Have you ever heard the expression “So many instruments to play, so little time to do that?” What we all usually do is try to find a guitar that connects with us on a different level and gives just the right chills during playing and stick with it. But what about the strings – when was the last time you changed them? And what brand do you prefer?
If you’re having a hard time answering those questions, I’m happy to say that our acoustic guitar strings guide has got you covered. Today, we’ll talk about the ins and outs of picking just the right strings for your trusted instrument and introduce some of the best offers on the market depending on your personal preferences.
Now, I’m sure that you very well know the difference between low-budget and expensive strings and don’t need me to tell you about it. And, most of us also know first-hand how brand-new acoustic strings sound in comparison to old ones. But that’s pretty much all we care about. After all, a string is a string, right, and it is way more important to choose the right instrument and learn how to play it. Not quite, my friends!
Different brands use different materials, coatings, gauges, and cores, which means once you switch from your trusty strings to something new, it will feel like someone has stolen your guitar and switched it with another one. Yes, the difference is that big.
Understanding The Importance Of Picking The Right Strings
The bottom line is – you need to be searching for the best acoustic guitar strings just as meticulously as you would be looking for a dope guitar. Martin, Ernie Ball, D’Addario – those are some of the brands that we’ll check out in this review as they are the leaders of the industry right now. Experimentation is the key to success – that’s what the scientists usually say. The same method applies to our situation. Keep scrolling through numerous strings packs before you find the one that clicks both with your heart and your soul. But before you drop everything and hop on an exciting adventure towards the finest acoustic guitar strings in the world, let us tell you a bit about the basics.
The gauge, the material, and the coating have a huge impact on how a certain pack of strings sounds, and you need to understand the theory first and only then use your knowledge in practice. Thankfully, guitar strings are pretty affordable (you can buy high-quality strings for 5-15 dollars), which allows you to try out different brands and sizes without having to worry about the cost of it all. Remember: bronze strings are the cheapest ones, while coated strings will cost you the most. If you buy several packs at once, you might be able to get a better deal. Alright, let’s get right to it then!
Wait, is this really necessary? Yes, it is. Say, steel-string acoustic guitars are best suited for rock, country, and blues, while classic guitars with nylon strings are usually used for flamenco and folk music. Furthermore, if you try to put steel strings on a guitar that is intended for nylon strings you’ll probably damage the instrument. The thing is – the fragile construction of the neck of a classical guitar and the top bracing can’t actually handle the immense pressure that steel strings put on them. Therefore, unless you want to ruin an otherwise perfectly fine guitar, keep this in mind. At the same time, most of us play steel-string guitars; so, don’t even worry about this.
The Huge World Of String Gauges
Ok, it’s time to get down to business. We use the term “guitar strings gauge” to determine the diameter of a string. The musicians prefer to use a much simple term – fatness. This factor has the greatest impact on the sound and the feel of the guitar. As a general rule, lighter strings are much easier to play; on the downside, they break easily and you’ll have to change them more often. Heavier strings, in turn, come with a fuller, round tone, and are usually louder. Furthermore, it won’t be that easy to break them. The fans of loud, aggressive strumming will definitely like heavy-gauge strings better. The fatness or the gauge starts with 0.10 (of an inch) and goes all the way up to 0.59.
Lighter Gauge Strings:
- Easy to play, best for the beginners
- Techniques like bending and fretting are easier to perform (great for blues and solos)
- Not the loudest strings in the world
- Tend to break
- If you own a guitar with low action, light strings will make the fret buzz
- or older guitars, light strings are the better choice as they put less tension on the neck
- On small-body guitars, light-gauge strings sound prettier
- The fans of fingerpicking will have more fun
Heavier Gauge Strings:
- Harder to play, require more skills
- To bend those notes and to fret, you’ll need to apply more pressure with your fingers
- Significantly louder than the lighter strings
- Put more tension on the neck of the guitar
- Heavy strummers will appreciate the sustain and durability
- For doing slides and dropping the tune, heavy strings are the best
- In jazz music, bending is not important; so, go with a heavy acoustic guitar string pack
- With low-action guitars, you won’t get any fret buzz
Going From Extra Light To Heavy
Most brands out there identify the thickness of their strings with terms like “light”, “medium”, and so on. I have to mention that different manufacturers may offer slightly different gauges, but that’s not really something to take into consideration. Note: all those numbers might look a bit “intimidating” at this moment, but I’m sure you’ll make sense of it all (if you haven’t done that already). Alright, let’s take a look at the available gauge string sets:
- The Extra light set: .010; .014; .023; .030; .039; .047
- The Custom light set: .011; .015; .023; .032; .042; .052
- The Light Set: .012; .016; .025; .032; .042; .054
- The Medium Set: .013; .017; .026; .035; .045; .056
- The Heavy Set: .014; .018; .027; .039; .049; .059
Picking Just The Right Gauge For Your Guitar
Alright, so, we’ve learned the difference between the various sizes. Plus, we know about the cons and pros of both the light and the heavy strings. Still, we need to determine which set will be right for you.
The Body Size. As mentioned earlier, go with lighter gauge strings if you own a small-bodied guitar. On the other hand, if your instrument is large, don’t be afraid to pair it with heavy gauges. Nothing hard about that.
The Playing Style. Depending on your favorite style, you’ll need to buy different strings. For picking, light-gauge strings are best. For strumming, medium/heavy sets are best. But what if you like both styles? Then go with a light-medium string pack. With it, you’ll get light gauges on the top 3 strings and heavy gauges on the bottom 3 strings. Pretty smart, huh?
The Tone. If you love clear, precise, treble-happy acoustic guitars, then go with lighter strings. In contrast, for a heavier tone with an accentuated low-end, heavy strings will do the job. For subtle strumming/picking, it’s important to have strings that will add a certain amount of crisp to the high-end frequencies.
The “Age” Of The Guitar. I mentioned this earlier: don’t put super-heavy strings on your decades-old guitar. It might not be able to handle the pressure. Vintage acoustic guitars usually cost a lot, so, don’t go ruining your new purchase by destroying the neck with heavy strings. At the same time, most of us don’t even have to worry about that, because we usually own brand-new acoustic guitars from the local stores.
Still think that there’s nothing more to a string than the price-tag? Well, you’re wrong…again. There are quite a few material types that the manufacturers use to create the best strings for acoustic guitar fans. The materials heavily impact the tone of the strings and the durability. Let’s take a look at the most popular types of guitar strings:
- Bronze. These are suited for pretty much every playing style out there and consist 80% of copper and 20% of zinc. The tone is bright, open, and, well, zingy; however, bronze usually ages quickly, which means you’ll have to buy a new pack of strings sooner than you think. Still, if that bright tone is what you’re looking for, this is a side-effect you’ll have to deal with. Or maybe not?
- Phosphor Bronze. Naturally, the phosphor is used by our kind to prevent oxidation. In our case, that will make sure the strings last for a lot longer. In the epic phosphor bronze vs 80 20 battle (Google it to see what I’m talking about), my money is on the phosphor. Do keep in mind, though, that while these strings are still open and sound very bright, they are much warmer. As always, it depends on what you need at the moment.
- Aluminum Bronze. If you’re looking for a mightier low-end and crispy, bright highs, go with these strings.
- Silk And Steel. AKA the compound strings, they are very flexible and offer a mellow sound. This is achieved thanks to the significantly lower tension of the strings compared to bronze strings. The pros call them the golden middle between the good-old metal strings and the nylon strings that classic guitars come with. At the same time, they aren’t very loud and won’t last as long as, say, the Phosphor Bronze strings.
- Brass. These strings are typically bright and metallic. Buy them only if you’re sure you’re after that type of a sound.
- Polymer-coated. Compared to the uncoated ones, these strings have less sustain and come with a darker tone. If you’re looking for warmth and want mid-range presence, this is your best pick.
The biggest players in the business, including Martin, offer phosphor bronze packs with various alloy compositions. They name them 80/20 and 92/8, for example. As for the polymer-coated strings, you’ll find sets with special silk wraps (on the ball ends, of course) that reduce the tension and thus make sure the saddle, the bridge, and the end plate of your instrument long live, happy lives.
Learning More About Nylon Strings
Tension. You’ve got a choice between low/light, normal/medium, and high/hard. Low-tension strings are easier to play but don’t forget about the possible buzz. The best ones are usually the strings with medium tension.
Materials. The treble strings are typically made of nylon (clear or rectified). Carbon fiber is another popular material for treble nylon strings. As for the bass strings, bronze/silver-plated copper wire is the best.
Coating – What’s It All About?
We discussed polymer-coated strings just now, but let’s learn more about the concept. Elixir, one of the finest companies that make guitar strings turned a lot of heads when they developed the so-called “coated” strings. Those clever folks decided to cover the strings with a polymer coating, thus protecting the metal from dirt, sweat, and everything else in between. As a result, coated strings are more durable and reliable (they last 3-4 times longer!) and are smoother and feel nice under your fingers. The only downsides are the slightly “duller” sound and a bit less sustain. Cool fact: some strings are cryogenically frozen to last even longer. Cool, huh?
The Difference Between Round And Hex String Cores
Did you know that there’s a core wire that’s hidden underneath the outer winding of the three bass strings? Well, it can be either round or hex. Back in the day, all strings were round. However, when D’Addario introduced the hex cores, they quickly became the new standard. You might think that this is way too “nerdy” and a regular player doesn’t need to know about any of it, but you’re wrong.
To make the right choice, you need to have all the cards on the table, so to speak. Here’s a quick comparison between the two to help you better understand what you’re dealing with.
- Comes with a warmer, darker sound
- Generally, it has more sustain
- The attack is not rough but rather smooth and gentle
- The old-school tone might be what you’re looking for
- Yet, the tone isn’t consistent
- You have to tune it before trimming.
- Stiffer, hard to bend
- Comes with a bright, crisp sound
- Not as much sustain
- The attack is stronger, more in-your-face
- The modern tone is more suited for, well, modern-day music
- The tone is consistent
So, when Should You Change Your Acoustic Guitar Strings?
- If your strings are getting rusty and/or you’re noticing discoloration, that means it’s time to go shopping.
- Is it getting harder to get the instrument in tune and to keep it there? Well, you desperately need a new pack.
- When the tone of the guitar starts to get “flat” and loses its brightness, it’s a clear sign that the strings are getting old.
- The wraps are coming off and the core is getting exposed.
Checking Out The Best Acoustic Strings On The Market
Alright, that’s pretty much everything I wanted to tell you about the theory behind picking the best guitar strings for acoustic “axes”. Now it’s time to take a look at some of the best offers that are currently available worldwide. Our list includes the most popular, respected, and recognized manufacturers: Martin, D’Addario, Elixir, Ernie Ball, DR, Fender, and GRS. Obviously, those aren’t the only brands that make acoustic strings, but they are, indeed, the leaders and offer the customers affordable prices along with top-notch quality. If you know some manufacturers that make better strings, then please, let us know!
This company has been around since 1833 (yep, that’s almost 200 years) and are considered to be the most popular and best-known high-quality acoustic guitar manufactured on our planet. And when it comes to strings, they know exactly what the customers want. They’ve got an impressive collection of strings for every single musician out there. As a brand that cares about its reputation and always puts it above all, they never disappoint. You’ll be able to find Martin strings for every single style and sound.
– The M540 Phosphor Bronze Strings ($4, 4; medium) are one of the most low-budget options on the market and they still sound like a million bucks.
– Other impressive phosphor bronze packs include Lifespan SP coated ($21; light) and Acoustic SP uncoated ($8; light). They are both light and have beautiful tones.
– For bronze, I’d recommend the medium 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Strings (#20, 5). These are one of the finest Martin guitar strings.
– Looking for some solid silk and steel strings? Check out the M1400 Marquis Folk Guitar Strings ($14, 5). These light strings are equally soft and bright.
– For a classic guitar, go with the M260 Bronze Strings ($11, 5).
– And finally, for that vintage touch, go with the MM12 Retro Monel Strings ($10, 5; light). Made of nickel and copper, they are crisp and warm.
Officially, this company was founded in 1974. However, they’ve been in the business since the 30s and are today among the oldest and most cherished manufacturers of guitar strings. According to some sources, they have been around since the 1600s. D’addario started out as a small family business in Italy and turned into a global leader. The finest acoustic bands from all over the world swear by their strings and never switch to a different brand. Speaking of reputation, I have to say that D’addario has even more respect among the professionals than Martin (yep, that’s possible).
– The most fan-favored string range is the exceptional Phosphor Bronze EJ series ($6, 99; light). These strings are quite bright but not sizzling and have a balanced tone. As for gauges, you can choose between extra light and heavy.
– The EXP series is also worth checking out. They are made of a very strong steel wire and come with thin coating, which allowed the manufacturer to keep the tone intact while protecting the strings.
– For 80/20, go with the EJ11 uncoated ($7, 8; light) or the EXP11 coated ($15; light).
– If phosphor bronze is your material of choice, I’d recommend taking a look at the EJ16 uncoated ($23, 5; light; yes, it’s a bit steep) and the EXP16 coated ($18; light).
– The EJ40 pack ($16; light) comes with the finest light silk and steel strings from D’Addario. They are just as good as the Martin acoustic guitar strings, if not better.
– And finally, the EJ45 Pro Arte ($12) is the best choice for classical guitars (normal tension, clear nylon).
As we already learned, this US-based company has always been one of the leaders and is constantly working on new developments that change the industry. Elixir was founded in 1995 and they are the pioneers of coated strings. Even though Elixir came up with this clever technology almost 2 decades ago, it’s still an industry standard and no other brand can beat them at their own game. Now, there are two coatings available from this brand, and there are some small-yet-important differences. For a crisper sound, go with NANOWEB. And if a warm, darker tone is what you need, pick a pack of Elixir acoustic strings with POLYWEB coating.
– Elixir doesn’t have as many sets of strings on the market as its rivals, but it does have its trademark 80/20 Bronze strings available with both coatings. 80/20 NANO ($21; light) is crisp; 80/20 POLY ($22, 5; light) is warm.
– Phosphor bronze is only available in NANO. The 92/8 Phosphor Bronze strings ($23; light) come with a very bright sound.
Based in California, Ernie Ball is, without a doubt, one of the best manufacturers of strings (of all types and sizes). The Ernie Ball acoustic strings are well-known by the professional musicians and always make it into all kinds of “Top-10” lists. Both beginners and masters appreciate the quality, the tone, and the love that Ernie Ball puts into its strings.
Legendary people like Paul McCartney and John Mayer choose this company’s product over everything else. You might already know that the Ernie Ball Earthwood series has international recognition. Thanks to the revolutionary ES (Element Shield) packaging, it sounds truly fantastic.
– For 80/20, go with the Earthwood uncoated strings ($8, 5; medium light). They have a marvelous tone that’s crisp-yet-balanced. And, since the ES packaging is super-thin, you get a very fresh sound.
– The Everlast coated set ($22, 5; medium light), also 80/20, is a lot more expensive, but this pack will last longer. The coating will keep dirt, sweat, and oil away from the strings.
– When it comes to Phosphor Bronze, the names of the string sets are the same. Earthwood uncoated ($11; medium light) comes with a warm, well-balanced tone. Everlast coated ($25; medium light), in turn, is even darker.
– For silk and steel, Ernie Ball has an exceptional EB Earthwood Soft Set ($19; custom light). The tone is like music to your ears.
– Earthwood Folk ($14) and Ernesto Palla ($8, 5) are among the best classical strings on the market right now. The trademark nylon tones will get your creative juices flowing.
We’re living in a world where most manufacturers let the machines wound their strings. However, DR is old-school and they still wind the bulks by hand. So, if hand-made strings are your preference, check out what DR has in stores for us. I’m not one of those guitar players that claim a hand-wound string sounds better than anything else, but it is obvious that when it comes to bass strings, this approach does have its advantages and benefits.
Still, our focus today is acoustic strings, and they’ve got quite a nice collection to choose from:
– The fans of 80/20 strings will appreciate what Black Beauties ($9; medium light) and Hi Beam ($18, 5; medium) offer in terms of tone.
– Phosphor Bronze is DR’s pride and joy. In my opinion, the best string packs are Rare ($13, 5; medium), Sunbeams (13, 2; medium), and Dragon Skin ($22; custom light). They sound beautiful and will inspire you to create new music.
– Nylon Classical strings are also available – NSA Handmade ($11, 5).
Even if you’re not a fan of music or anything with the tag “guitar” on it, I bet you still know about this company. Fender makes one of the finest axes in the world, and, as you’ll learn today, they’re also quite good at making exceptional strings for acoustic guitars. They have been around since 1946 (established right after WW2 was over) and are arguably the mightiest name in the industry. As one of my friends likes to say, Fender is more than just another mogul – it’s an inseparable part of rock, pop, and every other genre. Alright, let’s take a look at their best strings:
– Dura Tone coated ($10; light) is one hell of an 80/20 string pack. Numerous beginners around the world start with this exact pack and only have nice things to say about it.
– For Phosphor Bronze, HN148645 ($7, 7; light) is a fine pick. As you can see, Fender manages to offer solid quality while making its strings super-affordable.
– Classical Nylon ($11; normal tension) is made in the USA and will serve the flamenco players with dignity and honesty.
Did you know that this company was named after the founders? That’s right: Mr. Gould, Holcomb, and Solko came together one day to create a bunch of exceptional strings for the guitar players. Based in Michigan, GHS has been in the business since 1964.
So, what’s the difference between this manufacturer and all the others that we reviewed today? Well, how about this: GHS is only focused on making strings, nothing else. That means they are free to dedicate all of their time, energy, and money on perfecting the art of making the best acoustic strings possible.
– I’ve picked three 80/20 string packs for you. BB10U Bright Bronze uncoated ($16; ultra light) comes with a crisp, precise tone. VNL Vintage Bronze ($12; light) is rich and warm. IB40M Infinity Bronze ($22; medium) is all kinds of fine.
– For Phosphor Bronze, go with PB S 425 Americana ($11, 5; light) that went through cryogenic treatment for an extended lifespan or with S325 Phosphor Bronze ($17; light) that comes with a rich, bright tone.
– 350 Silk n Steel ($18, 5; medium) is on par with the best strings of this material. That sweet, balanced tone will give you the chills.
– Silver Alloy ($12, 3) will fit your classic guitar perfectly.
Some General Tips For Picking The Right Pack Of Strings
You might want to skip this part if you’re a professional musician, but I would encourage you to stay, because who knows, maybe you’ll find some interesting facts/tips that will be of great use to you?
- Don’t be greedy when buying strings. Most of the time, the difference between a top-notch set and something average is only a couple of US dollars, but the difference in the tone/sound is huge.
- It’s a good idea to buy multiple packs at once. If you’re a touring guitarist, you’ll always need new packs of strings. It’s like food for your instrument, if you will. Besides, they won’t ever go bad. Finally, the stores usually offer great discounts when you purchase strings in bulk. Yep, it’s a win/win situation!
- Light-gauge strings aren’t always the answer. I know that it’s much harder to play steel strings with a heavy gauge, but come on – you will need to master that eventually. So, as a beginner, start with nylon/light-gauge strings, but always remember that you will have to switch to “big-boy toys” if you want to be a pro.
- If you don’t know which brand to go with, buy whatever’s “trending”. I know that all I’ve been saying throughout this article is that you should try out different packs of strings, and I’ll say it again, but don’t go crazy. I mean, if you’re just starting out, any solid set of strings will do.
Alright, dear friends, that’s it for our review! It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a hard-boiled pro with decades of experience behind your back or a beginner when it comes to picking a new set of acoustic guitar strings. Experimentation is the key, and you’ll never know which pack will sound great with your instrument. The material, the gauge, the coating, and, of course, the brand will have a huge impact on the resulting tone. Keep searching for your perfect strings and one day you’ll find them! The good news is – acoustic guitar strings are available in every single corner; besides, you can always go to your friend’s house and check out what he’s rockin’.
Good luck, and have fun with your guitar, because that’s the most important thing!