Confused by the different types of Guitar Strings?

Thoughts on types of guitar strings……..

So, what’s the difference between strings, you may ask? Let’s explore……

Electric guitar strings are usually roundwound (meaning they have a rough finish where you can feel the string windings) made from steel with a nickel coating, and are also available in Stainless Steel.

The stainless steel strings will last a bit longer and sound brighter than the nickel-coated strings, though the nickel-coated strings have a more vintage sound. The nickel-coated strings are the most popular strings on the market

Electric guitar strings are also available as flatwounds, where the outer wind on the string is finished with a metal tape-like cover. These are very smooth to play and have a minimum of finger noise, and are often used by jazz musicians as they have a very warm tone with less of the overtones of wire-wound strings. Up to the late 1960’s flat-wound strings were almost universally used (even by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.,), until John Entwistle of The Who and James Howe got together and gave the world Rotosound strings about 1967/68. Used on both guitar and bass, this brought about a revolution, and almost overnight flat-wound strings fell out of favour – rock music and roundwound strings were a marriage made in Heaven.

With the advent of roundwound strings, bass strings underwent a huge change at this point. Seemingly overnight, almost every bassist changed to roundwound bass strings, and the “piano bass” sound became popular. Not with everybody, however…. Bassists playing jazz music usually preferred flatwound strings, and many bassists, such as the brilliant James Jamerson (just Google him) stuck with the older sound, that warm, thick thumpy bass sound that suited so many genres of music. Many musicians (such as Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden) found that the good thick sound of flatwound bass strings used in conjunction with a Fender Precision Bass was just the job for a loud rock band. Also, for that really “old” sound, you can still get flatwound bass strings with the flat black tape winding on them. In latter years we have seen a lot of coated bass strings come on the market, and these seem to sound very good and last a very long time. Given the price of a new set of bass strings, the extra cost of the coated strings seems justified, as they can last from 3-5 times longer than others. Interestingly enough, we have found some of the Chinese-made bass strings (that sell for half- to one-third of the most popular brands) to be very good indeed.    

Acoustic strings, on the other hand, are usually wound with bronze (a misnomer, as the mix of copper & tin is actually brass). These are usually an 80/20 mix, though others such as 85/15 are popular too). These strings have a bell-like tone and are bright and articulate with a good bottom end, great for finger-picking. 

Also available are Phosphor Bronze acoustic strings, which have a warmer sound than the brass, and use a 92/8 mixture of copper & tin. These strings hold their warm tone for longer, and have a greater complexity of tone.

Then we have the very popular coated acoustic strings, which seem to have become the standard for lots of players. In the early days, these usually had a thick outer coating which didn’t allow any debris from your fingers to get between the windings, but these tended to sound a bit dead even when new. A much thinner coating a few nano’s thick then became available and has since become the standard of the industry, retaining most of the sound of the uncoated strings and lasting 3-5 times longer than uncoated strings.

Also available, though not seen very often are “silk & steel” strings. These have plain steel 1st & 2nd strings, and the 3rd, 4th, 5th & 6th strings are silk & steel wound.  These combine silver-plated copper wrap wire with silk for light tension and a mellow tone. This mellow tone is preferred by many folk musicians. These are also ideal for older vintage guitars that do not have a truss rod in the neck and cannot take the tension of a modern set of steel strings. Older Martin guitars come to mind here, and a proponent of these strings (with his many old Martin guitars) is Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.

Classical Guitars use nylon strings. The lighter strings (1st, 2nd & 3rd) are transparent nylon, and strings the heavier strings (4th, 5th & 6th) are usually silver in colour but consist of around 200 individual strands of nylon wrapped with silver-plated copper thread.

Classical guitars are very lightly built compared to others and require the light tension of nylon strings – so NEVER put steel strings on this type of guitar. This guitar usually lacks a truss rod, has very light bracing and the tension of steel strings will actually (over a short period of time) cause the guitar to collapse in upon itself. You have been warned….. However, you CAN put a set of nylon strings on a steel-string guitar (might need a bit of adjusting though). Some people like this tone, but there’s usually not enough tension on the top of the guitar to “drive” the sound.

String gauges.

All strings, whether for acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, banjo et al., are available in different gauges.

Generally, this means that the lighter gauges (say .08-.38) have less tension than a heavier gauge (such as .10-.52), and can be easier for beginners to start out on, as they won’t resist your fingers as much as heavier strings.

Of course, there are exceptions: Again, generally speaking, a set of Nanoweb coated Elixir strings are considered to have more tension than a similar gauge of uncoated strings. This is no doubt down to the materials used in the making of the strings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a difference between construction materials.

A heavier-gauge of strings usually will give a fuller and beefier sound to the guitar, even though they might be stiffer to play and not as easy to bend, whereas a lighter-gauge set will be easier to bend but may not sound as full. Lots of guitarists looking for that really full sound will put a heavy set of strings on their guitar and detune it, thereby getting the best of both worlds (heavy gauge strings equals more mass and a “bigger sound”, and fingering will be easier due to the lower tension caused by detuning). Drop D and drop B tuning is very common, and(even drop-A is used. 

There are so many gauges of strings available and so many different types of string-construction that all we can say is try them out – you will soon find a favourite set for your guitar and playing style, and it may be that you will find you have a different set on every guitar you own.     

Do you know that Freya probably has the cheapest guitar strings, banjo strings and bass strings in Ireland? 

At Freya Guitars we carry Elixir, Earthwood, D’Addario and Martin acoustic strings, as well as Ernie Ball, D’Addario, Picato and Elixir electric guitar & bass strings. Picato bass strings have to be the best value strings on the market, and are made of top-quality materials in the UK, unlike the other cheaper strings you can buy.

We have the best prices in the country, and we do not overcharge you for postage as some other companies do.


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