Though they may not be as exciting of a topic as instruments or amplifiers, choosing the right type of strings for your guitar is incredibly important. Guitar strings have different responses and different feels, and when the right type of string is used it’s a huge asset to your playing. Likewise, when the wrong type of string is used it can be incredibly detrimental.
The purpose of this article is to give you a basic idea on what type of string you’re going to want if you’re looking for a particular response. We’ll also go over different construction techniques used in strings.
As a quick note, the rules we’re going over here apply to every instrument. While this article may be aimed at guitarists, strings have a particular sound based on the materials and construction style used. So this piece applies to bassists, mandolinists, and banjo players just as much as guitarists.
There are five main types of string: steel and nickel (generally used on electric instruments), brass/bronze, and nylon. These strings are then divided into subcategories based on the alloys used and how they were constructed.
The section below covers just the basic response from the four main types of string, instead of the intricacies of their subcategories. If you’d like to learn about these strings in more depth, check out some of the other articles on the site.
Steel and Nickel
The vast majority of electric guitar strings are steel wires with the three thickest strings being plated in nickel, though pure nickel and pure steel strings have become more popular in recent years (when we say pure we mean that the thickest strings aren’t plated with a different metal).
As a basic rule, steel strings are brighter and livelier than their nickel counterparts. This translates into a higher presence of high-end response, which helps steel strings cut through a mix better than nickel strings would.
With that being said, nickel strings definitely have a richer tone with more body than steel strings. This warmth is especially pleasing when used to play older genres of music, blues in particular. The strings are also a great fit for rhythm work, because the warmth inherent to these strings helps to increase the overall body and richness of a mix.
Nickel-plated steel is the middle ground between these two extremes. When plated with nickel, strings have a lot of body in their low-end response while maintaining that cutting lead tone on the treble strings.
In summation, pure steel strings are a great fit for genres where an aggressive lead tone is required. This would include things like metal, rock, and country. Nickel strings are a great fit for genres that require a warmer and mellower response, like the blues or any other genre that’s played with a low level of distortion.
Brass and Bronze
There are two main types of string for steel string acoustic guitars: brass plated and bronze plated. The actual wires are made from steel, hence the name “steel string acoustic guitar.” There isn’t a ton of difference in feel between these two types of strings, but there’s a huge difference in response.
As a general rule, brass strings are always going to be brighter than bronze strings. Though, counterintuitively, many brass strings go by the moniker of “80/20” bronze. These strings are actually the one in the same. Brass, or 80/20 bronze as it’s often known, is made from 80% copper and 20% zinc. This gives the strings a bright and cutting voice, though when used on guitars that already have a prominent high-end response it can make an instrument sound thin and tinny. For best results, use brass strings on a guitar that’s an OM size or larger (so this would include OM guitars, dreadnoughts, and jumbos).
Phosphor bronze strings have a warmer sound with a smooth (if somewhat understated) high end response. This makes them a great fit for genres that benefit from a mellower tone, like a lot of folk or finger-style work. These strings pair well with smaller bodied guitars, though many musicians who play more relaxed genres prefer these strings on larger bodied instruments as well.
So basically, if you want a brighter tone go for brass (80/20 bronze) guitar strings. If you want a richer and more mellow tone go with phosphor bronze.
Since we already went into this topic in a ton of depth in our guide “Best Nylon Classical Guitar Strings” we’re not going to get too technical with this section.
Nylon strings are generally used on nylon or classical guitars. These types of guitars are more lightly braced than steel string acoustic guitars, so never use metal strings on them.
With that in mind, the inverse to this rule isn’t always true. During the Folk Boom of the 1950s and 60s, there were actually quite a few musicians who put nylon strings on steel string acoustics. This gave the guitar a very warm and relaxed tone, though should you choose to do this be aware that you’re going to get a lot less volume and a reduced response across the entire frequency range.
Guitar strings cause an acoustic guitar’s body to resonate. The majority of the tone you get actually comes from the way your guitar resonates rather than your strings. The less resonance you get with an instrument the less representation of different frequencies you’re going to have.
If you decided to use nylon strings on a steel string guitar, you’re most likely going to be stuck playing slow and mellow folk music. So while the response you get from nylon strings on a steel string acoustic is great for a certain genre, don’t expect the versatility you’d get from brass or bronze strings.
As stated above, construction has just as much of an impact on a guitar’s tone as material. The factors that make up construction are as follows: gauge, string core, winding type, and string coating. And while these factors are all important, keep in mind that different companies use different approaches to all of them. So never be afraid to try out a variety brands, because while the strings may look the same you will get a different response.
A string’s gauge is how thick it is. As a general rule, the thicker a string is the warmer its response will be and the more volume it will produce. However, thicker strings are also stiffer. This makes it harder to fret the string and makes it more difficult to execute heavy string bends. Thinner strings are generally brighter and easier to play, but on some instruments they can sound thin and tinny.
You can tell whether or not strings are of a thin or thick gauge based on the numbers on the package. The smallest number, which is the gauge of thinnest string, will usually be .9 or lower on thin gauge strings. On thick gauge strings this number will be .12 or higher. Strings that are .10 or .11 are generally considered to be “mediums”, and produce a tone and feel which is the middle ground between these two extremes.
A strings core is the shape of the wire. There are two main types: hex core and round core. Hex core strings are brighter and louder, which gives them a more modern tone (think post-1980s rock or metal). These strings also feel a bit stiffer than round core strings, though the difference isn’t dramatic.
Round core strings have a more mellow tone which makes them a great fit for blues and classic rock. They also have more sustain than hex core strings, though while the difference is noticeable it isn’t huge.
There are three types of windings used on modern guitar strings: roundwound, flatwound, and halfround. If you play standard guitar strings, odds are you’re using roundwounds. These strings have a textured surface and a bright tone.
Flatwound strings have a flat surface. These strings are very popular among jazz guitarists because they have a very dark and understated tone. However, they are also more difficult to play. These strings are not a good fit for rock or blues, because they’re stiffness and dark tone means that it’s hard to cut through the mix and pull off the fast and intricate runs and bends that define blues, rock, and metal.
While halfround strings are the middle ground between flat and roundwounds, they still aren’t really a good fit for modern genres. They’re still harder to play than roundwounds, and while they are brighter than flatwounds they’re still widely considered to be too dark for modern genres.
With all of these things in mind, it should be noted that many bassists actually use flat or halfround strings in modern genres. Since the bass doesn’t need to cut through a mix to the degree an electric guitar does, the additional warmth produced by flat or halfrounds can actually be an asset both in the studio and on the stage.
When people say “coated strings” they’re referring to a standard guitar string which is coated with a plastic polymer. Coated strings last significantly longer than uncoated strings, but the coating used has a tendency to cut high-end response.
Also, while coated strings do last longer than non-coated strings they’re also significantly more expensive. Personally, I find that coated strings last roughly twice as long as non-coated alternatives. Since they’re also about twice as expensive, I personally don’t save any money using coated strings. However, depending on how acidic your sweat is your experience may vary.
- Editor's Note: If you wipe your strings down with cloth after every session they'll stay brighter and last longer.
Strings are a hotly debated subject. There are so many variables that go into how a guitar string will respond that it can be hard to definitely state how any one string will perform on your instrument. Because of this, treat this article more as a basic primer on strings rather than a definitive guide.
My personal opinion on the topic, as one musician to another, is that the best thing you can possibly do when trying to figure out which string to go with is to try out as many different brands and types of guitar strings as you can. Strings are cheap enough that most people are going to be able to afford to experiment, and the truth of the matter is that you’re probably not going to really know what works best for you until you have hands on experience.