When was the last time you changed your acoustic guitar strings? If you're due for a change-up, check out these tips for picking out the best acoustic strings for you.
This might seem obvious, but first and foremost, take a look at guitar and determine which type of strings you need. Acoustic steel, electric, classical nylon?
Most of the time these strings are not interchangeable. You can’t use steel strings on a nylon string guitar for example. It could damage your instrument.
Check your bridge and see if your guitar uses ball-end strings or needs strings that tie at the end. Typically all steel string guitars are fitted to use ball-end strings, but nylon string guitars can go either way.
Here’s where things get tricky. Strings come in a wide variety of different gauge ranges. The gauge is the diameter of the string… or how fat it is. The gauge of your strings can really change how the guitar feels when you play, and the sound, too.
Typically, lighter-gauge strings are easier to play, but can break more easily. Beefier strings can have a fuller tone, can be louder and are harder to break, so if you like to dig in, consider a heavier set. Here’s a general run down of acoustic string sets:
- Extra light: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
- Custom light: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
- Light: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
- Medium: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
- Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
Picking a gauge
So how to you know which gauge set will fit you just right? Here are some general things to think about.
Body size: Are you playing a small bodied guitar or a jumbo? Typically a smaller bodied parlor guitar will sound and feel better with lighter gauge strings. While you might want to try a medium or heavy gauge on a larger body or jumbo to take full advantage of their larger sound chamber.
Tone: Heavier gauge strings tend to emphasize the lower end of the guitar’s tonal spectrum while lighter strings are more treble-y and sweet.
Playing style: Are you a fingerpicker, a strummer? Typically lighter gauge strings are easier on the fingertips for pickers and if you’re a heavy strummer, you’ll want heavier strings. If you do both, try a medium set, that have heavier guage on the bottom and lighter on the top.
Instrument age: If you have a vintage instrument, be careful about putting heavier gauge strings on it, as they put more tension on the neck.
I know you probably think a string is a string. But you are wrong! There are several different types of materials that strings are made of, and they can affect the string tone, and longevity.
• Bronze: These are typically constructed of 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc and are used for all styles of playing. With a clear, bright ringing tone, these strings can age quickly due to bronze’s tendency to oxidize.
• Phosphor Bronze: These are bronze strings with phosphor added. Still bright, but warmer and darker than bronze strings. Phosphor extends the life of these strings versus standard bronze strings.
• Brass: A bright, jangly, metallic sounding string.
• Silk and steel strings: These produce a soft, mellow sound. They offer less tension and come in lighter gauges so they are good for vintage guitars that require special strings. They are quieter and less durable but easier to play.
What about nylon-string guitars?
Tension: Classic guitar strings are made in different tensions. These typically consist of low tension also referred to as moderate or light, normal or medium tension, and hard or high tension. Low or light tension are easier to play, but you may get some buzz. Normal or medium tension strings are typlically consistent in tone. Try a few and see what you like.
Materials: Treble nylon guitar strings can be made with clear or rectified nylon. Clear nylon strings are extruded and then calibrated for accuracy. Rectified nylon strings are extruded and then ground to produce a string that will play in tune. They have a very fine roughness of texture. Treble strings are also made of carbon fiber and composite materials. Bass strings are primarily made of bronze wire or silver plated copper wire wound around a core of fine threads.
Coatings and treatments
These days string technology has progressed to offer several additional life-extending options. These can include coated strings, which can sometimes be a bit less bright or have a bit less sustain. But they can last three or four times longer. You can also find strings that have been cryogenically frozen, which seems to lengthen their lifespan without diminishing the tone or sustain.
So how often should you change your strings? Probably more than you do. I’m always amazed at how gorgeous my guitar sounds with new strings. It always makes me want to change them more often. If you’re playing pretty regularly you might want to change the every week. If you’re an occasional strummer, try once every two months. If you wipe down your guitar and wash your hands before you play, your string tone may last a bit longer.
Like pretty much anything, strings come in all different price ranges. Typically bronze strings are the least expensive and coated strings the most. Average strings typically cost between $5 - $15, but you can also get better deals if you purchase in bulk. There are cheaper ones, and more expensive too. Typically if you just opt for a decent set of strings, you’ll be in good shape.
This might seem inconsequential, but there have been some new developments in string packaging meant to both make them more eco-friendly and to keep them fresh and rust-free while they are waiting for you to put them on your guitar. If you do buy in bulk, think about how the strings are packaged, especially if you are not going to put them onto your guitar for a long time.
Try, try again
I know it’s comfortable to stick with the same strings, but give some alternates a try, especially if you haven’t tried anything new for a while. There are some really great new string options that you should check out.