One of the most common concerns of guitar players is the question of strings, most commonly what kind of guitar strings to use and how often to change them. Based on years of experience in making and playing guitar, here is our guide on guitar strings. You’ll learn more about what kind of guitar strings you need and how to select a set that will provide the tone you want.
Electric Guitar String Construction
Guitar strings are more than a simple wire string; most electric guitar strings have a string core and wrap wire with a surface coating around the core, significantly affecting the sound. We are talking about the thicker strings in most string sets, as these feature wrapping, while the treble strings are usually steel wire strings (without wrapping) coated in a specific surface coating. Here are the most commonly used guitar string core and wrapping/coating materials:
- Steel Guitar Strings – These are made from steel, which is highly magnetic and has the best response for electric guitars. Steel guitar strings provide a bright, precise tone and have good sustain.
- Nickel-Plated Guitar Strings – the most commonly used electric guitar strings, nickel-plated strings have a steel core and nickel plating on the surface. Great for electric guitars, nickel-plated strings have a bright tone that suits most music styles.
Guitar String Gauges
Next, we need to talk about guitar string gauges, which you can also find referred to as guitar string sizes; the measurement refers to the string diameter. There are several “standard” size that you can find, and most manufacturers have these sets.
Pro Tip: If you have your guitar set up for one guitar size set, if you change the string size set, you’ll have to have your guitar adjusted to the new set.
The table below shows the most common guitar string gauges that most guitar manufacturers have. Please note that some variations are possible, depending on the manufacturer. The measures are thousands of an inch, so a .009 means the thinnest string in the set is only .009 inches in diameter (that’s 0.2 mm for the guys using metric).
You must know that the set you select is essential to the playing feel of the guitar. You’ve seen BB King easily slide his fingers over the frets of his beloved Lucile, or Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi, or even Jimmy Hendrix bend strings to the max, as these guys are known for playing lighter string gauges.
Many famous guitarists who prefer a medium or heavy set of strings are Joe Bonamassa, Keith Richards, Slash, Malcolm Young, James Hetfield, Pete Townsend, Pat Martino, and Jeff Beck, to name a few.
On the far side, Stevie Ray Vaughn is using the extra heavy set of “thirteens,” meaning the high (thinnest) E string is .013 inches, and the low (thickest) E is an impressive .056 inches. That’s some serious string-hand workout.
Guitar Strings and Guitar Tone: How Strings Affect Tone
The guitar strings are mainly responsible for the guitar sound, and the guitar string tension is directly related to the guitar gauge. Since we can’t precisely explain the sound, we need to use specific analogies to help you grasp how a particular string gauge sounds.
Thick Strings – Bigger Tone
Thicker string sets provide a more significant tone, as the thick strings can hold more tension. The more tension applied to a string, the more it can vibrate at a higher frequency, allowing it to provide a warm, vintage tone that sounds big and meaty.
Just think about Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, and Pat Martino’s sounds. Plus, thicker strings allow for lower tuning, so if you want to emulate Dimebag Darrel’s drop-D tuning on Cowboys from Hell, you’ll need a set of medium-heavy strings like 11-49 (or 11-50).
Thin Strings – Light Sound
Thin strings can hold less tension, thus аре unable to vibrate at very high frequencies. It gives them a more modern and crisp sound. However, this also depends on the playing style and the genre of music you want to play.
One example is BB King, and a more modern example is Yngwee Malmsteen, both of which have crisp sounds and unique picking styles. It is possible because they prefer light strings, with less string tension, letting you easily play a vibrato or bend the strings.
How to Pick the Best Guitar Strings for You?
We can discuss a lot more about strings (and we’ll cover the acoustic string sizes in another post), but for now, we’ll wrap up this article with our advice on picking the best guitar strings for you.
If you are a beginner guitar player, we suggest you opt for a super light guitar string set (9-42), as it will be easier on your fingers. These will provide sufficient fingertip resistance (until you develop sufficient fingertip calluses, and yes, this is a real thing), and you can more easily learn various styles.
If you are a seasoned guitar player, you can pick a set of light or medium guitar string sets (10-46 or 11-50), as these are more versatile and allow you to play different styles and experiment with lower tuning.
If you want to battle with the guitar and want a voluminous, meaty tone (think Stevie Ray Vaughn), you can grab a set of heavy or super heavy strings (12-54 or 13-56). These are really challenging to play, and you’ll need serious strength and finger pressure to play them, but the reward is more volume and sustain.