Acoustic guitar strings 101

Guitar strings are an essential part of your tone, but not all strings are created equal. The type of strings you put on your guitar highly influence the overall sound and tonality. These days, strings come in a huge variety of gauges, constructions, and materials; there are so many factors that can impact comfort, playability and tone, so how do you know what to get?

What do those numbers mean?

The most important and most confusing element when choosing your guitar strings: gauge.

The gauge of a string refers to the thickness of a string measured in thousandths of an inch. The larger the number, the thicker the string. Sets are sometimes referred to by their thinnest string, the high E. So a set of Ernie Ball Earthwood Lights would be “11s”, and the Medium Lights would be “12s”.

A thicker string is more difficult to play due to the higher tension, but the tension will cause your guitar to vibrate more, which results in a louder and fuller sound. However, too much tension can have a dampening effect which will cause your guitar to vibrate less. Lighter strings are easier on the fingers, but there will be a loss of volume. Lighter strings may also be more able to access the overtones of the guitar. The standard go-to gauge for most acoustic guitars will be 12s, but there is no one-size-fits-all – the ideal string gauge will depend on your guitar, your playing style, and your personal preference.

Generally speaking, a lighter gauge will be

  • Easier to bend
  • More treble: suitable for fingerpicking or single note playing
  • Ideal for vintage, smaller-bodied acoustic guitars

And a heavier gauge will have

  • More bass, deeper, stronger tones
  • Can be more durable (less prone to string breakage)
  • Suitable for larger acoustic guitars – dreadnoughts and jumbos

Just a note: when changing gauge, you should get your guitar set up in order to get the best playing experience. When changing from medium to light strings, the decrease in tension could introduce some buzzing and undesirable effects. When going the other way and increasing the gauge, you may need to adjust the nut and saddle to accommodate the additional string girth.

String composition

Different alloys have different tonal characteristics, described as warmer or brighter or mellower. For acoustic guitar, you’re looking at phosphor bronze or 80/20. Other options do exist, but these two types are the most common.

As the name implies, 80/20 bronze strings are made of 80% copper and 20% zinc. The crisp, bright string tone accentuates bigger guitars, with warmer bodies such as mahogany or rosewood. It also works well with finger picking, country, and bluegrass. They also tend to be slightly cheaper than phosphor bronze.

Phosphor bronze strings consist of about 92% copper and 8% zinc, with a little phosphorus. The sound they produce will be warmer and richer, and have a little more projection. Phosphor bronze strings are often paired with brighter tone woods, such as a spruce top or a maple top.

Coated strings: Elixir Nanowebs and Ernie Ball Everlasts

So what is the difference between coated and uncoated strings?

Uncoated, or plain strings, have no extra layer of protective coating, while coated strings have been treated with a polymer coating, which prevents oil and dirt build-up. This means that coated strings are more corrosion-resistant, and slows the degradation of your strings. Strings can sound fresh out of the box for much longer, but at the expense of cutting some high end frequencies and overall volume. Since the coating is limiting how much the strings can vibrate, the trade off for long lasting strings is a little bit of tone. However, it must be noted that this can sometimes be used in your favour if you have a guitar that sounds a bit thin.

Coated strings are also going to feel different. The polymer coating can have a slippery feel that some guitarists enjoy, and others abhor. Because there is less friction compared to regular strings, it can also help to reduce finger squeak. It all comes down to your individual preference.

Both products we carry – the Elixir Nanowebs and the Ernie Ball Everlasts – are long lasting with little to no deterioration in tone or feel, keeping their tone two or three times longer than regular strings. Elixirs are very popular with guitarists because of how long they last. While Ernie Ball’s electric guitar strings are the most used, their acoustic strings don’t enjoy the same level of popularity. However, they are very high quality, and a fantastic choice.

If your priority is to maximize string longevity and elongate the time between string changes, be sure to try out coated strings.

Durability, but without the coating? Ernie Ball Paradigm Acoustic Guitar Strings

The Paradigm Acoustic Guitar Strings are Ernie Ball’s answer to extending string life and durability without coating the strings. Instead, some very impressive nanotechnology is used to change the way the strings react to moisture and oils. These strings last longer and sound fresher without the tone-killing effects of a coated string – they feel and sound exactly the same, but with incredible durability and tuning stability.

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What works for one guitarist may not work for you. The best way to find out what works for you is to pick up a few options and experiment.

We also offer a restringing service – please don’t hesitate to reach out to us anytime!


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