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How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar

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The strings on your acoustic steel string or classical guitar have a major impact on its sound and playability. If you’ve taken a look at Musician’s Friends huge assortment of guitar strings, you’ve likely realized that there’s a lot to consider in figuring out which strings are right for you and your instrument. We’ve written this guide with the details you need to find the strings that best match your guitar and playing style.

Acoustic Strings

Whether you play a steel-string acoustic or nylon-strung classical guitar, you'll find a huge assortment of strings to choose from at Musician's Friend.

Table of Contents

Acoustic Guitar Strings
Acoustic vs. Classical Guitars
All About String Gauges
Acoustic Guitar Steel Strings
Acoustic-Electric Guitars—Do I Need Different Strings?
Classical Guitar Nylon Strings
Signs That it’s Time for a String Change
How Often Should Strings be Changed?
Some Other String Tips

Acoustic Guitar Strings

Because there are no pickups or amplifiers that contribute to the sound of acoustic guitars, strings have a relatively bigger impact on their overall sound. Thus the composition and gauge of acoustic strings should be carefully considered. The acoustic guitar’s body type is also an important factor.

Acoustic vs. Classical Guitars

The first basic distinction to make is the difference between classical and flamenco guitars fitted with nylon strings versus steel string acoustics—the type associated with rock, folk, country, and blues. In most cases their strings are not interchangeable. Using steel strings on a guitar built for use with nylon strings can seriously damage it. The neck construction and top bracing of classical and flamenco guitars are not designed to handle the far greater tension produced by steel strings. Using the wrong strings can also damage the bridge and saddles.

Acoustic & Classical Guitar

Read on for helpful advice about choosing the right strings for acoustic or classical guitar.

All About String Gauges

Before we dive into the specific characteristics of various types of acoustic and classical guitar strings, let’s address the question of gauges since it applies to both types. Strings are manufactured in a range of thicknesses or gauges. These gauges are designated in thousandths of an inch. The lightest strings are typically an .010 and the heaviest a .059. String gauge has a big influence on playability and sound.

Note that classical guitar strings are also designated according to their tension. We will discuss the effect of tension on classical guitar playability and performance below.

Lighter gauge strings:

  • are generally easier to play
  • allow easier bending of notes and fretting
  • break more easily
  • produce less volume and sustain
  • are prone to cause fret buzzing, especially on guitars with low action
  • exert less tension on the guitar neck and are a safe choice for vintage guitars

Heavier gauge strings:

  • are generally harder to play
  • require more finger pressure to fret and bend notes
  • produce more volume and sustain
  • exert more tension on the guitar neck

Light Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Guitar Strings

A set of Light Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Guitar Strings have gauges that range between .012-.053 and a special polymer coating that greatly extends their life while producing bright, punchy tone.

Acoustic Guitar String Set Gauge Designations

Most acoustic guitar string manufacturers identify the string gauges in a set using terms such as “extra light” or “heavy.” While the exact gauges may vary slightly among manufacturers, here are typical gauge ranges for acoustic and electric guitar string sets:

Acoustic Guitar String Set Gauges

  • “extra light": .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
  • "custom light": .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
  • "light": .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
  • "medium": .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
  • "heavy": .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

Acoustic Guitar Steel Strings

Acoustic Guitar Steel String Gauges

In deciding what string gauges to use, consider the following factors:

Body Style: A general rule of thumb is to string smaller-bodied acoustics with lighter gauges, larger bodied instruments with heavier gauges. A big dreadnought or jumbo will generally sound better with medium-gauge strings that take fuller advantage of their relatively larger sound chambers. Smaller grand auditorium and parlor guitars will sound better with lighter gauges.

Playing Style: Fingerpicking styles are much easier to play with lighter-gauge strings. If most of your playing involves hard strumming, medium-gauge strings will likely be a better choice, though they may prove a little more challenging to new players’ fingers. If your playing is a mix of strumming and fingerpicking, a light-medium string set may be a good choice. These sets have heavier gauges on the bottom three strings, lighter gauges on the top three.

Desired Tone: As you’ve probably figured out by now, heavier-gauge strings will accentuate your guitar’s bass register producing the deep and strong tones that dreadnoughts are prized for. On the other hand, lighter gauges will provide more emphasis to treble notes and can help bring out subtle picking and strumming techniques.

Instrument Age and Condition: Vintage guitars are often frail, and the greater tension of heavier strings can cause necks to bow and shift and bridges to lift. If you’re not sure how heavy a gauge is safe for your guitar, consult the manufacturer, or in the case of vintage instruments, talk to a trusted guitar tech or luthier.

D'Addario Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings

Perennial bestsellers at Musician’s Friend, D'Addario Phosphor Bronze strings get great reviews for both their tone and playability.

Acoustic Guitar String Construction Materials

Here are the sound characteristics of the most popular string types:

  • Bronze: They have clear, ringing and bright tone, but age quickly due to bronze’s tendency to oxidize.
  • Phosphor Bronze: Warmer and darker than bronze, their sound is still quite crisp and the phosphor in the alloy extends their life.
  • Brass: They have a bright, jangling, metallic character.
  • Polymer-coated: Less sustain and brightness than equivalent uncoated strings with good presence and warmth; corrosion-resistant. Some include colorants for visual appeal.
  • Silk and Steel: These steel core strings have silk, nylon, or copper wrap wire on the lower strings producing a softer touch and delicate tone. Popular with folk guitarists and fingerstyle players.

GHS Silk and Steel Acoustic Strings

GHS Silk and Steel strings have silver-plated copper wrap on a core of silk and steel that produces a mellow tone and is easy on the fingers.

String makers such as Martin and Markley produce phosphor bronze strings with different alloy compositions often designated with names such as 80/20 Bronze and 92/8 Bronze.

Dean Markley VintageBronze Acoustic Strings

Markley VintageBronze strings balance warmth with clarity for excellent response and note definition.

Other acoustic string variations include those with silk wraps on the ball ends of the strings that reduce wear and tear on the guitars bridge,end plate, saddle and pins.

Martin Lifespan SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings

Martin equips many of its acoustics with Lifespan SP Phosphor Bronze strings that have Cleartone coating for longevity and an alloy that’s slightly warmer than 80/20 phosphor bronze.

 

John LeVan of D’Addario Strings demonstrates how to restring an acoustic guitar.

Acoustic-Electric Guitars—Do I Need Different Strings?

Most acoustic-electric guitars including a few nylon-string models are equipped with under-saddle piezo pickups. String vibrations are converted to an electrical signal with a small on-board preamp. Since piezo-based systems are non-magnetic, string materials may have less impact on your sound and ordinary acoustic guitar or classical guitar strings will work well. A few manufacturers produce strings expressly designed for acoustic-electric guitars, and you may want to compare their performance to standard strings.

In the case of acoustic-electric guitars equipped with both piezo and microphone or magnetic pickups, as well as acoustics with soundhole-mounted magnetic pickups, follow the string recommendations of the guitar and/or pickup manufacturer.

Classical Guitar Nylon Strings

Nylon String Characteristics

Nylon string guitars are generally used to play classical, flamenco, bossa nova, and folk music. That said, their softer, mellower tone and excellent touch response has been used to good effect by all kinds of guitarists including jazz and country players—Willie Nelson being a prime example.

Some new players choose nylon string guitars in the belief they will be easier on their fingers. Due to their softer material and lower tension, that is generally true. However, all new players experience some tenderness in their fingertips regardless of the guitar they choose. Provided the guitar’s action is properly adjusted for optimal playability, the new player should soon develop enough calluses so that tenderness is no longer an issue. A nylon string guitar should be selected on the basis of your musical interests, not because of initial ease of play.

Because nylon strings tend to stretch more than steel strings, they require more frequent tuning, especially when newly installed. They are also more sensitive to atmospheric changes caused by humidity and temperature.

Classical Guitar String Tension Designations

While classical guitar strings are sold in sets with specified gauges, they are also marketed according to each set’s tension ratings. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut standard for these ratings, so a certain amount of experimentation among different string brands may be necessary to find what works for you. Complicating matters further, some packaged string sets mix and match tensions among the strings while only listing a single tension designation on the package. Here are the more common designations and their characteristics:

Low Tension (also sometimes called Moderate or Light Tension)

  • Easier fretting, especially on guitars with a higher action
  • Less volume and projection
  • Less pronounced attack with more note “body”
  • Best for smooth legato techniques
  • Greater tendency to cause buzzing on frets

Normal Tension (also sometimes called Medium Tension)

  • Usually strikes a balance between the characteristics of Low and High Tension strings

High Tension (also sometimes called Hard or Strong Tension)

  • More difficult fretting, especially on guitars with high action
  • More volume and projection
  • More pronounced attack with less note “body”
  • Best for strong rhythmic playing
  • May cause issues with necks, bridges, and top bracing on fragile instruments

Some string makers also offer extra-light and extra-hard tension strings as well as middling sets with designations such as medium-hard. One recommended way to find the tension that’s right for your playing style and guitar is to first zero in on your preferred brand and wound string material. After those factors are established, try a set of each tension available in that string set to determine which works best with your ears and fingers.

It’s considered a good practice when using strings with higher tensions to detune the guitar after playing to reduce the possibility of damage caused by sustained tension.

Savarez Corum New Cristal Classical Guitar Strings

This Savarez Corum New Cristal classical guitar string set has high-tension basses and standard-tension trebles for an optimized tonal balance.

Tension is a cause for much debate among classical guitarists. As with string gauges and wound string materials and techniques, there is no pat answer. Experimentation is the key to finding what works best. But if you want to explore tension in greater depth, and learn how to calculate the tension of a given string, D’Addario Strings has a very useful PDF here.

Nylon String Materials

It should first be pointed out that calling them “nylon” strings is a bit misleading. As noted below, there are several different materials that go into what more properly could be called classical guitar strings. You’ll also notice that the bass strings are constructed differently from the trebles.

Until the 1940s, classical guitar strings were made using the intestines of cows or sheep. The treble strings were made from plain gut while the three bass strings had a silk thread core wound with a gut wrap.

Modern classical, folk, and flamenco guitars use plain nylon, fluorocarbon, or other synthetic filaments on the treble strings (G,B, high E) and multi-filament nylon cores wrapped with various metals or nylon windings on the bass strings (E, A, D).

D'Addario Pro-Arte Classical Guitar Strings

These Pro-Arte Classical Guitar Strings from D’Addario with 80/20 bronze wound on basses and clear nylon trebles get high marks for their consistency.

Classical Treble String Materials and Tonal Characteristics

Clear Nylon: Most popular, they’re made of clear nylon monofilament in note-specific gauges and known for their richness and clarity.

Rectified Nylon: Also made of clear nylon, they are then precision-ground to create a very consistent diameter along the string’s entire length. They have a mellower, rounder tone than clear nylon.

Black Nylon: Made from a different nylon composition, they produce a warmer, purer sound with more treble overtones. Popular with folk guitarists.

Titanium: Brighter than traditional nylon with a smooth feel. Often used on guitars with darker voices.

Composite: Made with a multi-filament composite, they have pronounced brightness and strong projection. They’re popular for use as G strings offering a smooth transition in volume between bass and treble strings.

Augustine Gold Label Classical Guitar Strings

From the company that first introduced nylon strings, Augustine Gold Label classical guitar strings have crisp treble response and mellow bass tone.

Classical Bass String Materials and Tonal Characteristics

Classical guitar bass strings have multi-filament nylon cores and are wrapped with a variety of metal winding materials. The most common winding materials are:

80/20 Bronze: Made of 80% copper and 20% zinc, it is sometimes referred to as brass. This alloy has pronounced brilliance and projection. Some manufacturers call them “gold” strings.

Silver-Plated Copper: The silver plating offers a very smooth feel while the copper produces warm tone. Some manufacturers refer to them as “silver” strings.

Roundwound strings are by far the most popular and common winding method found on classical guitar bass strings. Some manufacturers polish roundwound strings to flatten the top of the winding, resulting in a smoother feel and less finger noise.

Most classical guitar strings have straight ends and are designed to be tied on to classical guitar bridges. A few nylon strings have ball ends that are preferred by some folk guitarists. Unless ball ends are specified, you can assume classical strings have tie-ends.

Ernesto Palla Strings from Ernie Ball

For those who prefer easy-to-change ball-end strings, these Ernesto Palla Strings from Ernie Ball fill the bill nicely.

 

John LeVan of D’Addario Strings demonstrates how to restring a classical guitar.

Signs That it’s Time for a String Change

  • Getting in tune and staying there is more challenging than usual.
  • You’re seeing rust or discoloration on the strings.
  • String wraps are unwinding exposing the core.
  • Your tone sounds “flat” or “dead.”
  • You can’t remember the last time you changed strings.

How Often Should Strings be Changed?

There is no stock answer, but here are some factors that shorten the life of your strings:

  • You sweat a lot when playing; your perspiration is acidic.
  • You play aggressively with a lot of bending and/or hard picking.
  • You play frequently.
  • You change tunings frequently.
  • You smoke or play in smoky environments.

Some Other String Tips

  • Keep a clean cloth handy and wipe down your strings after every playing session to prolong their life.
  • Washing your hands before playing will help prevent string oxidation.
  • Invest in a string winder; they’re inexpensive and speed up string changes.
  • Note the date you changed strings on the package, then put it in your case to keep track of the age and type of strings you’re using.
  • Buying single strings in bulk can be a smart, budget friendly move, especially where light gauge strings you tend to break more frequently are concerned.
  • Keep an extra set and a few high-register single strings in your case for emergency changes you or a bandmate may need.

After reading this guide, if you’re still unsure which strings are right for you, we invite you to call our friendly, knowledgeable Gear Heads at (800) 449-9128.

Learn more with Musician’s Friend’s expert Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide.

Tags: Acoustic Guitars Strings Guitar Accessories & Parts Guitar Repair & Maintenance Classical & Nylon Guitars

Comments  

# jerry orvis 2014-03-31 02:28
I'd like to see musicians gear offer an 80/20 bronze acoustic string in the 10 or 11, like the current 12 &13.
Reply
# jeff butler 2014-03-30 00:39
The latest thing is Aluminum Bronze man. They play great. Get with it....
Reply
# rob charlebois 2014-11-02 15:58
I find elixer to be the best with light guage or medium light.
Reply

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