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Strings 101 - A Guide to Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Choosing the right acoustic (steel strung) guitar strings can help sculpt your tone and make your playing experience far more rewarding. But the vast choice of brands, string types and gauges can seem daunting. This article will help demystify the world of guitar strings and help you make the right choice of strings for you and your instrument.

Tonally, acoustic guitar strings and their gauge are far more important to consider than they are for their electric guitar cousins, as acoustics have far less going on 'under the hood' and need to stand on their own tonal merits without any interference from electronics or pickups. The instrument's strings and how they sound in conjunction with the guitar's wood and general tone is extremely important.

The two main types of strings for acoustic guitars are steel (or brass) strung and nylon strung, although nylon strung guitars tend to be referred to as classical guitars, and we'll cover the details of nylon strings in a separate article.  Fitting the wrong type of strings to your instrument can cause a lot of problems, for example fitting steel strings to a guitar designed for nylons can damage or break the machine heads.

Acoustic guitars have a set tension limit of how much pull they can handle from one of these types of strings and if you accidentally put steel strings on a classical guitar or vice versa it could cause your instrument's neck to bend, warp or even crack in some instances. If you’re in any doubt as to what type of strings your guitar was made for, check your guitar manufacturer's website or seek out a guitar technician.

Strings are sold in a verity of gauges. Gauge means thickness: the higher the gauge the thicker the string. Most string manufacturers refer to a pack of strings via the gauge of the thinnest string. So, in the case of a pack of medium acoustic strings, they would be known as 13s, based on the thickness of the high e string (.013in).

Heavy gauge (thicker) strings tend to be much harder to play than light or medium gauge strings due to the greater amount of force required to fret them, as well as the fact that heavier gauge strings need a higher action to avoid fret buzz.

Also, you may need to take you instrument to a guitar technician for a set-up before you restring your instrument with heavy gauge strings. If you put much heavier strings on to a guitar neck that is not ready for them it could cause warping or curvature in your guitar's neck, and thicker strings often need the nut slots opening out to prevent the strings from snagging and sticking.

However, heavier strings do have a plethora of benefits, including:

  • Improved overall tone and a fuller sound
  • Greater sound projection and volume
  • Increased sustain
  • Better stability for detuning/open tunings
  • Overall increased tuning stability

Lighter gauge strings, in contrast, are not particularly effective for detuning and can be very fret buzzy if detuned or tuned to an open tuning. They are also more prone to breaking and can sometimes lack some of the tone that medium and heavy gauge string sets have. Light and super light strings are generally recommended for beginners to intermediate guitar players.

There are some key advantages to lighter gauge strings, though:

  • Greater ease of play and easier to play faster
  • It is easier to perform techniques such as tapping, bending, legato and vibrato
  • Lighter strings are perfect for beginners

Medium and mixed gauge strings (such as hybrids or thin topped, heavy bottomed) are a nice middle ground between heavy and light gauge strings and offer a great ratio of tone to playability.

Typical gauges for acoustic string sets are as follows but this can vary slightly between brands.

Extra super light gauge strings (10s): .010 (E); .014 (B); .023 (G); .030 (D); .039(A); .047(E)

Custom Light gauge strings (11s):.011 (E); .015 (B); .022 (G); .032 (D); .042 (A); .052(E)

Light gauge strings (12s): .012 (E); .016 (B); .025 (G); .032 (D); .042 (A); .053(E)

Medium gauge strings (13s): .013 (E); .017 (B); .026 (G); .035 (D); .045 (A); .056 (E)

Heavy gauge strings (14s): .014 (E); .018 (B); .027 (G); .039 (D); .049 (A); .059 (E)

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