With so many brands and types of guitar strings out there, how do you know which one is right for your guitar?
A string’s gauge (or thickness) and the material it’s made of influence your guitar’s tone and playability. So it’s useful to figure out which strings sound and feel best to you. If you bring your guitar to a store for a string change and you don’t know what kind you want, there’s a chance the guitar tech will select strings for you that he or she uses. That’s fine if you both have the same style. But what if the tech plays heavy metal and you prefer jazz? Those new strings might not let you play at your best.
Fortunately, strings are not too expensive. Go ahead and experiment with different types to see what suits your guitar and unique playing style best. The results might surprise you!
To help you along, here’s a basic guide to strings, followed by a quick rundown of strings preferred by some of our NYC Guitar School teachers!! You’ll discover that their string preferences are as individual as their style of playing.
Quick guide to strings
- 80/20 bronze (bright tone)
- Phosphor bronze (warm tone)
Electric and Bass
- Nickel-plated steel (bright tone)–most commonly used
- Flat wound (dark, mellower tone)
- Half round (smoother feel & fuller tone than flat wound)
- Pure nickel (rich, clean tones give off a 1950s vibe)
- Stainless steel (brightest tone)
- Nylon (most common)
- Treble strings: Transparent nylon
- Bass strings: Wound with a multi-filament composite or multi-filament nylon core typically made from bronze (bright tone) or silver (warm tone)
When acoustic or electric strings are “coated,” it means they’re covered in a corrosion-resistant material. For players with sweaty or oily hands, a coated string may last a little longer than an uncoated one. These strings sound better after they’ve been played than when they’re brand new.
All guitar strings graduate in size from thin to thick. When talking about their preferred gauge, people usually refer to the thickness measurement of the high E–saying, for example, “I use 11s”–letting the high E stand in for the whole set of strings. But graduated thickness in string sets can vary, depending on a player’s need. Sometimes you’ll see sets of strings described as .011-.052 or .011-.056, a set of numbers that includes the thickness of the high and low E strings. On a standard 4-string bass guitar, the thinnest gauge starts with the G string.
General rule of thumb for string gauge:
Electric and acoustic
- Light: .007 and .008: Perfect for lots of note bending or if you have a problem with your hands, like carpal tunnel
- Medium: .009, .010, .011: Heavier strings mean a fuller the tone, but more difficult to bend
- Heavy: .012 and up: Creates lots of tone and sustain, also makes up lost string tension resulting from alternate tunings
Bass—standard 4 string
- Light: .035 – .040
- Medium: .045
- Heavy: .050-.055
- High/Hard tension: More difficult to play than lower tensions, produces more volume, player can attack the notes
- Medium tension: Well-balanced sound and tension; good starting point for players
- Low tension: Easiest to play; produces lowest sound; a good choice if your guitar tends toward high action
Pro tip: If you change the gauge of your strings, your guitar’s string action may need adjusting. Less tension on the neck from lighter strings will tend to raise the action (move strings away from the frets); heavier strings cause the opposite situation.
When should you change your strings? Some players change them every day. Some people never change them. Some do it when the strings sound dull, they look dirty, or it looks like tiny fibrous shreds are hanging off them. Like everything else related to strings, it’s another part of every guitar player’s learning process. When to change them is up to you.
Before diving into the ocean of strings out there, check out what some of our NYC Guitar School teachers have to say about their string preferences.
Guitars: Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Charnel Super Strat (all electric)
Strings: D’Addario XL. “These are brighter and sit better in a mix with other instruments. I like D’Addario because they are a local company—my old student is their current brand manager.”
Gauge (high E): .009 “9 gauge strings are easy to bend in tune and manipulate for vibrato.”
When do you change your strings? “Every four months or so.”
Guitar: Taylor 514-C acoustic
Strings: LaBella, phosphor bronze, uncoated. “A wound, 3rd string (G string) is essential for acoustic guitars.”
Gauge (high E): .011 “I used to use really heavy strings—14s. But as I got older, I came to enjoy strings that are relatively easy to bend and push down. I like the feel of 11s under my fingers. They’re good for strumming and also picking individual notes.”
When do you change your strings? “When my strings feel a little brittle or sound dull, I know it’s time to change them. I usually change them a couple times a year.”
String wisdom: “The most fun electric guitar strings might be DR Neon Multi-Color strings. They are really fun to play and are brightly colored.”
Guitar: Taylor 814ce acoustic
Strings: D’Addario, phosphor bronze. “I try different brands, but D’Addario is my go-to. They sound and feel right. Phosphor bronze is a good match for this guitar. 80/20 is too brash and nickel bronze is too mid-rangey . D’Addarios seem to have a decent lifespan. I’ve also been happy with Martin Lifespans, Cleartones, Santa Cruz, and John Pearse. It sometimes feels boring to go back to D’Addarios instead of trying something new, but every time I put them on, I’m happy. The only strings I ever played that were a dud were, believe it or not, super-expensive German gold-plated strings a student gave me. I put them on and they were uninspiring. They went dead almost immediately.”
Gauge (high E): .012 “Usually I use uncoated, but sometimes coated.”
When do you change your strings? “I change them every 3-6 months when they sound like rubber bands and lose their zingy magic. In my guitar case, I keep a nerdy little record of string changes. I record the date I changed the strings, brand and type of string, and whether I liked them.”
String wisdom: “What matters most to me is the string’s alloy and the gauge, not the brand.”
Guitar: John Price Classical 07
Strings: Augustine Red Regal, nylon. “These strings have a beautiful treble.”
When do you change your strings? “After 60 hours of playing.”
String wisdom: “We’ve come a long way since cat gut strings—not that I wouldn’t use them.”
Guitar: Yamaha AE-11 electric
Strings: D’Addario XL or Thomastik Bebop, nickel plated steel
Gauge (high E): .014 “I wish there were thicker strings, which I like cause I can dig in and make a big sound. I also don’t wanna be afraid to break them in case I play rough.”
When do you change your strings? “I change them about every two months, when they start losing pitch, sound thinner, and don’t feel as good.”
String wisdom: “Round wound strings are a great way to make your electric guitar have more of an acoustic sound. Flat wounds are too muddy for me.”
Guitar: Kiesel Vader electric
Strings: D’Aaddario NYXL, nickel-plated steel. “A friend recommended them to me, and I think they’re good. But I might not even notice if someone swapped them out for something else.”
Gauge (high E): .008 “I like 8s and 9s, but I might try 7s soon!”
When do you change your strings? “I’m so lazy about that! I pretty much change when the strings break or I take the guitar in for a set up—every six months or so.”
String wisdom: “I pay more attention to action and string gauge than the brand of strings. I prefer the lowest possible action and very light strings. This helps me move around a lot.”
Guitar: Gibson ES-345 electric
String brand: Brand n/a, pure nickel. “If you’re looking for a warmer tone for your strings, pure nickel is a great option compared to steel or nickel-plated.”
Gauge (high E): .010
When do you change your strings? “When my strings start feeling stiff and lose their supple feel, I know it’s time for a change. Additionally, slight tuning and intonation issues are also signs that a string change is necessary.”
String wisdom: “It’s worth considering round core vs. hex core, as round core strings tend to be more flexible.”
Guitar: Fender bass
Strings: Thomastik-Infield Jazz Flats, flat wound. “These strings feel soft and easy on your fingers. The tone is as you might expect from a flat wound string, but with a nice bump to help cut through a mix. Plus, they last forever. Second choice is New York’s own LaBella low-tension flats.”
Gauge (G string): .043
When do you change your strings? “Never! I’ve had the same set on my bass for over a decade.”
String wisdom: “The price for Thomastik-Infield Jazz Flats is high, but when you factor in how seldom you need to change them, the price is quite economical. Other brands make good flat wound strings that are more affordable but nothing compares to Thomastik’s sound and feel.”