The complete guide to guitar strings

Choosing the right strings for your guitar can be a more important choice than many realise, as there are a wide range of strings out there and each offers something unique and different when played. Guitar strings vary in two key ways, first is the material they are made of, and then how they are constructed. When you find the perfect string to match your model of guitar and the type of music you want to play, its feel and sound will have a huge impact on how you play overall. In this article, we dive into the different types of guitar string, how they vary and when they are best used.

The different types of guitar string

String material

The main materials that string are made from include metal strings that use steel and nickel, metal strings made from brass or bronze, and strings made from nylon. These strings are then further divided into subcategories that will help you find the right strings for your sound.

Steel and nickel strings

Steel and nickel are mainly used to make guitar strings for electric guitars. Usually, an electric guitar string will consist of a steel wire that is plated in nickel, although you can also buy strings that are made from pure steel or pure nickel, which have both become a popular choice in recent years.

Steel and nickel typically offer a different sound to each other, with steel often sounding sharp and lively, while nickel sounds richer, full-bodied and warm. For this reason, those who enjoy playing music genres like the blues will get a better sound out of nickel strings. While steel strings have long been popular for rock, metal and country. Opting for nickel-plated steel strings allows you to find a happy medium between these two sounds.

Brass and bronze strings

Brass and bronze strings are actually a variation of steel strings, as strings for steel-string acoustic guitars will often come with a choice between brass plated or bronze plated. Brass plated strings can often sound quite cutting, which makes them better off on a guitar larger than an OM size. Otherwise, you risk your sound coming across as too tinny.

Bronze plated strings will deliver a smoother and warmer sound than the Brass, which is why they are often used for softer music pieces or paired with small-bodied guitars.

Brass guitar strings

Brass guitar strings can produce a really unique sound.

Nylon strings

These strings are typically used on nylon string guitars or classical guitars. Both of these guitars should never be paired with metal strings, as they require the lighter sound and response of nylon. Some artists have experimented with using nylon strings on their steel-string guitars, leading to a softer and warmer tone in their music. However, if you are planning on putting nylon strings on your steel-string guitar, there will be less versatility in the music you can play than with bronze or brass strings.

Nylon guitar strings

You can usually find nylon strings on acoustic guitars / Image: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash. 

String construction

How your strings are constructed is just as important as what they are made out of. Each type of string has a different gauge, string core, winding type and string coating, which will help it give off a slightly different sound and response.

Gauge

A gauge is how thick the string is, and the thickness of the string will typically dictate how rich and bodied the sound it gives off is. Thicker strings will usually produce heavier, full-bodied notes, while the thinner strings have a brighter and tinnier sound. The thicker a string gets usually means the stiffer and harder to play it will be, while thinner strings are very easy to play. Thin gauges usually start at .09 and lower, while thick gauges will be over .012.

String core

The string core essentially means the shape of the guitar string, and there are two key types – the round core and the hex core. The round core strings offer mellower tones that sound fantastic when playing blues or classic rock. Meanwhile, the hex core strings are typically louder and brighter, delivering a very modern sound best suited to more recent rock and metal.

Winding type

Modern guitar strings come with three main types of winding, roundwound, flatwound and halfround. Roundwounds are usually the standard winding type, providing a bright sound and tone. Flatwound strings are notable for their flat surface and are more popular in the realms of jazz due to their darker tone. Halfround strings are halfway between round and flat, and often popular in more modern genres.

String coating

A standard guitar string is usually coated with a plastic polymer. The reason for this is because coated strings will last for longer than uncoated ones. However, having a coating on your strings could provide a heightened response. Coated strings are also typically more expensive due to the fact that they will last longer.

Guitar strings can be a very personal choice that could make or break your sound. The best way to find the right strings for the music you play and how you like to play it is to try as many different types of string as possible over the years, such as both guitar strings electric guitars will love and guitar strings acoustic guitars will benefit from. No doubt you will eventually find your signature string, with the ideal material, gauge, core and winding type for your sound.

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