In this post we’re going to look at how to choose acoustic guitar strings.
The fundamentals of sounding a note on a guitar are about the striking of and consequent vibration of a string. When the string is attacked it vibrates at a specific number of vibrations per second thus creating a pitch or a note. The essential requirements of a good string is that it is accurate, that it vibrates consistently at a specific frequency whether fretted or played open and that it simply sounds good.
There are subtle and not so subtle differences to look for when you choose acoustic guitar strings. These differences are further enhanced by the guitar that vibrates in sympathy with the string.
Then of course there is comfort for the player. Does the string “feel” good under your fingers , is it easy to play for you and does it suit the style that you play?
How Are Strings Made?
Acoustic Guitar strings are made of metal alloys with a round or hexagonal metal core and a winding around that core. These windings are wound in a tight spiral that is called round wound. The winding materials vary slightly and change the tonal characteristics of the string. These metals and alloys materials are named on the string packaging and each have different tonal characteristics as well as longevity characteristics.
The Most Common String Types
80/20 Bronze – The original string alloy Composed of 80% copper and 20% zinc, commonly referred to as brass. This string has a bright, crisp and resonant tone but has a tendency to age quickly due to bronze’s tendency toward oxidation. If cleaned regularly they last much longer. They remain a very popular and economically priced string.
Phosphor Bronze – 92% copper and 8% tin with phosphorous, introduced to string making by D’Addario in 1974 as the first “extended life” strings. Phosphor Bronze has a slightly different timbre due to the mixture of phosphor in the metal alloy. They tend to be somewhat less bright in tone which is sometimes preferable . The phosphor in the alloy tends to retard the oxidation process and because of
this the string generally lasts longer than bronze. A very popular string due to the beneficial characteristics of tone and longevity and comfort.
Silk and Steel – use a silver-plated copper wrap wire with silk and are often used for fingerstyle playing because of their comfort and mellow timbre. They are also excellent for smaller body acoustic guitars and preferred by many folk players.
Round Wound Guitar Strings
The round wound technique has some minor drawbacks for ease of playing in that the windings are sometimes a bit hard on the fingertips and can also create string noise, this can be mitigated by a grinding or flattening process that softens the outer edge. This technique is referred to by several names including halfwound, ground wound , pressure wound or flat tops (not to be confused with the guitar type). These strings are usually made by winding round wire around a core first, then polishing or grinding or pressing the exterior part of the winding until it is flatter. This results in a more comfortable string that is still sufficiently bright for most applications. The process removes almost half of the winding wire’s mass. To compensate for this manufacturers use heavy gauge winding wire prior to grinding and flattening. These strings are more expensive than roundwounds because of the added time and material in manufacturing.
String Gauges and Measurements
One major consideration when you choose acoustic guitar strings is the gauge of the string. Individual strings are measured in diameters which are fractions of an inch and these measurements are usually labelled at the back of the strings packaging.
String gauges are packaged by several gauge names such as Extra Light, Light, Medium Light, Medium, Heavy. The most common gauges for acoustic are Light, Medium Light and Medium. These standard gauges are augmented with a number of custom gauges depending on the player’s requirements. These custom gauges are often named accordingly with a variety of designations such as slightly light, custom light, heavy bottom, Nashville lights and so on.
To use the very popular D’Addario light gauge phosphor bronze as an example the gauges for each of the individual strings are:
E1 – .010 B2 – .014 G3 – .023 D4 – .030 A5 – .039 E6 – .047
The practical characteristics of this string would be that due to the light gauge they would have less tension and would thus be easier to fret or press down. The drawback is that lighter tension also has a less robust tone. So generally a balance has to be struck between the players experience, the playing style, the quality of the guitar, string longevity and dynamics and tone.
In finding your optimal string it is very helpful to begin with a specific string gauge and get a feel for it and then use that for a baseline for choosing your next string set. You can literally customize your own set one string at a time by comparing other sets or by requesting single strings in specific gauges.
Let’s use another example of a medium gauge bronze set. The bronze will generally have a brighter tone and these higher gauges if *attacked correctly will produce a bigger more dynamic sound. Let’s use D’Addario as an example again and this time we will use a gauge chart that also shows string tension.
Item # Note Inches mm lbs kg
PL013 E 0.0130 0.3300 27.420 12.440
PL017 B 0.0170 0.4300 26.310 11.940
BW026 G 0.0260 0.6604 34.200 15.510
BW035 D 0.0350 0.8890 34.000 15.420
BW045 A 0.0450 1.1430 31.610 14.340
BW056 E 0.0560 1.4224 26.740 12.130
You will note that the string gauges have jumped up somewhat from the light gauge and under your fingers the difference is very noticeable. It takes a bit more muscle to play a medium gauge string but the result is a bigger sound, especially when attacking for rhythm with a stiff guitar pick. Note also the pounds and kilogram measurements here. These measurements tell you how much tension is being exerted by that string on the bridge of the guitar. The heavier the string the higher the tension and the more important it is to have a guitar that is properly constructed to be able to handle those tensions. From my own experience owning a music store we have seen scores of guitars with lifted bridges which is often a result of incorrect strings.
On another note, never string a classical or flamenco guitar with steel strings, these instruments are not constructed for this degree of string tension. The same holds true for some acoustic steel string type guitars that use lighter bracing for use with lighter string tensions. An example of this would be some small body acoustic guitars were constructed with a lighter bracing specifically for fingerstyle playing and the use of a lighter tension string such as a Silk and Steel.
D’Addario has a really cool site called “String Tension Pro” that is very informative and will help you in further understanding what strings suit you best. You can find it at http://stringtensionpro.com/Search .
Coated Strings – Corrosion Resistant and a Bit Brighter Sounding
When you go to choose acoustic guitar strings you may want to consider trying coated strings. Over the last few decades a new process has emerged for increasing the longevity of a strings original sonic quality. Coated strings use a polymer based coating such as teflon which makes them corrosion resistant but also tends to slightly reduce the strings brightness. This coating may be used on any string type. It is important that the coating process is done in a way that the coating does not peel with wear as was the case in some of the earlier iterations of the innovation. Because these coatings inhibit corrosion the strings tend to last longer and are therefore more expensive than conventional uncoated strings but for many players this cost is well worth it when the endurance of the string is considered. These coated strings are especially beneficial for those who go through strings quickly due to perspiration and a lot of playing time in a single stretch.
How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings FAQ
The Following are examples and suggestions that you might find useful when choosing your strings.
* I am a 12 year old beginner and have a 200 dollar folk sized acoustic guitar. Which Acoustic guitar strings should I choose?
Silk and Steel 11’s for comfort and low tension
* I am an experienced adult player who goes through strings like crazy because they keep going dead, I play a pretty aggressive rhythm style with a pick.
Polymer coated Bronze medium for big tone and longevity
* I am learning to play fingerstyle guitar but also play with a pick, I am a 17 year old girl.
Phosphor Bronze flat tops medium lights for tone and comfort
* I play acoustic fingerstyle and own a 1948 Martin triple O
Silk and Steel or light gauge phosphor bronze flat tops
* I am an experienced adult male player and have a decent acoustic that I play a lot busking.
Coated phosphor bronze medium for robust tone and endurance
* I mostly play electric and like to play quick scale lines on acoustic.
Lighter gauge phosphor bronze, or flat tops for comfort and ease of execution
* I like to use a dropped D tuning. What should I look for when I choose acoustic guitar strings?
A custom gauge with a heavier bottom string than the rest
I hope this blog was helpful to you. Of course there are a number of other string possibilities which were too numerous to mention in this blog. These include stainless steel, increased use of copper alloys, different manufacturing techniques such as cryogenics, differing core sizes and more. This article was designed to provide a better understanding that will hopefully lead you to make better informed string choices the next time you have to make a change, a string choice that will make your music making more enjoyable and thus more productive.
* Attacking the string has a lot to do with the kind of tone and volume you will get from the string. For instance in the case of using a plectrum if you use a very light pick it becomes almost impossible to get a big sound with dynamic range. Even the direction of the pick attack will have a lot to do with the sound you get. That of course is a different topic but one we will cover.