Acoustic Guitar Strings Buyer's Guide
If there’s one thing that you’ll never avoid as a guitar player, it’s changing your strings. It’s a necessary evil that comes along with being an awesome guitar player. After all, the more you play, the more you’ll have to change your strings.
How Often Do I Need To Change My Strings?
How long your strings last depends on a few factors. If you play everyday or pretty regularly, then we usually recommend every 3 months as the seasons change. If it’s a guitar that’s just for show, they may last a little longer. Now, something that a new player may not realize is that not all strings are made equally. I know from personal experience that there are certain packs of strings that I need to stay away from because I wear through them so quickly. There’s something in the chemistry of our fingers on metal strings that reacts in different ways. I’ve tried certain packs of strings that only lasted me a couple of weeks while others lasted me the full 3 months. But strings are pretty affordable, so trial and error is half the fun!
What are the Best Strings for an Acoustic Guitar?
If you’ve been to one of our stores recently, then perhaps you’ve seen the string selection that’s available to you. It’s pretty vast. There are a lot of brands, and a lot of options within those brands. So which is best? Don’t forget, trial and error is half the fun, but let’s talk about what you can expect so that you can make a more educated guess.
It’s tough to talk about guitar strings without mentioning D’Addario. This family has been making strings since at least the late 1600’s. Today they offer a wide array of guitar strings and accessories. If you know nothing else of guitar strings, this is a great place to start. D’Addario offers what I call the no nonsense string because it’s simply everything you’d ever want or expect from a guitar string. Now, as you figure out what you want from your strings, they offer many other great options as well but just as a simple place to start, you can’t beat D’Addario. They are affordable, and they sound great.
Now, remember when I said there are some strings that I wear through pretty quickly? Well, there are brands like Elixir that have taken corrosion into account and offer strings with a coating on them to make them last longer as well as make them a little easier on the fingers to improve playability.
Polyweb vs Nanoweb
Polyweb was Elixir’s original coating. Nanoweb is a refinement on that technology. It’s their newer ultra thin coating. The idea being that the less of a coating you have, the more vibration and tone you can get out of the string, but the coating will still protect corrosion and maintain ease of play. There’s definitely no right or wrong choice here. It’s just a matter of preference. Now elixir is not the only company to make coated string by any means. Cleartone for example is a very popular choice.
Silk and Steel
There are a couple of companies out there including Martin that offer a string set called Silk and Steel. These are very unique strings that are intended for fingerstyle players who want a nice mellow tone. Different companies manufacture them in different ways, but the original concept is that silk was intertwined into the string winding to give it a very unique feel and tone. When you unroll them from the package they have more the look and feel of classical guitar strings. They are very unique, and if your a finger style player with a small body guitar looking for a mellow tone, then definitely try these out.
Phosphor Bronze vs 80/20 Bronze
There are many different metals when it comes to guitar strings. Most of them are a variation of a bronze alloy – aluminum bronze, copper bronze, 80/20 bronze, phosphor bronze, nickel, steel, etc. What does all this mean? It all comes down to tone. What do you want your guitar to sound like? Everything about your acoustic guitar from the body shape, to where you strum it, to what strings you put on it all work together to create what you hear when you play it. Each alloy has its own characteristics and personality. This next point is debatable, but in my experience, the 2 most popular alloys are Phosphor Bronze, and 80/20 Bronze. With phosphor, your going to get nice warm tones. It’s great for strumming and finger playing. It has a lot of nuance and musicality to it. Now, what do we mean when we say 80/20 bronze? This refers to the ratio between two metals – 80% copper and 20% zinc. With this string, your going to get more brightness and shimmer out of your tone. This is definitely great for fingerstylists. You can get a lot of character and treble response out of your guitar with these strings.
As far as the other alloys, it’s going to be more variations on this same theme. Warm, dark, bright, shimmery, etc. If you’re new to guitar playing, then every 3 months or so, you may want to try a different alloy and see what you think. It will take time to develop your ear to hear the differences, but that’s all part of the fun. And don’t be afraid to make a practical choice at first. If the idea of a coated string sounds great to you, then see what alloys are available in coated strings. I’ve been playing guitar for over 20 years, and I play coated strings. I think they sound great, but that’s me. Let’s see what kind of strings you like!
String Gauges: Light, Medium, and Neck Snapping
So what’s in a string gauge anyway? Some people say a lot! Some people say nothing. It’s an odd phenomenon, but I’ve seen some players say that all of their tone is in how thick their strings are, and other players say it makes no difference at all. Now, acoustic strings are already larger in general than electric guitar strings. Even the lighter gauges generally start at 12 gauge (.012). You can get lighter strings, but they won’t offer as much vibration to get your sounds board moving and produce a lot of sound. They’ll sound thin and weak. 12 gauge and above will offer you everything you expect as far as tonal projection and sound. As you get into heavier strings, you may notice more tone and projection, but things will start to stiffen up on you. The strings will be challenging to press to the fingerboard and be more and more difficult to bend. Some players deal with this challenge because they believe that it offers them more tone.
Before You Experiment with String Gauges
I encourage you to try all of the string gauges if you like and find the one that suits you best. Though, for beginners, I recommend standard light gauge strings first. Please keep this in mind, the amount of tension between the bridge and the headstock increases as you go heavier with your strings, and decreases as you go lighter. In turn, your guitar is going to need to be setup to handle new string gauges. If you’re used to playing 12 gauge and you move up to 13, then you’re going to have more tension, and you’ll probably notice a bowing in the neck which will cause your string action (distance from the string to the fingerboard) to increase making it even harder to play. Conversely, if you move to a lighter gauge, your neck may bend backward in the opposite direction causing your strings to sit right on the fingerboard making it impossible to play. There’s also a chance that your guitar nut will need to be filed to accommodate a larger string. Otherwise, it could possibly crack. All that’s really required here to accommodate your new strings is a simple adjustment. If you’re good at setting up guitars, then no problem. If not, see a technician at your local Sam Ash to help guide you in your decision making.
There’s a lot of options to choose from and I definitely couldn’t get to all of them in this brief space, but don’t let that stop you. Grab yourself a new set of strings, throw them on, and let’s get to playing. Coated; Non Coated. Phosphor; 80/20. Whatever you decide, just see what each pack of string does differently than the rest. Experiment. Challenge yourself. Pretty soon you’ll find a tone that’s uniquely you.