What Guitar Strings Should I Use?

Basic Choices

Choosing the right strings for your guitar is more than picking your favorite brand. The size and material the string is made from can effect your guitar's action (string height) and tone.

String Gauge (Size)

Strings come in different sizes. When speaking of acoustic guitar strings we often denote the size by stating; light gauge, extra light gauge, medium gauge, etc.

Larger gauge strings can help boost volume and sustain but can be more painful on tender fingertips unaccustomed to the tension or those bending strings.

Lighter gauges are often easier to fret and bend, but very light strings can cause some players to over-bend the string causing the note to play sharp.

Material

A strings material also affects tone. Common materials are Nickel, Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, Stainless and Silk and Steel.

Brand

Though most of us have our favorite brands, another way to experience different tone is to try various materials.

How String Tension Affects Your Guitar


Here's how using smaller or heavier gauge strings effects your guitar...

Action (String Height)

First and most importantly is our set up. Instruments that have been set up properly to insure appropriate string height, nut slot width/depth, intonation and neck relief have been done using the string gauge the player is using. If one changes string gauges, more or less tension is being placed on the instrument depending on whether they go up or down in string gauge. This can affect everything about your set up and require several adjustments.

If you are experimenting with tone, try various materials and brands but remember to choose the same gauge to avoid changing the action.

Sound / Volume

Besides affecting the action, a change in tension may also affect the sound (sustain and tone). Some players may choose to increase the string gauge on their instrument in hopes of increasing volume and sustain.

A common complaint when using very light or extra light gauge strings is a loss of volume, sustain and a thin or twangy sound.

Comfort

Alright, not that you could have missed it but ...bigger gauge=more tension, and more tension=more pressure on your fingertips while fretting. This tension is painful at first but callus and frequent playing reduce or eliminate it with time.

Let's not forget string benders. Not all of us can take an .011 gauge E string and bend it 2 notes sharp. Any players choose their string gauge according to their playing demands.

Extra light gauge strings which offer little resistance to the players touch can easily be over bent when fretting or string bending.

Special Considerations

The age and structural condition of an instrument can affect our string choices.

Age / Constructionvintage guitar

While most new instruments are solid enough to give the player the option to choose from several string gauges, vintage pieces or those with structural problems may limit your options.

Older instruments that were originally designed to be strung with gut strings or were braced lightly, require very light gauges and should be structurally sound before submitting them to tension.

If you are thinking about stringing up a vintage instrument for the first time I highly recommend having it inspected. All braces should be securely glued to the top and back. The bridge and bridge plate should be inspected and all other areas of stress should be checked for cracks or looseness.

Neck Relief

Another common problem that may limit our string choice is the neck's stiffness and/or relief. Let me give you an example of both extremes.

A 1967 Fender Strat comes in with a neck that is slightly back bowed, this means the fingerboard is higher in the middle than it is at the ends, causing the strings to fret out and buzz.

The obvious first step is too loosen the truss rod, however, after inspection I learn the truss rod is already completely loose. In order to straighten the neck we opt for a heavier gauge string which places more tension on the neck, pulling it straight. The heavier gauge is necessary to render the neck flat, without it string buzz is overwhelming.

Conversely, more often we see necks with too much relief. While most newer instruments have truss rods that can be adjusted, vintage guitars may have no adjustable truss rod. To reduce the bow (relief) a lighter gauge string may be used if other repairs are not desired.neck relief

See more information on common neck issues and truss rod problems.

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