Gauging Your Gauge: Acoustic Guitar Strings Explained

“What kind of strings have you got on there?”

I was stepping off stage at an open mic night when I was first asked this question, and it completely dumbfounded me.

At this point in my life, I was young, naïve, and knew very little about my instrument.

“Uh… the good kind,” I responded, before beating a hasty retreat to the bar.

Fun fact: the strings on my acoustic guitar were not “the good kind.”

They were, in fact, the cheapest set they stocked in my local guitar shop.

The only reason I’d replaced the set of strings that were on the guitar when I bought it was because I broke my top E string during a particularly frenetic strumming session.

Like young me, many guitarists don’t give strings a second thought.

They should, though.

 

While seemingly inconsequential to the uninitiated, strings have a massive impact on your tone and your playing. That’s something I realized after this awkward encounter, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

But how do you find the right set of strings for your acoustic guitar? There’s a minefield of gauges and materials out there to navigate, and it can get pretty overwhelming if you’re not in the know.

That’s where this guide comes in. If you don’t know your custom-lights from your heavy gauge, or your silk from your phosphor-bronze then read on. This is the overview for you.

Note: For the purposes of this guide, we’re talking about acoustic steel string guitars. We may come back to you classical nylon players in a future edition!

Getting to grips with gauges

Strings come in a variety of different “gauges.” The gauge simply refers to the diameter of the string; in other words, how thick it is. String gauges range from light to heavy – here’s a run down of the most common types:

Those numbers on the end tell you how thick each string is in inches. And they get thicker as the strings get lower. With extra lights, for example, your top E string would be the .010, while your bottom E would be the .047.

As a rule, lighter gauge strings are easier to play, and hence find favour with beginner guitarists. However, they also have a tendency to break more easily. Heavier strings meanwhile, can provide a fuller tone, more volume and are more resilient against harder strumming.

In reality though, it’s not a simple as “light strings for beginners, heavy strings for pros.” There are, in fact, a number of factors other factors that will influence your choice in gauge.

You need to factor in the size of your guitar’s body, for example. Smaller bodied guitars often feel better and sound nicer with lighter strings. Contrastingly, the larger sound chamber of a large body or a jumbo acoustic benefits a heavier gauge.

But then, this might be tempered by the sound you’re going for. Heavier gauge strings emphasize your guitar’s low-end tones, while lighter strings are, by-and-large, brighter and sweeter sounding.

And, you need to factor in whether you’re a finger picker or a plectrum player. Lighter strings benefit fingerpickers as they’re kinder on the fingertips, while heavier strummers need heavier strings (I’m definitely in the latter category).

Material types:

It’s not just about the gauge! Strings come in a variety of materials, and these can affect tone, playing and longevity:

Bronze: Constructed with 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc, these will provide you with a bright and ringing tone. But, as anyone who knows their chemistry will tell you, bronze oxidizes, so expect them to age quickly.

Phosphor bronze: As the name suggests, these are bronze strings with phosphor added. Phosphor extends the life of the strings, but also changes the tonal quality, making them warmer and darker than standard bronze.

Brass Strings: Less popular than their Bronze and Phosphor Bronze counterparts, these ones are quite harsh and in-your face sounding; almost banjo-like tonally.

Their advantage is that they cut through a noisy mix, and they’re handy for buskers and those who perform in public places.

Silk and Steel: Soft and mellow, these ones are easy to play, but not that durable. They’re great for fingerstyle players as they mimic the feel of a nylon string guitar and create less string noise when fingers slide-up and down the fretboard. They are also the perfect strings for kids or others just starting out, who find it hard to fully depress the strings.

A final note on acoustic guitar strings: YOU NEED TO CHANGE THEM! How regularly depends on how often you’re playing. Occasional strummers might get away with a switch every six weeks while gigging guitarists might need to change them every few days. Whatever you do though, don’t leave your strings on until they sound duller than a seminar on paint drying – it’s not fair on your guitar!

What strings do you use on your acoustic guitar, and how often do you change them? Let us know in the comments.

 



20 Responses

Tony Franks
Tony Franks

June 20, 2018

I think you should add a paragraph about coated strings like Elixir – so many people here seem to prefer them although I do not!
I use Martin Bronze medium gauge strings on all my guitars, although having read this I think I’ll try light gauge on my parlour guitar.

Raymond Poston
Raymond Poston

June 18, 2018

I have been using Elixir medium gauge Phos/Bronze Nanowebs since they came out. I love them. I have them on guitars from Martin, Guild, and even my Gibson Hummingbird. I also used them on my Breedlove 12-String. The Concert series of this brand 12-String was made to use a medium gauge string but will tune up to pitch without needing to tune to D and a capo at the second fret. What a blessing for anyone that always had to do this before. Then, Elixir stopped making the medium, gauge 12-String sets.
I’ve tried buying just single string sets to rectify this. I learned how much difference this was. If they are not in a set, you are taking a big risk of not having that sweet sound. Some may be older than others and sound dull, or hard to keep in tune.
I’ll still use the same Elixir’s on my six string guitars. but I lost about the 12-Sting.
Does anyone have any thoughts on this problem? I already called Elixir begging and pleading with them without success.

David T Lynn
David T Lynn

June 17, 2018

Found this very interesting.

John Barkley
John Barkley

June 17, 2018

Martin introduced a new line of titanium strings. Expensive, but sound sweet.

Wayne
Wayne

June 16, 2018

Great article,i use elixir lights 80-20 phosphor bronze on my Taylor

Stuart Kirsh
Stuart Kirsh

June 16, 2018

After trying many different brands, I’ve settled on Curt Mangan round core 80/20, 13-56 for strumming and hybrid picking on my Martin custom Adi/Rosewood dreadnought. I really like the tone and they last longer than other 80/20 strings I’ve tried, some of which went dead within days of restringing! I liked the sound and feel of DR Sunbeams in the past, but ran into the same issue I had with DR Pure Blues electric strings— the “handmade” gauges were terribly inconsistent, which threw off the intonation. DR would send me free replacement strings until I finally gave up entirely on DR. I’ve never liked the sound of coated strings. Don’t forget that picks can also have a significant impact on tone !

Robert Carhart Jr
Robert Carhart Jr

June 16, 2018

As with many things, the benefits or deficiencies are in the eyes (ears?) of the beholder. Elixirs fit this category, as proponents are enthusiastic and detractors, well, not so much. I like them and tend to use the 80/20 Phosphor Bronze on my Taylors, which are brighter sounding guitars than my mahogany Martin 000. In this case, I like the strings it came with, but I may try the Low Tension Santa Cruz Parabolics (which I used on a PRS acoustic and liked); I suspect they’ll play like the Martin strings and they do have a nice feel too. I’m surprised no one had mentioned them here before.

John Ioia
John Ioia

June 15, 2018

D’Addario NYXL1046 Nickel Plated Electric Guitar Strings, Light (10-46) on both my Martin SP000c-16R and my Ovation Celebrity. Bright, easy to play and long lasting.

David Wachter
David Wachter

June 15, 2018

D’Addario phosphor bronze mediums, 13-56. Every two weeks on my Martin Custom Shop D-18. No other string comes close.

Chandler Rozear
Chandler Rozear

June 15, 2018

Back in 1968, I heard my first Martin D-45. It was already pretty old and the sound was rich and warm like nothing I had ever heard before. You would just play it to simply soak in the rich embrace of every note you played. Its owner said the secret to that amazing tone was Mapes Strings. That’s what I’ve been using on my D-28 ever since then and it also sounds amazing.

Max
Max

June 15, 2018

My new favorite strings are Ernie Ball Aluminum bronze 10-50s. I had Dean Markley Helix 11-52s on the Fender Montara. It was lacking brightness and the low end was a bit muddy at times. I was not satisfied with it’s tone with these strings. These strings are like night and day. Nice bright highs and crisp bottom, and the projection! They make me want to play the guitar more just to hear it. 💘 🎸. Peace.

Rich
Rich

June 15, 2018

I just bought a new Martin guitar, and have been paying very close attention to the tonality of the strings. I changed the heavier gaged ones that were on it right away, because I prefer the brighter sound, but having listened carefully to other Martin guitarists, I have since changed them to the next heavier gage, going for the deeper low notes and more powerful volumes, and I think, I’m going to go even heavier on the next string change. I DO have a question, though, for someone in the know. I’ve been experimenting with alternate tuning a lot, tuning my guitar down, and drop D, open D, and Blues G tuning. I think an 11 or 12 gage high E string might be the best for this type of play, but I’m only guessing. Anyone have any input on this? Oh, I bought the Custom Martin HD-28 VTS, with a list price on the website of $3799. That’s not what I paid for it, though.

Bob
Bob

June 15, 2018

After trying a number of different strings, and different gauges, I have settled on Martin Lifespan 7100 (12 gauge) on my 000 28 coco/.adi top. Best string I personally have ever played. They last, stay in tune, have good sound, and don’t tarnish like other strings. I use D’addario EJ16 (also 12 gauge) on the D18, D28, and RedBirch D model. The 12 gauge strings add a lot of durability and don’t break under deep bends like the smaller strings.

Hervé MAUGERY
Hervé MAUGERY

June 15, 2018

D’Addario 11/52 changed every 2 months

Anakai
Anakai

June 15, 2018

Another John Pearse 600L user here that plays finger-style slack key. Used on my Taylor K24ce, Breedlove King Koa and my old Alvarez Yairi lawsuit dreadnaught, The Taylor 812ce 12 fret gets the John Pearse “Slightly Light” set. Why? Consistency of sound and overall longevity. To my ears coated strings sound like rubber bands and are inconsistent when trying to record clear midrange tones. Cheaper strings lose their sustain more quickly in spite of wiping down after playing. Keeping strings reasonably clean as stated above and in a fairly well-controlled temperature and humidity environment gets the best mileage and sould out of the John Pearse sets that I use, especially with multiple tunings.

Terry doran
Terry doran

June 15, 2018

I use Martin 4150 strings on my Martin D35 and 41 but I use Martin 4200 on my D45..I use Elixer medium light on my Taylor 816 and light gage on my Taylor 12 string. I switch between Martin 4150 and Elixer medium lites on my Collins om1 depending on what I’m planning on playing with it. Martins for finger style and Elixer for strumming

Norman Bullen
Norman Bullen

June 15, 2018

Just very good and interesting article please keep them coming. Many thanks

Brad
Brad

June 15, 2018

Don’t forget another important consideration. Most don’t bother, but it makes a difference…

Round core. Not hex.

I used to get Newtone round core strings, now I use DR Sun Sunbeam Phosphor-Bronze 011 – 050 or there about. I have experimented with various medium light gages.

DR Sun’s are half the price of Newtone’s and just as good.

Round core…

Stay “new string sound” longer.

Last longer… no grime caught between hex core and winding.

Plus sound warmer due to winding continually touching core, not just the high points.

Yes. Wiping down always helps get that grimy salt of’n your babe.

Clark
Clark

June 15, 2018

I like John Pearse Phosphor Bronze Light #600L (.012 – .053) for my wood bodied acoustics and Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze HD Lights (.013 – .053) on my carbon fiber Rainsong 6 and 12 strings.

Bruce in Toronto
Bruce in Toronto

June 15, 2018

I’ve been using custom light phosphor bronze on my Taylor 710. I find them a reasonable compromise between finger wear and tone. My Taylor really benefits from a warm string – 80/20’s sound horrid. The instrument probably get used 10-12 hours a week and I change strings every 2-3 weeks so I buy bulk packs.

My 12-string is equipped with a light set – these run from .010 to .047 – I’ve been using coated phosphor bronze but they seem to get furry quite quickly. I have a few packs to work through then I’ll think about switching to bulk packs here too.

It’s worth noting that giving your strings a wipe down after every set can remove the corrosive finger goo and extend their life.

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