Selecting the best acoustic guitar string may seem a rather daunting task. What material should you use, what gauge to select, which manufacturer?
So first things first. What kind of acoustic guitar do you have? Is it a classic guitar or a Western acoustic? If you have a classic acoustic guitar, then you’ll want to use nylon strings. Nylon strings are larger in diameter but under less tension. If what you have is a Western acoustic, then steel strings are the way to go. For structural reasons, you should not put nylon strings on a steel string guitar or steel strings on a classic acoustic.
A word to the wise: Typically, the treble strings of classic acoustic guitars are nylon while the lower-pitched strings are made of nylon fiber that is wound with metal thread. Because of the metal winding, the bass strings may look like steel strings, but they’re not. Do not make the mistake of asking for steel strings for your classic acoustic guitar.
Nylon strings are softer on the fingers and are more conducive to alternate guitar tunings. Jazz and classical guitarists typically use nylon strings. Many folk guitarists prefer ball end nylon strings as these are heavier than the regular nylon strings and lend themselves more to a strumming style of playing.
If using steel strings, a primary factor to consider is what gauge to use. Gauge refers to a string’s thickness or diameter. The higher the gauge, the thicker the string. Gauge affects tone of your guitar and playability. Each gauge has its advantages and disadvantages.
High gauge strings apply more tension to the guitar, making it more difficult for the guitarist to depress. The trade-off, though, is a louder, richer, and more focused sound. Higher tension strings vibrate in a smaller arc, allowing the strings to be adjusted closer to the fretboard. They hold their notes better. A disadvantage of high-gauge strings is that they put a lot of stress on the guitar’s body and neck.
Light-gauge strings are easier to depress and create much less tension for the guitar. They are also easier to tune up or down which is a good thing because they tend to fall out of tune faster than the thicker strings. It is easier to form chords and to bend notes on light gauge strings, so guitarists who like to play fast music prefer lighter gauges. However, thinner strings produce a thinner sound, and they tend to break more easily. Most factory acoustic guitars come with light gauge strings.
Medium gauge strings are, to many, a good compromise. They put less stress on the guitar, provide enough volume and fullness, and yet allow for good finger maneuverability.
Acoustic guitar gauges range from extra super light, super light, regular light, regular light with heavy bass, medium, medium with wound G string, heavy, and extra heavy. If you’re new to guitar playing, you may want to start out with the lighter, thinner strings so that you can concentrate on your guitar fingering. It’s also easier on your fingers. As you progress and your fingers toughen, you can move up to a higher gauge and work on sound quality. Many professional musicians work with light gauges of between 12 -54 because these strings provide higher tuning stability and are easy to work with.
After gauge, you will have to consider the type of steel string to use. There are three common types, each with its own sound and durability: Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, and Silk and Steel. Bronze is the most common. It has the clearest and brightest sound when new. However, its bright sound quality fades rather quickly so, if you want to keep that quality, you’ll find yourself changing strings more often. But if you like the mellower sound that is produced after a day or two, then you’re in luck. Bronze strings are good for recording and combo work. Phosphor Bronze, made of two alloys for greater strength, has a warmer sound which lasts for a longer time. Silk and Steel, which is steel-centered and plated with nylon and silver, has a softer, more “classical guitar” tone than the other two. It is not as durable as the other two.
Aside from these, there are all types of specialty strings designed to improve sound, endurance, and playability.
As to the best brands of acoustic guitar strings, there’s Martin, D’Addario, and Ernie Ball, to name some of the best.
The good thing is that guitar strings don’t cost a great lot of money. So try out different brands, gauges, and materials. Let your fingers and ears be the judge as to which acoustic guitar strings work best for you.