The strings on any guitar are a vital element to the sound and overall tone quality of the instrument. We can often overlook the strings as simply an accessory and opt for a cheaper set, but this might not be such a wise decision depending on what you’re looking for. As you’ll find out from this article, there are several things to consider when choosing the right string for your guitar and sound.
Just as there are several types of guitars to choose from (steel string acoustic, electric, classical) there are different types of strings that are designed for these specific guitars. The common steel-string acoustic guitar uses, you guessed it, steel strings. These differ from electric steel strings in that they are a heavier gauge. This means the strings are thicker, and they need to be in order to make the top of the guitar resonate adequately and “drive” the sound. Electric strings are generally lighter gauge (thinner) because their vibrations are being picked up directly from a magnet to create the sound, and so its generally easier to push down the strings on an electric guitar. Classical guitars use nylon strings that tie on at the bridge instead of using ball-ends as steel-strings do. These strings are much softer on the fingers and produce a warmer, more romantic tone. Instead of gauge, nylon strings are made in different tensions: moderate or light, normal or medium, hard or high. Low tension strings are easier to play but can cause buzzing, whereas higher tension produces more consistency in tone.
When choosing between acoustic steel-strings, the first thing to consider is the gauge. Lighter strings will be easier to play and produce a brighter sound but are more prone to breaking. Heavier strings will produce a fuller, louder sound and will allow the player to dig in more. String gauges (inches) range from extra light (.010″ – .047″), custom light (.011 – .052) light (.012 – .054) medium (.013 – .056) and heavy (.014 – .059). Smaller bodied OM and parlour size guitars will typically respond better with lighter strings while dreadnought and jumbo sizes can better handle the medium or heavy gauges. The tension in the neck of a guitar can (and should) be adjusted to suit lighter or heavier gauge strings depending on a player’s preference. Fingerstyle players tend to lean towards lighter gauges and those who like to use a pick for strumming might prefer something heavier. Its important to try a few different options to find what works for you.
The next thing to think about is string material. Most acoustic steel-strings are made with Bronze which is typically constructed of 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc. These strings are very bright and clear but have a shorter life span due to bronze’s tendency to oxidize. A slightly more expensive option is Phosphor Bronze which is bronze with phosphorous added to increase longevity. These strings have a bit darker and more mellow tone than bronze only but still have plenty of brightness. Other string types use nickel/copper wrap wire which is how steel-strings were made in the pre-war days. These strings offer a uniquely mellow, yet crisp sound which allows the guitar’s natural resonance be heard. The more expensive strings on the market use coating technology to protect the string from corrosion and significantly increasing the life span, while also maintaining the brilliance of plain Bronze or Phosphor Bronze.
The most important thing is to make sure you’re using the right string to suit the style of guitar. For example, it would be unwise to put steel-strings on a classical guitar as the tension could damage the instrument. Also, its good to try several different types / gauges of strings to find out what is the right choice for your sound, or to make sure you’re getting the longevity you desire from the string. Think of the strings as the vocal cords of your guitar. They should be as invaluable an asset to your sound as the guitar itself.