What Kind of Strings Are Those, Dude?
Choosing Acoustic Strings
Author - Barry “Po” Hannah
Beginning acoustic guitar players often have questions about strings, namely "when should I change them, " and "what kind should I get?"
As far as when to change strings, the most obvious indicator may be appearance. If your strings are discolored or rusty and leave a good amount of black sludge on your fingertips after a playing session, they probably need to go. Sound is another consideration—after too much use strings can begin to lose their brightness and snap. Dead strings can also develop tuning issues. In general, if your guitar begins to just not sound as good or stay in tune as well as it once had, chances are a new set of strings may be in order.
Choosing strings presents another dilemma, as there are simply so many brands, materials, and gauges (size or “heaviness” of the strings) to choose from. Brands aside, as I think that any of the top sellers (D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Martin, Elixir, etc.) are of comparable quality, the main differences in strings are material and gauge.
Bronze strings have a characteristic bright tone, especially when they are brand new, but tend to wear quickly. Phosphor Bronze strings are a little warmer sounding but (as a result of the added phosphor), tend to retain their tone longer than bronze strings. Silk and Steel strings, which feature silk or nylon wrapped bass strings, have a very warm, soft tone.
Coated strings, such as those made by Elixir, are designed to retain their tone longer than the aforementioned varieties, and as such, tend to be a bit more expensive.
Sets of strings come in a large variety of gauges, but in general can be grouped into Light (0.12 high E string to .053 low E string), Medium (.013 to .056), and Heavy (.014 to .59). There are also myriad custom gauges (Medium Light, Medium Heavy, Light Top/Heavy Bottom, etc.), and string sets might differ slightly in gauges from brand to brand, but the Light, Medium, Heavy categories again are just good guidelines.
Heavier strings will produce a louder, fuller tone than lighter strings but might be harder to play for beginning acoustic players. Conversely, light gauge strings offer easier playability but with slightly less volume.
So ... what to buy? My advice to beginners is to start with just a standard set of light gauge phosphor bronze strings as the best middle-of-the-road choice. If you are really experiencing sore fingertips or struggling a bit with depressing the strings, perhaps try a set of Extra Light (.011 to.052) or a set of Silk and Steels. It has been my experience as a teacher that ease of playing and getting actual music out of the instrument makes new players much happier than does trying to “man up” and play strings that may be too heavy to manage initially.
As you progress on the guitar, string choice may be informed by a number of factors, including playing style and musical genre. Silk and Steel strings, for example sound great for folk and fingerstyle playing. Heavy gauge bronze strings can be just the ticket for bluegrass rhythm and flat picking. Light gauge strings may suit those who want to bend an occasional string. Experiment with different types and gauges as you gain experience as a player.
As with any new gear or accessory purchase, a little research is always advised. Much more detailed string information can be found on manufacturer's websites, YouTube reviews, and guitar-related publications. As well, many professional guitarist's websites list their exact string brand and gauge preferences—if a particular artist inspires you with their playing and sound, it's easy enough to find out what strings they are using and then go and get yourself a set of the same!
Barry “Po” Hannah is a professional guitarist and instructor living in Knoxville.