How To Choose Guitar Strings When You Are In A Hurry

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If you just want to buy a basic set of strings, here's a list of the features you should be looking for.

Acoustic Guitar

That's all you need to get a decent set of strings without extra frills and without doing a ton of research.

You can probably find cheaper strings - and you can definitely find more expensive strings - but this is a good baseline. It covers the basics. You won't be paying for any unnecessary frills, but you won't be disappointed with a set like this.

If you want to know a little more about what these features really mean, read on, or use the links in the table above.

This post is one of a series that covers the technical aspects of guitar strings.

String Material

For electric or bass guitars, look for nickel-plated steel strings, sometimes called nickel-wound or nickel-coated. These are by far the most common kind. Pure-nickel or stainless-steel are safe choices also, but don't worry about exotic materials for now.

For acoustic or electro-acoustic guitars look for 80/20 bronze strings, which are sometimes called "bronze/brass strings". 80/20s are basically the "standard" acoustic guitar string, but compound strings (often called "Silk and Steel") and phosphor-bronze strings are also popular and would be reasonable choices. One thing to look out for, though, is that some acoustic guitars are made for nylon strings and can't support the tension produced by metal or compound strings. But unless your guitar came with nylon strings to begin with you don't need to worry about this. Nylon strings are typically only found on very delicate guitars (like the "classical" guitars used in Flamenco) or on very cheap guitars.

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String Gauge

Gauge is just another word for the thickness or width of a string. Specifically, gauge is the diameter of the string (in cross-section).

The gauge of a guitar string is usually measured in thousands of an inch, varying from around 0.006 inch to 0.140 inch (0.152 mm to 3.556 mm) at the extreme ends of the range.

You can buy individual strings and multiples of the same string, but it is common and convenient to buy strings in pre-packaged sets of 6 (for guitar) or 4 (for bass) strings of different gauges, one for each string on your guitar.

These sets are usually labelled by weight so you'll see packages of Light or even Ultra-Light strings and packages of Heavy strings. There is no standard definition of those terms. If you compare two different sets of light strings you may find that some or all of the strings have slightly different gauges. But most sets will look roughly like this:

  e B G D A E
super light .008" .010" .015" .021" .030" .038"
extra light .009" .011" .016" .024" .032" .042"
light .010" .013" .017" .026" .036" .046"
medium .011" .015" .018" .026" .036" .050"
heavy .012" .016" .020" .032" .042" .054"

Sometimes the string gauge will be abbreviated, such that 0.011 inches may be listed as just 011 or even 11.

Also, guitarists sometimes refer to sets of strings by the gauge of the thinnest string, the high E. A set of medium strings might be referred to as "elevens". Light strings might be called "tens".

Gauge can be tricky. Some guitars are specially designed for light strings and may even be damaged by the tension produced by heavy gauge strings. Some guitars are designed for heavier strings and will sound weak and lifeless with strings that are too light. But unless your guitar is especially delicate light or medium weight strings are usually fine.

Electric guitarists may prefer medium-weight strings since they are sturdy enough for heavier gauge strings. But lights are easier to fret, and their tone is little bit brighter, so they aren't a bad or unpopular choice. New guitars seem to be shipped with light or super-light strings, which break easily and may not be the best choice for your style or your technique.

Bass guitarists may prefer medium-weight strings but note that the terms "light" and "medium" are scaled-up for bass strings: a light bass string will have a larger gauge than a light guitar string.

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String Core

There are two basic types of guitar string.

Hex-core and round-core strings differ in the shape of that core wire.

Hex-core strings are by far the most popular and are basically the "standard" format, but not because they sound better. Hex-core strings are popular because they are easier to make.

They do have a slightly different tone. Some guitarists think that round-core strings provide a warmer, "vintage" sound. Others might call the round-core sound "muddy".

Both round-core and hex-core strings are fine but round-core are often more expensive or harder to find.

See this post for more about string construction and its impact on tone.

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String Wind

Heavy gauge guitar strings are usually wrapped, which means they are composed of a "wrap wire" tightly wrapped around a "core" wire.

The shape and configuration of that wrap wire is know as the "wind" or "winding" of the string.

Roundwound strings are the conventional choice. In a roundwound string a cross section of the wrap wire would look like a circle. This makes relatively deep grooves between each loop of the wrap wire, which is why roundwound strings feel a little rough when you run your fingers down them.

In a flatwound guitar string the cross section of the wrap wire is flatter, almost like a ribbon. This fills most of the gaps between each loop, which makes flatwound strings feel smooth to the touch.

Flatwound strings are actually really nice, and you should give them a try sometime, but flatwounds sound muddier and more muted than rounds. Roundwound strings are the "normal" choice for guitar.

Flatwounds are popular with jazz guitarists and some bassists of all genres, among others.

See this post for more about string construction and its impact on tone.

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Coated Strings

Some guitar strings are coated in a thin layer of Teflon. This is meant to protect the string from oil, grime and sweat, given them a longer life. And they do. But they are usually more expensive. And most guitarists seem to agree they sound and feel a little worse than uncoated strings. If you are buying guitar strings for the first time - or even the third time - you probably want to skip the coating.

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String Length

Bassists will want to pay more attention to the length of the strings, since there is variation in the length of the neck of bass guitars, which is known as the bass's "scale". The scale of a bass guitar is the distance from the nut to the bridge.

When buying bass strings make sure that the strings are long enough for your instrument, but you don't want them to be too long if you can avoid that. You can cut a long string down to size, but there's a risk of the cut end starting to fray and some players would argue that longer-than-necessary strings are bad for tone, whether cut or just wrapped around the post a bunch of times.

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From Liner Notes, the FATpick blog

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