Electric Guitar Strings - What Do You Need? August 25 2016, 0 Comments

The first time I walked into a guitar shop wanting a new set of strings, I thought that the only thing I'd need to know was the string name. It turns out I needed much more than that when the shop assistant pointed to the opposite wall which contained dozens of different brands, sizes and constructions. 

For you beginners - this guide is for you.

Construction

The construction can come down to several key elements. What is the string made from? How is the string wound? And what shape is the middle of the string?

Not all strings in a set are wound to give that coiled appearance; only the thicker ones – E, A and D. The G, B and e strings will always be unwound. They just consist of the core. Wound strings mean that strands of wire are wrapped around the string allowing it to produce a lower sound. They can be wound in different ways. Here are the two main methods:

Round wound – This is where a rounded wire is coiled around the string creating a bumped / ribbed surface. Offers high levels of grip yet also has quite a bit of string noise as you fingers go up and down the fretboard (from your fingers brushing against the strings). 

Flat would – Flat wound strings, as you'd probably guess, are wound with a flat, square piece of wire. This results in strings which are very (but not completely) flat. There is less noise from your fingers with these. Flat wound strings are more uncommon on electric guitars, they're more commonly used on bass guitars. Please see the below image to see this illustrated. 

There are more options in relation to the construction of the string. The core will nearly always be made out of steel, however it may be wound with a different material:

Nickel Plated – One of the most common materials used. The nickel usually plates steel providing a great combination of magnetic properties (so the pickups can receive the sound of the guitar) and the nickel balances out the bright sound. A good combination.

Pure Nickel – Pure nickel strings are also available. Generally speaking, the more nickel in the strings, the “warmer” they sound.

Stainless Steel – Are bright sounding and long lasting. Unfortunately they have the ability to wear down your frets.

Lastly the core can be a different shape. It can be...

Rounded – Round string have more contact with the core. This means they're very easy to move and have a good amount of sustain. However they can be inconsistent in relation to tone and reliability (they are prone to unravelling if you're not careful).

Hexagonal – When the string is wound around the hexagonal core, it bites better into the core resulting in a more secure and tighter string. A very constant and high quality string.

Which strings you use will mostly depend on personal preference. However the strings considered “standard” will be round wound nickel plated with a hex core. This sort of string (like the one we sell in our strings section) is what most beginners should try out first. Once you've got a good idea of what they sound like and their advantages / disadvantages, you can begin to experiment with other types.

Gauge

The other important factor in relation to how the strings sound is its gauge. Regardless of the construction of the string it will have a certain level of thickness. There then may be other sets of strings which are exactly the same brand / construction but have a higher or lower gauge.

How the string gauge or thickness impacts the guitar sound is common sense really. Heavier strings are harder to fret but they produce a louder sound when plucked and the sound from them lasts (or sustains) for longer. They contain much more energy than a lighter string. However it's harder to do things like pick really fast with them simply because you pick has more string to move over. The fact that they're harder to fret doesn't help either when playing faster styles of music. However you can get used to this with enough practice and finger strength.

Gauges are usually described from the thickness of their thinnest string, to the thickness of their thickest string. Some are then given a description, like “light”, “regular” or “very heavy”. You're probably familiar with some of the names Ernie Ball give their strings for example. This diagram should help get your head around the idea:

String

E

A

D

G

B

e

Super Extra Light

0.038

0.030

0.021

0.015

0.010

0.008

Extra Light

0.042

0.032

0.024

0.016

0.011

0.009

Regular Light

0.046

0.036

0.026

0.017

0.013

0.010

Medium

0.049

0.038

0.028

0.018

0.014

0.011

Heavy

0.054

0.042

0.032

0.020

0.016

0.012

Extra Heavy

0.056

0.046

0.036

0.026

0.017

0.013 

Strings may be named after their size range. E.g extra heavy would be 13-56 and regular light would be 10-46. Beginners will be best suited to the regular light or extra light strings since they're easier to press down. However they may be more prone to snapping if you're not gentle with them.

So What Do I Need?

If you're a typical rock guitar player a set of nickel plated round wound strings with a hex core will be fine. Regular light for general rock and extra light if you want your strings to bend a bit easier. The heavier gauges are for if you play metal, and extra heavy is often used with alternative tunings such as drop C.

Most string manufacturers won't name the strings as above. But you just need to read the gauge values which should be similar to above to see what type they are. 

Typically most guitarists use regular light strings, not medium, as you may expect.

As you start to learn more about guitar you may be more comfortable experimenting with strings constructed of different materials. 

Have a look at our collection of low cost guitar & acoustic strings. We sell our own inexpensive range of strings as well as some of the bigger brands who have been chosen because of their tried and tested value.