The importance of guitar strings has been overlooked by guitar players in so many cases. Most guitarists don’t pay too much attention to different string types, not knowing that the right choice could make their playing much more convenient and their guitar sound much better.
Therefore, it is very important to be aware of different string types, to know all the differences, all the advantages and disadvantages of each one. In that way, you have much bigger chances to find the strings that would work best for you.
Strings can be classified in several ways. Some of the most important aspects are gauges, materials, winding and coating.
A gauge is practically nothing more than a string thickness. The difference between thicker and thinner strings is obvious. It’s not hard to conclude that lighter gauges create less tension.
That means they are softer and more comfortable to play. Such strings would require less pressure from your fingers, so they allow easier bending and better overall comfort.
Naturally, heavier gauges are harder to play, especially if you are a beginner. However, these strings are superior in terms of sustain and overall tone quality. Also, there’s less chance to break the string.
Strings usually come in sets, although you can buy each string separately. My recommendation is to stick to sets, as you would get well-balanced tension on all six strings. In most cases, you will find names like extra light, light, medium, heavy etc. Still, people find much more convenient to call them by the thickness of the first string. Therefore, extra light gauges are colloquially known as 10s, since the first string measures 0.010 inches in diameter. Custom light gauges are known as 11s, light as 12s and so on.
Here are the most common string sets you can find on the market:
.010, .014, .023, .030, .039, .047
.011, .015, .023, .032, .042, .052
.012, .016, .025, .032, .042, .054
(12.5–55) - .0125, .0165, .0255, .0335, .0435, .055
(13–56) - .013, .017, .026, .035, .045, .056
(14–59) - .014, .018, .027, .039, .049, .059
In most cases, a guitar you buy will come with 12s. That’s probably the most balanced gauge and also the most popular. Still, don’t hesitate to replace them with lighter gauges if they are too heavy for you.
Here we have to make a difference between core and winding materials. The core of acoustic guitar strings is usually made of steel. On the other side, winding determines the tone in a much bigger portion, so manufacturers use different materials. The three common winding
materials in use today are phosphor bronze, 80/20 bronze and compound.
Phosphor bronze strings are more popular for several reasons, mainly because they are more durable. As their name says, this alloy includes phosphor, along with copper and tin. These strings last longer and also deliver a more balanced, warm tone.
On the other side, 80/20 bronze features an alloy of 80% copper and 20% zinc. So, this isn’t bronze at all, but rather brass alloy. In any case, these strings have a shorter lifespan and sound much brighter. For obvious reasons, they are less popular than phosphor bronze strings, but highly appreciated by those who prefer bright vintage tones.
Finally, there are compound strings, also known as steel and silk strings. Compared to phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze strings, these are much softer, somewhere on a halfway between steel and nylon strings for a classical guitar. These are great for fingerpicking. Still, keep in mind that the sound is quite mellow, which definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Core and Winding
Guitar strings consist of two parts, core and winding. Besides different materials, they can also feature different shapes. Therefore, the core can feature either a round or hexagonal shape.
Round core delivers a more balanced tone. On the other side, hexagonal core holds the winding much better, which in practice means superior durability.
When it comes to winding, there are three common types. Those would be roundwound, flatwound and halfwound. Roundwound strings are the most common type, characterized by warm and balanced tone. However, they are quite textured, so be ready on that familiar, pretty annoying finger noise.
With flatwound strings, you won’t have such problems. No texture, no finger noise. However, a big drawback is the sound, which is almost completely deadened. Therefore, these strings wouldn’t be the best choice for an acoustic guitar, if you care about the sound quality.
Fortunately, there is a compromise. Halfwound strings are flat from the outside, so there is no finger noise. On the other side, they are round from the inner side, so the tone is significantly better compared to flatwound strings. A bit from both worlds is sometimes the best solution.
Thanks to modern technologies, today’s strings last much longer. The main reason lays in the coating. Many strings today come with polymer coating, which plays an important role in fighting with corrosion and other environmental factors. These strings last several times
longer compared to non-coated ones. However, they are also much more expensive.
Best Acoustic Guitar Strings
Those would be some of the most common strings classifications. Now, here is a list of some of the best acoustic guitar strings you can find on the market:
D'Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze
These are the most popular acoustic guitar strings in the world today and that is for several good reasons. In terms of the sound, these are typical phosphor bronze strings, characterized by a warm and well-balanced tone. Also, the lifespan is pretty decent. Finally, the price is very attractive. Given all these features, it becomes clear why most guitar players prefer this set of strings. D’Addario is generally known as a company that offers a great balance between price and quality and EJ16’s are definitely no exception. Also, keep in mind that these strings come in all kinds of gauges, so you shouldn’t have a problem to find the ones that work best for you.
Elixir NANOWEB Strings 80/20 Bronze
This company has always been known for hi-quality strings, but also for pretty high prices. Still, I found that strings from this manufacturer usually deliver huge value for the price. 80/20
bronze strings are generally pretty sensitive on oxidation and dirt. Elixir uses its patented coating technology, which ensures several times longer lifespan. Compared to most 80/20 strings, these will last two or three times longer. The tone quality will remain great for months. Still, keep in mind that this Elixir set also costs two or three times more compared to a typical set of strings.
Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze
While most string makers advertise their patented coating technologies, the famous guitar maker focuses rather on the core quality. It is made on high-end quality steel, which prolongs the lifespan for a couple of times. On the other side, things are pretty typical when it comes to sound characteristics. A phosphor bronze alloy delivers a warm and well-balanced tone. All in all, the overall quality is amazing. However, the price is also pretty high.
GHS VN-L Vintage Bronze
If you want a genuine vintage tone, this is the right set for you. Don’t be fooled by affordable prices, GHS makes some of the finest strings you can find on the market. This particular set features a typical old-school copper-zinc alloy but in a little bit uncommon, 85/15 relation. The sound is super-bright, perfect for bright guitars. As I’ve already mentioned, 80/20 bronze strings (85/15 in this case) aren’t characterized by a very long lifespan. Still, these ones feature a hexagonal core, which should have some positive effect on longevity.
Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Phosphor Bronze
Along with D’Addario EJ16’s, these are the most common acoustic guitar strings today. These two sets of strings are pretty similar in all aspects. The price is similar, while the tone is typical for a phosphor bronze alloy. Both companies are household names in the business and
both rely on offering a great balance between price and quality. You won’t go wrong with any of these two.
Ernie Ball Earthwood Silk and Steel
These compound strings are everything one
fingerpicking guitarist will ever need. A combination of softness and mellow
tone works perfect and you won’t find many strings of this type that feature such
great quality. Despite the great quality, price is quite affordable. Also, it’s
good to know that various gauges are available.
Newtone Heritage Series Low Tension
Although generally well-balanced, most string sets don’t have the exact tension on each string. That’s not the case with the British company, which created a special series of strings
characterized by the identical tension on each one. This definitely has a highly positive effect and playing on these is very convenient. On the other side, the rest of the features is pretty typical. Phosphor bronze alloy, roundwound, and round core will provide you with a nice, warm tone, with lots of vintage flavors.
D'Addario EFT Flat Tops Phosphor Bronze
These strings balance pretty well between the sound quality and playing convenience. As the name says, these are halfwound strings, flat on the top and round from the inner side. Such
combination will ensure noise-free playing, with a relatively bright tone. The company describes these strings as semi-bright, and I can say they are really somewhere in the middle, between round and flatwound strings in terms of the sound. Keep in mind that this set doesn’t come in heavier gauges, just in extra light, light and medium.