We’re going to take a look at Acoustic guitar strings first. There are a few things to consider when choosing strings – the gauge (fancy word for thickness) the material (bronze etc.) the brand. I would also suggest that the level your playing is at will have some bearing on your choice but let’s start with gauge. So this is how thick the strings are and traditionally is measured in inches as most guitar strings are manufactured in USA and they haven’t followed Europe down the metric route. Why is this important, well when you’re buying strings normally we ask for the set by the thickness of the first string. For example if I want a medium set of strings I would ask for 13s because the first string is .013 inches thick. I could just ask for a set of medium strings but the word ‘medium’ can have different connotations to different people. In the world of the acoustic guitar medium strings are about as thick as most people will go so it doesn’t really tie in with the more usual idea that medium might be somewhere in between extremes.
The material for acoustic instruments is usually bronze or some mixture of bronze with another metal. Type of metal affects the sound – phosphor bronze are bright sounding whereas plain bronze would be duller sounding. Remember this is all relative and new strings will definitely sound brighter than the set that’s been on your guitar for the last ten years! This can come as a shock if you’ve never changed your strings because your guitar will now sound very different than before and maybe you’d gotten used to how it sounded with those worn out strings and you quite liked it.
Brand – well like other aspects of our life branding affects our decisions. Maybe you like the name or the colour of the packaging or your favourite guitarist uses a certain brand. As far as brand is concerned I think all the major US makes are good, some of them might use different methods to produce their strings but essentially it comes down to trying out the different brands on your guitar to find out which one compliments your guitar the best.
So finally your playing ability – if you are a total novice you will have different needs than a professional. If you are a total beginner I would recommend getting the lightest possible strings, learning the guitar is tough on the fingers why make it even more so. On the other hand if you are a pro, well it depends on your needs so for tone and volume you want to be going for the heavier end of the thickness spectrum (best for recording) but for every-night gigging especially if using a pick-up you’re not entirely relying on the acoustic properties of the guitar so you could choose a lighter set of strings.
Electric As with acoustic guitar strings some of the factors to consider when buying strings are gauge, material and brand. Also the genre of music and/or the way that you play can influence your choice.
So gauges for electric guitar; probably the most used gauge are 9’s (E 1st string .009) These are fairly light and easy to bend. As with acoustic strings the heavier the strings the more tone so if you’re into blues you might want to go up to 11’s or if you’re into dropped tunings you will want to check out some sets of strings that have heavier bass strings to be able to cope with detuning.
It seems that the majority of strings are nickel plated but you can also get stainless steel (bright sounding) and cobalt (supposedly higher output but I’ve never tried them). Most of the strings I’ve used have been roundwound but it is possible to get flatwound strings which are very smooth but have a duller sound but no string noise when you move your fingers, they tend to be used more on big jazz guitars. Also it is possible to get strings that are somewhere in-between called groundwound.
If you’re starting out and this all seems too much then I would suggest trying a set of 9’s (they most likely will be nickel-plated and roundwound) and see how they suit you. Once you’ve been playing for a while you can always experiment with different strings, remember if you don’t like them you can just buy another set.
One word of caution though if you usually have 9’s on your guitar and then put on a set of 11’s the extra tension from the heavier strings could mean that you will have to adjust the truss rod in the neck. If you’ve never done this before I would suggest going to your local music shop or guitar repairman and getting them to do it.
Classical guitar strings are usually graded by tension rather than gauge. Normal tension will be perfectly fine for most students playing classical guitar. When you get to an advanced level or if you are performing a lot then you should consider high tension strings. A set that I used quite a bit were a mixture with normal tension treble strings and high tension bass strings. These seemed to suit my guitar really well. Also it can be worth experimenting with mixing strings from different sets or even from different brands. The materials used in making the strings will also impact on the sound they produce so that nylon stings have quite a warm sound and flurocarbon will offer a brighter sound and more projection. There are a lot variables here as the wood that your guitar is made from will also have a big impact on the sound, experimenting with different strings is the best way to find what best suits your guitar. For a while I was using an E 1st string from one brand and the rest of the strings from a different brand so overall there was a mix of both materials and tensions.