Your guitar’s strings have a drastic effect on your tone. Experimenting with different brands, gauges, or materials can be extremely worthwhile if you’re looking for a new sound.
There are tons of options when it comes to strings. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to make sense of it all. Strings come in all sorts of material, windings, and gauges. What’s the difference between flatwound and roundwound strings? Are nickel strings better or do cobalt strings produce a nicer sound? What kind of gauge do I need if I play heavy metal? We’ve created this guide to make it easy to answer these questions and make an informed choice when it comes to buy.
Gauge is a measure of a string’s diameter. The thicker the string, the larger its gauge. The Ernie Ball Regular Slinky above lists 6 gauges, one for each string of the guitar: 10, 13, 17, 26, 36, and 46. 10 is the gauge of the thinnest string – the high E string. The gauges progressively increase. 13 is the next thickest string (the B string) and so on until you get to 46 – the low E string.
String gauges are actually measured in thousandths of an inch. The decimal portion is sometimes omitted. For example, the 46 in the pack above is really .046 inches, or 46 thousandths of an inch. You’ll see measurements both with and without a decimal when buying new strings, so don’t be surprised!
Most guitarists refer to a string pack by the thinnest string. The Regular Slinky pack above would commonly be referred to as a “set of 10s”. “10s” are probably the most common string gauges you’ll find on a guitar. However, referring to a string set by a single number can sometimes be misleading. A set of 10s commonly has a 46 as the thickest string, but that isn’t always the case. To be extra clear, you can refer to the string set using the thinnest and thickest strings. Using this method, the Regular Slinky pack above would be referred to as 10-46.
Light Gauge Strings
This Super Slinky set is on the lighter side. While a couple thousandths of an inch may not seem like much, it really makes a difference. Lighter strings are easier on your fingers. They take less pressure to fret, less effort to bend, and make vibrato a breeze. A set of 9s, like the Super Slinky, is great for guitarists who like to solo. Lighter gauge strings also tend to have a brighter, more sparkly tone. You should be careful with light strings, however, as they are easier to break.
Heavy Gauge Strings
On the heavier side is the D’addario XL EPN115. A set of 11s can be more difficult to play, especially noticeable during solos and bending. On the plus side, they tend to stay in tune better than lighter strings. The heavier the string, the more output it generates. This results in a stronger electrical signal and a more characterful tone. Heavy strings great for down-tuning your guitar – very popular among heavy metal guitarists who want as dark and aggressive a sound as possible.
There lighter gauges than 9s and heavier gauges than 11s. It all depends on what you’re looking for. Stevie Ray Vaughan played set of 13s – a ridiculously heavy gauge which requires extremely strong fingers. Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin famously played 8s – a super light gauge that requires a very deft touch. You’ll even come across strings that are a combination of heavy and light gauges. The D’addario Light Top/Heavy Bottom string pack has heavier bass strings and standard gauge treble strings. This combination is great for guitarists who want a heavier sound while playing power chords and rhythms, but still want to solo easily.
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. Using a different string gauge can negatively affect your guitar’s action, truss rod relief, and intonation. 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.
Cores and Windings
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 wire, commonly steel. A wound string is made up of two parts: a core and a winding.
The core is the heart of a wound string. Round cores were standard for many years, but have become less and less popular after the invention of the hexagonal core. Hexagonal cores, or ‘hexcores’, have become more and more common because of their numerous advantages.
Strings with round cores have a warmer tone than hexcores. Round cores also tend to be easier to bend, which also means they’re more prone to breaking and going out of tune. Hexcore strings are brighter and clearer thanks to their lower weight, but are more stable and less prone to breaking because of their slightly increased stiffness. The majority of strings you’ll find today are hexcore. You can still buy round core strings from brands like DR and GHS, but their most common use today is in bass guitar strings.
Wrapped around the core of a string is the winding. Windings change the feel and character of a string based on its type and the metal its made of. Wound strings are thicker and heavier than unwound strings.
Windings come in a few different types, each with their own unique advantages and sounds. Most strings are wound with just one material, but there are some strings that use multiple windings for even more tonal possibilities.
We mentioned before that hex cores have basically replaced round cores. One of the main advantages of hex cores is that they keep the winding secure and prevent it from rotating or falling off the string.
Roundwound strings are the most common type strings you’ll encounter. Round wiring is tightly wrapped around a round or hex string core. Roundwound strings are fairly cheap to manufacture, but have a few disadvantages. If you slide your finger down a roundwound string, you’ll make a fairly recognizable ‘scraping’ sound. Some guitarists can’t stand this sound, likening it to nails on a chalkboard. The reason for this sound is simple. Round windings leave a space between each wrap. The friction between your finger and these grooves is what causes that noise. This friction also can wear down your frets more readily than the other types of windings, but this usually isn’t much of a concern to the average guitarist.
Because there is so much space between the wraps, roundwound strings can accumulate dirt and sweat more readily than other types of strings. Therefore, they might not have as long a life as other types of strings.
Roundwounds will feel at home in any genres of music. They don’t emphasize any particular frequency, so they’re a great all-purpose string for guitarists who need versatility. They have good sustain and attack, which means your notes ring out longer and sound clearer.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is the flatwound string. Flatwounds strings are wrapped in a flat winding. Flat windings are smoother than round windings and minimize the grooves between each wrap. Smaller grooves mean that scrapey sound while sliding down a string is drastically reduced. They are more resistant to wear and corrosion thanks to the minimal spaces between each winding. The process of making a flatwound string is more expensive than a roundwound string, so they’ll set you back a few more bucks.
Flatwound strings are less taxing on your fingers and your frets. They tend to sound warmer than roundwound strings, deemphasizing the treble frequencies. They’re perfect for low-gain genres like jazz because of their mellow tone. However, because they don’t have much treble response, they’re too muddy for rock and metal. On flatwounds, like D’addario Chromes, you’ll commonly see a wound G string for even more even more warmth. These are also a great example of a string that uses two windings: a chrome winding and a nickel winding.
Between round and flatwound strings is the ‘semi-flatwound’ string, sometimes known as ‘halfwound’ or ‘groundwound’. They begin life much the same way as a roundwound string. A round winding is wrapped around a round or hex core. Then, the string is ground down so that its surface is flat. They’re very smooth and are similar to flatwound strings in that regard.
This type of string is not as bright as a roundwound, but not as warm and mellow as a flatwound. If you like the smooth feel of flatwounds but need more treble response, then halfwound strings are what you’re looking for. You might need to set your treble EQ a bit higher than usual, but these will work just fine for heavier genres as well as jazz and blues.
Guitar manufacturers have developed various ways to improve the life of their strings. You might come across coated strings, like the popular Elixir Strings. Elixir has developed multiple coatings to protect your strings and extend playing life. You can even listen to how these different coatings affect the string’s frequency response at their interactive string comparison.
Coatings can make the strings more corrosion-resistant and smoother to play. Some coatings are entirely decorative. There are even coated strings that glow in the dark!
String material can have a drastic effect on your tone. By necessity, electric guitar strings must use magnetically conductive metal alloys. If they didn’t, your pickups wouldn’t be able to detect the string’s vibration, so no electric signal would be generated! Therefore, you won’t find any manufacturers using nylon or other synthetic materials in their electric guitar strings. Even some metal alloys, like bronze, aren’t used in electric guitar strings because of their weak magnetic properties.
Unless the packaging says otherwise, the majority of string cores will be made out of steel. The winding is where manufacturers tend to go crazy and try out different metals and alloys. Let’s take a look at the different types of metals used in windings and how they affect your tone.
Nickel was once the most popular metal used in guitar string manufacturing. However, it can be confusing because it refers both to a metal and a plating. “Pure nickel” strings tend to have a warmth sought after by those who want a vintage tone. Regular old “nickel” strings actually use a steel winding that has been plated in nickel. The steel adds more of a trebley edge to the nickel and provides a nice, balanced tone. Nickel-plated steel is one of the most common windings used by guitar manufactures, as it doesn’t emphasize any particular frequency and plays nicely with all genres. In fact, the best-selling Ernie Ball Regular Slinky we showed at the top of the article is nickel-plated.
Steel is a great option for winding material due to its natural anti-corrosion properties. It’s bright and twangy, great for country and blues players. They’re also very high output thanks to steels strong ferromagnetic properties. A great example of steel strings is the Ernie Ball Stainless Steel Slinky.
The use of cobalt in string windings is fairly recent. Cobalt strings are high-output, clear, and more corrosion-resistant than comparable nickel-wound strings. These strings are great for hard rock and metal players who really love to push their amp into distortion. Ernie Ball Cobalts are among the most popular.
Chrome isn’t a super popular metal for guitar strings. It’s mostly found in strings meant for jazz and blues applications. Chrome is mellow and warm, so it’s not a great choice for heavier genres of music that need lots of clarity and note definition.
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.
You’ll know when you need to change your strings when they start to sound dull. This may not be immediately obvious if you don’t play that often, but you will eventually develop an ear for it.
If your strings are starting to rust or the winding is separating from the core, you need a new set of strings. Maybe you’re 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
Some guitarists are deathly afraid of changing their strings. It’s really not all that difficult! Check out this video from Fender that walks through the process step-by-step and removes all the stress from the process.
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!
In this article, we learned about the different types of strings and their uses. We learned about cores, winding, and the different materials a string can be made from. After watching the Fender string changing video, upgrading our strings is no longer a frightening experience and is something we can do ourselves! Remember, if you have trouble changing your strings, take your guitar to a well-reviewed local technician who will get your guitar playing like a dream.