Maybe the strings your electric guitar came with have finally started to fade. Maybe you are picking out your beginner electric guitar and want to choose the perfect strings for your style. Maybe one just snapped and needs to be replaced…
No matter your reason, it’s time for a crash course to the world of electric guitar strings.
It turns out that there is a number of materials, styles, and thicknesses to choose from, and if it is your first time buying, things can get confusing fast. Fortunately, with a little explanation buying strings can be a breeze.
Here’s what you need to know:
Magnetic Strings: Steel or Nickel
Electric guitars use sensors that need to “feel” the vibration of the string, which means the string needs to be magnetic. This is the main reason that electric guitar strings are made from different materials than other types of strings.
The classical nylon strings are definitely out. And while acoustic strings are made from bronze or brass, those metals do not have the proper magnetic properties you need.
When shopping, look for strings designed for electric guitars, which tend to be made from steel and nickel. Stainless steel strings have been a favorite of many famous players and are used throughout rock and metal genres.
One reason performers like them is their feel on the fingers – steel strings tend to be light and easy to play rapidly, without beating up your fingers. The longer sessions you want to play, the more attractive stainless steel strings become.
On the other hand, nickel strings are a great decision for electric guitar newcomers. The nickel-plating on these strings produces a very smooth, clear sound, which is excellent for spotting small mistakes or performing solos. Nickel strings also tend to be one of the cheapest options available – no small consideration.
Newer Coated Versions
Elixir, Ernie Ball, DR, and other manufacturers have been producing coated guitar strings for a couple of decades now. These strings are difficult to categorize: They have customized enamel and synthetic coatings over metal.
These coatings help to protect them from corrosion and deterioration due to oils, dust, and outright knocks against the doorframe. Sound also tends to be smooth with coated strings, but with so many different versions out on the market, quality could be difficult to trust and expenses tend to be high.
Get a good recommendation if you decide to spring for coated strings.
Winding? Wound? What Does It Mean?
Kind of like motor coils, every guitar string is actually made from thin wire wrapped around a sturdy core. When you see a “wound” description, that’s what it is referring to. Roundwound strings are probably your best bet, at least at first.
The wire is wound in spirals around the core in the simplest manner. On the plus side, they have strong volume and tone and are one of the cheapest options. On the downside, they also enhance mistakes and are less forgiving of finger-slips.
Your other primary option are flat or ribbonwound strings. These strings are far more forgiving, but do not sound as good. If you expect to be playing fast or doing a lot of improvisation (jazz and jamming sessions), these strings could be a better bet than roundwound.
Other strings, such as groundwound, play with more unique sounds suitable for particular types of playing, like background bass.
The Gauge Question
Gauge measures how thick guitar strings are. All strings are measured by the gauge of the first string, a shorthand that makes it easy to buy a whole package by the size of one string, knowing that all strings will follow in the proper order.
In general, lighter gauge string is good for fast playing and lead, while a heavier string is good for strong rhythm and heavy riffs/hard chords.
More specifically, 9 gauge (talking about diameter) is a very light string and 10 gauge is a bit heavier, and so on. You can also buy strings by rating – very light, light, medium-light, and so forth.
Justin Miller is a professional blogger that writes for Jamplay.com. JamPlay is a leading online music educator offering 2,000+ online guitar lesson videos in HD.