How to choose electric guitar strings? This is a question that many guitarists ask. Given the amount of electric guitar strings on the market, each with different gauges, materials and winding methods, it can be difficult to choose the right electric guitar strings. You want to find the strings that feel the most comfortable to you, have the best tone, and are the most fun to play.
Read on for an easy guide with 4 steps to find the right strings. Remember that it’s always a process of research and experimentation. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to find your ultimate electric guitar string set!
1. Choose Electric Guitar String Gauge
Electric guitar strings have a certain thickness or gauge, expressed in thousandths of an inch (diameter of the string). The gauge largely determines the playability and sound of your guitar. The first basic choice is whether you want a light gauge or a heavy gauge. You can also try to combine the best of both worlds through a hybrid string set.
We refer to the gauge of a set of 6 strings by mentioning the gauge of the high E string, often without the thousands of an inch so for example ‘a set of strings of 8’ (referring to 0.008).
A. Light Gauge
String sets with a light gauge have a high E of 0.008 or 0.009. In the examples below, the sets run from 0.008 – 0.038 and from 0.009 – 0.042.
- Give a clear sound with an even projection.
- Easier to bend and play. Give great comfort if you play several hours a day.
- Often chosen by beginning guitarists who have yet to develop finger strength and calluses on their finger tops.
- Great if you like a low action (smaller distance between strings and fretboard).
- Ideal for guitarists with a light touch.
- Break faster.
- Produce less volume.
- Tuning and intonation are slightly less stable.
- Higher chance of frett buzz or fretting out.
Top selling 0.08 electric guitar string packs:
Top selling 0.09 electric guitar string packs:
B. Heavy Gauge
String sets with a heavy gauge have a high E of 0.010 or 0.011. In the examples below, the sets run from 0.010 – 0.046 and from 0.011 – 0.056. Strings above 0.011 (extra heavy) are usually used for extra low tunings (metal) or extra warm tones (jazz).
- Gives a somewhat heavier sound. Commonly used in low tunings such as Drop D, Drop A, Drop C, etc.
- Ideal for guitarists who like more volume and a punchy tone.
- Possibility to make the third string sound darker by choosing a string set with a wound third string.
- Does not break easily.
- Tuning and intonation is more stable.
- Less chance of frett buzz or ‘fretting out’
- Require a bit more finger pressure (and are therefore a bit more difficult) to bend.
- Require a higher action (larger distance between the strings and the fretboard).
Top selling 0.10 electric guitar string packs:
Top selling 0.11 electric guitar string packs:
C. Hybrid Gauge
There are also hybrid “light top/heavy bottom” sets that attempt to strike an optimal balance between the advantages and disadvantages of light and heavy gauges. You can both 1) bend the high strings easily and give virbrato during soloing, and 2) play the dark sounding low strings hard (power chords). For example, a hybrid set of strings might consist of the following gauges: 0.010 – 0.013 – 0.017 – 0.030 – 0.042 – 0.052.
What Gauge Strings are Best for Electric Guitar?
There is no ‘best’ gauge: best is what works best for you! So you’ll have to experiment a bit: feel different gauges on your fingers, and hear what it sounds like with your music and playing style. In general, if you like wide bending and good vibrato, you’re more likely to use light strings. If you like a louder, richer sound you are more likely to use a set of heavy strings.
What Gauge Strings are the Most Popular?
The most commonly chosen gauge is 0.010 – 0.046. This is assuming standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E) and standard scale length (24-5 – 25.5 inches). In a close second place is 0.009 – 0.042. On my Ibanez RGs and on my Line 6 Variax I prefer to play with 0.009 – 0.042. I like this gauge because I do lots of string bendings and for speed I like to have a low action on my guitar. I lower the strings on my guitar so that I (almost) don’t get any fret buzz.
Experimenting with String Gauge
Take the standard string thicknesses from the string sets as a starting point. The ratios of the thicknesses of the 6 strings are balanced in the string packages. They are based on the experiences of millions of guitarists worldwide. Of course you can go a step further and change the thickness of individual strings, for example the third or fourth string. My advise is to change and experiment in small steps.
When the strings that you select are becoming increasingly lighter or heavier, it may at some point become necessary to adjust the neck or bridge of your guitar. If you have no experience with this, it is wise to call in an experienced guitar repairman. Such adjustments usually don’t cost a lot of money and you’ll often get free advice on the optimal settings for your guitar, based on your needs. You’ll soon find out that qualified guitar repair techs love nothing more than to talk to you about these things 😉.
2. Choose Electric Guitar String Material
The second choice is for a particular type of steel. This choice has a great influence on the sound of the strings. Each manufacturer gives their own special treatment to the strings such as protective coatings. Within a set this is the same for each string, but between manufacturers, string sets with the same gauge can lead to a very different feel and tone due to different material usage and wrapping processes.
The following three materials are most commonly used:
A. Nickel Plated
Nickel is the most common material for guitar strings. It leads to a balanced, bright and warm tone. Nickel plated strings last a little longer than untreated stainless steel strings. They are resistant to corrosion, reduce the sound your fingers make as they move on the fretboard, and reduce fretboard wear.
B. Stainless Steel
This material is suitable for the true rock guitarist because stainless steel strings sound brighter and louder, and they last longer than nickel-steel strings. But that doesn’t come without some drawbacks compared to nickel-plated strings: the clarity of tone disappears sooner, and with this type of material you can hear your fingers moving across the strings more.
C. Pure Nickel
This material of strings is best suited for guitarists who play jazz and blues because of its warm tone. It gives a vintage output.
3. Choose Electric Guitar String Winding
Strings can be unwound (plain) or wound. Plain strings consist of a single material (a kind of steel, see above). Wounded strings consist of an inner core, surrounded by an external winding of a different material.
The thinner high strings (E, B, G) are usually unwound. They have a “smooth” feel. The thicker low strings (D, A, E) are usually wound. They feel ‘rough’ to the fingers.
In practice, it mostly comes down to the choice of winding of the G string, since the high E and B are almost always unwound, and the low D, A and E strings are almost always wound. On a set of strings, you can read on the packaging whether the G string is plain (p) or wound (w). In this set the G string is plain: 010-013-017p-026-036-046. Some guitarists like to replace the G string with a wound string because it balances the tone more and strengthens the intonation of the guitar. On the other hand, it makes the string a little less bendable, which can be tricky when soloing.
With the low strings you can choose from different windings. There are three types of windings: roundwound, flatwind and half-wound, whereby most wound strings are technically roundwound.
Roundwound, a winding made from round wire, is the most popular. The ribbed outer surface of this winding gives the strings a ridged texture with lots of attack.
Flatwound gives a softer touch, which jazz and blues guitarists are looking for. Flatwound also causes less fret wear than roundwound strings.
Halfwound (sometimes called groundwound) are a compromise between roundwound and flatwound and give a little less attack but a more dark tone. This type of winding is rare and more difficult to produce and therefore more expensive.
D. Hex Core
An innovation of recent years is a so-called “hex core”, where the core has a hex-shape instead of being round. Producers praise the tone of the hex core, but among guitarists there are different opinions. What is certain is that the sharp edge of Hex core strings leads to more fret wear than roundwound strings.
4. Choose Electric Guitar String Brand
There are a lot of electric guitar string brands. I hope that the information above will help you to select the right strings from several brands. Over time, you will develop a preference for one or more of the brands. If you have more than one guitar, It is not uncommon to use strings from different brands for different guitars. I must confess that I have been using D’addario strings for all my life. But I am a bit conservative, so don’t be like me 😃.
How to Choose Electric Guitar Strings: FAQs
How Often Should I Replace my Guitar Strings?
This is different for every guitarist. The main indicators that it is time to replace strings are that the strings are not staying in tune, strings that are discoloring, or strings that are starting to sound very dull and dark. The rate at which strings wear out depends in part on how much and how intensely you play (and on how much your hands are sweating to be honest 😝). For example, if you play one hour a day on standard nickel plated strings, it is more than sufficient to replace the strings every 4 or 5 weeks. If you play more than an hour daily, then replace the strings every 3 weeks. If you play less often, you can use the same set of strings for longer periods of time. Think about replacing them every few months.
How can I Preserve my Electric Guitar Strings?
- Before playing the guitar, wash your hands. 🙌
- After you play guitar, wipe each string with a dry soft cloth, such as a dish towel.
- Use a special cleaning or maintenance product for your strings.
- Use a peg winder: this makes changing strings very easy, and thus lowers the threshold for putting a new set of strings on your guitar.
- Keep track of the date of string changes, for example by writing the date on the packaging.
The Bottom Line
Every guitarist makes a journey in search of the best electric guitar strings. This results in a highly personal choice and only by experimenting can you find out what suits you best. Now go out and find your perfect set of guitar strings!
Happy playing! 🎸