How to Pick the Best Acoustic Guitar Strings
Fact: the difference between a good sounding guitar and a great sounding guitar is often as simple as choosing the best acoustic guitar strings.
It’s overwhelming to enter a guitar store and see an entire wall of acoustic guitar strings and even worse when the guy behind the counter asks you the dreaded questions like “What gauge?” or “Do you want polyweb or nanoweb?” or “Bronze or phosphorous bronze?“
To me it feels like somebody ordering a “Grande, quad, nonfat, one-pump, no-whip mocha” at Starbucks. I mean geez, who’s supposed to understand all that?
So in an effort to help you find the best acoustic guitar strings without pulling your hair out, I’d like to share with you this ultimate guide to acoustic guitar strings.
#1: Consider the String Gauge
By far the most important – but also the most confusing – thing to consider with guitar strings is their gauge. The gauge of a string refers to the thickness of a string measured in thousandths of an inch. The larger the number (i.e. .059 vs .047) the thicker the string.
Guitar string gauges are usually divided into multiple categories including:
- Extra Light: strings ranging from .010 to .047
- Light: strings ranging from .012 to .054
- Medium: strings ranging from .013 to .056
- Heavy: strings ranging from .014 to .059
Most new guitars come equipped with light strings, which is a good place to start. If you’re a heavy player and find yourself breaking strings often, move up to the mediums. If this persists you can try the heavy gauge.
Whichever way you decide to go, it’s best to change the strings shortly after you buy a new guitar. Many manufacturers save money by putting lesser-quality light strings on the guitars and you’ll notice a quick difference if you change them immediately with quality light strings.
#2: Consider the Type of Guitar
First of all, it’s important to note that you should never cross types of guitars and types of strings. In other words, DO NOT put electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar or acoustic guitar strings on a classical guitar. They are not made for this and it can damage the guitar.
The reason for this is that higher gauge strings add higher tension to a guitar neck. The truss rods of an electric guitar are set to withstand a certain tension while acoustic and classicals are set differently.
This difference also bleeds over into the style of guitar you have. For instance, some body styles like the dreadnaught are supposed to work best with medium gauge strings while concert style (or auditorium style) are supposed to work best with light gauge strings. Check with the manufacturer to see their recommendations.
Don’t worry, though; you’re not going to hurt your guitar by trying different gauges as long as you’re using acoustic guitar strings on an acoustic guitar.
#3: Consider the String Material
Guitar strings come in an amazing array of materials from bronze to phosphorous bronze, nickel-plated to pure nickel. The difference between these is mostly the tone (bright vs meaty) but there’s also the consideration of string life.
Let’s look at the most popular options for strings and what differentiates them.
- Bronze: most often you’ll see this advertised as “80/20 bronze” because it’s made of 80% copper and 20% zinc. At first it has a very bright sound but gradually settles into a nice mid-tone. These are the most common strings you’ll find and aren’t a bad option.
- Phosphorous Bronze: another common string that has a solid steel core wrapped in a phosphor bronze winding. In contrast to the bronze strings the phosphorous bronze has a much deeper, meatier tone that brings out a thick bass.
- Stainless Steel: not as commonly used but still a good option, the stainless steel produce a very bright sound that tends to lose life quickly
- Nickel-Plated or Pure Nickel: both of these strings are more commonly found on electric guitar strings, but there is the occasional set of acoustic guitar strings that uses nickel. These strings lack the volume most people desire with an acoustic guitar but do produce a pleasant, mellow sound.
In your quest for the best acoustic guitar strings, composition shouldn’t rate too high on your checklist. Most people, including myself, tend to pick a string material and stick with it for the life of the guitar. There’s really no need to change it around much.
#4: Consider the String Coating
Over the past decade, new developments have been made in the manufacture of strings that I think can be helpful…but I also think is a lot of marketing hype.
You’re going to hear phrases thrown around like coated, nanoweb, polyweb, and a bunch of other names. The idea behind coating guitar strings is to get them to last longer than the average string. Coating a string makes it resistant to the finger oils and natural elements that corrode strings and force you to change them.
Are coated strings worth paying 3x’s as much for a set of strings? That’s the million dollar question, and one that only you can answer. I tend to change my acoustic guitar strings every 2-3 months or so no matter if I’m using coated strings or not. If I know I’m going to be playing more than normal during that 3 month span I will buy my personal favorite, Elixer Polyweb. Otherwise, “regular” strings work just fine.
The downside to coated strings is that it does affect the sound, albeit ever so slightly. Most people won’t notice but I can tell that when my coated strings die, they tend to really die.
#5: Consider the String Winding
I’m getting into the nitty-gritty details here, mind you. If you’re just starting out don’t even think about the string winding, but if you’ve been playing for a while it might be fun to try out something new.
Here are two different kinds of winding you can get for acoustic guitar:
- Round Wound: the most typical kind of winding is probably what you’ve been using. It’s the easiest to make as well as the cheapest, which is why they are so popular.
- Flat Round: these strings are produced using both a different core (hexagonal) and a different winding (flat), which makes them both more expensive and quite different to play on. This is most popular with bass guitars but it has become popular with acoustic guitarists as well. The strings are easier on both the fingers and frets and produce a more mellow sound.
If you’re feeling adventurous, grab a set of flat round acoustic guitar strings and try it out. Otherwise, it’s much more important to consider gauge and material first.
#6: Consider your own Preference
The number one rule when choosing the best acoustic guitar strings for your guitar is your personal preference.
Just like Starbucks, find what you like and then keep getting that one. Get the same brand. Get the same gauge. Get the same coating.
You want it to feel good on your fingers and pleasant to the ears. You want to be spending more of your time practicing as opposed to picking out strings!
For those who don’t know where to start, let me share with you what I use on my acoustic guitars. Like I said earlier, I use different kinds of strings based on what kind of playing I anticipate for the coming weeks/months.
Currently my Taylor guitar has Elixer Polyweb Lights on it, although I jump back and forth between lights and extra lights as I like to fingerpick. For a cheaper option, I also enjoy the D’Addario Coated Bronze Lights.
When I don’t want a coating, I like the Martin Light Bronze strings. Great sound and long life.
Enjoy your strings and enjoy playing your guitar!