strings are an acoustic string with a much mellower sound than either bronze or phosphor bronze. They don’t deliver as much volume or sustain, but some people prefer their sound, especially for recording. They’re a lower tension string, so they’re easier on the fingers, which makes them a good choice for beginners.
Nickel-wound Strings are electric guitar strings. They’re made to sound good through a pickup, but they’re less than ideal on an acoustic guitar.
Nylon Strings are designed for use with classical guitars.
Flatwound and Halfwound
As a rule, flatwound and halfwound strings are used with electric guitars, but you can use them on an acoustic, as well. Of the two, flatwounds have the mellower sound. They’re preferred by jazz players and others who prefer a more subdued tone.
Halfwound strings are basically a cross between roundwounds (normal guitar strings) and flatwounds. They’re actually roundwound strings with the outer wire ribbon polished down to so it’s nearly flat. Sonically, they’re mellower than roundwounds, but brighter than flats.
What Are String Gauges?
String diameter is measured in gauges. If you’ve ever heard someone referring to heavy-gauge strings, they’re talking about strings that are thicker than usual. How does string thickness affect your guitar?
Well, heavy-gauge strings typically take more strength to play cleanly, and they exert more tension on the guitar’s neck, but they offer more volume and sustain.
Light strings are easier on the fingers, and they make bends a lot easier, too. They’re also a good choice for vintage guitars, because many older guitars aren’t designed for the added tension exerted by heavy strings. On the downside, thin strings break more easily, buzz more often, and don’t quite have the sonic “bite” that heavy-gauge strings produce.
Many players find that medium strings offer a good balance between playability and tone, but your mileage may vary.
What About String Tensions?
Low, medium, and high tension are designations for nylon strings. As a general rule, high-tension nylon strings are similar to heavy-gauge steel strings, in that they offer more volume and attack, but they’re a bit more difficult to play.
Low tension strings have a rounder tone, but less initial attack, and they’re easier to fret. Medium-tension splits the difference between high and low-tension characteristics.
Which Strings Should You Use?
String choice is really a matter of personal taste, but now that you know some of the finer points of guitar string selection, you’ll be able to make an educated decision.
If you’re finding that your existing strings are too tough on your fingers, or that you can’t quite bend notes as far as you’d like, try switching to a lighter string.
Want to give your power chords a little more growl? Try a heavier set of strings.
Feeling jazzy? Pick up a set of flatwounds. They’re also great for eliminating “string talk” (those squeaks you hear when changing chords).
As far as gauges go, most beginners will find light or medium strings to be a solid choice. Having said that, I’d recommend trying out several different types of strings until you find the ones that work the best for your guitar and your playing style.
Need Guitar Lessons?
Thanks for reading this guide to guitar strings, I hope your newfound knowledge makes your next trip to the guitar shop easier.
Oh, and if you’re looking for Guitar Lessons in Portland, Oregon, I’d love to be your teacher. Click Here to schedule a Free Intro Guitar Lesson.