Players spend so much time focusing on guitars, amplifiers, microphones and recording gear that often the topic of guitar strings gets far less attention than it should. As changing strings can affect how you set up your guitar, I thought a guide to the basics for both electric and acoustic guitar would provide good insight.
The Right Gauge
Most electric guitars come set up for the 9 to 42 gauge of round wound strings. If you plan to fit heavier strings you may need to widen the nut slots, as thicker strings put more tension on the neck. You may also need to adjust the truss rod by a very small amount in order to maintain the correct amount of neck relief. If your guitar is fitted with a floating vibrato, you will need to increase the tension of the vibrato springs, so that when the guitar is tuned to pitch the bridge plate sits at roughly the same angle as before. Similarly, in the event that you go for lighter-gauge strings than 9s, you may need to loosen the truss rod by a fraction of a turn and loosen the tremolo springs.
Heavier strings result in a heavier tone and a longer sustain, which is often desirable. The down side is that they’re harder to play and, in particular, harder to bend. Most electric players choose 9s or 10s for their top E-gauge in standard tuning, but several manufacturers also make hybrid sets, where the high strings are slightly lighter and the lower ones slightly heavier. These can be a good choice, as you get more tone from the wound strings, while the plain strings are easy to bend. Some of my own guitars are fitted with hybrid sets, which you can easily obtain from well-known makers such as D’Addario and Ernie Ball.
Changing string gauge or even brands can also mess with your guitar’s intonation, so it is worth checking that the octaves on each string are in tune with the open string — an electronic tuner is useful for checking this. If the octave sounds flat, you need to move the bridge saddle a little closer to the neck and, similarly, if it sounds sharp, move the saddle away from the neck. If you’re drastically changing the string gauges, you should be prepared to adjust the actions and truss rod. This may also be advisable if you’re keeping the same string gauge but changing to a radically different tuning altogether.
Different string types and gauge have an effect on tone, and in some cases on the amount of signal output you get from your instrument as well. Very light strings can cause a loss of both volume and sustain, but the actual tonality you need depends on the way your guitar sounds in the first place. For example, each guitar has its own unique tonality, which depends on the wood type and density, pickup construction, etc. This greatly produces their unique tone.
As well as the direct impact on the guitar, there is also potential to affect the way you play. I’ve mentioned the difficulty in bending heavy strings, and with very light strings such as 8s, anything other than the lightest touch on the fingerboard can force the strings to go sharp or flat, especially on an instrument with high frets or a scalloped neck.
Acoustic guitar strings are usually a little thicker. 11s or 12s are fairly light strings. The 3rd or G string in standard tuning is usually wound, but if you use a lot of bends you may want to try a plain third instead. As with electrics, there is a wide range of gauges and it is largely a matter of choice with steel-strung acoustics. If you’re planning to experiment with very heavy strings on an expensive acoustic, it is probably worth checking with the manufacturer first, as even regular-gauge strings put about 80+ lbs of pull on the bridge! I do not recommend putting metal strings on a classical guitar, as these guitars are just not built to take the extra tension and will warp the instrument in any horrible fashion.
Types of Strings
Various manufacturing techniques are used to create strings that sound good for longer, such as winding the string onto a hexagonal, rather than round, core or using heat or cold treatment to shrink the windings onto the core. By all means try everything, but once you find a string type that works for you and lasts a reasonable time, I’d suggest you stick to it, otherwise you’ll forever be adjusting your guitar to get the best results.
For acoustic guitars you get a choice of string types including phosphor bronze, bronze, and coated. For electric guitar, the choice normally comes down to nickel-plated steel or pure nickel, though you can get coated strings for electric. You can also get stainless steel. These are very hard and tough so they will last a long time, but they can also speed up fret wear on the guitar. From a practical point of view, strings that wear cause fewer problems than frets that wear as fret replacement is tricky and can be expensive to fix.
In terms of tone, nickel-plated steel strings have a slightly brighter tone than pure nickel, though sometimes the warmer tone of pure nickel suits the instrument better. Stainless steel strings have a very bright tone, but I’m wary of them for the reasons given above.
Coated strings, both for acoustic and electric guitar, tend to have a less bright tone than non-coated equivalents, but they have the advantage that they can retain their tone very much longer. When I play coated strings, they always feel and sound like strings that have been played in for a couple of days, but they hold that tone for several weeks and can remain playable for months. They are a good choice if you are one of those unfortunate people with corrosive sweat, who trash a set of normal strings every evening, but they’re also well-suited to your beater guitar.
I mentioned round-wound strings earlier, and an alternative that those after a retro sound and some jazz players may prefer is the ‘tape-wound’ or flat-wound string, which has a very smooth finish but a rather dull tone. Flat-wound strings are wound with a slightly flattened wire, which retains more of a round-wound tone but still feels smoother to play and creates less finger noise.
There are now hundreds of makes and models of string to choose from. It’s worth stating the obvious, which is that good-quality strings from a respected maker are likely to play better than cheap no name varieties, which may cause intonation problems due to inconsistent thickness. In some cases they may even break more easily or come unwound at the ball end. This can happen even with reputable string manufacturers.
How often do I change strings?
As strings get older, tone and intonation both get worse, and they also become more prone to breaking. A professional, playing every day, will probably change their strings every 3 or 5 gigs, or even more. A less frequent player may be able to wait for much longer than that, as long as they clean the sweat from their strings after every gig. Strings last longer if you keep them clean as grease and dirt can get trapped in any strings, even coated ones. There are plenty of cleaning products, such as Fast Fret, which can help. Remember that new strings need breaking in time. If you want to use new strings for a recording session or gig, you might want to restring the guitar the day before to avoid them going out of tune during an otherwise great take. If you’re short on time, an alternative is to pull the strings hard when you first put them on, then keep checking the tuning until pulling no longer causes them to go flat. Using this technique you can get away with restringing 30 minutes before a session or gig.