Ultimate Guitar Guide: Strings

Strings: A guide to buying, changing and preserving your guitar strings.

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Guitar strings are one of the most overlooked aspects of a guitar. Players seem to not take much notice to how lousy a guitar will sound in the shop, when it has low-quality .009 gauge strings placed on it. While strings are not the most important aspect to a player's performance, strings are what make the noise that either your pickups, or your sound hole, will produce. The most important factor in strings is their gauge. The "standard" gauge for strings is .09-.45, which is what pretty much all electric guitars are strung with out of the factory. Acoustic guitars, however, are strung with heavier gauges, such as .12-.48, or .13-.49. The thicknesses of strings are measured in inches, with the thickness of the first string listed, and then the thickest string. The thickness of the individual string may vary from brand to brand. For example, on my D'addario .10-46 strings, the thickness for each individual string is: .010, .013, .017, .026, .036, and .046. However, on my new package of .011 to .049 strings, the thicknesses are .011, .014, .021, .028, .038 and .049, with the third string wound. This type of gauge is ideal for acoustic guitars, where the third string is traditionally wound. Most rock guitarists use .011-.047 strings, without the third string wound. Many will attest the strings give off a nice, heavy sound. The sound difference will be brought out in tube amps the best, as the tubes interact with guitar playing. You will notice a difference in solid state amps, but it will not be as pronounced. When buying strings, make sure you look over each individual string thickness, so you don't accidentally buy something you weren't intending to buy. Often, store clerks just look for the first number and hand it to you. Don't blame them; you have to be responsible for how you spend your money. Normally, for shredding and fast playing and high string bends, .010 or .009 gauge strings are ideal, because they have less tension on them in standard tuning. However, for dropped tunings, use slightly thicker strings. If you are going to be using a dropped-D tuning, where the bottom string is dropped down an extra whole step, it would be ideal to have a gauge of strings where the bottom strings are a little extra thick. If you are going to be doing a combination of soloing and rhythm playing, there are "hybrid" strings, such as Ernie Ball Slinky Top Heavy Bottom, where the bottom strings are thicker than usual. GHS makes a string gauge of .011 to .070. Don't be afraid to try different string gauges or different brands. More importantly, don't buy a certain brand because you saw that Simple Plan uses D'addario strings in an issue of Guitar World. If I had paid attention to that, I would have simply refused to use D'addario strings anymore. Simply put, I like the strings, they're inexpensive, they last me a while, and they have environmentally friendly packaging. I have yet to break a string while playing. Once you buy a new guitar, I would suggest taking off the strings and putting in your preferred brand of strings. If you have a 7 day return policy, use that to your advantage. I have played guitars in one store that sounded nice and had excellent action, but tried it in another store, with different strings, and the sound was horrible and I couldn't move my hands very fast because of the tarnished stock strings. Personally, I prefer nickel wound strings, but that's what I've become accustomed to. You need to decide for yourself. For cleaning your strings, grab a piece of clean printer paper, and rip off a narrow and long piece. Loop it around a string of your choice for cleaning, and rub it up and down the whole length of the string, from bridge to nut. You may need more than one piece, because a lot of gunk can be caught under strings. I find myself that an unwound third string holds the most dirt. You probably won't get a lot of dirt out of a wound string using the paper only method. If you really want to take care of your strings, you can get a nice string maintenance kit for no more than 30 dollars. String lubricants, cleaners, cutters, and peg winders - all nice tools to have. When changing my strings, I just use a simple wire cutter, thread the strings out of my bridge, and throw on a new one. Be sure to stretch your strings out after placing them on, as new strings will go out of tune very fast. Thicker strings do not go out of tune as quickly as thinner strings, but that doesn't mean a thing if you're going to be using your tremolo bar generously, and really smacking the strings with your pick. Always change one string at a time on your guitar; never take them all off at once. You can twist or warp your guitar. Some people will tell you to change your strings every month (like on a tutorial DVD I own). Other people do not change their strings in years. Some people put on a fresh pair of strings for every gig. I wouldn't suggest any of these. I change my strings roughly every 2 and a half months. Never change your strings unless you feel that you need to. Some string brands last a lot longer than others, such as Elixir or Dean Markley. However, those strings cost a lot more than my D'addarios. I could spend five bucks every two and a half months or 15 dollars much less often. It's all up to you which strings you want to use. Many good string brands include: D'addario, Ernie Ball, Dean Markley, Elixir, Gibson, PRS, and Fender. Don't buy a brand of strings because they match the strings on your guitar, you have to like the sound from them. Personally, I'm much happier with a set of ten gauge D'addario strings to a nine gauge Fender stock set. Besides that, the envelopes that Fender strings come in can be switched around or lost. D'addario strings have a colour code right on the string end, which is convenient for me, so I can just reference which string goes in where another string came out. All in all, a good string has to sound good to you. It doesn't hurt to try a lubricant on a brand of strings that you think is slow. Don't be afraid to buy different brands of strings every time you change. If you find a certain brand breaks on you a lot, and you do live gigs, don't keep buying that brand. Don't be afraid to go up a gauge or down a gauge. Stevie Ray Vaughn himself used .013 gauge strings, and still pulled off very high string bends. Your guitar should be able to fit a heavier gauge of strings, with only a slight intonation, or maybe a truss rod adjustment necessary. Remember: strings are not all that important in creating your overall tone. Don't spend all your time searching for that perfect string set when you could easily be practicing on your ability to play. The tone that you want to get will come from the action of your fingers. Don't expect to get Jimi Hendrix's tone on a Stratocaster and a Marshall, because only Jimi could get his tone. It's all personal. Your tone comes from you. However, to get close to that tone, .009 gauge strings are excellent for playing blues-rock guitar. If you want to get nice and close to an Eric Clapton/Jimi Page tone, .009's are your best bet. In fact, Jimi Page used .009's exclusively. They're also useful for playing Clapton solos, with very high string bends and fast switching of scale positions. Thanks for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it and learned something. Peace Out, - Backup Guitar

98 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Fozz!
    The sound "your sound hole, will produce"?! It goes through the bridge on an acoustic actually...but, hey, good article, cheers!
    xekushnr
    i used d'addarios and they snapped D: now i use elixirs. i love them. and for anyone who gets elixirs for more than $15, do what i do. hop on ebay and search for guitar strings. most companies sell thier overstock on ebay, and some companies even sell exclusively. my last pair of elixirs i got for $7.
    pinkerton
    I cant belive you guys like the article. Nothing useful in it aside from naming a few brands and incorect gauges.
    chasteh
    i played some ernie ball super slinkys on a friends guitar, and within 20 minutes of playing, the skin on my fingers was tearing off-but the sound was awesome good reminder, i need to try a new set
    Mr_Fooz
    pinkerton, you are absolutely right. thank you. someone needed to say it.
    rakerbaker
    I just started playing an acoustic. Am a big fan of the blues,especially Hot Tuna, Jorma Kaukonen.Jorma plays the old Rev. Gary Davis style of finger picking. What type/guage of strings should I get for this kind of music? I'm looking for that great deep resonance sound he gets on the lower notes. I've worked with my hands my whole life landscaping and have very large fingertips due to just overusing them. Any sugestions or comments that may help will be appreciated. An A chord is just about impossible for me. thanx---rakerbaker
    Spank
    Kai-7, those tiny strings tend to have horrible tone. i ended up moving from the exact same strings to .01-.046 fender super bullets. they hold the tone so much better in my opinion.....just a suggestion
    rakerbaker
    I just wrote my first post in this forum asking about strings. It was up for all of two minutes and now it's gone. No swearing, no bashing, no replies ,just asking about what strings I should use!!!!! Guess I'll find another forum. rakerbaker
    DSGL
    Elixirs or ernie's ballz! d'addario have horrible tone and are nasty to play plus they break in about two or three seconds compared to elixirs. bc-rich kick ass with elixirs as do prs and gibson with either or.
    j_y
    Good article, brought up some stuff i never even thought of, i change mine every six months personally but i have a pretty small accoustic, need to use extra lites
    coolguy
    i find the ernie balls often snap at the bridge before i am ready to replace them. they have much better tone though, compared to say..d'addarios. d'addario acoustic strings have a pretty decent sound, but the electrics just dont stand out as much. you get free stuff from buying them though, so they are still a good deal
    Nehalem
    I use ernie ball hybrid, and they soud awesome. i bought 2 ernie ball regulars, and put them on my acoustic and another electric. they made the acoustic sound fantastic and i havent needed to changed them in about 8 months. but the other pack sounded dead when i put them on. The one time i tried Dean markley blue steel, i broke 2 strings in 2 days. pathetic earnie ball are the best for there price, and sound brilliant
    Schiggua
    Sure...D'addario is more user friendly than other brands (color coded), but they do tend to snap easily. I've been trying out new names in the String Business crud. Here's what I recommend: Elixers or Slinkys. Elixers- last forever and have great tone on every guitar I've played on. Schecter, Fender, Gibson, and Ibanez. (as well as less known brandnames unworthy of being listed.) Slinky's- are cheaper, while still maintaining tone and long life. What I don't recommend: Gibsons- Tend to snap while stringing, playing or sitting there. I can never keep these strings on my guitar longer than 2 weeks. Good tone though. D'addario- Dead right out of the color coded box. I really noticed how bad they are when I tried pinch harmonix. It just didn't happen, even with the distortion screaming it couldn't squeel. I was highly dissapointed. Fender- Decent strings. I would buy em over Gibson and D'addario any day.
    Mr_Fooz
    lol...its funny cuz spine2600 is right and now you look like an idiot by dissing him
    Kai-7
    I use Ernie Ball Super Slonkies - .08-38 , and they've lasted me 11 weeks. the D string snapped at the bridge yesterday. and i'm going back to them.
    Roadkill_1
    When it comes to electric strings I don't know that much so this was a really helpful article. Thanks.
    LedZeppelin
    now all I need is an article that tells you how to put strings on...I always end up breaking mine. this results in using strings that sound like dying llamas.
    Djall89
    the only person who has the right to tell other people what/ or how to buy something is frigginjerk, i think most everyone knows the difference between electric and acoustic strings.....
    Confusedtheday
    i used to use Ernie Ball Skinny top and heavy bottom but those sucked on my bullet,So i switched to fender and they sound great...good article dude...
    CaptainKev
    As a really old beginner i found it useful didnt know u had to change 1 string at a time
    kodynn2001
    yeah i dunno about you guys, but have ya ever thought of having halfers on strings? i mean on my strat i have fender extra lights on E,B, and G, and then i have GHS Boomers on D,A, and E, cause it gives me the ability to do all the high bends, but yet also have the heavy power chords, it works wonders, you people should try it sometime
    ithilien046
    pretty good article, i'd have liked to see a comparison between different string materials, like nickel wound strings vs. stainless steel wound strings. maybe that's only an issue with bass strings, hell if i know. you guitarists all have it easy when it comes to buying strings, decent bass strings start at $20, $15 if you're lucky. i'd never buy elixr bass strings, cause they're too damn expensive, you're talkin $50 for a 5 string bass set(cause i play a 5). and if ur asking why a bassist is looking at a guitar string article, i play guitar as well, and haven't decided on a prefered brand.
    Mental Hop
    I've never owned D'Daddario or Dean Markley strings that have lasted more than a week. Fender strings, to me, sound like cow shit. Ernie Ball has worked for me for the longest time and I don't think I'll ever buy another brand. Although Elixer is very good but I can't afford them most of the time.
    andythefir
    has everyone forgotten about GHS? I use the boomers exclusively, they stayer brighter longer and theyre harder to break. SRV used up to 14 guage until his hands couldnt take it anymore, he changed his guage all the time
    jetman_james
    i think that the dean markley blue steels are great strings if you're a dropped tuning type of player. i usually play in standard tuning dropped a whole-step. also, another good string(especially for acoustics) are the dean markley flat wound strings. they eliminate that sliding sound you get from chord changes that's caused by your finger moving along a string to a new position.
    BibaLin
    I've learned to play power chords right. NOw that my D'Addarios dont snap as much. I still think older, used strings play bettter though. just dont sound as good. Backup, your the bestest!!
    kennethdave
    Tremonti 16 : i have been using d'addario 0.09 strings for some superb bending. But the durability sucks. But it still produces the best sound. Proline and Peavey work quite well too. Great article anyway. I'm still on the hunt for durable strings with awesome bending and vibrato.
    ingo
    thanks man, good information, except if you can edit, I think the Ernie Ball strings you mentioned are "Skinny top, Heavy Botttom"
    Jaykib
    I just got my 4th pair of strings, been playing for about 4 months getting D'addario 0.10s, these are 0.11 Dean Markleys. Would anyone recomend by me going up one gauge to still have an intonation adjustment or anything?
    Mark-O1987666
    I've only ever restrung my guitar twice, once I made the mistake of putting Ernie Ball 'Skinny top-Heavy bottom' strings on my Floyd Rose equipped guitar, resulting in too much tension on the thinner strings, and I snapped the e string within an hour of restringing. Second time I used Ernie Ball 'Power Slinky's and they're still on the guitar to this day, with a nice sound : I'm restringing my other guitar tomorrow, though I'm buying Everly X-Rockers 12-60's hopefully these will hold my B tuning better..right?
    raininnovember
    yo, i use homemade strings. J/k i replace mine everytime they snap. The best sound depends on whatever u think u fools. plus i got 4 packs of d'ads for 9 bucks, yeah i got a hook up. gibs r too expensive but the red thred is tight. Ernies r tight. and yeah dont u hate it when they snap, FENDER sux period. lol thats gonna upset some peeps.
    dai the flu
    "do you work for daddario?" lol. every 2 and a half months? I change my strings about every 3 weeks. its all about the earthwoods
    JC Rea
    Excellent article. I use Gibson strings, and often break the little "e" string. It's .008. Should I buy a .012 one instead .008?
    xdespairfactor
    i use elixir polywebs. .9-42 they have a great tone and last a really long time. but when im low on cash and i need to get some new strings, i go with the less expensive aproach of getting ernie ball slinkys. they too have an excellent tone, but dont last quite as long.
    JB-Punkrocker
    cool article, nice factiod about the twisting and warping. my idiot friend told me to take strings off when i go on holiday, but i didnt listen to him. i use ernie 9s
    punksnafu
    *** you spine2600....dude this is a great article...i actually use 12-54 tho and they work sooo good...
    Set_Fire
    Good job on the artical man.I use DR strings on my electric and Martin phospher(sp)coated strings on my acoustic.The MArtins are kinda expensive but both sets of strings are the best i've used so far and i've tried a shitload of strings
    Set_Fire
    I use DR strings on my electric and MArtin phospher bronze on my acoustic. The MArtins are kinda expensive but there also the best set of strings i've ever used(and i've used a shitload of strings 5 years worth) same for the DR's
    thm_05
    say Mr. Backup Guitar, i was just curious about slinky guitar strings you know like for Blues, how they work...and also Gibson makes strings too right? i usually but those types of strings for my acoustic guitar and electric...by the way i live in Jerusalem and these are the only good types of strings i can get....but most of the ones you said in the article i have heard but i need to but one to feel the difference...thanks for keeping such information on the web...hope to see you work in a guitar magazine...if not already!
    jamstation
    an ok article.. why werent extra-lite guages covered? they make for the easiest lead playing.. and just in case u didnt know, ernie ball & dean markley srings are kinda the best..
    demonic_damon
    i use GHS boomers myslef. i don't have a problem out of them. I am switching to .11-.50's next time i buy a pair. And i never knew i wasn't supposed to take all the strings off at once. I've been doing that every time i changed my strings. Why?