Last Updated on November 22, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: DL Shepherd
Darren has been playing guitar for over 23 years. He fronted the metal band Suddenly Silence in the early 2000’s, and also achieved recognition as an award-winning bluegrass guitarist.
A native of southwestern Virginia, and has shared the stage with many big-name acts from various genres. When he is not playing one of his many guitars, he can be found riding his Harley through the mountains of Virginia.Hide The Rambling▲
Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala
I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.
I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.
I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).Hide The Rambling▲
So, you want to know about acoustic guitar strings? You’ve come to the right place! In the past 24 years, I have played a lot of different types of acoustic guitar strings and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.
Some people think that all guitar strings are created equal. This could not be further from the truth. Just like anything else, you have strings that do their job incredibly well and you have some that fail miserably. You probably have your favorite brand and the least favorite one in mind already.
Strings are perhaps one of the more intimate choices that you can make as a guitar player. After all, they are responsible for making a guitar “work”. Without them, guitars would just be fancy drums.
We’re all about helping people out here at guitaristnextdoor.com, and we want to help you choose the right acoustic guitar strings for you! Let’s get started…
Let’s Choose The Right Acoustic Guitar Strings – From All The Different Types
3 Things to Know Before Starting To Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings
- Thicker strings are harder to play but sound louder
- Thinner strings are easier to play but sound quieter
- Find a balance between what feels right and what sounds right.
If you’ve looked at any acoustic guitar stings lately, you’ll know that the selection is nearly endless. It can be overwhelming to try to pick one type of string from the wide selection. Do you buy phosphor bronze strings or 80/20 bronze strings? Do you buy flatwound or round wound? What gauges should you try out?
I could keep going on and on with questions. Instead, I’ll break down the answers to make them a little more apparent.
Guitar strings are normally listed as “steel strings” and “nylon strings”. Steel strings have a core of steel (sometimes aluminum) and are wrapped in a wire that is made from an alloy – usually bronze and other metals.
These are what you will find on the vast majority of acoustic guitars on the market today:
- Steel strings have a bright, crisp tone. They have a sparkle to them that makes them stand out in a mix.
- Phosphor bronze strings tend to be warm and dark.
- 80/20 bronze strings are a brighter alternative to phosphor bronze strings.
Nylon strings are made for classical guitars or guitars that are made specifically for nylon strings. These strings are made of nylon filament with the bass strings wound with a bronze, steel, or aluminum wire. They have a soft sound and have a much lower tension than steel strings which makes them easier to play.
Nylon strings have a warm sound with balanced mids. Even the highs have some warmth to them. The attack is very soft so they don’t project through a mix like steel strings do. Nylon strings were designed to be played with the fingers instead of with a pick. They do not hold up very well when played with a pick.
Coated or Uncoated Strings?
Coated strings are steel strings that have been coated with a thin film of polymer. They were designed for longevity since the polymer coating protects the strings from oxidation caused by oils and acids found on your fingers. In other words, they were designed to last much longer than uncoated strings. A good example of coated strings is strings manufactured by Elixir.
Uncoated strings are simply regular guitar strings that have not had a polymer coating applied to them.
“Treated” seems to be an ambiguous term in the guitar string industry. Some manufacturers, like Martin, use this terminology to describe their coated strings. Other manufacturers use this terminology to describe a different process by which they extend the life of the string without actually “coating” the strings.
This process could be polishing the core wire to make the surface more uniform or treating the strings with a platinum coating. It could mean that the strings were cryogenically frozen to increase their strength. It seems that the processes vary between different manufacturers.
Regardless of the process, they are designed to extend the life of the string. This could mean corrosion resistance or strengthening the string to prevent breakage. If you’re interested in treated strings, do some research to find out what process is used by the manufacturer.
Which Material To Choose?
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the type of strings you play. First, keep in mind that phosphor bronze strings will typically sound darker than 80/20 bronze strings. They will also last longer than 80/20 bronze strings. The 80/20 bronze strings are much more crisp and bright.
When it comes to coated strings vs. regular strings, there are a few things to keep in mind. Coated strings will last longer because of their corrosion-resistant properties. However, many find them too “slick” compared to regular strings. Some people’s body chemistry causes regular strings to deteriorate at a very rapid pace and therefore they should choose to use coated strings.
Treated strings can mean different things to different manufacturers. They will either be coated strings or treated using another process to increase longevity or strength. Pay attention to what “treated” means to each manufacturer.
One tip that I can recommend when it comes to strings is to buy a pack of each type you are interested in trying out. You can then string up your guitar with one type and play for a few days with them. Then you can switch out (keeping the set that you take off just in case you want to switch back) and try another type of string. You’ll be able to tell the difference immediately – especially if you are comparing phosphor bronze to 80/20 bronze.
One of the things that makes finding the right guitar strings such a daunting task is the fact that there are a seemingly endless amount of string gauges available on the market. A string’s gauge is the thickness of the string. Larger numbers mean that the strings are thicker and lower numbers indicate that the strings are smaller.
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How to Choose The Right Acoustic Guitar String Gauge for You
It is important to remember that larger strings will put more tension on the neck than thinner strings. They are louder and need to be played a bit harder to make them vibrate. Think about what tuning you will be using with your acoustic guitar. If you will be playing in standard tuning, then a set of medium or light gauge strings will do fine.
If you plan on playing in a lower tuning such as C#, then you may want to go for a heavier gauge string. This will put more tension on the neck and make the strings less “floppy”. Heavier strings should be avoided if you’re going to be playing in standard tuning because they will only add increased tension to the neck. This could cause the neck to warp or bend after a while and may even cause it to fail.
Other than the feel of the strings, you’ll need to consider how much volume you’ll need. Lighter gauge strings tend to have less volume than larger strings. It is important to find a good balance of feel and volume. Most sets of medium or light gauge strings provide this balance. Heavy or extra light strings may be a little extreme. Extra light gauge strings are great for jazz while heavier strings are better for down-tuning.
Another note: string bends are easier to do with lighter gauge strings. If you play a style of music that relies heavily on string bends, then you might want to go with a lighter gauge of string (blues players, I’m looking at you).
Check our favorite acoustic gutiar for blues here.
Acoustic Guitar String Construction Methods
There is more than one way to make a guitar string! Companies may have more than one method of making a guitar string. While the largest majority of guitar strings are roundwound strings, there are some other types of strings that you’ll run across while searching the market.
Learning the differences in string type will keep you from potentially buying some that don’t work for you. Let’s take a closer look at what I mean.
Roundwound strings are the most popular type of string. In roundwound strings, the bass strings are constructed of a core wire with a thinner wire wrapped around it in a circular pattern. These resemble tiny coils when you look at them closely.
Roundwound strings provide a bright tone with a lot of sustain. This is the sound that most of us are used to hearing when we think of a guitar’s sound. They also produce a lot of volume and they’re perfect for cutting through a mix.
Roundwound strings can be used with virtually any type of music. From blues to bluegrass to rock and pop, roundwound strings make the world sound good.
Check our favorite guitar strings for bluegrass here.
Flatwound Bass Guitar Strings – Image from Wikipedia. (jd, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Flatwound strings are constructed of a core wire that has been wrapped in wire that is completely flat like a piece of tape. The result is a string with a smooth, velvety feel. They’re super comfortable to play!
The sound is more focused and deeper than roundwound strings. They don’t have the brightness that roundwound strings provide. One of the benefits is that they don’t wear down frets nearly as quickly as roundwound strings and do not squeak or scrap when picking or switching chords.
Flatwound strings are used a lot by jazz musicians who like the punchy, low-end focused sound that they provide. They can sound a bit muddy though especially if they are down-tuned. Check out Steve Woody’s review of flatwound strings here to get an idea of what they sound like on an acoustic.
Semi-Flatwound (Halfwound, Flat-top)
Halfwound strings are right in the middle of roundwound and flatwound strings. They are constructed with a solid core wire and wound with a half-round wire. Basically, they wrap them with a round wire and then grind off the outer edge to make them smooth.
The result is a focused, punchy attack with a bit more brightness than flatwound strings. It is still a smoother sound than what roundwound strings provide, however. They do not have the squeak or growl that you get with roundwound strings and they have a bit more sustain than what flatwound strings provide.
These are still considered a string for those who like a very mellow tone (like many jazz musicians). Check out this comparison video to see all three types of strings in action.
Which Construction Method Strings Should You Choose?
You should choose the string that matches the style of music that you will primarily be playing.
Nine times out of ten, you will probably go with roundwound strings since these are the most popular type and tend to be the most versatile.
Flatwound and halfwound strings should be considered if you plan on playing music that requires a much softer feel to it such as jazz. To many guitarists, they sound a bit too dark for anything loud and bright. They can even sound muddy.
I’m not trying to build a case against flatwound or halfwound strings. They certainly have their place in the guitar world. I’m simply trying to educate you on what you should expect from them.
So, what have we learned? We have figured out that the smallest details can have a major impact on how guitar strings sound and perform! From the materials used to the overall construction to the size, it seems that everything affects how guitar strings sound and play.
- Choose whether you need steel strings or nylon-strings
- Choose the right string material
- Choose if you want coated/treated or non-treated strings.
- Choose the winding/construction type
- Choose the right gauge
That’s it baby!
Also,if you’re interested in achieving a certain sound, you can always look at the strings the professionals play.
For example, Doc Watson played light or medium gauge John Pearse phosphor bronze roundwound strings. Eric Clapton has his own signature set of roundwound Martin acoustic strings.
I would certainly stick to what is familiar at first: roundwound light gauge strings. Try both the phosphor bronze and the 80/20 bronze strings to find the one you like the best. If you find that you need more tension, you can always move up to a medium gauge set.
Flatwound strings and halfwound strings should be looked at only if you cannot achieve a darker tone with phosphor bronze roundwound strings. They may be too dark for a lot of people.
This video compares Roundwound and Semi-Flatwound (Halfwound, Flat-top) Strings head-to-head:
Genres for Different Acoustic Guitar Strings
- Bluegrass – John Pearse Phosphor Bronze (light or medium)
- Blues – Martin Eric Clapton Signature strings
- Rock – Ernie Ball Earthwood Rock & Blues
- Jazz – D’Addario XL Chromes Flatwound
- Pop – Stringjoy Brights 80/20 Lights
- Classical – Savarez Alliance Classical (nylon strings)
Do Acoustic Guitar Strings Make A Difference?
Yes! They certainly make a difference in the way the guitar plays and the way that it sounds. If you play with lighter gauge strings, then the guitar will be easier to play. The downside to this is that the guitar will seem to have less volume.
If you play with heavier gauge strings, the guitar will be a little harder to play and will seem louder. If you go too heavy, however, the strings will put excessive pressure on the neck. It is best to use heavy gauge strings if you plan on down-tuning your guitar.
Do Acoustic-Electric Guitars Need Different Strings?
No. Acoustic-electric guitars will use regular acoustic guitar strings.
How Often Should I Change My Acoustic Guitar Strings?
This depends on a couple of variables. Firstly, it depends on your body chemistry. Some people have more corrosive sweat than others and therefore will require more frequent string changes because they break down faster.
Some folks can make a set of guitar strings last for a long time because they do not have a lot of corrosive properties to their sweat.
It also depends on how often you play. If you only play a few times a week, then you will be able to get more life out of your strings than someone that plays for hours every day. Some people who play a lot prefer to change their strings as often as every few days. Other people can make them last for weeks.
Another variable is whether or not you use coated or treated strings. These can last for a very long time even for those with corrosive sweat or those who play extensively. I know one player who changed his coated guitar strings once every six months!
You should change strings when the tone becomes dull. Old strings will also show discoloration on the surface of the string which indicates that they are damaged from corrosion. There is a sweet spot for most guitar strings.
In other words, after being “broken in”, they will sound as they should up until they start corroding excessively and sounding dull. You may even notice that the frets have caused flat spots to appear on the bottom of roundwound strings. This is a good indication that it is time to change your strings.
To learn even more, check our full article about How often you should change your guitar strings.
Are Extra Light Acoustic Strings Good?
Extra light acoustic guitar strings are great for those who are looking for a set that plays easily without the need for volume. Beginners often start with extra light gauge acoustic strings until they get to the point where they need more volume.
Extra light acoustic guitar strings are also good for solo songwriting. I have used them on my songwriting acoustics because I do not need to be loud to write a song.
They may also work well for someone who is primarily playing a plugged-in acoustic-electric guitar most of the time. Instead of needing the extra volume from the guitar, acoustic-electric amplifiers control the overall volume of the guitar.
Do Thicker Acoustic Strings Sound Better?
They sound louder and will stay clearer when played hard. Depending on your tuning and playing preferences, you may find that they feel too hard to play comfortably.
Can You Use Any Guitar Strings On An Acoustic Guitar?
While you can certainly put electric strings on an acoustic, it doesn’t work very well. The reason is that electric guitar strings do not need to be very heavy because the sound will be amplified. Acoustic guitars do not need to be amplified and therefore need a thicker string to get the proper bass response.
Acoustic guitar strings also provide much-needed tension on the neck of the guitar. Without this tension, the guitar will not have the correct relief in the neck.
When you put electric strings on an acoustic, you will end up having to do a complete setup of the guitar (neck adjustment). Once you do that, you may be surprised to hear that the bass has no response to it. The guitar sounds very jangly and will go out of tune if too much pressure is applied to the strings.
The results are not very impressive. I would not recommend using electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar.
Can You Use Nylon Strings on Steel-String Acoustic Guitar?
You will run into some problems if you do this. One of the first things you’ll notice is that most classical guitar strings do not have a ball end. Instead, they are tied to the bridge. There are nylon strings with ball ends on them though.
Even then, you’ll run into some issues. The first thing you’ll realize is that the string tension isn’t very high. This means that the neck may straighten out or even bend back a bit. This will require a complete setup of the guitar.
Once you get it set up, you will realize that the guitar will drift out of tune very easily. This has everything to do with string tension (or lack thereof).
In short, you can do this, but it is highly doubtful that you will achieve good results.
Can You Use Steel-Strings on Nylon String Guitars?
Absolutely not. Again, we’re going back to string tension. While steel string guitars have necks that usually have truss rods inside them for added stability and adjustability, nylon string guitars typically don’t have these. This is because nylon strings put a lot less tension on the neck than steel strings.
If you put steel strings on a guitar made for nylon strings, you could stress the neck to the point where it physically damages it. The neck may bend, warp, or even snap. Steel strings put a lot of pressure on the neck (sometimes more than a hundred pounds). Without a truss rod inside the neck, the neck is at the mercy of the strings.
Which Guitar Strings Are Best for Acoustic Guitar?
I think Stringjoy Brights (Light gauge) are the best strings out there. They have a bright, balanced sound with enough volume for most applications. They have a great lifespan as well for an untreated string.
If you’re looking for a good coated string, Stringjoy Foxwood strings are an excellent choice. They will last you for a long time and they sound amazing.
Studying the science of how guitars work will help you choose the right acoustic guitar string. You have to keep in mind that there is a happy medium to it unless your playing style says otherwise. If you don’t play a down-tuned guitar or you want a lot of tension on the neck, play heavier strings.
In contrast, strings that are too light may not give you enough volume, or bass response, or cause issues with the neck. It is a delicate balance between the extremes.
You also want to look at what style of music you will be playing. Jazz players will certainly appreciate the sound of flatwound or halfwound strings more than a bluegrass player.
If you stick with what you know, then you’ll eventually find the right type of guitar string for you. Over the years, I have played many different brands of strings. I have my personal preferences because I found a lot that I didn’t like. That doesn’t make them bad strings – it just means that they are not right for my taste.
So go out there and buy a few packs from different brands. As a guitarist, you’ll find that great tone is a neverending search. Explore a little and you’ll find what you’re looking for – or at least you’ll get close!
Happy pickin’ from all of us here at guitaristnextdoor.com!
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