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How to Choose the Perfect Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar

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The strings on your acoustic guitar have a huge influence on your guitar's sound and playability. Not all strings are made equally! With so many different materials and gauges to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start. Don't worry! We're going to help you make sense of it all!

In this article, you'll get a detailed look at the different types of acoustic guitar strings available to you. We'll explore different gauges, materials, and more along with popular examples of each type of string and its effect on your tone. At the end, we're going to include a section that will help you change your strings yourself! After you're finished, you'll be an acoustic guitar string expert.

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String Gauge

Acoustic guitar strings are measured just like electric guitar strings: using a type of measurement called 'gauge'. Gauge is a measure of a string's diameter. Thicker strings, with deeper and bassier sounds, have a larger gauge than thinner strings, which sound bright and trebly.

Notice the D'addario Phosphor Bronze string pack above. The list of gauges is given as a range: .012 - .053. This means that the gauge of the thinnest string (the high E string) is .012 and the gauge of the thickest string (the low E string) is .053.

String gauges aren't some arbitrary unit of measurement. Gauge is actually the diameter of a string in thousandths of an inch. For example, the .053 in the pack above is really .053 inches, or 53 thousandths of an inch. The decimal portion is sometimes omitted, so don't be alarmed when you see strings packs without a leading zero. It's pretty easy to tell by looking or touching a string what its relative gauge is.

Light vs Heavy Gauge

String packs are generally labeled as 'light' or 'heavy' gauge. Light gauge strings are thinner, sound brighter, and easier to play than their heavy gauge counterparts. They require less pressure to fret and bend, allowing for more expressive playing with less effort. Heavy gauge strings are thicker than light gauge strings, meaning they are harder to fret and bend. However, you get the added bonus of more volume and sustain, as well as darker tonality.

A .010-.050, .011-.052, and .012-.053 string pack would be considered light. Medium string packs are usually .013-.056. Heavy strings are usually .014-.059. There are even string packs that combine lighter gauge treble strings and heavier gauge bass strings to create a kind of 'hybrid' string pack for every more tonal variety and playability!

Changing Gauges

Your guitar was set up to play with a particular string gauge at the factory. Changing the strings on your guitar is a fairly easy process, but it may cause your guitar to play strangely if you use a different gauge than what is currently installed. A different string gauge can negatively affect your guitar's playability, truss rod relief, and intonation. Using a very heavy gauge of strings on a vintage acoustic guitar can damage it, since heavier gauges increase the tension placed on the guitar neck and body.

If you're dead set on installing a lighter or heavier gauge, then take your guitar to a local shop for a proper setup. You'll need to have it set up again if you ever decide to change gauges in the future. If you're ever unsure what gauge strings are installed on your guitar, check your owner's manual or take your guitar to a local technician.

String Material

Acoustic guitar strings come in all different types of materials, including brass, bronze, steel, and more! Each of these materials will affect your tone in a different way. Let's explore how these affect your tone.

Acoustic vs Classical: Use the Right Strings!

As we mentioned in our Acoustic Guitar guide, there are two major types of acoustic guitars: steel-string acoustics and classical guitars. The main difference between the two is the type of strings they use. A steel-string acoustic is equipped with steel strings, while a classical guitar comes fitted with nylon strings. As a general rule, these strings are not interchangeable. Using steel strings on a classical guitar can cause irreversible damage to the body, saddle, and fretboard of your guitar due to steel's higher tension. Using nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic won't be the end of the world. However, your guitar will play and sound horribly due to the lower string tension, which can cause many playability issues like buzzing, which will require a professional setup to correct. Don't do it!

Steel Strings

Like electric guitars strings, acoustic guitar strings can be 'wound' or 'unwound'. In the majority of string sets, the 3 lightest gauge strings are plain, also known as unwound. The heavier strings are wound. A plain or unwound string is simply a length of metal, commonly steel wire. A wound string is made up of two parts: a core and a winding. They're made by taking a hexagonal steel core wire and wrapping it with some kind of material, usually another metal or metal alloy.

Windings are where most of the tonal differences come from in guitar strings. These are the common types of windings and the effect they have on your tone:

  • Bronze: vintage tone with pronounced treble and bass, prone to corrosion
  • Phosphor Bronze: Balanced tone with slightly darker tonality than regular bronze
  • Polymer-Coated: Warm tone, corrosion-resistant at the cost of slightly reduced sustain
  • Silver-plated Copper: Bright, percussive and snappy tone with good projection

Strings generally come in two different categories: roundwound or flatwound. Roundwound strings are by far the most common type of string, with a more traditional feel and sound. Flatwound strings are polished at the factory, crating a smoother playing surface that produces a lot less finger noise than a traditional roundwound string.

Nylon Strings (for classical guitars)

For hundreds of years, classical guitar strings were made of animal intestines. After the second World War, nylon became the preferred string material thanks to its strength and stability, which meant it wasn't affected by humidity and temperature changes. This also meant it could hold its tune quite well.

Like steel strings, nylon strings come in unwound and wound forms. The treble strings are usually unwound, while the bass strings are typically wound. Clear nylon is the most common type of material for the treble strings thanks to its clarity. Other materials are used as well, like black nylon, which has a warmer tone than regular nylon. The classical guitar's bass strings are composed of a nylon core with a metal winding, like bronze or silver-plated copper. Like steel-strings, classical guitar bass strings can be roundwound or flatwound.

How Often Should I Change My Strings?

It's not always clear how often you should change your strings. Some guitarists don't play that often, so they can get away with changing their strings once or twice a year. Other guitarists who play a few hours a day might change their strings every few weeks.

It's time to change your strings when:

  • Your strings are starting to rust or the winding is separating from the core
  • Your guitar sounds flat or boring
  • Your strings are rusting
  • Your guitar doesn't stay in tune*

* If you are having trouble staying in tune. If so, check your tuners and bridge. If you don't see any fault with the hardware on your guitar, then your strings are probably at the end of their life.

Changing Your Strings

Guitar String Winder
The D'addario String Winder - A Must-Have for Changing Strings!

Some guitarists are deathly afraid of changing their strings and think they might ruin their guitar if they even try it. It's really not all that difficult! Once you do it once or twice, you'll get the hang of it! Just remember to use the same gauge of strings you have currently on your guitar as changing to a different gauge will make your guitar play and feel differently! The process is a bit different between steel-strings and classical guitars, so choose the right video for the guitar you have! Pick up a few string packs and learn to change your strings!

If you change your strings often, you may want to pick up a string winder. It'll save you a bunch of time when you're changing strings and get you playing in no time. This D'addario String Winder even comes with a string clipper for tidying up your headstock after you're done. You'll no longer need to sacrifice a pair of scissors every time you change your strings!

Changing Strings on a Steel String Acoustic

Changing Strings on a Classical Guitar

Conclusion

In this article, we learned all about acoustic guitar strings, including string gauge, materials, cores, windings, and more. We learned how to tell when it's time to change out our strings. At the end, we saw a video about how to change out the strings of our acoustic or classical guitar. That's it! Now you're an acoustic guitar string expert!