Acoustic Guitar Strings

Acoustic guitar strings 101 (Guide not just for beginners)

Acoustic guitars don’t use amplifiers or pickups to boost the sound of the instrument: instead, they project more of the guitar’s natural sound. As a result, the type of acoustic guitar strings you select can make a key difference in the sound produced.

If you are still a novice in the field of acoustic guitars, you’re probably troubled by the idea of selecting a fresh set of strings. In this post, you’ll get a better insight into the various types of strings you can use on your steel-string acoustic guitar. This will also include the types of gauge, the materials used, as well as the ideal sets for certain styles of play.

String Gauge

The string gauge is an essential factor when it’s time to choose acoustic strings that best suit your guitar. Apart from the playability and comfort aspects, a wrong set of strings will likely damage your guitar.

There are five major string gauges available to you: Extra-light, Custom-light, Light, Medium, and finally Heavy. These string gauges are as follows:

1st2nd3rd4th5th6th
Heavy .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
Medium .013.017.026.035 .045 .056
Light .012.016.025.032.042.054
Custom light .011.015.023.032.042.052
Extra light .010.014.023.030.039.047

When selecting a string gauge, you should always take the following into consideration:

  • Your style of play
  • The shape of your guitar/body style
  • Your guitar’s age
  • The tone you want to achieve

Shape of your guitar

The shape of your guitar’s body may sometimes dictate the type of strings you should get for your guitar. For instance, Dreadnought guitars are best suited for medium and heavier strings, and this is why they are often supplied with what is referred to as 12’s and 13’s. The reason here is that the body has been designed to resonate louder. And a heavier gauge string produces a more resonant and a louder sound.

The neck and body are also stronger on a larger guitar, which means they can tolerate the higher tension the strings are placing on the guitar. Generally, Grand Auditorium guitars are delivered with 13’s and happen to be very much suited for heavy gauge strings.

3/4 size guitars and Parlour guitars are designed in such a way to accommodate lighter strings like 12’s, 11’s, or lower. These don’t have the appropriate strength to handle heavier strings and may bend or get damaged if used with heavy gauge strings over an extended period. Hence, make a point of always using a medium or lighter string if you have such a guitar.

Since they don’t have a large body, the strings may not resonate as much, although if you own this kind of a guitar, that’s exactly the sound you are looking to achieve. Many novice guitar players have realized that using a heavy set of strings, like the 14’s on a relatively smaller scale instrument may end up damaging the neck, bridge, and nut of the guitar.

Meanwhile, large scale guitars will sound lifeless when used with a light or custom set of strings. It is crucial to consider this when making your choice of a guitar string.

Playing style

Are you a strummer or finger picker? A seasoned guitarist or a still learning to play the guitar? These are also crucial considerations when choosing string gauges. Fingerpicking guitar players tend to find lighter gauge strings to be easier to play, whereas strummers with a plectrum usually find that medium gauges feel and sound better.

Having said that, if you are still a newbie, heavy gauge strings may prove to be painful on your fingers as you start, which is a stage that practically all guitarists go through in their infant years of playing the instrument.

This shouldn’t deter you because the more you play, the more you get used to it over time. For a starter, I would suggest beginning with a lighter gauge before moving on to a heavier gauge. The bottom line is to experiment and see how best it works for you.

Age of the guitar

Older or vintage guitars are more prone to damage when used with the wrong gauge of string. The neck of the guitar can bend and the bridge may shift or snap off altogether, so you need to take extra caution when placing strings on your vintage acoustic guitar.

If you seem unsure about the gauge of strings you should use on your guitar, it won’t hurt to ask the technician in your local guitar store or any experienced guitar technician you can find. The rule of thumb is to stick with lighter gauge strings if you are using a vintage guitar; it is the safer bet.

Tone you are looking for

If you are looking for loud chords that will ring out, use medium or heavy gauge strings, but for gentle nuances and emphasis on the treble notes with picking and light strumming, go for a lighter gauge.

Bear in mind that the shape and size of your instrument will often represent the kind of music you plan to play and the sound to be achieved. And the strings will play a part too. Heavy playing goes with a heavier gauge while softer playing is best suited for lighter gauge strings.

String material

The material used in the manufacture of acoustic strings or that which they are coated in can make a big difference as far as longevity, sound, and the overall feel is concerned. Each string material features a unique sound quality, and similar to music, the appeal is different for different individuals. The most common include:

80/20 Bronze

This is the most common and produces a bright, clear tone. These strings age rather fast as a result of oxidation and may require to be changed every once in a month. Both Martin and D’Addario are excellent Bronze acoustic guitars that sell for a very cost-friendly price.

Aluminum Bronze

Strings made out of aluminum bronze offer a crisper sound compared to bronze.

Nickel Bronze

This material sounds very natural and won’t color the tone of your acoustic guitar. D’Addario is the first brand to introduce this string style and if you asked me, they are among the best you can find.

The D’Addario made NY steel cores guarantee to stay in tune for the long haul and breakages are hard to come by. The aluminum bronze string has an unusual ability to project your guitar’s tone as opposed to the string itself.

Phosphor Bronze

This produces a warmer and darker tone that will last much longer and retains the tone longer compared to normal bronze strings. Because of the phosphor alloy, they don’t require regular changing.

Gibson and D’Addario also make great phosphor bronze strings which produce a warm resonant tone. Additionally, the corrosion-proof phosphor bronze promises that they’ll be more durable than most strings, although they’ll need constant replacement if you play frequently.

Coated Phosphor Bronze

The strings are coated to ensure that they last as much as four times longer than regular strings. The string sounds natural and holds the tone longer than average Bronze strings. Even though they are a bit more costly than normal strings, you’ll save your money in the long run since they don’t necessitate constant replacing.

I would recommend the D’Addario EXP’s to players who don’t fancy the feel that coated strings have, but are still seeking the longevity attributed to this method. While some manufacturers will make a string before coating it, D’Addario uses a different approach that involves micro coating the materials and winding it later on.

This results in a more natural feel while giving the strings durability. Martin has also created a very popular set of strings named Martin Lifespan Phosphor-Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings. Remember, always try them out and see if they indeed work for you.

Polymer Coated

The strings are resistant to corrosion and don’t rust easily. They last longer compared to uncoated designs. Guitarists usually feel like they have less sustain while playing notes, although they sacrifice the slight dip in tone for their longevity. Elixir strings are famous for their durable strings and produce a range of professional-grade models for all kinds of guitarists.

Nevertheless, they coat these strings after producing them, which may not appeal to all guitarists because of the feel on the fingers. Some feel it isn’t as rough while others say the string doesn’t feel natural.

Brass

This bright and jangly sounding string produces a metallic sound.

Silk and Steel

Best suited for people looking for a mellow sound. They are quieter and easy on your fingers.

Best brands of steel strings for acoustic guitars

Steel String Brands For Acoustic Guitars

There are a few brands which have proven themselves time and again. These string manufactureres can be considered the best choices for your steel stringed acoustic guitar:

You can't really go wrong with any of these companies. Test them all, and you'll develop a preference.

How to change acoustic guitar strings

Learning how to change the strings on your steel stringed acoustic guitar is not as hard as it seems. It will take a few occasions until you get a hang of it, but don't back off. You can't take your guitar to the shop each time you need a string change till eternity.

Here is a great video explaining the correct way to change your acoustic's strings.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that eventually, you’ll find yourself going through multiple sets of strings since they do not last a lifetime. If you purchase a set that ends up falling short of your expectations, you can always replace them with a new set for a better experience.

Besides, there might be another guitarist who fancies the very set that has disappointed you. Sometimes, you may realize that a string set performs a lot brighter compared to others based on the kind of guitar you are playing, so be sure to experiment until you’ve exhausted your options.

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