There are many factors that affect the sound and tone of the guitar. The type of guitar has a major influence - obviously a guitar designed for classical play will sound different to an electric guitar. The timbers used make a difference, as does the size, build quality and design. One of the single largest factors in the sound your guitar produces however, are the strings attached to it. There are a bewildering array of different strings available, for different types of guitar, and different sounds. The choice of what strings to use on your particular guitar isn't as simple as choosing the strings designed for the style of instrument you own however.

Walk into any music store, and you'll be faced with a large range of strings, all subtlety different, all with a slightly different sound. Hopefully, this node might be able to help you choose from this large range, with some idea of what to expect from the strings you purchase.

Different Strings for Different Guitars

Before you can make a selection, you need to know what type of guitar you have. Different types of strings are designed for a specific style of guitar. The main types of guitar I will concentrate on are Classical Guitars, Steel-String Acoustic Guitars, and Electric Guitars.

The main differences between strings for these forms of guitar, are the material they are produced from, and the amount of tension they produce when tuned properly. Classical guitars are designed for strings made from nylon, Steel-stringed acoustic and electric guitars use strings made from steel.

Putting steel strings on a classical guitar is a very bad idea. Classical guitars are not designed to handle the tension steel strings exert, so it is likely you'll either snap the neck of the guitar, or seriously damage it. If the neck doesn't snap, it's probably because other parts that hold the string in place have broken off first. Don't even consider turning your classical guitar into a steel string guitar simply by putting steel strings onto it. Soon, you won't have a guitar at all.

Mixing up strings for an electric guitar and a steel-string acoustic isn't such a disaster, and shouldn't result in any damage to the guitar itself. However electric guitar strings are generally a lower gauge, so are quite likely to snap when trying to tune them. This won't hurt the guitar, but could be quite expensive when you're new strings are rendered useless.

A Brief History of Nylon Strings

Prior to 1946, there was little choice in material available for guitar strings. Guitar strings were either produced from animal gut, or steel. Steel strings were unsuitable for the classical guitarist, and were only really suitable for jazz or hillbilly styles. Far too harsh on the fingers and nails for a classical guitarist, gut strings were the only choice. However with the emergence of new technologies, particularly after the Second World War, nylon strings were developed. Albert Augustine had been experimenting using nylon fishing line he had found, when he came into contact with Andrés Segovia, a renowned classical guitarist, who had been put into contact with the DuPont family, famous in the chemical industry. Combining their resources, they were able to develop the first nylon guitar strings. Gut strings were produced by cutting intestine into thin strips, chemically treating it, scraping and cutting it further into as even a string shape as possible. They were truly hand crafted, however the inconsistency of the material, and the production method, resulted in a string that was prone to different tone and tuning characteristics along its length. Gut strings were also prone to sudden breakage, and fraying. Nylon strings offered a consistent, predictable string, that is much more easily and quickly produced, retaining the tone and feel of the gut strings that were previously used. It is still possible to obtain gut strings, however it will not be easy, and they are certainly not commonly stocked.

String Gauge

On top of the different materials strings are made of, the sound your strings produce will also be affected by the gauge of the strings. A higher gauge (thinner) string will produce a different tone to a lower gauge (thicker) string. Lower gauge strings are generally louder, with a fuller tone. They also produce higher tensions, so they will feel tighter to press down when playing notes. You may wish to take this into consideration when selecting your strings, keeping in mind the way you play your guitar. Bending strings, and playing quickly will be more difficult on lower gauge strings - because they're stretched more tightly, they're also generally harsher on the fingers you're fretting with, particularly the higher, thinner strings. On the other hand, thicker strings may be what you're after, particularly if you're after a fat sound when playing power chords on the electric guitar, or looking for a warm tone playing chords on the steel-stringed acoustic.

Jazz guitarists often prefer a lower gauge string, for the fuller sound desirable with this style of music. Many string manufacturers produce a special line of jazz strings - many of these strings have a lower gauge across their range than regular electric or acoustic guitar strings.

It's worth trying several different gauges, and seeing what sounds and feels best to you. Some standard string gauges, for different guitar types (gauges are fractions of an inch - this is generally a standard measurement everywhere). I'll just list the gauge of the high E string (the thinnest string) and the low E (the thickest). The other strings generally fall between these 2 gauges in a standard pattern, although different manufacturers may slightly modify gauges for these inner strings.

    Electric Guitar

    • Extra / Super Light - .009 - .042
    • Light - .010 - .046
    • Rock / Jazz / Blues - .011 - .048

    Steel String Acoustic

    • Extra Light - .010 - .050
    • Light - .011 - .052
    • Medium - .013 - .056
    • Heavy - .014 - .058

    Nylon Strings

    There's not as much variation in the gauge of nylon strings, however some different gauges are available, depending on the string manufacturer.

    • Normal Tension - .0280 - .044
    • Hard Tension - .0285 - .046

There are other options available - you'll find in the world of strings, no two manufacturers do things in exactly the same way. Hybrid string sets can be found, that combine the gauges of a couple of different sets of strings - they may have a light bottom end, and a heavier top end, or vice versa. Strings are also available individually, so it's quite possible to pick different strings, and create your own hybrid blend. Probably best not attempted unless you have some experience with strings, and the different sound characteristics of various gauges.

Some guitars also have a seventh string, which will normally be an added low B string, with a gauge of about .054 - .056. The seven string guitar has been popularised by the current wave of so-called Nu-Metal bands around, such as Korn and Linkin Park. The added bass of the seventh string provides extra depth, and a deeper sound. Seven string guitars are by no means the invention of Nu-Metal though, seven string guitars are also popular with jazz guitarists, and have been around since the late 1700's.

Another common variation is the twelve string guitar, each of the six strings having a partner, sitting close to each other. Normally, the lowest four strings have a partner that is tuned an octave higher, and the highest two strings' partner is simply doubled, so the strings sound in unison.

The G string on the guitar may also be a straight steel string, or a wound string. A straight steel string produces a brighter tone, a wound string a warmer, softer tone. The choice of a straight or wound G string is one of personal preference again - whatever you think sounds nicer, and fits better into your playing style, will be the string you use.

String Maintenance

Guitar strings most definitely have a limited life span, and will need to be changed regularly. How regular the change is will depend on a number of factors. Of course, if a string breaks, it needs to be replaced. Strings can break for a number of reasons, including your playing style, the age of the string, putting too much tension on the string while tuning, or sharp parts on the guitar nut, tuning pegs, or bridge weakening the string. Eventually, strings will loose their tone, and begin to sound dead when played. Their sustain is reduced, the nice warm sound of fresh strings disappears. It's sometimes difficult to notice that this is happening, as it is a gradual change, and it's easy to get used to the changing sound. The more you play, the more quickly the change will occur, particularly with the more rapid accumulation of dead skin, dirt and grime building up on the string. Guitars that are not played regularly are also susceptible to the strings rusting. If rust is beginning to attack the strings, you need to change them.

There are steps you can take to prolong the life of your strings, and get more playing time out of them. If you're a professional guitarist, this may not apply - many professionals will change the strings every time they play to an audience. For the rest of us, this is impractical, and quite expensive. Things you can try include:

  • Keeping a clean, dry cloth with your guitar. Your hands contain oils that will damage the strings, and build up on them, as well as sweat. Just wipe the strings down after playing, and try to remove as much of this from the strings as possible.
  • The wound strings from your guitar can be removed, and boiled along with a touch of detergent. This will clean out a lot of the grime that accumulates between the windings of the string, and prolong their life a little. Of course, you need to make sure they're thoroughly dried after doing this.
  • If the guitar is travelling, or sitting unused for some time, loosen the strings. The strings will last for longer without massive tension being put on them.
  • Don't use products like guitar polish or oil on the strings - remove strings before treating your guitar in this way. The polish will damage the strings.
  • Some unlucky people can't really do very much about string life, as their hands produce more sweat, with a more corrosive nature than the average person. Unfortunately for these people, wiping down the strings and their hands while playing will still not be able to prolong string life greatly, they're simply forced to change strings more often.

Different string materials

That's all the general string information I can think of, so now onto the different types of strings you can get, in nylon and steel. Slight differences in materials, and production, can produce different sounds and tone from the strings. In this section, I won't divide steel into electric guitar strings and steel-string acoustic strings, I'll just talk about nylon and steel strings in general.

    Nylon Strings

    Nylon Strings are a combination of straight nylon strings, and steel wound nylon strings. Generally, the highest three strings are straight nylon, and the lowest three are wound. The wound strings are normally wound with a material like silver plated copper, or bronze. The nylon strings can be just about any colour, commonly either clear or black. The colour makes no difference to the sound, however the density of the nylon does.

    Rectified Nylon strings are initially oversized strings, that have been ground down to a smaller diameter, and normally produce a warmer, mellower tone than standard nylon strings.

    Steel Strings

    Steel strings are at their heart all the same. Chances are that no matter which manufacturer you buy your strings from, they've sourced the raw material from the same place. However, what they do to that steel will make all the difference to the sound. This is particularly true when comparing wound steel strings. They're similar to the wound strings found on nylon guitar strings, however they're steel wound with steel. In fact, the same steel is normally used to wind the string, as is used in the core. The winding steel will normally be nickel plated though, to give the surface a softer finish, prevent oxidation, and soften the tone. Nickel is also less harsh on the frets, resulting in less fret wear than straight steel. Different techniques can be used in producing wound strings, to modify the sound of the string. Some of these include over-tensioning the winding string, to produce a brighter tone, slightly grinding the outside of the winding string, which will produce a more muted tone, or winding the string using a flat ribbon of steel. This is an old technique, and the string will have less sustain, and a darker sound. Referred to as Flatwound strings, they're a choice of purists looking for a vintage tone.

    Stainless Steel strings are the same as regular strings, however the wound strings are wound with steel that doesn't contain any nickel. With the nickel removed, the string has a brighter tone, and added sustain.

    Cryogenically Frozen strings are simply strings which have been dipped in liquid nitrogen. The freezing causes the steel's structure to stabilise, supposedly producing a string that stays in tune better, and sound brighter. The benefits are disputed, many people not being able to distinguish any difference between these strings, and regular strings.

    Coated Strings are regular guitar strings, that have been coated in polymer. The intention is that the string is protected from the grime and sweat that normally damage guitar strings. Protected like this, the string's life is extended. They do cost a lot more than regular strings however, and the benefits are questionable. It's probably best that you make up your own mind on these - try a set, and decide for yourself whether the added life is worth the extra cost, and whether you like the sound of these strings.

    80/20 Bronze Wound. With 80% bronze, 20% zinc, these strings are found on steel-string acoustic guitars. A popular choice for acoustics.

    Phosphor Bronze strings are as the name suggests, bronze strings with a small amount of phosphor added to them. These harder strings will produce a brighter sound than normal bronze wound strings.