Finding the best electric guitar strings can be highly personal and subjective. The best sound for one may not be the best sound for the other hundred guitarists in town. In fact, your best tone now may not be your best as you play and discover more while playing the guitar.
The goal is to be open to experiment and find a better feel, better sound.
The tone and feel of the strings always go together. It’s one thing to feel it but wait ‘til you hear it – they are simply inseparable factors to consider when choosing electric guitar strings. You might need to explore different sets of strings from different brands to find the strings that will make you want to play more and play better.
How to Choose Electric Guitar Strings
Guitar strings are your fingers best friend and they are extremely important in sound production. A great tone is always affected by the strings you pick. Thus, we don’t take lightly how we choose our own pack of strings.
Here are the top seven factors on how to choose electric guitar strings.
- String Gauge
- String Material
- String Coating
- String Core
- String Winding
- String Ends
- String Brand
String gauge is the thickness or the diameter of the string, designated in thousandths of an inch. It is also described as light, medium and heavy gauges.
Sometimes, string sets are identified by the gauge of the smallest gauge string (high E string) in eights, nines or tens.
Other brands may include the thickest gauge (low E string) in the description such as .009-042 string gauge (.009 – high E gauge; 042 – low E gauge).
Here is the typical gauge ranges for electric guitar string sets from bottom (thinnest) to top (thickest) strings, E B G D A E:
|String Gauge||High E |
|Low E |
|Extra Super Light||.008||.010||.015||.021||.030||.038|
The 10-gauge string set is the most popular among guitarists who want a fair balance between tone and playability for different musical styles and genres. They provide a blend of tension and flexibility.
The 9-gauge is the next most popular for those who want light touch and reduced tension for bending. These two are pretty easy on your fingers and are probably best for beginners because they require less pressure to fret.
However, for those who want a slightly darker tone for drop or alternate tunings, an 11-gauge string set can be your starter pack. They are a little harder to pick or fret but you’ll eventually get used to it.
Heavier vs. Lighter Gauge
Generally, lighter gauges are easy on fingers, best for bending and fretting, and they have a brighter tone. However, they also break more easily, prone to buzzing and with less volume and sustain.
Heavier gauges are, of course, the opposite. They provide more volume and sustain, darker in tone, and require more pressure when fretting and bending due to thickness. They are harder to play but you can always overcome this obstacle with greater finger strength. Just make sure your fingers are ready to workout!
Nickel is the most common with three variations: nickel–wound, nickel plated, and pure nickel. All of the three are generally warm with a classic tone.
Nickel Plated Steel Strings are the most popular as it offers balance between the two other variations, giving an even mix of smooth, clear, bright and snappy sound.
Pure Nickel is also something to consider for those who prefer a warmer and smoother tone.
Stainless Steel Strings are brighter, edgy, punchy and crispy, perfect for those who play for higher attack and presence.
Slinky Cobalt Electric Guitar Strings from the biggest guitar string maker, Ernie Ball, also compete by giving extra dynamic frequency range and excellent harmonic response. They are considerably softer on fingers, making string bending easier.
We also have other materials like Titanium strings with a bright tone, Chrome strings for jazz and blues players who prefer warm tones.
String coating was purposely integrated in the late 90s for increased durability using polymer. The coating protects the strings from dirt build-up, corrosion and oxidation. This coating is applicable for both nickel and steel strings.
It generally extends the life of a string, and gives a smooth feel to your fingers. A couple of disadvantages, however, would be slightly reduced brightness and sustain, and a little increased in cost.
We have 2 types of coating available in the market: nanoweb, and polyweb.
Nanoweb strings are coated very lightly with polymer and they sound almost the same with uncoated strings while Polyweb strings get a thicker polymer coating. If you want to keep a bright tone with an extended string life, nanoweb strings are the way to go!
The core wire of a string is also delicately formed in two styles before it’s covered by an outer winding.
Round Core – They are literally “round” wires that are usually wound by hand. This is quite a choice for those who are looking for more mellow sound and sustain like jazz, blues and fingerpicked folk players. However, this type is harder to find, gets out of tune more easily, and the outer wraps are more likely to slip.
Hex Core – This type of strings have hexagonal core wire. The hexagonal shape prevents the outer wire from slipping, it also provides a more consistent bright tone with a stronger attack than round core wires. They have become the main shape and the industry standard for guitar strings’ core wires.
Typically, the first three strings (high E, B, and G) are unwound. The rest of the strings (low E, A and D) are covered by outer windings, and they serve as the bass strings.
The three common ways used to wrap string cores are:
This winding uses round wire to cover the inner core string. They are more available, and the cheapest option for guitar strings. Also, this type is the most popular or widely used and versatile with textured surface for better grip. Roundwound electric guitar strings are brighter in tone, it has more sustain and harmonic presence.
Flatwound uses flat wire to wrap the inner core string. This winding is a popular choice for jazz and blues. Their strings are smoother, more warm, mellow and are perfectly paired with semi-hollow guitars. However, they are also more expensive, quite slippery and harder to grip for bending.
Also known as ground round or the third type of string. It is a combination of flat and roundwound. These strings are fuller and brighter in tone than flatwound strings, and they feel smoother than roundwound. This type is more expensive and harder to find.
Oftentimes, we fail to notice this small part of a string. As a beginner, we see it simply as something to anchor the string to the bridge, body or neck of the guitar.
- Ball Ends vs. Bullet Ends
Ball-end has been the standard end string design over many years. The most common ball end has a barrel shape placed onto the string end to secure it on the bridge of the guitar. However, that doesn’t end there, the ball-end loop has a serious effect on tuning stability.
When using tremolo or while bending the strings, the movement on the bridge might cause a slight displacement of the ball end position resulting in potential tuning issues.
To solve this problem, Fender engineers created bullet-end (or super bullet) strings to improve tuning stability and sustain.
The bullet-end provides better string-bridge contact. The main downside of this type is its size. This string end was originally made for their Stratocaster guitars. If this is the guitar you currently have, this is your best pick. If not, you may have to try and check carefully if it fits well to your bridge.
Different string brands may offer the same gauge, same materials but they still create two completely different sets of strings. The method or individual processing of every manufacturer is always unique resulting in a variety of string tones.
As a beginner, it may be hard to choose from several brands available in the market. To keep your list of brand options short and accurate, these three popular string brands will not disappoint you.
- Ernie Ball
All of them offer high quality electric guitar strings, you just need to choose their specific tone, feel and durability. There are also guitar brands that offer their own set of strings like Fender and Gibson Accessories.
String Life and Maintenance
Guitar string maintenance is a top priority to achieve great tone!
How and When to Change Strings
The rule of thumb for beginners is every 100 hours or 3 months whether you regularly or rarely play guitar.
The frequency of time may change depending how often and intensely you play the guitar or even how sweaty your hands can get causing the strings to wear out or break easily. If you’re playing live in a gig, you will have to get a new set of electric guitar strings every time.
If you want some physical evidence to check if the strings are in good condition, you will need your three senses actively working – eyesight, hearing and touch. If they look rusty, feel dirty and sound dull, it’s definitely time to change your strings.
- New strings look clean, they are bright and shiny. They are also smooth on your fingers and they sound bright and crispy, and they’re pretty easy to tune.
- Old strings look stained, rusty or discolored and they sound bad. Not only that, they are hard to tune and they get out of tune more often.
When changing the strings on your electric guitar, I recommend using a string winder and a wire cutter. The method of changing the string may slightly vary depending on the bridge design of your guitar.
This part is basic but needs dedication – you need to keep your hands and strings clean all the time!
Wash your hands before you start playing to avoid oxidation. You also have to keep a clean and soft cloth handy to wipe the strings before and after playing the guitar to remove dirt and oils.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can invest in cleaning products and tools to keep your strings and even the fretboard in good shape.
Experience and Explore!
They said, “the only thing between you and your guitar are the strings”, make sure it connects you rather than separates you.
You have a world of possibilities with different brands and variations on gauge, materials and other set up. Play around and explore different sounds and feels with all the unique specifications they offer.
Make sure you come equipped when buying your own set of electric guitar strings. Don’t forget to always buy an extra in case it snaps or you have a change of mind in the tone you want to produce.