When Should You Change Your Guitar Strings?

When should you swap out your old guitar strings for a fresh set? And how can you optimise your guitar strings for your playing style? We've got this all covered.

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

Nothing feels quite as good on your fingers as a fresh set of guitar strings. But over time, both electric and acoustic strings oxidise in the open air, and build up sweat and dirt from your hands – regardless of whether you wash them beforehand every time (although this might help to slow the process).

There are two indications as to when you should swap out for a new set: when your guitar tone begins to lose top-end brightness, and when the strings fight against your fingers as you play. If either of these scenarios are true, replace your strings with the help of our guide ASAP and we guarantee you’ll feel and hear the difference.

Changing strings to suit your style

Let’s also address changing strings on a deeper level. A lot of guitarists stick to the same set, usually recommended when buying one of your first guitars. It wouldn’t be a surprise if many of you were still using the same brand, type or gauge you acclimatised to way back when you started.

That might be completely fine – but could there be better strings out there to suit your playing now? It’s time to try something new and take your sound and playing up a game. Here’s a brief synopsis of why you should change the type of strings you use:

  • Different string gauges help create a variety of sounds
  • Your current guitar strings don’t feel comfortable
  • You want to maintain appropriate string tension in alternate tunings
  • Your strings aren’t of the required quality

guitar strings

Guitar Strings for beginners

String preferences do 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 thicker counterparts. This makes the guitar easier to fret, bend and pick the strings, and put less stress on inexperienced fingers.

At this early stage, a consistent rule of thumb is to stick to packs of 8s or 9s from the likes of the Ernie Ball Slinky range. These aren’t too heavy on the fingertips or the wallet if you decide the guitar isn’t for you. Once you’re past this early stage of playing, the choices you make will follow closer to the style of music you like. Just as you would a guitar or amp, you’ll want to adjust your setup to suit a particular playing style when you’ve got all the basic techniques down. Strings play a massive role in the way your instrument sounds and reacts.

Picking a guitar string gauge

Manufacturers make different string 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 to get into the ballpark you want.

Guitar strings fall into four major groups: light, medium, heavy and hybrid sets. Check out our blog on string gauge to get a detailed breakdown on each type. Since you were most likely recommended thin strings at the beginning of your guitar journey, it’s worth experimenting with heavier gauges to get a more rounded idea of what works for you.

Rock and metal guitarists will definitely want to give heavier strings a go for their beefed-up 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 as you detune.

Some string packs swap out just a couple of specific gauges in order to suit alternate 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 tension lost when you tune those strings. A similar theory would apply if you’re using drop tunings.

Have you ever wanted three lighter top strings for super bendy solos and three lower strings for chunky riffage? Hybrid sets are the ones for you.

Changing guitar string brand

Guitar string makers specialise in different styles as any guitar builder 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 react better than others to the sweat from your hands, or that one brand 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 arguably the widest range of gauges. They’ve attracted hundreds of famous guitarists of all genres, in particular blues and rock players. If you like a bass-heavy thick tone and decent bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with Ernie Ball.

fender guitar strings

D’addario are a forward-thinking brand for modern players. Their NYXL strings are the industry standard for metal guitarists, as they sound brighter than Slinkys without changing too much in the way of materials. If you’re finding that your strings don’t feel fresh for as long as you like, you’ll want to check out the XT coated series. They’re covered in a thin treated coating that resist oxidisation longer than the average string. The high carbon steel core and fusion twisted ball ends also allowing them to hold firm tuning stability and are nigh-on unbreakable.

Last but not least are Elixir. They were one of the first to master string coating. These strings come in at a higher price than the previous two manufacturers’ but offer arguably the longest playing freshness. Elixir make three types of electric guitar string variations, all covered in a thin patented substance to keep them feeling great 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 stay consistent with your guitar 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.

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Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big prog/modern metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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