Your Complete Guide to Choosing Acoustic Guitar Strings
By Adam Kirk
So, you have found that playing the guitar is your new thing and are keen to find out more about this new found passion.
When it comes to playing guitar there are many things which affect the sound you produce, with one of the biggest being the strings that you choose.
As a beginner, you want to choose the right equipment to help you thrive in your new hobby, so I’m going to tell you more about the basics of acoustic guitar strings to better guide you down your chosen musical path.
The choice of acoustic strings is one to be taken with due consideration. Having no pick-ups or amplifier to accentuate the sound, your choice of acoustic strings has a greater impact on the sounds that you produce.
I’m going to breakdown information regarding gauge (thickness), composition, and tension of a variety of string types so that you may choose the best guitar strings for your playing style.
Guitar strings are manufactured in a range of thicknesses (gauges), and are measured in thousands of an inch.
The gauge of the strings has a major impact on both the sound and playability of your guitar.
Lighter gauge strings are generally easier to play than heavier ones because they require less finger pressure for bending notes. On the flip side, lighter gauge strings produce less volume and sustain than their heavier counterparts, and are prone to break easier.
Whilst lighter gauge guitar strings are a better choice for those more vintage guitars, as heavier gauged strings put increased pressure on the guitars’ neck, you should note the following factors when deciding on the gauge of string for your own guitar:
Body style – heavier gauge strings take better advantage of a bigger sound chamber, for bigger-bodied acoustic guitars.
Playing style – finger-picking styles are easier to play with lighter gauge strings, but if hard strumming is your thing, then a medium-gauge would be better.
Desired tone – heavier gauge strings naturally highlight their bass elements, being deep and strong tones, while lighter gauge strings pay more attention to treble notes and playing styles.
The tone of your guitar is impacted greatly by the material you choose for your acoustic guitar strings.
Different compositions of materials will naturally give your guitar different sounds and should be chosen in conjunction with your playing style.
Here I am going to go through some of the composition and sound characteristics of various acoustic string compositions:
Bronze Strings – has a clear, ringing and bright tone but tends to age relatively quickly due to oxidation from the acid in your perspiration (through your fingertips).
Phosphor-Bronze Strings – are the most universal choice and the best guitar strings for beginners. They provide a good balance between their crisp sound and longevity.
Aluminum Bronze Strings– gives greater clarity than phosphor-bronze, producing pronounced bass and clear, crisp treble.
Brass Strings – create a brighter, more metallic, sharper sound than bronze strings, but are more brittle. Commonly used in rock, country and blues.
Polymer-Coated Strings – these corrosion resistant strings have less sustain and brightness than their uncoated counterparts, producing sounds that have good presence and warmth. They can be colored for visual appeal.
Nylon Strings –highly responsive and producing a mellow tone, they are a great choice for classical and folk guitarists.
Silk and Steel Strings – steel core strings which have been wrapped in silk, nylon or copper to produce a delicate tone with a softer touch.
Being a beginner to playing guitar you are bound to feel some discomfort when it comes to the feel of the strings on your fingers, regardless of what composition you are using.
My advice is to consider the sound you are aiming to achieve, rather than assuming which string composition would be easier to play.
String sets come set with different tensions ranging from light to heavy, with various combination tensions in-between.
One recommended way to determine your tension preference is first to establish which brand of string and composition works best for you and your style of playing.
Let’s have a look at some differences between low and high tension strings:
Low (moderate/light) Tension: – easier fretting
-less volume and projection
-less pronounced attack with more note depth
-best for smooth legato techniques
-has a tendency to cause buzzing on frets
High (hard/strong) Tension: -more difficult fretting
-greater volume and projection
-more pronounced attack with less note depth
-best for strong rhythmic playing
-may cause issues with necks, bridges, and top bracing with older/fragile instruments
Low tension string characteristics are almost the exact opposite of high tension strings, with a happy-medium being found with a normal (medium) tension string set.
After you have established your preference in brand and string composition, I would recommend trying the different tensions available to find which one best suits your fingers, instrument, and ears.
Remember that learning to play guitar is a long but rewarding journey, filled with ups and downs.
As you grow in your new passion, you will want to make adjustments in not only the way you play, but also to the strings and other peripherals you use.
As you find your sound and your fingers start taking the lead, don’t be afraid to try new string gauges and compositions, deepening your experience with this amazing instrument.
Most important of all: have fun with it and do not be afraid to let your hair down!
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