Find the right acoustic guitar strings for your playing style
If you’re new to the world of acoustic guitar, chances are you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a new set of strings! However, with a little know-how and a bit of experimentation you can find the right set for your guitar in no time. In this blog I’ll aim to explain the different types of strings available for your steel string acoustic guitar, including gauge types, materials used and the perfect sets for certain playing styles.
It’s worth bearing in mind though that over the years you’ll end up using hundreds if not thousands of sets of acoustic guitar strings, as unfortunately they don’t last forever, although some last a LOT longer than others (I’m looking at you D’Addario and Elixir), so if you buy a set of strings that you don’t actually like, it’s not the end of the world as you can just whip them off and throw a new set on really easily. Another thing to remember is, like music itself, it’s all subjective, meaning that a set that you like might not suit someone else. You might find that a set of strings is a lot brighter than others depending on the guitar you play too, so again, experiment as much as possible. With that said, due to the fact acoustic guitars do not use pickups or amplifiers to enhance the sound of a guitar but more relay the natural sound of the guitar, the strings you choose make a huge difference in sound.
Let’s start with String Gauges
String gauge is all important when it comes to choosing the right acoustic strings for your guitar. Aside from the comfort and playability factors, the wrong set of strings can potentially damage your guitar.
You have five main string gauges, known as Extra Light, Custom Light, Light, Medium and Heavy.
These are the string gauge sets:
- Extra Light – .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047 – otherwise known as 10’s
- Custom Light – .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052 – otherwise known as 11’s
- Light – .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 – otherwise known as 12’s
- Medium – .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056 – otherwise known as 13’s
- Heavy – .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059 – otherwise known as 14’s
When choosing string gauge, you have to take into account the likes of the following:
- The body style of your guitar
- Your playing style
- The age of the guitar
- The tone you want
- Body style
The body style of your guitar
The body style can sometimes dictate what type of strings you should look to buy. For example, a Dreadnought guitar is suited to medium and heavier gauge strings, and as such are usually supplied with what’s known as 12’s or 13’s. This is due to the fact the body is designed to resonate louder, and the heavier gauge string, the more resonant and louder the sound. The body and neck is stronger on a larger scale guitar too, so they can handle the stronger tension these strings place on a guitar. Grand Auditorium guitars are often shipped with 13’s and are quite suited to heavier gauge strings too.
Parlour guitars and 3/4 size guitars are designed to take lighter gauge strings such as 11’s, 12’s or lower. Parlour guitars and some 3/4 size guitars are not strong enough to take heavier strings and can sometimes bend or become damaged if they are used with heavier gauge strings over a long period of time, so always use a lighter or medium gauge string on these guitars. Due to the fact the body is not as large, they will not resonate as much but if you have one of these guitars, that’s the sound you’re looking for!
Many beginner guitarists have found that a heavier set of strings such as 14’s on a smaller scale guitar can damage the neck, nut and bridge of the guitar, whilst larger scale models will sound lifeless with a custom or extra light set of strings – it’s important to get this right when choosing your guitar strings.
Your playing style
Are you a finger picker or a strummer? Are you a beginner or a seasoned player? These aspects are very important too. Finger picking guitarists tend to find that lighter gauge strings are easier to play, whereas those who strum their guitar with a plectrum will find that medium guitars sound and feel better. With that said, if you are a beginner, heavier gauge strings can be quite painful on the fingers at first, something that all guitarists have to go through when they first start playing their guitar. Don’t fret though, the more you practice the more your fingers build up a resistance over time. If you’re a beginner I would recommend starting with a lighter gauge string at first and moving on to heavier gauge later. Again, experiment and find what works best for you.
The age of the guitar
Older and vintage guitars especially are more susceptible to damage with the wrong gauge string. Necks can bow and bridges can sometimes move or even snap off completely, so be extremely careful with placing strings on vintage acoustic guitars. If you are unsure what gauge of strings is best for your guitar, ask someone in a guitar shop or an experienced guitar tech or guitar luthier. A good rule of thumb is to just stick with light gauge strings when it comes to vintage guitars as this will be a safer option.
The tone you want
If you want loud chords that ring out, stick with medium or heavier gauge strings, but if you want to bring out subtle nuances and emphasise the treble notes with a combination of picking and light strumming, lighter gauge strings are best for you. Remember the size and shape of your guitar will usually represent the type of music you want to play and the sound you want to achieve, the strings also play their part too. Play heavier? Go for heavier strings. Are you a softer more gentle player? Then stick with lighter gauge.
The material with which acoustic strings are made from or coated in also makes a huge difference in sound, longevity as well as overall feel.
Each material a string is made from carries specific sound qualities, and just like music, they appeal to different people. The most common are:
- 80/20 Bronze – a clear bright tone and the most common type of string. These can age rather quickly due to oxidisation and will need to be changed around once a month. Both D’Addario and Martin make exceptional Bronze acoustic guitar strings and at a very affordable price too.
- Aluminium Bronze – provide a crisper sound than bronze.
- Nickel Bronze – A very natural sounding string that does not colour the tone of your guitar. D’Addario are the first brand to bring this style of string out and I personally feel they are one of the best strings out there. The D’Addario-engineered NY Steel cores make sure they stay in tune longer and breakages happen less. This string has an uncanny ability to bring out the tone of your guitar rather than the string itself.
- Phosphor Bronze – a warmer darker tone that last a lot longer and retains tone longer than regular bronze strings. Due to the phosphor alloy they do not need to be changed as regularly. D’Addario and Gibson also create fantastic phosphor bronze strings that create a warm resonant tone. The addition of the corrosion resistant phosphor bronze ensures they last longer than most strings, but will require changing regularly if you play a lot.
- Coated Phosphor Bronze – A coating is placed over the strings which helps strings last up to 4 times as long as regular strings. A natural sounding string that holds tone longer than regular bronze strings. Although they are a little more expensive than regular strings, you tend to save money in the long run as they don’t need to be replaced as often. Some guitarists will find that they don’t feel as natural, but again it’s all personal preference.
I would definitely recommend D’Addario EXP’s for guitarists who don’t like the feel of coated strings, but want the longevity associated with this method. Whereas other manufacturers create a string THEN coat it, D’Addario differ by micro coating the inner materials and then winding it. This creates a more natural feel for the player and makes the strings last longer. Martin have also crafted a particularly popular set of strings aptly entitled Martin Lifespan Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings. Again, I suggest trying them out to see which set works and feels best to you.
- Polymer Coated – corrosion resistant strings that don’t rust as quickly and last a lot longer than uncoated. Guitarists often feel that they have less sustain when playing notes, but will sacrifice that small dip in tone for the longevity associated.
Elixir strings are renowned for their longer lasting strings and create a variety of professional quality options for all styles of guitarist. However, they coat the strings AFTER they are created, which divides guitarists due to the feel associated. Some prefer this feeling on their fingers as it is not as rough, yet others may feel that the string does not feel as natural.
- Brass – Bright jangly sounding string that sound particularly metallic or “chiming”.
- Silk and Steel – ideal for folk players who want a softer mellow sound that are quieter and easier on the fingers.
When should you change guitar strings?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this as some people prefer to break their strings in over a few weeks or even months, whereas others will want to change their strings once a fortnight or earlier – it all depends on how much you play them and the sound you like. However, I’ve highlighted a few signs that your acoustic guitar strings need changing.
- The guitar won’t stay in tune for very long
- There is a lot of rust or discolouration on the string
- The string seems to be unravelling
- The tone sounds flat and the strings don’t resonate as much as they do when new
- You haven’t changed them. Ever!
How often should I change my guitar strings?
If you are a frequent player, you’ll likely already change your strings at least once a month. If you’re a gigging musician – no doubt once a week, but if you’re beginner you should aim to change them once a month.
What can shorten the life of strings?
There are a few aspects that will cause strings to lose their tone and shorten their life.
- If you leave a guitar out of its case all the time
- You play guitar every day
- You play in smoky environments or you smoke
- You bend the string a lot
- You strum really hard
- You change the tuning of your guitar frequently
At the end of the day, playing guitar is all about experimentation. Experiment with a wide variety of different strings until you find your “brand” or the set that you feel most comfortable with. Who knows, you might decide that it takes a mixture of different sets to get your ideal sound, or you could find the perfect gauge and brand first time. Enjoy the journey and remember, you can always change them around – you’re never locked in to one style.
Check out the complete range of acoustic guitar strings at the Dawsons website.
Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns.
After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery.
Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.