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A Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Strings

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As a novice guitarist, you may have balked at the rows and rows of different types of guitar strings offered at the music store. If this is the first time you are restringing your guitar, how do you know which ones to choose? It’s not as scary as it may look, once you know what you’re looking for.

The type of guitar you choose to play is the biggest factor in determining the type of string you will need. Acoustic guitars must use strings that provide significant volume and rich sound on their own, while electric guitar strings are not as dependent on volume as their sound will be amplified by the pickup.

acoustic guitar strings

Acoustic guitar strings
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Basic types

There are two basic types of guitar strings. The first type is plain, meaning each string is composed of only one material. Typical materials are gut, nylon, or steel.

Classical guitars traditionally use gut strings, which are made of – you guessed it – animal intestine. You may have heard the term “catgut,” but these strings are generally made from sheep or cattle, not cats. While some classical guitarists may still prefer the warm sound of gut strings, these strings are organic, and therefore do break easily and must be tuned more frequently. For that reason, nylon strings have largely replaced the use of gut strings.

classical guitar nylon strings

Classical guitar nylon strings

The second type of guitar string is the wound string. These types of strings are constructed using a core material that is wound tightly by another material. For instance, the modern version of gut strings are wrapped in metal to stave off the breakage.

Both acoustic and electric guitars may employ steel strings. These strings have a steel core and may be wound with nickel, copper, or bronze. Higher-end steel strings may be coated with a protective polymer to stave off corrosion that is caused by the sweat and chemicals of a player’s fingers.

Sound quality

While the type of guitar you play greatly affects the sound, the type of strings you use on it also add to the overall sound quality. One thing to consider is the shape of wound strings.

Wound strings come in several varieties, each with its own sound qualities. The most striking difference is that between a round and a flat wound string. The most common is the round wound, which has the clearest and brightest tone with a better sustain (length of time the note sounds). Flat wound offers a smoother surface, which cuts down on finger noise as you play.

Of course, the material from which the strings are constructed will vary the sound, too. While pure nickel strings have a smooth, warm sound, they do not have as much volume as nickel plated. Nickel plated strings are the most common for electric guitars as they offer a brighter sound with a longer sustain. Stainless Steel strings also produce a bright sound and may have the longest sustain of any other material – but, while they are resistant to corrosion, they are very hard and tend to cause rapid fret wear.

Bronze strings give a crisp or brighter sound, but the quality is fleeting. Depending on the type of music you play, you may want the fade-in sound that they produce. Phosphor bronze strings have a warmer and deeper sound that does not fade as much.

These are the most common examples of materials. Another consideration for sound quality is the gauge of your strings.

Gauges

he gauge of a string means the diameter – or size around – the string. The number you see for gauge usually means thousands of an inch (though metric is used, as well, depending on where the strings were manufactured). When you purchase six strings for your guitar, each string will have a different gauge.

Depending on the packaging, you will choose your set based on the first string – though some are listed by first and last or by the gauge of each string in the set.

The lighter gauges (.008-.046) tend to be easier to play because they do not require as much pressure to hold them. Unfortunately, these lighter strings mean much softer volume and shorter sustain.

Heavier gauges (.012-.056) require significantly more tension to tune, which means they will need more pressure to hold down. For some, this makes them more difficult to play – but these strings do produce a clearer, louder sound.

If you choose to change the gauge of stings on your guitar, you may hear some buzzing when you play. This is from the strings hitting the fret as they vibrate. You may be able to adjust the truss to correct this. If that doesn’t work, you may have to replace your frets. If you do not want to replace your frets, you may have to rethink your strings and go back to a heavier gauge.

Take your time

It’s worth your time to learn as much as you can about the different materials, shapes, and gauges of stings that are available for your type of guitar. As a beginner, you may want to stick to the type that your guitar was fitted with originally to avoid any issues later. Once you are more familiar with the ins and outs of your instrument and its components, you may enjoy experimenting with different varieties of guitar strings.

Phone Glenn Sutton at: 619-306-3664 or email: guitarman.glenn@gmail.com

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