All guitarists have been there. It’s time to change the strings on your guitar, and you are staring blankly at a wall of various types and sizes of guitar strings wondering which ones to get. The task is daunting because there are so many choices. You don’t want to get just any old set, you want to get the right set for your acoustic guitar.
While string choice can be very much a product of personal preference, we have compiled the interactive string chart below to help illuminate some of the differences between the best brands and types in order to help make your selection easier. Additionally, we have provided some analysis and information to assist you in understanding how important string choice is and why!
Complete Acoustic Guitar String Comparison Guide
The chart below includes the following:
- String Pictures
- String Brand and Model
How Does a Guitar String Affect Tone?
An acoustic guitar works as a system. When you pluck a string, everything vibrates from the body wood to the neck wood to the string itself, all working in concert to produce the sound you hear. People spend thousands on nice guitar bodies and necks, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the string choice isn’t every bit as important. Strings can alter your volume, the treble profile, the bass profile, overtone structure and overall timbre of the instrument, meaning they can be the difference between a dull and a beautiful sounding instrument. They can also affect sustain, player comfort and general playability.
What Makes A High Quality String?
There are four criteria that really define the quality of a string from a user perspective. At the end of the day, when searching for the best acoustic guitar strings, the details such as manufacturing processes, brand names or materials don’t matter all that much so long as the strings have the following qualities:
- Sound – The sound of the string is of paramount importance, because after all, the reason we own instruments is to make sound. Sound is rather subjective, and as such there is no way to define a quality sound other than that it is a sound that you like. Nobody can tell you what a string set will sound like on your guitar, and so the best way to find out is to get a set and try it out.
- Longevity – There are two ways a string can fail. They can either break, or they can slowly wear out. A high quality guitar string will resist corrosion well, not break under heavy strumming, and resist dirt and grime accumulation.
- Comfort – A quality string will feel smooth to the touch, allowing your hand to slide easily across. This goes hand in hand with longevity, because a string that attracts dirt and corrodes will eventually lose its slippery feel, making it uncomfortable to play and abrasive to your fingers.
- Value – While value is not technically related directly to the string quality, it is related to the quality of your experience of buying a string set. If you get the above three traits at a great price, you are going to be far more satisfied.
Guitar string size, often more technically referred to as string gauge has quite a bit of influence on the tone of your guitar. String gauge, typically represented as a number between 8 and 60, refers specifically to the diameter of the string in thousandths of an inch. That is to say that a 12 gauge string has a diameter of .012″ and a 36 gauge string would measure .036″ in diameter. A treble “E” string in standard tuning usually ranges from 9 gauge to 14 gauge, and a bass “E” string in standard tuning usually ranges between 47 gauge and 60 gauge.
Typically, smaller gauge strings will produce a brighter, sharper, more treble heavy metallic sound whereas a larger gauge will produce a more bass heavy, percussive, warmer sound with more complex overtones when compared on the same guitar. Remember that a guitar works as a system, so if your acoustic guitar body has stronger bass characteristics, a set of smaller gauge strings might nicely balance the sound and provide some extra treble character. The same can be said for a guitar body that produces strong treble; in this case a set of larger gauge strings might enhance the bass profile of the instrument. It is also important to understand that thinner strings will require lower tension compared to thicker strings to achieve the same pitch. The lower tension associated with smaller strings will increase player comfort and make it easier to bend or fret notes, at the cost of decreased sustain(meaning your notes will not be audible for as long when you play a string).
Most string manufacturers will characterize their strings using categories such as Extra Light, Light, Medium and Heavy with many hybrid categories in between. Most of the time these labels tend to be consistent between manufacturers, however it is important to pay attention because these labels do occasionally differ. The most effective way to directly compare strings is to use the identified gauges for each string shown on the package, which is typically displayed as a series of six numbers on the package. This way, you can directly compare diameters of each string in any package. Often times, people refer to basic sets of strings casually by referencing only the gauge on the treble “E” string. For example, if you wanted to ask for one of the two most common string sizes for an acoustic guitar, you might ask for a set of “11’s” or a set of “12’s.”
*note* It is important to note that changing string size on your guitar should not be done without an appropriate truss rod adjustment to match. Drastic size changes can result in damage to your guitar neck over time if the truss rod is not properly adjusted to offset their tension.
How Long Should I Go Between String Changes?
The interval at which you change your strings is dependent on how much you play your guitar and what type you use. The oils in your fingers, moisture in the air, and material fatigue are all factors that cause your strings to wear. Obviously, if you notice a degradation in the sound of your instrument or find that the strings feel rough, gritty or drag on your hands, it’s time for a change. Otherwise as a general guide, if you play all the time figure on roughly once a month. If you play a few times per week figure on every three months, and if you rarely play you should plan to change your strings at least every six months. Even the best acoustic guitar strings wear out over time, so don’t think you can go forever without changing them.
Acoustic Guitar String Materials
- Bronze – Bronze acoustic guitar strings are the standard, run of the mill string. These are typically inexpensive and very bright. They offer little protection from corrosion, and as such their performance tends to degrade the most quickly.
- Phosphor Bronze – Similar tonal characteristics to the above, with some of the brightness pared back. The phosphorious is designed to inhibit corrosion, which extends the life of the strings over regular bronze.
- Coated – Coated strings are typically coated with a polymer compound designed to resist corrosion which helps to maintain the slippery feel when sliding your hand up your neck. These are the longest lasting and most expensive strings. Usually, these will be a bit warmer and more complex than either of the bronze variants, with less treble bite.
- Silk & Steel – Silk and steel strings typically have a blended silk and steel core wrapped in wire, typically copper. These tend to be sweet and mellow, soft and comfortable, and typically sustain well.
- Nylon – Nylon strings are used on some acoustic guitars, particularly flamenco style guitars. Nylon strings tend to be warm and soft, and are not affected by corrosion. They don’t like to be played with a pick, and should only be used on guitars specifically designed for nylon.
Reviews of Our Top 3 Favorite Guitar Strings
All of the guitar strings in the chart above are great in their own way. However, there are a few that are personal favorites of ours that tend to be our go-to sets when picking up strings. Although we have played on countless sets of strings over the years and enjoy trying new sets every now and then, the following three are the ones we return to time and time again.
The D’Addario EJ16 is probably one of the most ubiquitously used strings out there at present. The provide a great balance of high quality and low cost, can be easily found and bought in bulk, and they provide great sound. The EJ16 happens to be a set of light gauge strings, but D’Addario also makes identical sets in other gauges ranging from Extra Light to Heavy, so you can easily find a version of this string that suits your playing style.
These phosphor bronze strings are going to lean towards the middle of the brightness spectrum, and won’t be quite as bright as D’Addario’s normal bronze strings. These would pair nightly with most every acoustic guitar, because they are really going to flourish in the mid-range. Bass heavy and treble heavy guitar bodies will sound good with these strings because their sound character is so nicely balanced. Because they are phosphor bronze, they will be reasonably corrosion resistant, allowing you to log some hours of play time on them without needing to replace them.
D’Addario has some nice construction features, including a hex core which allows the phosphor bronze wire wrap to bite into the core and bond better, meaning longer string life. Another nice feature is that D’Addario color codes the ball end of the string, so it is easy to sort out your guitar strings order if you mix your strings up by mistake.
Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze
The Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze strings are the strings that never die. Elixir’s claim to fame is that they use an extremely thin polymer coating to enhance durability, and it works because they make some of the best durability acoustic strings on the market. One of the nice things about Elixir’s coating strategy is that these strings are designed to sound more like an uncoated string, although you still get the traditional comfort benefits associated with coated strings in general.
Over an average phosphor bronze string, there is very little loss in brightness. These strings have an interesting overtone structure which produces a nice combination of warmth, while maintaining enough brightness to make them a versatile string.
As far as pricing goes, this set of strings isn’t cheap, but when you cost average over time it works out to be about even with other strings. Keep in mind that you have to replace these strings far less frequently than a standard set of bronze strings. These strings are ideal for someone who rarely remembers to change their guitar strings.