Strings are one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of electric guitar tone especially for beginners, but there is no good reason why strings should be neglected. It’s incredibly important to know how to choose guitar strings because it’s one of the cheapest ways to change your sound and make your playing easier.
I suppose some people may just hate changing strings, but it’s a necessary step towards tone greatness. There are several details to consider when looking for a new set of strings. String gauge, how the string is manufactured, and all the various brands must be considered.
This is the most important distinction when considering how to choose guitar strings.. It affects your tone more than any other aspect of guitar strings. The gauge is the thickness of the string, and is measured in thousandths of an inch. When most people talk about a string gauge of .009, they tend to drop the 0’s, and call them “9’s”. Also, when you hear someone discuss their entire set as being 9’s, they’re talking about the 1st, or thinnest string, meaning that in the set they use, the thinnest string has a gauge of .009.
Range – Most electric guitars will come shipped with light strings with gauges .009 or .010, but you can find strings anywhere from .008, to greater than .013 in some circumstances.
Choosing Your Gauge – The only real benefit from using a thin string is ease of use. Strings will be easier to bend, and fretting them will require less effort. If you’re a beginner, it might seem like a good idea to use lighter guitar strings. This can backfire, because if you press too hard on the strings when fretting, you can easily sharpen the note by inadvertently bending the string. Bending the string becomes more risky too. Thin strings are fragile and more prone to breakage.
I recommend you use the thickest strings you can comfortably play. Even if you have to use a set that is slightly out of your comfort zone, you’ll be thankful later. The thicker the gauge, the greater the tone. It may make the guitar a bit harder to play in the beginning, but your fingers will become stronger, and you will learn to love the higher tension and feel. Stevie Ray Vaughan was known to use 16’s at times, and rarely went below 13’s. I absolutely cannot recommended using strings that thick, unless you slowly build yourself up to it. You must be careful when going to a much thicker gauge. SRV kept his guitar tuned down a half-step. Some strings are made only for low tunings, and will damage your guitar if you try to use them in a standard tuning.
Nickel-Plated – Most strings that guitars come shipped with, and the most popular, are nickel-plated. Nickel is an excellent material for the magnetic pickups, and is softer than steel, so it will keep your frets in better condition. Nickel has a warm, crisp sound, and is brighter than pure nickel, but not as bright as stainless steel. They are prone to corrosion, however, and keeping them on too long will cause noticeable rusting. Many people have a nickel allergy which causes a rash and blisters on the fingertips, so obviously these strings are not for everybody.
Stainless Steel – Steel strings have excellent tone and sustain. Since they are stainless steel, they are exceptionally resistant to corrosion. They have a bright color to their sound, and maintain that tone much longer than nickel-plated. The steel will cause much quicker damage to your frets, so that will have to be considered. The hard and rough nature of these strings will give you extra string noise as compared to nickel-plated, and are considered a “slower” string because of the tendency for your fingers to drag and snag against the string.
Round Wound – The most popular choice for guitarists. A straight core is wrapped by a round wire, giving it a textured feel. These strings have the best bite and greatest sustain, but its textured exterior slows one’s playing, and is better suited for rhythm work. Fast lead players and jazz musicians will be better with another type of winding. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, you should stick to round wound.
Flat Wound – Also known as ribbon wound, these strings are wrapped with a ribbon-like material, which creates a smooth, almost greasy texture. These strings lack the bite and brightness of round wound strings, and have a dark sound. These strings are great for jazz, especially since most jazz guitarists cut the high ends of their guitar frequency anyway. They are extremely fast because of their texture, and produce almost no string noise.
When to Change Strings
The most obvious clue that your strings need changing is the sound. If it sounds darker, muddier, or lacks the clarity they used to, change them. Feel is important too. If you feel your fingers snagging, or if they feel bumpy or worn away, you should change them. The strings have probably started to corrode, and you may be able to see rust forming on the strings, or depositing on the fretboard. The most important thing, of course, is how you feel about them. Some guitarists will change their strings before every gig. Many guitarists say it takes a few months for strings to “warm up” to their own liking, and may wait months, years, or never change them until they break. It’s all a matter of preference, and if a dirty, grungy string is what you like for your own personal tone, then go for it! I can’t stress enough how important it is to know how to choose your guitar strings.