The quickest, easiest and cheapest way of freshening up your tone is to fit a brand new set of strings. While there are no set rules on how often you should restring your electric guitar, doing so regularly can help you get the most out of your pride and joy. Now, we are very aware that finding the best electric guitar strings for your personal taste and playing style can be daunting, but we've put this handy guide together to help you through the process.
Over time you might notice your guitar starting to sound dull and losing some of the top-end definition - you might even notice problems with your tuning or intonation. However, nine times out of ten, once you've fitted a new set of electric guitar strings, you'll see an instant improvement. Your guitar will sound brighter, more lively, and it will feel better under your fingers.
We've put in the hours testing all sorts of string sets, from the biggest and most innovative brands in guitar to bring you our pro guide to the best electric guitar strings.
Best electric guitar strings: Guitar World's choice
Choosing the best electric guitar strings for you is an entirely subjective process. You may have a brand you prefer, or a tone which can only be achieved using specific materials.
On a personal preference level, we're naturally drawn to the Elixir Optiweb (opens in new tab) strings on account of the unique coating. We found that this delivered a bright, warm, resonant tone, while the coating itself made for a unique playing experience.
We're going to avoid choosing one set as being better than another for now, as everyone's opinion differs on the topic. Instead, we'll highlight the amazing range of variety on offer under the D'Addario XL banner. We feel that with so much choice, you're bound to find something that works within D'Addario's range. They're pretty inexpensive and used by a massive range of artists.
As with many other things, your mileage may vary, but any of the brands we mention below can be trusted to deliver the goods.
Best electric guitar strings: Product guide
We've gone for perhaps the most well-known packet of strings in existence to begin with. Controversial or what? But there's a reason why the Ernie Ball Slinky sets are among the best-selling strings globally. These nickel-plated strings marry up performance, durability, sound, and price into a package which ticks a lot of boxes.
The range is broad too; 17 different gauges are available in total, ranging from the 8-38 gauge Extra Slinky right up to the 12-62 gauge Mammoth Slinky - and they even have strings fit for a baritone guitar. Ernie Ball has even introduced some 'half' gauges, like the 10.5-52 Mondo Slinky. Whatever your playing style, there's a set that'll suit you just right.
Some string brands opt to use different coatings in an effort to prolong the life of their strings. Elixir is one such brand, utilising their patented Optiweb treatment onto the strings. Coating strings isn't without controversy; some players feel the treatment takes out some of the strings' natural resonance.
In our experience, that may be true for some brands but not for Elixir. These strings, during our testing, sounded bright and resonant, like uncoated strings, but generally lasted noticeably longer. We'd still advocate fairly regular changes, but if you do find yourself with a month-old set of Elixirs, you'll likely not be disappointed.
While they are more expensive than some other coated competitors. we found that the longevity the Elixirs provided excused the price difference of a set compared to an uncoated string.
Next up is the only true rival to Ernie Ball, certainly in terms of the range on offer. The D'Addario XL range incorporates six different construction methods, each with its own characteristics.
This includes the XL Chromes – which are flatwound to deliver increased low-end smoothness; the XL Nickel Wound – ideal 'everyday' strings; the XL Pure Nickel – which give off that vintage flavor; XL Prosteels – with increased output and brightness; the XL Half Rounds – which are semi-flat to alter their feel, and the XL Coated Nickel – which have a slightly longer lifespan than a normal set of nickel wound strings - so you've got a few options to choose from there. For the purpose of our tests, we used the XL Nickel Wound strings, and found that the tone they helped create was a tasteful blend of brightness, punch and low-end warmth. Not too bright, but not too dark either.
Each subset comes in a range of gauges, and as D'Addario's best-selling roster, you should definitely consider them. The only real downside is that with so many different types to choose from, it's quite easy to buy the wrong ones.
Next on the list is another well-known, much loved set of strings. We discovered during testing that the GHS Boomers offer a nice, bright tone thanks to the nickel-plated steel around a round steel core. Whereas in the past string brands solely utilized pure nickel, for whatever reason it was found that this wasn't viable any more. Hence we have nickel plated.
Thankfully, the Boomers deliver everything you want in a package that doesn't cost the earth. While the range isn't the widest in terms of available gauges, what is there is good quality.
Overall, the Boomers are great value strings. They definitely run the risk of being too bright for some, however - so it's worth figuring out what you really want your tone to sound like in the long term.
These premium electric guitar strings combine some of D’Addario’s finest technology. Featuring the high-carbon steel core seen in the NYXL series, as well as a thin, hydrophobic coating, the D’Addario XT sets retain that fresh string sound for longer. From our testing, we also found that they deliver amazing break resistance and hold their tuning better than most.
All six strings enjoy a coating too - it’s not just the wound strings like in some other coated sets. The feel isn’t wildly different from uncoated strings too so the D’Addario XTs provide the best of both worlds.
If you’re looking for the best electric guitar strings for tuning stability, sound, break and corrosion resistance, and longevity then these could well be the ones - but it's worth noting that they do feel like coated strings - even just a little bit - and that if that's not your thing, then we'd suggest you try something different.
Continuing the nickel theme, we have the Gibson Vintage Reissue. These strings are 100 percent pure nickel, delivering a warm tone with amazing clarity. The pure nickel composition gives the tone a more mellow feel, as well as making them easier for string bends.
We found during testing, however, that these strings push you onto your bridge pickup more often than not due to the extra warmth of the string.
Gibson does offer other slight variants in this particular range, including the nickel-plated Brite Wires and a set specifically for its Les Paul models (you may have heard of these guitars), but we opted for the Vintage Reissue as they deliver a specific tone, and do it quite brilliantly.
The UK's premiere string manufacturer showed its innovative streak with the launch of a new design that features increased magnetic properties which we found to deliver extra power, volume and sustain in our tests.
What's more, reduced friction aims to provide improved overall tuning stability, while Rotosound has imbued the strings with corrosion-resistant properties to keep them sounding great for longer.
The only negative point of the Ultramags is that, up until this point, nobody has particularly taken issue with the traditional string design. The Ultramag is still a cool and interesting take on an electric guitar string, though.
As one of the biggest names in strings, you can expect good things from D'Addario. And, with their flagship range, they don't disappoint. The D'Addario NYXL range is designed with strength in mind. By incorporating a high-carbon steel core with nickel-plating, the NYXLs can withstand all manner of abuse from whammy bars.
D'Addario itself says the big selling point with these sets is their tuning stability, and after testing, we'd have to agree. Apparently, due to the way they're constructed and the materials used, they retain tune far better than standard steel. And with nearly 20 different gauges to choose from, there will doubtless be a set to suit you.
Yes, they are a bit expensive – but you get a lot for your money here.
Another entry from Ernie Ball here. The Ernie Ball Cobalt range utilizes different materials from its usual Slinky sets. Cobalt, they found, interacts with the magnets in your pickups much better than any other alloy. This means you get an improved dynamic range and increased low-end, which we found was perfect for heavier styles of music.
Available in eight different gauges, the Cobalt range digs a little deeper to find new areas of tonality for you to explore. If standard string constructions aren't doing it for you anymore, then the Cobalts are well worth a look.
Although proven to make a difference, we'd argue as to whether the difference is great enough to warrant spending extra. That being said, there's no harm in trying.
If you own a Strat, you'll want to look at these. The Fender Pure Nickel sets feature a nickel core, wrapped with a nickel wire cover. This delivers tons of vintage tone, and also has the side benefit of reducing finger squeak as you traverse around the fretboard.
During our testing, we found these strings brought a type of brightness to the party which mingles perfectly with a single-coil pickup - and while these strings may not be for heavy players, they'll do just about anything else.
The strings feel silky smooth straight out of the packet, and the pure nickel core allows the guitar's inherent tone to shine through. Some of the best electric guitar strings if you're playing blues or low-gain styles.
All-American string company SIT prides itself on the fact that its strings Stay In Tune, and that's down to their carefully considered construction. That's what made SIT's Power Wounds the strings of choice for powerful players such as The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Lamb Of God's Willie Adler and Rammstein's Richard Kruspe.
A combination of an 8 percent nickel-plated steel cover wrap over a hexagonal-shaped core – all sourced in the USA, no less – produces a bright treble response with long string life. During testing, we found that not only does the brightness introduce extra clarity your tone, but these strings also provide some real guts and low-end too.
They're not exactly easy to come by - especially if you live in Europe, but if you can get some, then you'll definitely enjoy them.
Anyone who has played below standard E will know you can fall prey to the dreaded muddiness in your tone, or from floppy strings. The Dunlop Heavy Core strings are wrapped using a slightly different ratio to make them ideal for these playing styles and rid your life of those problems.
When we tested a set, we discovered a defined low end, plenty of clarity in the mids and added durability so you can really dig in when you're palm muting. We spent the whole time downtuned, and these strings perform optimally in those areas.
If you like playing in standard, or want super bendable strings, then these might not be the ones for you – but you've still got plenty to choose from.
For the final addition to our best electric guitar strings round-up, we've chosen something a bit different. The Optima 24K Gold Plated are, as the name would suggest, coated with actual gold. This, the company claims, makes them naturally impervious to tarnishing or corrosion.
The choice of material also increases their durability, and we discovered this when we tested a set. They sound great too, with loads of top end clarity. They're a bit expensive to replace, granted - but the extra durability does offset this a little bit.
These strings are actually the string of choice for Brian May, which is a decent endorsement to have. They're considerably more expensive than all of the other strings on the list, but why settle for silver when you can have gold?
Best electric guitar strings: Buying advice
Choosing the best electric guitar strings for you
Although guitar strings are a pretty inexpensive purchase compared to something like a new acoustic guitar or pedalboard, they can help you break out of a creative rut by giving your guitar a new lease of life.
There are many, many different sets of electric guitar strings out there, and different players will find that certain brands and gauges (thickness) work better for them than others. It’s a fairly subjective thing, so it’s worth trying a few different sets out and seeing what you prefer.
It’s hard to talk about electric guitar strings and not talk about Ernie Ball Slinkys - you’ll probably recognise the packet and to be honest, they’re difficult to fault. They offer loads of different gauges to suit personal preference and they sound great - the same can be said for the D’Addario EXL range too.
We love the Elixir Optiwebs too - these have to be some of the best electric guitar strings on offer because of their unique coating which helps them sound fresher for much longer. Recently, the D’addario XT range have made some pretty great strides as well, offering a protective coating on all six strings, as opposed to just the three or four wound strings.
What are electric guitar strings made of?
Electric guitar strings usually comprise of a metal core - often steel or nickel, with the thickest three strings wrapped in wire. The different guitar string brands can sound different as a result of the materials and methods used. Some will be brighter, more balanced, mellower, and so on. You might even choose different strings to suit the guitar that you’re fitting them on to compliment the pickups.
What are the benefits of coated electric guitar strings?
Some guitar strings have a coating around them - this acts as a barrier to the sweat and skin that comes off your fingers, meaning that they don’t corrode as quickly. You won’t need to change these quite as regularly, but they’re usually more expensive and they have a slightly different feel, which some players like, but others don’t.
Electric guitar string gauges explained
When choosing the best electric guitar strings for you, one of the main considerations is the gauge. That is, how thick the strings are. They’re usually referred to as 9s or 10s etc - this means that the thinnest string (your top E) is 0.009” thick.
Thinner strings might seem easier to play at first, as there’s simply less metal to move and push down on, though if you’re strumming hard or bending a lot then they can be more prone to snapping.
Thicker strings are harder to break and they tend to yield a little more tone, but you also might find that they’re harder to bend. If you’re tuning down, as many metal players do, a heavier gauge set of strings will hold their tuning better.
You can also match string gauge to your guitar’s scale length. Fender guitars such as the Telecaster or Stratocaster will likely ship with 9 gauge strings, whereas the likes of a Gibson Les Paul, will come loaded will 10 gauge.
It’s often said that thicker strings on a shorter scale guitar, like a Fender Jaguar for example, feel better than lighter gauges as they add a little more tension. Ultimately though, it’s usually a case of trial and error and discovering what feels comfortable for you and your setup.
When should I replace the strings on my electric guitar?
As previously stated, there are no hard and fast rules for when you should change your strings. A lot of players do it every couple of months or so, but if you’re playing for three hours every day, then you’re going to wear the strings out much quicker. If you’re playing live, then you’re probably going to sweat more which will wear them out quicker too - most pros will usually change strings after every gig.
The amount you'll need to change your strings will also vary. Regular performers will want to change strings for every show to ensure their guitar sounds the best it can. Ditto if you're spending time in the studio. On the other hand, if you're only playing at home you'll probably look to change them once a month or so.
The reason you should change strings so often in certain situations is that strings have a short period of time when they're performing at their optimum level.
Things that can affect this include temperature and humidity changes, sweat and other corrosive materials, and your own playing technique. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the best electric guitar strings on the market today.
Read our feature showing you how to restring an electric guitar.
Can you use electric guitar strings on an acoustic?
Electric guitar strings are different to acoustic strings, which are usually made from bronze or brass. In theory, electric strings will work on an acoustic, but we wouldn’t recommend it!
How we test electric guitar strings
For us, testing electric guitar strings is a rather enjoyable process, as it involves, well, playing our guitars! Therefore, we put them through several everyday situations to make sure we are thoroughly testing the strings.
We'll start by stringing the guitar with a fresh set of strings and observing how long they take to settle in and hold their tuning. We are looking to see how quickly the strings become usable in this test. Of course, ideally, we would like this to be as quick as possible, with the best electric guitar strings taking minutes to become stable in their tuning, without the need to excessively pull and stretch the strings.
Next, we need to test how the strings feel to play. For us, the best strings should make playing the guitar a joy. The strings should feel smooth and not sticky. When it comes to coated strings, we prefer not to notice the coating while we play. Speaking of corrosion, that brings us on to the longevity of the strings. To test how long a set of strings lasts, we'll keep the strings on our guitar for as long as we can, taking note of when they start to tarnish and lose their bright, snappy sound.
Now, how good a set of strings sounds is very important to every guitar player. To test the tone of the strings, we make sure to play a wide variety of styles to see how the strings handle the different musical genres, paying close attention to how the overall tone of our guitar has changed with the addition of the new strings.
Read more about our rating system, how we choose the gear we feature, and exactly how we test each product.
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