Finding the best electric guitar strings for you can make an incredible difference in your sound. Many new guitarists will take the time to choose a guitar with the right tonewoods and pickups, but then keep playing with whatever stick strings the guitar has. Knowing what types of electric guitar strings are out there can help you choose a type that's more suited to your playing style.
Before you settle on a brand, perhaps the most important part of buying a set of strings is choosing the right gauge for you. The gauge refers to the size of each string. Lighter gauge strings will generally have a sound that is less full, but these strings are often easier to bend and fret, since they place less tension on the neck.
You may have heard another guitarist say they have "10s" or "9s" on their guitar. This is shorthand for two of the most popular string gauges for electric guitarists. "10s" are sets of strings ranging from 0.010-0.046 gauge. The high E string is a 0.010 gauge, and the strings gradually increase in size to the low E at 0.046. And these gauges are the most popular for good reason--a set of 0.010 gauge strings balances tone and playability.
However, if you want more freedom to bend notes or prefer a guitar with very low action (prefer having the strings very close to the neck), then a set of strings ranging from 0.009-0.042 gauge may be for you. These strings cause less stress on your hands over time, as they exert less tension. They also have a slightly brighter sound.
Generally speaking, a larger/heavier gauge string will have a sound that is somewhat darker than a lighter gauge. This is where a set of 0.011-0.048 strings comes in. These strings support harder playing and tend to have less risk of fret buzz. In most sets of 11s, you can choose whether you want the third string (the G) to be flat like the B and high E, or wound like the top electric guitar strings. This probably seems like a small difference, but even this simple change can significantly impact your tone. A wound third string will darken the character of your guitar's tone, but a flat one will brighten it.
Many manufacturers also have custom gauge options, where individual string gauges will vary slightly from your typical set of 9s, 10s, or 11s. Custom-gauge strings are something I prefer playing with, because they give me more control over the soundscapes I create. You can even find sets of strings with a skinny top/heavy bottom winding. This creates a totally different tonal character.
Most strings for electric guitar are round-wound--this means that a metal winding is created around a metal core, making the string cylindrical. However, you also can purchase flat-wound strings. While these strings also have a core and an outer winding, they are wound to be almost completely flat. You may have heard these referred to as "jazz strings," but you can use them for several other types of music. Flatwounds won't cause the signature noise that a round-wound creates when you scrape it with a pick or your fingernail. They also limit sustain and overtones, and many have the kind of "thumpy" sound you hear on jazz guitars.
You may occasionally see strings that are "half-round" or "ground-wound." These strings are designed to be a hybrid between flat-wound and round-wound strings. If you like the characteristic sound of flat-wound strings but need a little more resonance, a half-round might be a good choice.
While the sheer volume of electric guitar string options might be overwhelming to the new guitarist, having plenty to choose from means that you'll have seemingly endless ways to experiment with your own unique tone. All guitar strings have a core of steel, nickel, or another conductive metal. This is a must since a guitar's pickups need to register the string vibration in order to create sound.
The cores of most strings are similar, but it's the outside winding that really sets your tone apart. Here are some of the common string winding materials and what they mean for tone:
You also can find polymer-coated strings that are corrosion-resistant. While a set of corrosion-resistant strings means you'll have to replace them less often, it also deadens your tone a little. If you want an eye-catching set of strings, many manufacturers now make multicolored string options, too.
Now, we'll look at some popular strings for electric guitar and the pros and cons of each type. We'll look at 11 types of guitar strings in total:
Gibson is one of the world's premier guitar manufacturers, and their vintage reissue series brings back pure nickel winding for a warm tone. The nickel is wound over a core of Swedish steel, so you'll still have excellent string strength and pickup response. Plus, you can choose light, medium light, or ultra-light strings depending on desired brightness and ease of playability. This range covers just about every popular electric guitar string gauge, as ultra-lights start with a 0.009 gauge, lights start with a 0.010, and medium lights start with an 0.011. Plus, Gibson rigorously tests all strings for strength and quality, so you'll know you're getting a quality product.
For the Les Paul devotee or just for those who appreciate innovation in string design, Gibson's Les Paul Premium strings offer tone developed by Les Paul himself. Like Gibson's Vintage reissue, these strings are wound with pure nickel, so you'll still get a warm, vintage sound. These strings also have silk-wrapped ends, which helps cut down on ambient noise. If you're someone who plays with a lot of effects, or who otherwise values keeping extraneous noise down, this is a very useful feature. These strings come in traditional light and ultra-light gauges, but they also include a signature gauge with heavier low-end strings. This helps increase resonance and create overtones.
As another respected player in the guitar strings game, D'Addario offers strings in both classic and custom gauges. The EXP125 is part of a series including both light-gauge strings and hybrid gauge. This gauge involves a super light high end and a regular bottom end, offering you plenty of flexibility. With a 0.009-gauge high E and a 0.046-gauge low E, you can string bend higher notes to your heart's content while also creating overtones with the richly expanded low end. Nickel-plated steel winding gives a little more brightness and corrosion resistance than an all-nickel winding.
In the case of Elixir strings, the name actually means something--an elixir extends life, and these strings are coated with a life-extending polymer coating called Polyweb. Of course, polymer isn't for everyone, as it often has a dampening affect on the tone of the guitar. However, Polyweb makes the strings feel slick and fast, which is ideal for quick note and chord changes. It also extends the life of the strings, since uncoated strings will collect skin oils and debris more easily. And it isn't just the round strings that are corrosion resistant. Elixir also coats the plain steel strings with anti-rust plating to ensure longer string life.
Ernie Ball is known for creating stunning artist signature guitars, and that spirit of innovation is also seen in Ernie Ball strings. This company offers strings in a range of gauges and materials. Whether you're playing neo-folk or death metal, you're likely to find a set that suits you. In particular, the Ernie Ball Regular Slinky offers the bright and warm nickel-plated steel sound to those who want to get away from the commonly seem light and ultra-light gauges. The custom gauges were designed with balance in mind: each string was designed to balance playability and pickup response, resulting in a smooth and effortless sound.
This is a unique set of strings, as it's designed for an eight-string electric guitar. Despite the difference in number of strings, though, these light-gauge strings have many of the features that Elixir devotees have come to love. They also come with the updated Nanoweb coating. This coating, the successor to Elixir's Polyweb coating, is designed to more closely mimic the sound of uncoated strings. This type of coating may make the transition from uncoated to coated strings a little easier. Plus, the combination of nickel-plated steel and Nanoweb makes strings especially corrosion-resistant. After all, changing the strings on an eight-string guitar is likely to be time-consuming, so adding life to your set of strings is very helpful in this market.
GHS is especially well known for their incredibly resonant phosphor bronze acoustic guitar strings. (These are what I started using when I wanted to improve my guitar tone.) However, GHS has also taken their incredible string technology and translated it to the electric guitar. If you play a genre where you need a combination of a powerful attack and brilliant tone, these strings are a great choice. They also come in resealable packs, so you can protect them from air corrosion until you're ready to put them on your guitar. These strings are nickel-plated for added warmth. And unlike most string manufacturers, GHS uses a round core steel wire as opposed to a more traditional hex core. This is part of what gives these strings their powerful sound. If their tone is the one you're looking for, these strings have the potential to take your playing in a whole new direction.
Ernie Ball's "slinky" strings are designed to be durable while still going easy on your fingers. And while the Regular Slinky is more suited to those who try to avoid extra lightweight strings, the Super Slinky is great for those who want an ultra-lightweight string. Even the Super Slinky low end is light compared to many traditional-gauge sets of strings--it ends with a 0.042 low E, while many electric sets of strings have a 0.046-gauge low E. Both the core of the wound strings and the entirety of the unwound strings are made of a tin-plated hex steel wire. This improves durability, but it also creates a balanced tone and is optimal for great conduction.
While lots of guitar players see the warmth of a nickel-plated string as a good thing, some players need strings that have a crisp and powerful attack. And while many of Gibson's string offerings (including the ones discussed earlier in this article) lean towards a muted, vintage sound, Brite Wires are geared toward players who want a modern sound with some bite. However, these strings aren't necessarily for everyone--some players who have become accustomed to playing pure nickel-wound strings may not like the crisp attack of these strings. But if you want to play lead guitar, rock, punk, or any type of music where you need some bite, these strings might be the right choice for you.
If you're new to electric guitar and aren't sure what type of strings will best suit your musical style the EXL110-B25 set from D'Addario may just be your answer. As the brand's top-selling set, this set of strings has been used across countless musical genres. Its components support use across a range of genres as well--nickel-plated steel combines bite and warmth, and the steel hex core supports perfect intonation and dynamic playing. Plus, with a 0.010-gauge high E string, you have more tonal versatility than most ultra-light string sets can give you.
While it's true that polymer-coated strings often are looked down on, some guitarists prefer their smoother, easy-playing feel. Polymer coatings like Elixir's Nanoweb also offer players a kind of hybrid experience. Particularly if you play fingerstyle electric or are just concerned with excess pick noise, a coated string allows you to continue to play round-wound strings without all of the finger/pick noise that round-wounds often give you. Thus, you get some of the benefits of a flat-wound, but with most of the sustain of a round-wound. Elixir's combination of light gauge strings plus the Nanoweb coating make these a good potential choice for beginner guitarists, too. Especially when you're starting out, light gauge strings are often easier to fret correctly, and they cause less hand fatigue. And when you add the Nanoweb coating, you get strings that are more comfortable to play and longer-lasting.
It's impossible to look at a list of guitar strings and declare that one is the best for any guitarist. Depending on your experience level, your desired tone, and other factors, one particular brand might be a better choice for you. However, to decide a winner of this particular roundup, we'll consider quality, versatility, and value. In this particular roundup, our favourite is Ernie Ball 2221 Nickel Regular Slinky guitar strings. One of the great advantages of the Slinky series of strings is that they're made for comfortable, effortless playing, but they decrease hand stress without adding a sound-dampening polymer coating.
The Regular Slinky is also a great choice due to the set's versatility. With slightly heavier gauges than light and ultra-light sets, these strings have a better pickup response. Nickel-plated steel also creates a very balanced tone with a mixture of warmth and crispness. This tonal balance is also especially helpful if you're a beginner. If you find you prefer a warmer or crisper tone, your next set of strings can help you change it. The important thing is to think about what factors you want in a set of guitar strings, and then find the closest candidate. After all, an improved tone is only a string change away.
Hi, David Lahav Here. I'm Sound Out Media Founder and a BIG music gadgets geek. I love everything from futuristic music instruments to the silliest pig-shaped headphones. Welcome to my world!