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5 Best Electric Guitar Strings for Rock in 2021 – Ready to Rock?!

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Best Overall – D’Addario EPN115 Pure Nickel

Sound
Playability
Overall Quality
Durability
Value for Money

Summary

If you’re a classic rock fan or a soulful blues guitarist, you’ll love the sound of pure nickel strings. 

Nickel delivers a really vibrant warmth.
It’s never harsh or brash, and each note of these EPN115’s sings with a sultry resonance.

They’re the most harmonic strings in this list, with the fundamental note dressed in multiple layers of overtone richness. They sound great with the EQ flat, and need no effects to give them life.

If classic rock and blues are your go-to styles, pure nickel strings are going to be the prime choice for you.

While you can take them for a walk in many other genres, their inherent warmth is going to lead to some murky problems when you start playing too heavy.

4.5

The Next Best:

Runner-up For Lead Guitarist – Ernie Ball Cobalt Regular Slinky


Our Overall Rating

Summary

Pros

  • Cobalt/iron blend increases magnetic response between strings and pickups
  • Tested and approved by legendary guitarists such as John Petrucci and Slash
  • Cobalt lasts a long time; sound stays crisp much longer than nickel strings
  • Low tension design for easy bending and loose feel
  • High amounts of sustain
  • Very responsive to natural and pinch harmonics

Cons

  • Loose, “slinky” feel doesn’t perform well in dropped tunings
  • Low tension can result in sloppy technique for beginners
  • Lacking in punch; slow responsiveness
  • Rough on the fingertips

For guitarists who play a lot of lead, they’ll be great, but not the most versatile.

For Heavier Rock – Dunlop DHCN1048 Heavy Core


Our Overall Rating

Summary

Pros

  • High tension with a super crisp response
  • Thick, meaty sound in all ranges
  • Designed for dropped tunings
  • Perform really well in heavy genres
  • Packaged with three layers of moisture protection
  • Allow for heavy-handed playing styles

Cons

  • Bright at first, but becomes dull and flat quite fast
  • Require the heaviest gauge for super low tunings

If you’re as into dropped tunings as I am, these are a great set of strings– at least for the relatively short time before they wear out.

If you’re playing any softer genres, I’d search for something with a lower tension.

Best Budget Option – GHS Strings GBL-5 Guitar Boomers


Our Overall Rating

Summary

Pros

  • “Transparent” tone so you hear the guitar and not the strings
  • Warm and bright sound with good balance in all ranges
  • Versatile design for all styles of rock
  • Individually packaged in nitrogen-sealed packs that seal out all corrosion
  • Durable and break-resistant

Cons

  • Don’t transmit harmonics very well
  • Cause excessive finger blackening as nickel oxidizes
  • Relatively low tension with an over-present twang
  • Sometimes shipped with defective ball-ends

These sound their best when played with a light hand, and when things start to get heavy they don’t really stand up.

Overall, good beginner strings at a low cost, but lack the finer points needed for serious guitarists.

For Bigger Budget – Optima Gold Brian May Signature strings


Our Overall Rating

Summary

Pros

  • Gold-plated coils give extra punch to every note
  • Get closer to Brian May’s signature sound
  • Long-lasting if played easy
  • Exotic looking, unique strings
  • Extra bright tone; crispy response
  • Suited for those with nickel allergies

Cons

  • No info available about inner coil wire material
  • Expensive
  • Soft gold metal wears off quickly with regular playing
  • Gold-plating mostly a gimmick
  • Only available in 009 gauge

Overall, the Optima Gold Brian May Signature strings fetch you a nice clear tone, and they keep their fresh sound for a long time thanks to gold’s corrosion resistance.

I’m not completely sold on these strings in terms of tonal superiority and price, but their longevity and smooth playing feel save them in the end. That’s why these might be worth-a-try if you have a bigger budget.

When I started playing guitar, I would always buy whatever strings were cheapest. One week, my guitar had to go in for repairs, so I borrowed my friend’s axe. I was taken aback by how much better it sounded and played.

His secret? Great strings! When I picked mine up from the shop, I bought a pack of the strings he used and put them on when I got home. The difference was incredible, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of strings ever since.

After trying out many different products, I’ve reviewed these best electric guitar strings for rock to make your search for perfect strings much easier.

Let’s first look at these fine strings, and at the end of the post, you can find the FAQ section that helps you to make the best choice possible.

Every one of these guitars is here based on extensive research and combined 27+ years experience of me (Tommy) and Teemu.

Who crafted this article:

Tommy Tompkins Profile Picture 2

Author: Tommy Tompkins

Playing guitar since 2004. Primarily an acoustic guitarist who plays and writes traditional American folk music, with a background in melodic metal and a solid foundation as a bassist.

reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala

Playing guitar since 2009. Mainly focused on electric guitars, although plays acoustics too. Started this blog in January 2020.

Use the table of content to jump to the section you want:

Best Electric Guitar Strings for Rock

Best Overall – D’Addario EPN115 Pure Nickel Electric Guitar Strings, Blues/Jazz Rock, 11-48

D’Addario hasn’t been making strings as long as GHS or Dunlop, but still do a good job of delivering vintage-sounding all-nickel strings.

Sound

If you’re a classic rock fan or a soulful blues guitarist, you’ll love the sound of pure nickel strings. 

Nickel delivers a really vibrant warmth. It’s never harsh or brash, and each note of these EPN115’s sings with a sultry resonance.

They’re the most harmonic strings in this list, with the fundamental note dressed in multiple layers of overtone richness. They sound great with the EQ flat, and need no effects to give them life.

While great for softer genres, these D’Addario strings don’t really have the precision needed for heavier styles or super articulate solo work.

Playability/Feel

I think nickel is one of the most comfortable string materials, about as soft as you can get without going to nylon.

The EPN115s are wound at a standard tension, with just enough pop without being a pain to bend.

They let you glide smoothly up and down the neck, with the major playability issue being the amount of finger squeak and squeak is common to nickel-wound strings.

Summary

Pros

  • All-nickel coils give warm, vintage sound
  • Perfect for blues, classic rock, and jazz
  • Soft playing feel is easy on beginner’s fingers
  • Packaged with environmentally friendly gas-neutralizing barrier
  • Mellow tone in all ranges
  • Overflowing with harmonics
  • Great magnetic responsiveness

Cons

  • Nickel corrosion can stain fingers black
  • Fairly fast-corroding
  • High E string seems weak and prone to fast-breaking

If classic rock and blues are your go-to styles, pure nickel strings are going to be the prime choice for you.

While you can take them for a walk in many other genres, their inherent warmth is going to lead to some murky problems when you start playing too heavy.

Check Price on:


Runner-up For Lead Guitarist – Ernie Ball Cobalt Regular Slinky Set

These Cobalt Slinky strings were beta-tested by guitar greats, including John Petrucci, Slash, and Randy Jackson, all giving their mark of approval.

Sound

We didn’t touch on cobalt when I talked about the most common string metals(in FAQ section). It’s a bright-sounding material that typically puts a lot of focus on the treble range. 

Ernie Ball blended cobalt with iron for the coil-wrap of these Slinky strings. This formula keeps the clarity of cobalt and introduces some thicker mids and lows into the mix with the iron.

They’re shimmery strings with a distinct lightness to the sound, great for funky solos and effects-driven riffage.

The iron in the blend increases the Cobalt Slinky’s magnetism, so your pickups respond to every nuance of their sound.

John Petrucci described them as buttery, while Slash said they’ve got a guttural growl.

In truth, I’d have to disagree with Slash here and say that, while they’re certainly bouncy, there’s not a lot of grit to the low end. This is the main detriment to the otherwise fun, nippy strings.

These exact Cobalts are used in this video:

Playability/Feel

While I don’t agree with Slash’s praise entirely, his description of the Cobalt Slinkys as bouncy and pliable was on point.

These things are nothing if not bouncy; it’s hard to play them without immediately sinking into a twangy funk groove.

While cobalt is generally smooth and soft to play on, the added iron gives them a bit of extra grip in the coils and can be harsh on your fingers. They don’t feel the best in that department, but at least you’ll build your callouses quickly.

Summary

Pros

  • Cobalt/iron blend increases magnetic response between strings and pickups
  • Tested and approved by legendary guitarists such as John Petrucci and Slash
  • Cobalt lasts a long time; sound stays crisp much longer than nickel strings
  • Low tension design for easy bending and loose feel
  • High amounts of sustain
  • Great midrange focus
  • Bright, articulate highs and fat lows
  • Very responsive to natural and pinch harmonics

Cons

  • Loose, “slinky” feel doesn’t perform well in dropped tunings
  • Low tension can result in sloppy technique for beginners
  • Lacking in punch; slow responsiveness
  • Rough on the fingertips

These strings are pretty specific and not the most versatile on the list. For guitarists who play a lot of lead, they’ll be great, but you’re not going to get a lot of crunchy power out of them.

Check Price on:


For Heavier Rock – Dunlop DHCN1048 Heavy Core Guitar Strings


Like GHS, Dunlop has been in the music business for more than 50 years. Their Heavy Core electric guitar strings are offered for musicians with a need to go low.

Sound

I’m a metal musician at heart — a true fiend for drop-tuned breakdowns with nasty amounts of distortion.

I play in dropped tunings most of the time, even on acoustic, so I was excited to try out these Dunlop Heavy Core strings.

My first impression was positive.

I started out in standard tuning, keeping the tone clean with the EQ flat. The strings sound creamy and thick at every point on the fingerboard. Lows have oomph, mids are solid, and highs flow smooth. Every pick stroke brought an immediate response.


Once in dropped-C, these strings started to show their true worth. I cranked up the distortion and played my favorite breakdowns. The strings’ crispiness faded a bit, bringing a faint rumble to my tone like distant thunder.

Any lower than this, I wasn’t necessarily impressed. Dunlop’s proprietary core and coil ratio can only do so much, and the NPS wrap started to sound rather empty of any character in the lower tunings.

Playability/Feel

The high tension of these strings makes them a little difficult to play in standard tuning, and I started to wear out after a few scales, despite their smooth nickel wraps.

Dropped-C was the real sweet spot of the Heavy Cores. Detuning them to the point they were designed for, dropped-C brought them down to what felt like normal tension for any other string. 

There was no flub or flap in this tuning; everything was still crispy and responding with a snap.

Summary

Pros

  • High tension with a super crisp response
  • Thick, meaty sound in all ranges
  • Designed for dropped tunings
  • Perform really well in heavy genres
  • Packaged with three layers of moisture protection
  • Allow for heavy-handed playing styles

Cons

  • Bright at first, quickly becoming dull and flat
  • Require the heaviest gauge for super low tunings

If you’re as into dropped tunings as I am, these are a great set of strings– at least for the short time before they wear out.

However, if you’re playing any softer genres, I’d search for something with a lower tension than the Dunlop Heavy Core set.

Check Price on:


Best Budget Option – GHS Strings GBL-5 Guitar Boomers

Boomers are a nickel-plated steel offering from GHS, a company that’s been in the string game since 1965. With over 50 years in the game, GHS knows what they’re doing.

Sound

The overall tone of these strings is definitely warm. They have a thick midrange and a crispy high end, while the lows are smooth and solid.

The Boomers’ nitrogen-sealed packaging means that they come out of the pack absolutely brand new. They’re crisp as can be, and respond with a quick attack. You might say this responsiveness makes them boom.

Offering a sound that blends the fundamental note with overtone complexity, they sound just as good clean as they do distort.

Though they come super fresh, it seems they quickly start to corrode, and being uncoated, they lose their initial vibrancy in a pretty short time.

Playability/Feel

These Boomers are roundwound strings, playing with a nice bounce up and down the neck. The nickel-plated steel coil is soft on the fingertips.

They feel a little loose in terms of tension, which is good for bends but bad for fret buzz. I think they’re great in a more blues-rock/classic rock setting, but when you want to get really heavy the jangle messes up the vibe a bit.

Even after pre-playing string stretches, they come out of tune rather quickly for the first few days, so keep your tuner close by when you string up with Boomers.

Summary

Pros

  • “Transparent” tone so you hear the guitar and not the strings
  • Warm and bright sound with good balance in all ranges
  • Versatile design for all styles of rock
  • Individually packaged in nitrogen-sealed packs that seal out all corrosion
  • Durable and break-resistant

Cons

  • Don’t transmit harmonics very well
  • Cause excessive finger blackening as nickel oxidizes
  • Relatively low tension with an over-present twang
  • Sometimes shipped with defective ball-ends

Good for most moderate applications, I’d keep these strings in the realm of softer rock. They sound their best when played with a light hand, and when things start to get heavy they don’t really stand up.

Overall, good beginner strings at a low cost, but lack the finer points needed for serious guitarists.

Check Price on:


For Bigger Budget – Optima Gold Brian May Signature strings

Optima, originally founded as Maxima, has 100 years of experience in the manufacture of instruments and their strings. They teamed with Brian May to create these Gold Signature strings; but are they worth it?

Sound

Optima markets their strings as “the finest in the world,” but I’m not so sure about that.

These Gold Brian May Signature strings are good, there’s no doubt about it. But, they don’t really sound special to me. I’d say they’re on par with most strings that cost half the price.

Their tone is very bright. It chimes with natural clarity, and Brian May helped design them to give these strings extra kick. Whether they have much more punch than any other string, I can’t really say for sure, but I don’t think so.

Gold-plated, but gold tone? Maybe not so much.

But still, definitely good strings for classic rock.

Playability/Feel

They do actually come with a 24k gold plating, but it’s just that, a plating. 

Try as I might, I can’t find a single bit of info about what lies underneath the gold coating. Optima claims they’re strings suitable for people with nickel and stainless steel allergies, so we can maybe rule those metals out. After that, there’s no telling what they’re wrapped with.

Gold is, of course, a super soft metal, so they play smoothly. There’s a good deal of finger noise as you move up and down the neck, but they don’t dig into your fingers like most strings.

Although these strings are a bit stiff, they’re not overly difficult to bend, and for the most part play just fine.

Summary

Pros

  • Gold-plated coils give extra punch to every note
  • Get closer to Brian May’s signature sound
  • Long-lasting if played easy
  • Exotic looking, unique strings
  • Extra bright tone; crispy response
  • Suited for those with nickel allergies

Cons

  • No info available about inner coil wire material
  • Expensive
  • Soft gold metal wears off quickly with regular playing
  • Gold-plating mostly a gimmick
  • Only available in 009 gauge

Overall, the Optima Gold Brian May Signature strings fetch you a nice clear tone, and they keep their fresh sound for a long time thanks to gold’s corrosion resistance.

I’m not really sold on these strings in terms of tonal superiority and price, but their longevity and smooth playing feel save them in the end. That’s why these might be worth-a-try if you have a bigger budget.

Check Price on:


Verdict

Although I don’t typically play a lot of blues or classic rock, I love the rich tone of the D’Addario EPN115 Pure Nickel stringsThey feel great to play, have a perfect response, a smooth attack, and are versatile enough that I can get at least semi-heavy before they lose their luster.

My least favorite strings here are the Optima Golds, because of the high price. They’re great in terms of playability, but for the price, I think you’re better off buying several packs of EPN115s. But these still might be worth-a-try for some folks. Especially if you love Brian May.


FAQ

Buyers Guide – How to Pick Right Strings for You?

photo shows readers a headstock and neck of a guitar and electric guitar stings

Don’t Guess About the Gauge: Are Thick or Thin Strings Better?

String Gauge Basics

One of the first things you’ll notice when shopping for guitar strings is that they come in different sizes.

While the lengths are all close to the same, there’s a variety of thicknesses that have a dramatic effect on the tone and playability of your guitar.

String gauge is measured in thousandths of inches and denoted with a whole number between 8 and 56. 

Packs of strings are referred to by the smallest string gauge, so a set of 8s will have a high E string that is 0.008 inches thick. From there, the lower strings are gauged accordingly to make the playing feel even across the set.

Thin strings are called light, and as the gauge increases, the strings are said to become heavier. 

So what difference does it make and why is it important to know?

Light Strings (008-010 gauge)

Light strings have low tension, making them easy to bend and press to the frets. They’re great for playing fast but are easier to break than heavy strings and can cause fret buzz on guitars that have low action. It’s best to not play on them too hard.

The most popular light string gauge, great for a variety of genres but best suited to the softer end of rock’n’roll, is 010.

In this set, the smallest string is 0.010 inches thick and the low E string is 0.042 inches. They offer easy playability without being inadequate in sustain and volume.

Medium Strings (011 gauge)

Medium gauge strings are good all-rounders. They’re typically 011 sets, with a low E of 005. With these strings, you can still bend without much problem. They let you play hard without stressing too much about unexpected snaps. Their tone is fatter and sustain is better than light strings.

Heavy Strings (012-016 gauge)

You’ll notice that the difference between heavy and light strings is just 2/1000 of an inch, but in string gauge small increments mean a big change.

With heavy strings, 12s are typically considered the norm. 13s are extra heavy, and starting at 14s you’re into the world of baritone guitar strings. Amazingly, surf rock pioneer Dick Dale used 16 gauge strings!

Heavy strings are great for when you want to play with power. They’ve got all the sustain you need, super chunky tone, and can maintain tension in double-dropped tunings. They’re the string of choice for heavy metal, but they’re significantly harder to play with than light strings.

What Gauge is Right for You?

You’ll have to ask yourself what you want from your strings.

If you’re aiming for “Free Bird” style bends, wailing, sultry leads, and pain-free fingertips, stick to light strings.

Medium gauge strings will supply you with plenty of bendability, sustain, and tone, and are a good place to start if you’re not sure what you want. They’re the middle ground and work in a large array of genres.

If you’re a metalhead or otherwise need a huge depth of tone and sustain, or if you’re naturally heavy-handed, shoot for heavier gauges.

However, I wouldn’t go above 012s if you’re just starting out with the guitar. The increased tension can be a challenge and might turn you off before you learn the basics.

What’s the Difference Between Coated and Uncoated Strings?

Once you’ve chosen your gauge, it’s time to take a look at coated and uncoated strings.

Coated Strings

The coating on strings means that there is a thin layer of polymer applied to them. 

This extends the life of strings, protecting them from the skin, oil, and dirt sure to rub off on them as you play. With coated strings, you won’t have to change them as often, and they’ll stay brighter for longer.

However, they have their downsides, such as a loss of clarity in the higher registers, less response, slower attack, and a feel that some guitarists simply don’t like.

Uncoated Strings

If string longevity isn’t important for you, uncoated strings may be preferable. These are what they sound like, strings that aren’t coated. 

With uncoated strings, you play on the bare metal. The grime from your fingertips will serve to deaden their sound a lot faster than with coated strings, but in the interim, you have a more genuine, cleaner sound.

You can keep uncoated strings sounding fresher for longer by regularly cleaning them.

This video helps you to do the cleaning:

Which is the Better Choice?

I fall into the category of players who don’t like the feel of coated strings and prefer to sacrifice lifespan for tone and playability. Contrarily, you might be of a different opinion and not want to change strings so frequently.

My recommendation is to buy a couple packs of each. First, play with the uncoated strings until they lose their vibrancy. Swap out for a coated set, paying attention to how your tone and playing feel change. If you don’t notice any detriments to your sound and style, go with the coated. If they don’t feel or sound right, uncoated is for you.

The Metal: Choosing Your Electric Guitar String Material

Electric guitar strings are, of course, made of metal. The four bass strings consist of a core composed of one or more thin steel wires which are wrapped with tight coils of a thicker wire.

This is the most subjective variable in guitar strings, with no one choice being better than the others.

The different metals that guitar strings are wrapped with produce a variety of tones and playing feels. I’ll give you a quick overview of the most common.

Nickel-Plated Steel

Nickel-plated steel strings, NPS for short, are wrapped with a coil that is roughly 8% nickel covering a 92% steel base. They’re the most common electric guitar string in use today. Their versatility makes them one of the best options for electric guitar strings for rock.

Tonally, these strings are both warm and bright and have a quick attack. They sound great at first but lose their luster as the nickel is worn off the steel interior.

Pure Nickel

These are the original electric guitar strings. Their tone is warmer than NPS strings and has a distinct vintage feel to it. Slower on the attack but maintaining their sound for longer, they’re a good option if string longevity is your focus.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel strings are highly resistant to corrosion, have a very sharp attack, and reduce the amount of finger noise common with nickel-wound strings. 

They’re much brighter and cooler than nickel and NPS strings, and their corrosion resistance means they’re sure to outlast the others.

How Strings are Wound: Flat vs. Round

Yet another element of strings that is largely a matter of preference is the type of winding. This is done in two main categories, roundwound and flatwound, each with a different sound and playability.

Roundwound

A string that is roundwound has a round outer coil wire.

Their benefits include:

  • more overtones
  • and harmonics in your sound,
  • longer sustain,
  • and increased brightness.

This rounded shape comes with a few problems as well: increased finger squeak (finger noise when changing positions), shorter lifespans, harder on the fingertips, and more wear on the guitar’s frets.

Flatwound

Flatwound strings aren’t flat themselves. It just means that the outer coil wire itself is flat, more like metallic tape than what you’d typically think of as wire.

They are less warm than roundwound strings, with less harmonic complexity. Accordingly, they produce a crisper, cleaner sound.

On the downside, they are typically more expensive than round wound strings, less common, and found in fewer gauges.

Which Types of Strings are Best for Rock?

My main advice is to experiment with a different type of string each time you have to change them. As your playing style and technique develop, you’ll find what works the best for you.

As you’re starting out, I’d recommend sticking with the “middle of the road” strings in all the aforementioned categories. So, for beginner rock guitarists, look for strings that are medium gauge, with nickel-plated steel coils and a round winding. 

Whether you buy them coated or not is mostly dependent on how often you can afford to buy new strings. 

If you can buy new strings frequently, I’d definitely suggest uncoated strings for their tonal superiority. However, I’ve had many times when new strings were pushing my budget, and if this is your situation you should get coated strings that will last longer.

Conclusion

There are a lot of great strings out there, and these are just a handful of the best electric guitar strings for rock. You should try as many as you can until you find the strings that suit your needs perfectly.

What’s best for you is what you like best. 

I wish you all the best and keep rocking!

Teemu Suomala

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