When you popped down the local guitar shop as a beginner guitarist to buy your first set of new strings, it’s likely you were recommended a specific pack to set you off in the right direction. It wouldn’t be a surprise if many of you were still using the same type of strings today.
That’s completely fine – you know what to expect when you get used to the same set. But it might be time to try out a new brand or gauge to take both your sound and playing to the next level. Here’s a very brief synopsis of why you’d change the type of strings you use:
- Different string gauges can help create specific sounds
- Your current guitar strings don’t feel comfortable
- You want to maintain steady string tension in alternate tunings
- Your strings aren’t of the required quality
Experiment with Strings as You Progress
Your string preferences naturally change over time as you become a more proficient guitarist. Thin gauge strings tend to be the popular choice for beginners because they hold a lower amount of tension across the fretboard than their thicker counterparts. This makes it easier to fret, bend and pick the strings, putting less stress on inexperienced hands.
At this early stage, you should opt for packs of 8s or 9s from the likes of the Ernie Ball Slinky range, which aren’t too heavy on either the fingers or the wallet if you decide the guitar isn’t for you. The choices you make here on in are closer suited to the style of music you play.
Just as you would a guitar or amp, you’ll want to gear your setup towards a playing style when you have a few notches in your guitar belt. Strings play a massive role in the way your instrument sounds and how it feels to play during a performance.
Why Change String Gauge?
String manufacturers make different gauges to suit certain tunings and genres. That isn’t to say you can’t play heavy metal with thin nickel strings, for example. But it is worth relying on the tried and tested combinations for guidance.
There are four general string groupings: light, medium, heavy and hybrid sets. Check out our blog on string gauge to get a detailed breakdown of each type. Since you were most likely recommended thin strings at the beginning of your guitar journey, it could be worth experimenting with heavier sets to expand your knowledge.
Rock and metal guitarists will definitely want to give heavier strings a go for their beefy tone and tight feel. Players who use half-step, whole-step or more extreme tunings will feel right at home, as thicker strings deal with the lowered tension better than your standard 9s.
Some string packs swap out just a couple of gauges in order to suit specific tunings. Say you’re playing in an open tuning; you’ll want your first, fifth and sixth strings to be heavier than usual to maintain firm tension which is lost when you downtune. A similar theory would apply if you’re using drop tunings.
Hybrid sets also deal with the conundrum combining the qualities of higher pitch light strings for solos and lower, thick strings for riffing action.
Why Change String Brand?
Guitar string manufacturers specialise in different styles as any guitar company would. There are three main string specifications which differ from brand to brand: gauge, material and winding technique. Most big names such as Ernie Ball, D’addario and Elixir cover all bases. But even then, particular groups of guitarists gravitate towards one of the three because of their association with a certain sound or playing style.
This step in your buying decision comes mainly down to preference. You might find some strings don’t react well to the sweat from your hands, or one of the brands makes their strings out of a material that suits the tone you’re after. You’re only going to find the best ones for you by playing them!
Ernie Ball are no doubt the biggest name in the business. They’re famous for their Slinky series, which are made of a steel core and round wound in nickel. This provides them with an earthy, smooth feel. Ernie Ball also has the widest range of gauges, too. They’ve attracted hundreds of famous guitarists of all genres, but in particular blues and rock players. If you like a bassy tone and decent back for your buck, you can’t go wrong with Ernie ball.
D’addario are a forward-thinking company for modern players. The NYXL range sounds brighter than Slinkys without changing too much in the way of materials. But the XL Prosteels, however, completely come into their own. These are made of steel from top to core. They produce super bright characteristics, which would suit anyone after a punchy midrange tone.
Last but not least are Elixir. These strings come in at a higher price than the previous two manufacturers’ but offer arguably the highest quality. Elixir make three types of electric guitar string variations, all covered in a thin patented substance to keep them fresher for longer. Hopefully, you won’t be paying for new packs on the regular.
What are the best Guitar Strings?
The best guitar strings will be the ones that feel completely natural to you. They should match in accordance with the tone you’ve dialled into your amp, and be consistent with your guitar’s tuning. Once you’ve got those two pointers wrapped up, how you guitar strings feel is all down to you.
Ernie Ball make so many types of strings that you could try out a few from their range alone and they could last you a year or more. But if you want to take a step up in quality, D’addario and Elixir are the way to go. Just make sure you tune and intonate your guitar when you switch between the gauges and you’ll be good to go.