In many cases, guitar players see strings as a kind of consumables. Once they break or worn out, they replace them with a new set. During that process, they don’t pay to much attention on different strings features and the fact is that they can affect your playing in so many ways. For example, strings come in various gauges, which could have a critical effect on your feel and overall playing. On the other side, different materials have a completely different impact on the sound. Also, string manufacturers use various technologies to improve the longevity of their products.
Those would be just some of the most important aspects of different string types. All of them could play a huge role in your quest for perfect tone and playability. In this article, we will
elaborate some of them.
One of the most important criteria for strings classification is the gauge. Simply said, a gauge is nothing more than string thickness. Therefore, the thicker the string is, the more tension you will feel on your fingers.
As you may presume, there are no ideal gauges. There are always pros and cons. For example, lighter gauges are more comfortable to play. They create less tension and allow much easier bending. On the other side, such strings can break easily.
The best thing about heavier gauges is that such strings ensure superior volume and sustain. Still, your bends will go much harder, while too much tension could also have a bad effect on the guitar neck.
Generally, gauges go in a pretty wide range, when it comes to electric guitars. The lightest are usually called “extra super light”, while the classification ends with “heavy” gauges in most cases. Manufacturers sometimes use different designations, so guitar players rather identify these sets by the thickness of the 1st/high-E string. Therefore, if the thickness of the first string measures .010 inches, most guitarists will call them 10s.
Here is a common designation of string gauges for electric guitar:
Extra Super Light (8s)
.008, .010, .015, .021, .030, .038
Super Light (9s)
.009,.011, .016, .024, .032, .042
.013, .017, .026, .036, .046
.015, .018, .026, .036, .050
.016, .020, .032, .042, .054
Stock guitars usually come with 9s or 10s and these are definitely the most popular
choice among guitar players. Although there are no rules, heavier gauges are
best for jazz, but also work perfectly for drop tunings.
String manufacturers use all kinds of winding materials. The first strings for electric guitars that ever appeared features pure nickel. Such strings are characterized by a genuine, very bright vintage tone. Still, such tone characteristics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea these days, so this is not the most popular material anymore. Another drawback is that these strings are heavier compared to some other materials.
Nickel-plated strings are far more popular these days. Compared to pure nickel, these strings
are softer and also deliver a brighter and more balanced tone. Also, you can count on more attack, so its no wonder these strings are the first choice for most guitar players.
Some players like to play on pure steel strings. Such strings deliver bright and crispy tones, also with a lot of sustain. Also, resistance to corrosion is amazing.
Cobalt is another popular material these days. Slightly suppressed mid-tones make them
perfect for hi-gain genres. Many experts claim this material has the best pickup response.
Other, less common materials are chrome, titanium, gold etc.
Winding and Coating
Winding doesn’t play such an important role in this case, Unlike acoustic guitars, electric guitars won’t bother you with too much finger noise. Simply, pickups are on the safe distance from the neck, so roundwound strings seem like a natural choice, due to their superior characteristics. They offer an excellent attack, which ensures excellent playing dynamics. While roundwound strings feature round cross-section, flatwound strings are not characterized with such accentuated texture. This may ensure a smoother feel on your fingers, but the tone isn’t that good, particularly in terms of dynamics. Still, many jazz players prefer such strings.
Finally, there are halfround strings, with a smooth surface from the outside and accentuated texture from the inner side. As you may presume, they are on a halfway between roundwound and flatwound strings in terms of sound characteristics.
On the other side, the coating doesn’t play that important role when it comes to sound characteristics but has a big impact on strings longevity. Manufacturers use various kinds of coating technologies which can make strings last several times longers, due to better protection from corrosion. Still, the problem with these strings is the price, which is usually much higher compared to regular, non-coated strings.
Best Electric Guitar Strings
Ernie Ball Slinky
The “Slinky” series are some of the most popular electric guitar strings around and that is for a good reason. In terms of base features, these are typical nickel-plated strings, which is the most common string materials these days. Therefore, you can’t go wrong with these strings, at least when it comes to tonal characteristics, which are well balanced.
An interesting thing about Slinky strings we should mention is a hexagonal steel core, which provides a little bit longer lifespan compared to more common round core strings. When it comes to gauges, there are 17 combinations in the offer, including those most popular. Therefore, you definitely won’t have trouble to find the right ones.
Finally, the price is quite affordable.
Along with Ernie Ball Slinky, these are the most popular electric guitar strings in the world. The two sets are very similar, pretty much the same in many aspects. Once again, we are talking about nickel-plated strings, which come in a
combination with a hexagonal core, which has a highly positive effect on longevity.
One of the reasons why D’Addario XL series stand out is because everyone can find
the right size. There are more than 30 gauges in the offer, which sounds impressive, but could also be a little bit confusing, especially for beginners.
Popular price is another strong point of these strings. There aren’t many products
around that offer such great balance between price and quality.
If you are looking for extended longevity, here are the right strings for you. This manufacturer is well known for its patented coating technology, which works amazing. You won’t find many strings that feature such amazing corrosion protection, so it’s no wonder that Elixir strings usually last two or three times longer compared to non-coated strings. Still, keep in mind that the price is
also two to three times higher, so a less frequent restringing is actually the only major benefit. Other than a coating, features are pretty common. These are nickel-plated strings, with familiar sound characteristics, which tend to be just a little bit brighter.
GHS Big Core Nickel Rockers
There are many pure nickel strings around, but these are definitely some of the best you can find, at least in my humble opinion. The sound is just amazing, especially if you consider the price. All those who are looking for a genuine vintage tone should try these, especially if blues is your main preoccupation. A big round steel core in a combination with full roundwound design ensure super mellow tone. The longevity is also surprisingly good, considering that we are talking about a pure nickel. The thing we should mention that these strings come in most common gauges only – 9s, 10s and 11s.
Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt
If you want to maximize clarity on high outputs, this could be a fantastic choice for you. An attractive price in a combination with great overall quality makes these strings probably the most popular in its class. Excellent pickup response is one of its strongest points. Therefore, players who prefer hi-gain styles will find these strings superior because no other material can deal with noise so well. Another thing we should mention is that these strings feature a hexagonal core, which increases durability.
The list of players that use Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt is extra-long and also includes some huge guitar names, such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather etc.
Optima Gold Brian May Signature
These strings come from Germany and they are used by one of the greatest guitar players of all time, the legendary Brian May. There aren’t many guitarists with such a distinctive tone and one of the main reasons are these strings. A pure 24-carat gold plating has a huge impact on the sound. In a combination with steel core, it also ensures superior durability. The price may seem a little bit high, but keep in mind that these are some of the finest guitars strings you can find around. Also, players who are allergic to nickel can use gold strings without any worries.
Compared to the standard XL series, you probably won’t hear that big difference in
sound. So, you probably wonder why these series cost more. The reason lays in improved playability, stability and durability. The company has applied its latest tech achievements, so these strings are softer to play, but also more stable. In practice, that means these strings will stay in tune much longer, despite much easier bending and better overall playability. Also, the company
claims these strings are more durable too.
These strings are pretty similar to the aforementioned Ernie Ball Slinky and D’Addario XL series. These are also very affordable nickel-plated strings and the only major difference is in the core, which is round in this case. Therefore, Boomers are probably a little bit less durable than the Slinky and
XL series. On the other side, they sound better. So, choosing between these strings is a matter of preference. In any case, GHS Boomers feature amazing value for the money.