How Do Guitar Strings Differ?

Guitar Strings - Farida  Murph Wombats - Headstock

If you’re a beginner guitarist, the many different guitar strings available might bewilder you – here’s a mini-guide

If you visit any Dawsons store, one of the first things you’ll notice behind the counter is guitar strings – lots of them. If you’re a beginner, you might find this choice a little bit intimidating. You probably wonder what the difference is between them, too.

Here, we’ll explain what the different gauges offer, and how some of the different types of strings differ.

Guitar Strings - Farida Frank Turner J-FT Acoustic Guitar

String Gauge = Thickness

In this article, we’ll be referring to guitar strings for electric guitars and steel-strung acoustic guitars (classical guitars are not generally sold with same measured gauges, etc).

You might well have heard strings referred to in terms of ‘a set of 9s’ or ‘a set of 10s’ (the two most popular ‘standard’ string sets). This relates to the measurements given to individual strings. Essentially, the thickness of each string is measured in inches. In a set of 9s, the thinnest ‘E’ string is 0.009 of an inch, and in a set of 10s, you guessed it, the thin ‘E’ is 0.010 of an inch.

  • A typical set of 9s will run from a 0.009 string, to a 0.042 string (9, 11, 16, 24, 32 42).
  • A typical set of 10s will run from 0.010 to 0.046 (10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46).

Guitar Strings - Ernie Ball Slinky

A set of 9s will often be referred to as a ‘light’ electric guitar set, with 10s referred to as ‘medium’. A new electric guitar will usually be strung with one of these two gauges. Popular sets include Ernie Ball Slinky and Super Slinky, and D’Addario XL 9s and 10s.

Acoustic guitar strings tend to be a bit thicker. As such, a ‘medium’ set for an acoustic guitar will generally be set of 12s or 13s, depending on the brand. A new acoustic guitar will usually be strung with one of these two gauges.

Popular sets include Martin Lights and Mediums, and D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Lights and Mediums.

These days there are lots of different variations in gauges to choose from, including ‘custom’ sets that have heavier bass strings with skinnier upper stringed, or the reverse. (Ernie Ball Skinny Top Heavy Bottom, Martin Custom Lights, for example)

What difference does it make?

You might be wondering why there are so many different string varieties if they, essentially, do the same thing.

Firstly, as a beginner, thinner strings can be easier on the fingers. When you start to play, the skin on the fingertips is soft, and can become sore from pressure on the strings. Having a lighter string reduces the tension, and the pressure on the tip as a result. In addition, the reduced tension makes string bends easier, too.

Ernie Ball Not Even Slinky Guitar Strings

Thicker strings produce a bigger, fuller and more powerful tone, however. As a result, many more experienced guitarists prefer heavier strings. It requires greater finger strength, but for many prefer the extra tension in the strings, and the ‘beefier’ tone they yield.

One of the other key reasons for using higher gauge guitar strings is for alternate, lower pitched tunings. The additional tension offered by thicker strings will stop the guitar tone from being loose and thin.

Elixir Electric Guitar Strings - 9s

Different types of strings

So, there are different gauges of guitar strings, which result in different tone. There are lots of different brands and string types available, however. What differences do these make?

Well, ignoring brand (this tends to be a matter of personal taste), electric and acoustic guitar strings can be divided into two main categories: coated and uncoated.

Coated strings are a relatively recent development. The main factor that limits the lifespan of guitar strings is the exposure to air, and the sweat and grime from fingertips. This causes the metal used to tarnish and corrode.

Elixir Guitar Strings

By applying a microscopically thin coating to strings, the metal is protected from these elements, and the strings remain bright and retain their full sustain for longer.

Whilst coated strings tend to cost a little more than an uncoated set, they have a far longer lifespan- usually lasting 3-5 times as long. The most popular ranges of coated strings are Elixir, D’Addario EXP and Martin SP.

These are the basics of picking the guitar strings that are right for you. Of course, the bigger part of making the choice is down to experience, playing style, and taste. Trying a few different sets over time will make finding your string type a bit easier, however.

Check out the string section in our online store to see what is available.

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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.

Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.