If you’ve ever gone to buy guitar strings, you know the experience can be overwhelming. Besides the dozens of different brands, there are many factors to consider such as coating, winding type, and material.
This article aims to help explain all the different types of guitar strings, their unique features, and how they affect the sound and feel of the guitar they’re on.
In addition to standard 6-string guitars, this information will generally apply to 12-string, 7-string, bass, or any other type of guitar you may have!
When looking for new guitar strings, the first and most important thing to consider is the material that they are made of. In fact, strings which are not made out of the appropriate material may not be compatible with your guitar!
String materials can be divided into three broad categories depending on if they are for electric, acoustic, or classical guitars.
In addition, different materials within those categories can affect the sound and feel of strings, even if they’re made for the same type of guitar.
Electric guitar strings must be made of metal in order for the guitar’s pickups to transmit vibrations to an electrical signal. In general, electric guitar strings are made of steel, with the three lowest strings being plated in nickel.
Nickel-plated electric guitar strings are by far the most common, and they provide a good balance of warmth and brightness while being able to stand out from other instruments.
For those seeking a warmer tone, such as jazz guitarists, pure (unplated) nickel strings may be an appropriate option. Pure nickel strings provide a warm, round tone and vintage sound without too much high-end harshness.
If you’re looking for a more aggressive tone, pure steel strings are a good bet. Pure steel provides a very bright tone with lots of high frequencies and sustain. As a bonus, pure steel strings are the most resistant to corrosion and last the longest. Metal and rock players may wish to look into this type of string!
Some electric guitar strings are made out of other metals, such as cobalt, titanium, and copper, but those are hard to find, expensive, and used by far fewer players.
Acoustic strings also have steel cores but are plated with different metals. The three most popular options for acoustic guitars are brass (commonly called bronze or 80/20 bronze), phosphor bronze, and compound strings.
Brass, bronze, or 80/20 bronze, strings are made from 80% copper and 20% zinc. This is probably the most popular option, and they provide a bright, clean sound. Unfortunately, the metal corrodes quickly and the sound can deteriorate after just a few hours of playing.
Phosphor bronze strings aim to increase the string life of brass strings by adding a phosphor component to prevent string oxidation. This gives the strings more stability and robustness at the cost of a slightly mellower tone and less brightness.
If you’re constantly gigging, that trade-off is most likely well worth it!
The final type of acoustic guitar strings are called compound strings or silk and steel strings. These are metal-wound nylon or silk strings. The softer core of nylon or silk results in lower string tension and a gentle sound with less high-end punch.
Coated nylon strings are sometimes used as the bass strings on a classical guitar as well.
Nylon strings can be used on a regular acoustic guitar, but they are most commonly found on classical instruments because of their mellow and complex tone.
There are different types of nylon, such as rectified or black, but clear nylon and plated nylon strings are the most common. Plain nylon is used for the top three strings while plated nylon strings are common for the lower strings.
Unlike acoustic and electric strings, nylon strings do not have ball ends and they must be hand-tied around the bridge of the guitar.
Before nylon strings, classical guitarists used to use “catgut” strings made out of the intestines of sheep or other livestock. It’s still possible to find gut strings but they are easy to break and undependable; you should be glad we don’t have to use them anymore!
Attention! While you can use nylon strings on acoustic guitars do not use metal strings on classical guitars. Classical guitars are more lightly braced than acoustic guitars and the increased tension of steel strings could very likely rip them apart.
Guitar String Size
One of the most obvious characteristics of guitar strings is how big they are. Electric and acoustic guitar strings are labeled according to string gauges while classical strings are labeled based on tension.
Sets of guitar strings for electric and acoustic instruments carry a designation such as extra-light, light, medium, or heavy. This is a general label, and actual string sizes will vary depending on brand, set, and, most importantly, whether the strings are for an electric or an acoustic instrument (electric guitar strings run smaller than their acoustic counterparts).
Fortunately, string sets will also include the actual numerical information of how big the strings are. For example, let’s look at a couple possible string labels and their attached numbers.
Extra Light [electric] – (.009/.011/.016/.024/.032/.042)
Heavy [acoustic] – (.014/.018/.027/.039/.049/.059)
The numbers refer to the diameters of the strings, in inches, going from the high E string to the low E string.
So, the extra light set’s high E string has a diameter of .009 inches while the heavy set’s high E string has a diameter of .014 inches. It might not sound like much, but that’s a really big difference and will have a noticeable impact on feel and sound!
Lighter strings are great for string bending, easy playability, and bright tone. Metal shredders and beginning players look no further!
However, if you want more volume, less string breakage, big bass tone, and more sustain, heavier strings will provide all of that.
Rather than being labeled as “light” or “heavy,” classical guitar strings are classified as having low, medium, or high tension.
This unit refers to the weight of tension placed on the guitar’s neck. High tension strings are louder, brighter, and have a quicker attack but are harder to play. Low tension strings tend to have a more balanced sound and less stiffness but will not project as well.
The terms “high” and “low” tension are unstandardized and vary between brands, so be sure to check manufacturer’s websites to see exact tension weights as well as string gauges.
Attention! Heavier or larger strings, on any type of guitar, will put more tension on the guitar neck. This can cause warping or damage if a guitar is unaccustomed to that higher pressure, especially if it’s vintage or hasn’t been used in a while.
How the wire is wrapped around the solid core of a guitar string greatly changes the feel and sound of guitar strings. Even players who are just starting out can feel and hear the difference right away.
There are three main ways that are used to wrap strings: roundwound, flatwound, and half-round.
Roundwound strings are by far the most widely-used, versatile, available, and cheapest option for guitar strings.
These strings use round wire to wrap the inner core and that gives the strings a textured surface that makes it easy for the player to grip on to. As a result, roundwound strings are usually preferred for styles that require lots of bending, such as blues or rock.
The tone of roundwound strings also lends itself to rock, folk, and other styles of music where the guitar needs to stand out. Compared to flatwound strings, roundwound strings have a brighter sound, more sustain, and a greater upper harmonic presence.
Unfortunately, the coarse winding will lead to more string noise (which may actually be a good thing for aggressive musical styles) and slightly more wear on the frets.
Flatwound strings are generally preferred by jazz guitarists and other players who like a mellow, round, and warm sound. They are also the most common type of bass guitar string!
Since flatwound strings wind a flat wire around the string core they feel much smoother than roundwound strings and the player can easily glide across them. However, many players may find them too slippery and they are harder to grip for bending.
These strings are often paired with a semi-hollow guitar and are more expensive than roundwound strings.
Half-round strings occupy the middle ground between flat and roundwound. They are harder to play than roundwounds but have a brighter sound than flatwounds.
These strings are expensive and quite hard to find. Unless you’ve experimented extensively with both round and flatwound strings and know you’re looking for something in between the two, you probably don’t need to worry about half-round strings.
String core refers to the shape of the wire core beneath the outer winding of wound strings. There are only two different shapes, hex core and round core.
Although hex cores in strings were invented after round cores they are now the industry standard and the main core shape for most guitar strings. As you can imagine, a cross-section of the wire shape beneath the outer winding is a hexagon.
Since the edges of a hexagon are sharp, these cores are great at gripping the outer wire, which makes it easy to manufacture machine-wound strings, and preventing slippage.
This dependability leads to a more consistent tone between batches. Hex core strings also tend to be stiffer and provide a brighter, more modern tone with a stronger attack than round core strings.
Round core strings have a round wire core and are usually still wound by hand. They are a bit harder to find than hex core strings but some players prefer the sound of round core strings.
The benefits of round core strings are a small increase in sustain, a gentler attack, and a warmer tone. These qualities attract jazz, blues, and other players looking for a mellow sound.
Be careful though as round core strings are not as consistent as those with hex cores and the outer wrapping may be more likely to slip.
Coated strings were introduced in 1997 with the goal of extending string life by coating regular guitar strings in a plastic polymer. This coating protects the strings against grime and oxidation and gives them a smooth feel with very little squeakiness as well as making them last longer.
Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of slightly reduced brightness and sustain and a higher cost. The higher cost can be offset by the longer string life but to some the tone of coated strings does not have enough punch.
Let’s briefly compare the two styles of coating: nanoweb and polyweb.
Nanoweb strings are covered in a very light polymer coating. This allows them to sound more similar to uncoated strings but the thin coating does less to extend the life of the strings.
Polyweb strings have a thicker polymer coating than nanoweb strings. As a result, the string life is greatly lengthened but the upper frequencies of the strings are quite muted.
For someone looking for a punchy and bright tone, polyweb strings are probably not the way to go!
Hopefully this article has helped you understand the many different characteristics and types of guitar strings out there.
It’s important to remember that different guitars and players respond in unique ways to different string types. While the information in this article provides a good starting point, the only way to determine which strings you want to use is by trying some different sets and seeing what works for your instrument and playing style.
However, that exploration is all part of the fun of learning an instrument and crafting your personal sound! Happy searching!