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Basics You Need To Know About Electric Guitar Strings

The strings on your electric guitar have a major impact on its sound, volume and playability. If you’ve taken a look at the vast & daunting number of strings & manufacturers, you’ve likely realized that there’s a lot to consider in figuring out which strings are right for you and your Guitar.. Read on to find the strings that best match your electric guitar, music, and playing style.

 

All About String Gauges

Today, electric Guitar Strings are manufactured in a range of thicknesses or gauges. These gauges are designated in thousandths of an inch. The lightest strings are typically an .008 (often referred to by guitarists as an “eight”) and the heaviest a .56 (or fifty-six). String gauge has a big influence on playability, sound, volume, sustain and lifespan.

Lighter gauge strings:

  • are generally easier to play
  • allow easier bending of notes and fretting
  • break more easily
  • produce less volume and sustain
  • are prone to cause fret buzzing, especially on guitars with low action
  • exert less tension on the guitar neck and are a safe choice for vintage guitars

Heavier gauge strings:

  • are generally harder to play
  • require more finger pressure to fret and bend notes
  • produce more volume and sustain
  • are preferred for low tunings such as drop D
  • exert more tension on the guitar neck

String Set Gauge Designations

Most string manufacturers identify the string gauges in a set using terms such as “extra light” or “heavy.” While the exact gauges may vary slightly among manufacturers, here are typical gauge ranges for electric guitar string sets:

Electric Guitar String Set Gauges

  • “extra super light": .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
  • "super light": .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
  • "light": .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
  • "medium": .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050
  • "heavy": .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054

String sets are sometimes identified by the gauge of the high E string—the smallest-gauge string. A “medium” set of electric guitar strings for example might be just identified as an “0.11 set”.

Factors to Consider When Shopping for Electric Guitar Strings

The most important items to consider in shopping for electric guitar strings are:

  • Your playing style and music genre
  • How often you play
  • The sound character and tone you want to achieve

The things that impact those factors are:

  • String gauge
  • String construction materials
  • Type of string winding method
  • Uncoated vs coated string treatments

We’ll next look at each of these variables to come up with the strings most likely to work for you and your guitar.

Electric Guitar String Gauge Playing Characteristics

As mentioned above, lighter strings are easier to play. If you aspire to be a shredder burning up the fretboard with lighting-fast leads and intense rhythm chording, you’ll want to use lighter gauges. That said, if you’re a metal player who uses detuned scales such drop-D tuning, heavier gauges are needed. Should you be like us at Blues Guitar Center, you are probably a Blues to Blues/Rock Guitar Player.  For us, tone, sustain and bendability are the focus.  We suggest nothing lighter than a .10 to .46 set and probably nothing above a .12 to .50 gauge.  Unless of course you are determined to be like SRv.  Mr. Vaughn was prone to very, very heavy strings ( in the range of .13 to .54) 

Cleartone Treated Strings have a 1-micron coating that greatly extends their life without impacting tone.

Blues and classic rock guitarists who use a lot of string bends often settle on medium gauges that combine reasonably easy bending with more sustain and fatter, richer, darker tone. Mainstream jazz guitarists typically use heavy-gauge flatwound strings since they don’t typically do a lot of note bending and want a broad tone spectrum.

Elixir Nanowebs have a polymer coating on the tops of wound strings and anti-rust plating on plain strings to prolong the life of the entire set.

Most new guitars come strung with super-light or light-gauge strings. For beginning players, that’s probably a good place to start. As you develop fretting and picking skills and your fingers gain calluses and strength, you may want to gradually move up to heavier strings, depending on the music you play and the tone you seek. Many guitar manufacturers make specific recommendations about what strings to use. Some produce their own strings or have them custom-manufactured to their specifications.

DR NEONs have bright colored coatings that look great in natural light and glow under black lights.

The key to finding the gauges that work best for your playing style is experimentation. Try various gauges, brands, and string compositions to find those that feel best to your fingers and are most pleasing to your ears.

Differences between various string types can be pretty subtle, but focusing on the nuances of touch and tone can help lead to your own signature sound.

Keep in mind that changing string gauges may require adjustments to your string height or “action” at the bridge saddles as well as adjustments to the nut and neck. Depending on your skill and the type of guitar you own, this may be better left to a guitar tech.

Electric Guitar String Construction Materials

All electric guitar strings are made using steel, nickel, or other magnetically conductive metal alloys since they’re essential for transmitting string vibrations to the magnetic pickups. The type of plating or coating applied to the steel alloy has a significant impact on the strings’ sound. Here are some general tonal characteristics of the most common types of strings:

  • Nickel-Plated Steel: Balanced brightness and warmth with more attack
  • Pure Nickel: Less bright than nickel-plated steel with added warmth
  • Stainless Steel: Bright, crisp, “edgy” tone with sustain and corrosion resistance. Less prone to finger squeaks.
  • Chrome: Warmth with less resonance; often chosen by jazz and blues guitarists
  • Titanium: Fairly bright tone with excellent strength
  • Cobalt: Wide dynamic range with notable brightness and pickup response
  • Polymer-coated: Less sustain than equivalent uncoated strings; corrosion-resistant
  • Color-coated: Some coatings have added colorants for visual appeal; tonality varies

Types of String Winding

High E, B, and sometimes G strings are unwound. The other strings have a winding wire wrapped tightly around their cores. The method used to wrap the strings affects both tone and playability as noted below:

  • Roundwound: The most popular winding method by far, they have a noticeable ridged texture and produce more sustain, attack, and “bite.” They tend to produce more finger noise and fretboard wear.
  • Halfround: (also called groundround): Smoother texture with darker tone and less attack than roundwounds.
  • Flatwound: Very smooth touch with flat, dark tone that’s less responsive to picking dynamics. Popular with jazz and blues guitarists.

Signs That it’s Time for a String Change

  • Getting in tune and staying there is more challenging than usual.
  • You’re seeing rust or discoloration on the strings.
  • String wraps are unwinding exposing the core.
  • Your tone sounds “flat” or “dead.”
  • You can’t remember the last time you changed strings.

How Often Should Strings be Changed?

There is no stock answer, but here are some factors that shorten the life of your strings:

  • You sweat a lot when playing; your perspiration is acidic.
  • You play aggressively with a lot of bending and/or hard picking.
  • You play frequently.
  • You change tunings frequently.
  • You smoke or play in smoky environments.

Some Other String Tips

  • Keep a clean cloth handy and wipe down your strings after every playing session to prolong their life.
  • Washing your hands before playing will help prevent string oxidation.
  • Invest in a string winder; they’re inexpensive and speed up string changes.
  • Note the date you changed strings on the package, then put it in your case to keep track of the age and type of strings you’re using.
  • Buying single strings in bulk can be a smart, budget-friendly move, especially where light gauge strings you tend to break more frequently are concerned.
  • Keep an extra set and a few high-register single strings in your case for emergency changes that you or a bandmate may need.

Hopefully, after Reading this intro guide you will have a good overview on the basics of Guitar String theory and application. 
Now, as Blues Enthusiasts, what are our favorite Brands of Guitar Strings at Blues Guitar Center?   First Choice:  D'Addario NYXL Nickel Coated Steel,  in objective testing they out perform every other string.  Subjective testing, well, only you can judge that.  I can attest to the fact that you will think you changed your pickups after trying a set of these strings.  Longer life and more responsive to the pickup are hallmarks of this set from a Premier maker of Guitar Strings.  Second Choice:  And a close second at that are Ernie Ball Cobalts.  They perform as close to the NYXL's of all the Ernie Ball sets.