If you’re trying to solve the mystery of what type of strings you should put on your acoustic guitar, we can help.
Don’t get lost in the confusion; there are honestly only a few things that matter when selecting strings. First, the strings need to be comfortable for your level of experience and style of play, and second, they need to be the right gauge for your guitar.
After that, there are simpler things to think about such as how they sound and how long they last. But let’s first talk about comfort ability and gauge, which go hand in hand.
There are light (thin) strings, heavy (thick) strings, and several gauges in between. The lighter the string, the easier they are to play on.
With some exceptions, the gauges are as follows:
- Extra Light (10’s)
- Custom Light (11’s)
- Light (12’)
- Medium (13’s)
- Heavy (14’s)
If you go to a guitar shop, you should be able to try these gauges out for yourself. You’ll find that the string tone becomes stronger the heavier the gauge. However, the normal strings for an acoustic guitar are lights (12’s).
If you’re just starting out, or you simply want to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of thick acoustic strings, you may want to go with some lights or custom lights. And if that’s still not feeling comfortable for you, D’Addario makes 9 gauge acoustic strings, which should solve the problem completely. Note: I recommend sticking with the light gauge (or heavier), and suffer like most beginners do until their calluses form. Play until your fingers are raw, give them a day or two, then repeat the process. After a a week or so your fingers will be tough and it wont hurt to play anymore.
Do what you feel most comfortable with. It is the general consensus that developing the finger calluses is the best way to go. However, as YouTube’s “Andy Guitar” emphasizes, you want strings on your guitar that make you want to pick it up and play every day.
All of that sounds simple enough, right? Here’s the second part.
The thicker the strings, the more the tension on the neck of the guitar, which will, in turn, lift the strings higher off the fret board. So whichever strings you decide to use, make sure your guitar is setup to play them. Some dreadnoughts come with heavier gauge strings to get the big top to vibrate more, and the neck is set up for these strings. Changing them to a lighter gauge may cause the strings to raise up off the fret board and require a change to the neck set up.
Setups are a must for any guitar. You always want to be sure your guitar is setup for the strings you’re using. Also, be aware that most guitars in a guitar shop come factory setup, which isn’t ideal.
So when you’re testing out different string gauges, know that the guitar’s action, as it’s called (which refers to the distance the strings are from the fret board), will impact the feel of the instrument greatly.
Have your guitar setup for the string gauge you choose, and it’ll feel and sound a lot better. Generally, you’ll want to ask the guitar tech to set it up so that the strings are as low to the fret board as possible without them buzzing.
Those are the essentials! Now, here are some of the more nitty-gritty things about acoustic guitar strings.
With some exceptions, which we’ll discuss in a minute, there are two main types of strings -- 80/20 bronze strings, which have a bright sound, and there are phosphor bronze strings, which sound a little mellower.
Some brands also offer coated strings, which are normal 80/20 or phosphor bronze strings with a layer of protective coating over them. These are on the pricy side, but there is no denying that they sound beautiful and last a lot longer than normal strings. However, overtime the coating can fray and they can begin to look worn.
So there you have it! Now, let’s take a look at some of the best types of acoustic guitar strings out there, keeping in mind that at the end of the day, it’s your call to make!
Coated Acoustic Strings
Why would you buy them? Because they don’t corrode nearly as fast as normal strings do. And they also have a truly special tone that you have to hear to believe. I find they give a good mid range punch to the guitar.
Here are four options for coated strings:
These sing like a siren. They have a way of making even the cheapest of guitars sound like a million bucks. So try these out if you’re looking for something truly special – trust us, the price is worth it.
There are two types of coatings they use for their acoustic strings: Polyweb and Nanoweb.
- Polyweb strings only come in 80/20 bronze. They have a seemingly perfect mixture between warm and bright tones. So try them out, even if you’re a fan of phosphor bronze.
- Nanoweb strings, on the other hand, come in both 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. You lose a little bit of the full sound with these strings in favor of a more old-school country tone.
Be forewarned; you may never go to any other types of strings after trying these out – they’re that good. Elixir is the premier name in coated strings.
D’Addario: EXP Coated
Their uncoated strings sound beautiful as well, but if you want strings that sound like that and last a little longer, try out their coated variety. They call it an EXP coating, and it works great at extending the life of the strings.
You’ll find some similarity between these and Elixir strings, but they are different as far as their tonal DNA. You’ll quickly find that D’Addario is well known among guitarists for their high-quality strings.
These come in both 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. So don’t pass these up as your searching for that perfect tone for you.
Martin: Lifespan SP
If you’re looking for something with the durability of coated strings and the sound of regular strings, try these out. They resonate, they’re simple, and they have that classic Martin tone that so many love.
These come in phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze. Try them both out and see what you think!
You’ll find that this is a niche tone. There are strong opinions out there on Martin with some loving the brand and some hating it – there aren’t a lot of in-betweeners. You’ll have to discover for yourself where you fall in that conversation.
Ernie Ball: Everlast
These are a must-try in the world of coated strings. It’s rare to say this, but if you’re into bright tones, they sound perfect – there isn’t a flaw to be found in them.
They come in 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. And like their electric guitar strings, they are pretty bright. They are smooth, ambient, and anything anyone could look for in a crisp tone. So if you’ve been thinking about trying coated strings, take a listen to these.
Unfortunately, in our opinion, these aren’t quite on the level of the options above when it comes to coated strings. But they will stay good for a long time.
These come in 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze. However, the company encourages people to look beyond the stereotypes of what is expected in the tone of a normal 80/20 and phosphor bronze, respectively, when it comes to their strings.
Try them out for yourself. See if you like them or not. Who knows, maybe this is the tone you’ve been looking for. At the end of the day, your opinion is the only one that matters.
Regular Acoustic Strings
Why get regular strings? Maybe you enjoy that classic tone of an old acoustic guitar; maybe you just don’t want to spend a ton on strings. Or who knows, maybe there’s a tone out there in the sea of regular string options that you might prefer over anything else.
Here are a few of our top picks for regular (non coated)strings:
These are a must-try when it comes to normal strings. They have a pristine tone that brings the best out of a guitar. You’re unlikely to be disappointed with this brand.
In addition to 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze, they also have Nickel bronze strings, which have a crisp tone that is out of this world. D’Addario strings are a safe bet for anyone looking for something that will sound good on any guitar.
These are my go to strings on my acoustic. I've tried others and they sound good, but to me the D'Addario phospor bronze are what I like the best. Try them out and see if you like the sound as much as I do!
In addition to their coated strings, they have a ton of regular string options to choose from. Simply put, it seems they have a little bit of everything. They have 80/20 bronze, phosphor bronze, nickel, titanium core, and others.
There’s enough variety to make yourself crazy trying to get a handle on it all. But the thing to keep in mind is, Martin is as classic and true a tone as there is.
So try out their thick sounding SP Flexible Core strings, or their bright Marquis strings – experiment and see what you think. It’s hard to go wrong with Martin strings.
Yes, the iconic Gibson has their own guitar strings. They are extremely unique sounding and have a brightness and openness that is very soothing – and we would expect nothing less from them.
They have three different sets that they sell, two of which are phosphor bronze, and one of which is 80/20 bronze. Gibson’s strings rival those of other brands in the sense that it seems they have created a very simple string that sounds uninhibited and completely open -- free, in a sense.
These come highly recommended. Try out a set if you’re still looking for that perfect tone for your instrument.
Ernie Ball Strings
Like Martin, Ernie Ball has a wide variety of strings to choose from. So if you’re not into Martin, but still want some variety from within a brand, try out Ernie Ball strings.
Most of their strings fall into the normal 80/20 and phosphor bronze categories respectively. But they also have an aluminum bronze option as well.
They are bright and sound wonderful; they’re well balanced. The aluminum bronze set, in particular, is on the very bright side of bright – but in a pretty way. This is an incredible brand, and the second you try their strings out, you’ll see what we’re saying.
These sound especially great on a Taylor, but they are all around just good strings. You can trust in them to make you sound your very best.
Dean Markley Strings
These strings are also worthy of a try. In addition to the regular types of strings, there’s some secret sauce in their Blue Steel set that makes them hard to ignore.
According to the company, these strings are made from “92% copper and 8% zinc.” And to get them to sound the way they do, they are “cryogenically frozen with a blast of liquid nitrogen” to remove any imperfections.
As a bonus, they last a long time without the price tag of the coated strings above. In fact, these are very inexpensive. It’s hard to deny that they are some of the prettiest sounding strings out there. The removal of those imperfections makes them ring true and sustain wonderfully. Give them a try!
Finding the right tone is the mission of every guitarist. We all want to find what works best for us; so don’t be afraid to experiment with a lot of different types of strings along the way. Just make sure you wear out each set thoroughly to get the most bang for your buck.
A guitar can sound a certain way with one set of strings, and totally different with another. But eventually, you’ll find a few types of strings that bring the best out of you and your guitar.
Good luck and happy searching!