What Guitar Strings Should I Use?

Posted by Brittens Team on

This is a question we are asked many times, and there are so many varieties of guitar strings available that you would be forgiven for not having a clue as to what to put on your guitar. In this blog, we're not going to delve heavily into the technical construction of each type of string, but try to explain what might be best for you - and what not to use!

Firstly there are three main types of guitar:

Classical (sometimes known as ‘Spanish’)
Acoustic (often known as ‘Folk’)
Electric (including Bass)
Each of these are constructed differently and this will dictate the BASICS of what you choose to use. So here goes…

Classical guitars are usually used for more traditional, fingerpicking, classical music styles of playing. A Classical guitar is a hollow-bodied wooden instrument with a wide neck. It is the precursor of all the other guitar types, and has been around in various forms for about 500 years. Originally gut and silk-wound strings would have been used, much like you might on a violin. This continued until around the time of WWII, when supply restrictions led Albert Augustine to invent a nylon guitar string as an alternative, and these nylon guitar strings went into production in 1948. In fact, Augustine guitar strings are still hugely popular sellers at Brittens!

Nylon strings give a lovely mellow, round sound, which suits the Classical style very well. They don’t put too much tension on the neck of the instrument either, which is important as the neck of a Classical guitar does not have extra strengthening inside to support it. For this reason it is VERY important not to put metal acoustic guitar strings on a guitar designed for nylon strings. At the very least, the likelihood is that the neck will warp and become difficult to play, or you may cause the bridge which holds the strings to lift up from the front of the guitar, perhaps pulling off entirely. The worst we’ve seen is a guitar snapping completely in two, with the neck coming away from the body of the instrument. Spectacular as that might be, it isn’t to be recommended!

Having said that, nylon guitar strings do come in different tensions, and that may influence what you choose. They are usually available in Light, Medium, High and Extra-High versions. In some makes, this only means that the wound bass strings are different (as is the case with standard Augustine Black, Red and Blue sets); with others the tension will be higher or lower across the whole set. Medium-tension strings are by far the most popular (for example Augustine Red, D’Addario EJ45). These suit most guitars and players well. Some people will prefer a lower tension simply because it gives a much mellower sound, or their guitar might be old and might not deal with anything too strong. High-tension strings have less vibrating distance (they’re less ‘floppy’) and give a much brighter sound, especially suitable for Flamenco and Spanish styles. They also work very well on small, children’s guitars where the overall length is shorter and a low-tension string can sound dull or even a bit ‘buzzy’.

Acoustic guitars are used for all sorts of popular styles, from simple chord strumming to intricate finger-picking. They come in a few different shapes, and some will have the option to plug in to an amplifier (these are known as ‘electro-acoustic’), but they are all hollow bodied. They have a slightly narrower neck than their Classical cousins, and, crucially, the neck is strengthened with a steel rod called a truss rod. The truss rod is adjustable and means the guitar is able to withstand the tension of metal strings. These will usually be made from bronze (E 6th ,A 5th, D 4th, G 3rd) and plain steel (B 2nd, E 1st). These will give a much brighter, crisper sound than nylon and are ideally suited for use with a pick.

There are two main sorts of bronze wound string. Firstly there is 80/20 bronze, (80/20 is the ratio of copper to tin, although modern bronze alloys also use other metals like zinc). These give a lovely bright sound, but their lifespan isn’t so long, and you may find that you need to change them frequently. However they are still extremely popular and we sell lots of sets! The other sort is Phosphor Bronze. These have more copper in them - around 92%, with the rest being tin, and with traces of phosphorous. It is the tiny amount of phosphorous which makes this type of string a little more corrosion-resistant and durable. Phosphor bronze strings give a warmer, fuller sound, with better mid-range. In either case the core of the string is steel - it is simply the winding which changes.

All metal strings also come in different weights, although these tend to be known by the actual gauge measurement of the top and bottom strings. Standard gauges are:

Extra-Light .010 - .047

Custom Light .011 - .052

Light .012 - .054

Medium .013 - .056

Most guitars are supplied from the factory with Light strings fitted, and for most players, especially the more inexperienced, this is fine. Each instrument will be set up to suit the particular strings it is supplied with. There may however be situations where the player prefers something else, or feels that the guitar would sound better with something different. In this circumstance, though, it may not be simply a case of changing the strings over. If you choose a gauge which is higher or lower than that supplied originally, it can alter the guitar’s set-up, and it may need some adjustment in order to optimise its playability.

Popular makes of bronze string include Martin, D’Addario, Rotosound and Elixir. Elixir are a premium string with a particularly durable winding, and despite the increased cost of this, are very popular amongst serious players.

Electric guitars - well, we’re all familiar with those! Used in practically every rock and pop group in the world! The electric guitar is a solid-bodied instrument which has to be amplified in order for it to produce any sound at all. The main difference is that with this design, the strings are nickel-wound, not bronze. The primary reason for using this metal is that it is bestowed with a high level of conductivity, allowing the electrical current to pass through the pick ups and into the amplifier, which is a quality that bronze does not have!

As with acoustic guitar strings, electrics come in different gauges. They are generally lighter than acoustics and a regular set for an electric guitar would usually be around .010 - .046. This is partly because the style of playing often includes a lot of ‘bending’ of the strings and heavier ones wouldn’t cope with this. Mixtures of gauges are also commonplace, for example ‘heavy top’ or ‘hybrid’. Set-up on an electric guitar is even more crucial than on an acoustic and it is important to check with someone experienced if you choose to change your string gauge by more than a micron or two or you may end up with buzzing if the action is too low, or strings that are hard to press down if it is too high.

Popular makes of electric guitar string include the Ernie Ball ‘Slinky’ range, Rotosound ‘Roto’, D’Addario and Elixir, which have a similar non-corrosive coating to their acoustic siblings mentioned above.

So - to sum up...

Classical Guitar Strings - Made from Nylon, plain trebles, wound basses. Easier on the fingers, mellow sound. Available in Low, Regular, High and Extra High tensions. Not suitable for most other types of guitar.

Acoustic Guitar Strings - Made from 80/20 Bronze or Phosphor Bronze with a ball-end fitting. Bright sound with excellent projection. Especially suitable for all popular and folk styles. Available in various gauges, the most common being Extra Light, Custom Light, Light, and Medium. Not suitable for either Classical or Electric guitars.

Electric Guitar Strings - Made from Nickel-Wound Steel. Nickel is a highly conductive material and allows the sound of the guitar to be picked up and transmitted through the amplifier. Generally of lighter gauge than acoustic strings. Potentially you could put these on an acoustic guitar, but the tone would not be good and they will lack the warmth of a bronze string.

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