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Strings Attached - A Guide to Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Strings Attached - A Guide to Acoustic Guitar Strings

It's important to choose the right kind of strings for your guitar, not only for tone and playability, but also because of the effect they can have on the long-term health of your instrument. This guide is intended to help you understand the different types of acoustic guitar strings so you can get your instrument sounding its absolute best while improving playability.

There are many different types and manufacturers of acoustic guitar strings. Strings intended for steel string guitars, for example, should never be used on classical guitars because the greater tension of metal strings can do irreparable damage to the instrument's neck and joints.

As well, nylon strings will never function properly on a steel string guitar. They aren't designed for a steel string bridge, won't fit the nut properly, the fingerboard is too narrow and curved for them to vibrate properly, and the reduced string tension can warp and bow the neck.

Laser guitar string manufacturing device
A laser takes 200 diameter & tension measurements of a nylon string to ensure precise intonation. (courtesy: D'Addario)

Beyond the different types of acoustic guitar strings, different manufacturers use proprietary manufacturing processes that give their strings unique sound qualities. Take the time to experiment with different brands to find which ones work the best for you.

String Gauges

Acoustic steel string guitar strings come in a variety of gauges, or thicknesses, named according to the high E string in the set.

Virtually all new acoustic guitars come stocked with 12 or 13-gauge strings, with 12's being the most common.

 Chart - Standard acoustic guitar string sizes
Standard acoustic guitar string sizes

Lighter gauge strings require less tension to achieve concert pitch, and are easier to play. Fretting the notes requires less finger strength, and is easier on the fingertips. This can be advantageous when just starting out, or getting back into shape.

The downside of lighter strings is that they offer less acoustic projection, reduced attack, and can break more easily.

Less string tension also results a wider radius of string vibration, so you can't pluck light strings as hard without getting fret buzz.

Hard Picking • No Fret Buzz • Low Action

As a general rule, you can expect to have two of the above, but not all three when using lighter strings.

Unless you play with a very light touch, lighter strings will buzz more easily. The only way to prevent it this is to raise the action, giving the string more room to vibrate. Unfortunately that can make the guitar more difficult to play.

When plucked, the radius of vibration of heavier strings isn't as wide, so the action can be set lower without causing unwanted buzz.

3 leading string brands
Leading brands of acoustic guitar strings include Dean Markley, Gibson, and Rotosound.

String Materials

For steel string acoustic guitars, the most commonly used string types are bronze, phosphor bronze, and silk and steel.

• 80/20 Bronze strings are made of 80% copper and 20% tin. They have a bright, crisp sound that fades away as the bronze oxidizes.

• Phosphor bronze strings are similar to bronze strings, with the addition of phosphor and zinc. They aren't as bright sounding as regular bronze, but keep their tone longer.

• Silk and steel strings are made with silk filaments under the winding. They produce a softer, warmer tone, and are generally easier to play. The reduced string tension in lighter gauges also makes these strings a good choice for older vintage guitars.

Silk and steel strings area also a good solution for someone who wants to put nylon strings on a steel-string guitar. They have almost the same tension as nylon strings, and work well on steel-string bridges and fingerboards.


Coated Guitar Strings
The new kid on the block: coated strings. They aren't as squeaky, resist
corrosion, last longer, and come in a variety of colours.

Classical Guitar Strings

Since the 1950s, nylon has been the material of choice for classical guitar strings.

Treble Strings (G, B, and high E):

• Clear nylon: the all-around standard, known for its balance of warmth, clarity, projection, and playability.

• Black nylon: produces a warmer, mellower sound. Often used by folk players.

• Titanium strings: bell-like clarity, with good sustain and very little finger noise.

• Composite: made of a multi-filament material. They have pronounced brightness and offer a smooth transition between bass and treble strings.

Bass Strings (low E, A, and D):

Classical guitar bass strings have a nylon core surrounded by a metal winding.

• 80/20 Bronze: often called "brass" or "gold" strings, they are made of 80% copper and 20% tin, and are designed for optimum brightness and projection.

• Silver-plated copper: known for their smooth tone and feel.

The Choice is Yours!

To find the balance of playability and tone that's right for you, take the time to experiment with different string types and manufacturers . You can also stop by any Long and McQuade music store location to speak with local guitar experts who can offer their suggestions and input.


Keywords: acoustic guitars, strings, Dean Markley, Gibson, Rotosound

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