“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.
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!
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).
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.
Leo Kottke is a fingerstyle institution, and an inspiration to guitarists across the globe. His unique blend of folk, blues and jazz and his distinctive syncopated, polyphonic melodies have earned him accolades and followers galore. And, his battles with adversity – he’s overcome partial hearing loss and a near career-ending bout with tendonitis – are testament to his dedication to his craft.
We’re living in a great time for acoustic music. Fingerstyle guitar is thriving, and outlets like YouTube give exposure to new guitarists on a regular basis. But, this wasn’t always the case. In the ‘80s, when synths and electronic sounds reigned supreme, some thought the humble hollow-bodied six-string would go the way of the dinosaur.