An acoustic guitar is useless without strings, right? And whether you're in possession of a brand new beginner acoustic guitar, a money-is-no-object dream guitar, or you're looking longingly at a treasured older instrument that needs some love, there really is no feeling like the pleasure of restringing your pride and joy with a set of the best acoustic guitar strings.
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Whatever type of guitar you have, – whether it's an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar or even a ukulele – it's important your instrument is fitted with the right strings to suit your needs and playing style. If they're too thick you might find difficulty playing it. Too thin and they might snap right when you're playing a crucial bend. Whatever the situation, it's essential you make the right choice.
This expert guide outlines some of the best acoustic guitar strings on the market to help you get to the right set, fast. Follow our advice and you can get on with the business of playing.
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The best acoustic guitar strings right now?
When it comes to buying the best acoustic guitar strings for you, it's important to consider how they're going to be used. Strings for strummers differ – both in thickness and durability – to strings for pickers. You should be changing your strings regularly anyway – once a month is a good rule of thumb if your budget allows – so if you don't like one set you don't have long to wait until you're onto the next set.
That said, if you're looking for a solid all-round set of strings as a quality starting point, the Ernie Ball Aluminium Bronze sets are hard to beat. With the clarity and projection of an uncoated set, and the longevity of coated strings, these will fit the bill for most applications and most players.
Best acoustic guitar strings: buying advice
If you're at an early stage in your guitar playing career, you might be confused why there are so many different variables when it comes to the best acoustic guitar strings. Different thicknesses, materials, coatings and prices all make for a bit of a minefield if you don't know what you're looking for. Allow us to help...
Acoustic string material
Typically, string material is the first thing you'll want to pay attention to. This will be one of two things, steel or nylon, and this is a key characteristic of the guitar itself. You can't put nylon strings on a steel-strung guitar, and vice versa. Within the steel niche are more subsets to choose from, each with their own properties, benefits and drawbacks. These include wrapping a steel core with aluminum, copper, bronze or nickel.
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Then, you'll find strings come in varying thicknesses, known as the string's 'gauge'. Thicker strings, favored by strummers, produce a more pronounced low-end, and tend to last longer but can be challenging to play if you're not used to them. Thinner strings, on the other hand, are favored by fingerpickers and sound brighter, but are more prone to snapping. If you're someone that plays a bit of everything, naturally we'd recommend opting for a gauge that sits somewhere in-between.
Finally, the coating of the strings is important. Amongst the choices in this guide, you'll see strings coated in various materials which reduce corrosion from sweat and other gunk. While these strings will certainly last longer, the tradeoff is that there may be a dip in the resonance and sustain of the tone.
Ultimately it'll take a bit of trial and error to find the set or variety which is right for you, but once you find the right acoustic guitar strings for you, you'll be set for life.
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The best acoustic guitar strings to buy now
Over the life of a string, it takes a bit of a beating. Whether it’s changes in temperature and humidity, or simply in being constantly tickled by your sweaty fingers, the life of a string is a tough one. Hence why string manufacturers offer 'coated' strings, which reduce the effects of corrosion. Yet coated strings don't appeal to everyone...
The Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze acoustic guitar strings bridge this gap by using aluminum oxide wrapping, rather than coating, to offer protection without compromising on projection. They create a wonderfully bright sound, perfect for fingerpickers and strummers alike.
If coated acoustic guitar strings aren't your thing, you might consider the D'Addario Nickel Bronze set. Uncoated strings offer the ultimate in clarity and crispness, meaning your guitar will sing in the way the manufacturer intended. The tradeoff being that they may not last as long. However, acoustic guitar strings generally come at a modest price, so if uncoated strings feel right for you, they're definitely worth the extra regular investment. These strings feature nickel-plated phosphor bronze, wrapped around a steel core.
Nickel bronze strings, more commonly used for electric strings, do a superb job of accentuating mid-range frequencies. This makes them perfect for full-band situations where the guitar needs to sit nicely in the mix as a whole.
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When you think the best guitar players of all time, Eric Clapton inevitably springs to mind. And while for most players earning a signature guitar would be an achievement, Eric has reached that special status where he actually has a set of signature strings bearing his name.
The Martin Clapton's Choice acoustic guitar strings are phosphor bronze in their make-up, and impressed us with their consistency. Whereas 'bright' strings can sound dead and dull after a while, these maintained a steady level of clarity for longer than expected. If they're good enough for Clapton, they're probably good enough for you, too.
Despite the tonal benefits of using uncoated strings, there are situations where using coated strings may be prudent. Changes in humidity can have a huge impact on string life, tuning stability and tone. Also, if the guitar is being used by different players then this can shorten their life.
The Fender Dura-tone coated strings offer a solid solution. By coating the strings in a patented micro-treatment, Fender claims they can last up to five times longer than regular, untreated strings.
Another entry from the king of strings now. The Ernie Ball Earthwood series is carving itself a nice niche through offering the warmth and clarity you'd expect from a set of phosphor bronze strings. We were pleased to find a more balanced tone that expected, with treble and bass frequencies nicely tuned with one another - perfect for solo performances (or practice).
The list of professionals who use these strings is indicative of their capability; Paul McCartney, John Mayer and Brad Paisley all swear by Earthwoods, which gives you confidence they'll be great for mere mortals too.
Continuing with coated strings, we have the Elixir 80/20 Bronze with Nanoweb. Elixir knows a thing or two about coating strings, and has developed a patented coating which they claim offers the same protection as regular polymer coatings, but without the tonal drawbacks.
In our experience, this is certainly true. These strings lasted longer than uncoated strings do, yet at no point did it feel like we were compromising tone in order to achieve this durability. A noticeable reduction in the dreaded 'finger squeak' was also noticed, making these a highly playable, great sounding string.
When they produce such famed acoustic guitars as the J-45 and Hummingbird, it's only right that Gibson also has a range of strings to accompany them. The Gibson Masterbuilt Premiums do just that.
Continuing the phosphor bronze theme, these strings do run slightly thicker than equivalents from other brands. But the tone you get matches brightness with longevity, to create a potent package for any player.
We're all for a bit of innovation here at Guitar World, hence why we were naturally drawn towards including the Dean Markley Blue Steel strings in this round-up.
The Blue Steel range is unique in that the strings are cryogenically frozen using liquid nitrogen to -320 degrees prior to packaging. This, the manufacturer states, tightens the molecules and minimizes the microscopic gaps into which gunk and sweat can hide.
The jury's still out on whether the science yields noticeable results on this one, however these strings sound great and in our tests lasted noticeably longer than regular uncoated strings.
D'Addario is a company known for its dedication to innovation in guitar strings, and the XT line-up boasts its most advanced yet.
These meticulously designed strings combine all of D'Addario's bright ideas - including high-carbon NY Steel, fusion twist technology and, of course, those irresistible colored ball ends - and adds a new string coating that not only triples the lifespan of the string but feels identical to uncoated strings.
They're available in steel- and nylon-string offerings, both of which offer up to 42% stronger construction and 131% better tuning stability than regular strings.
Finally on this list is something for the sweatier palmed among us. The DR Strings Dragon Skin sets feature a unique coating which the firm says is both ultra-hard, and doesn't dampen vibration. DR believes softer coatings can dampen your tone, or add in unwanted overtones, which is why they've gone hard.
The result is a range of strings which are almost impervious to corrosion, yet retain clarity and articulation.
Just as you wouldn’t hang a Picasso in a chipboard frame, Martin’s Authentic Acoustic string series is worthy of the luthier’s hallowed instruments. There’s a choice of flavors, from the Retro pack with its Monel wrap wire to Tommy Emmanuel’s custom gauges.
But a solid first stop is the Superior Performance set, available in 80/20 bronze or phosphor bronze, and featuring highest tensile-strength core wire, tin-plated on all six strings to beat corrosion.