Buyer's Guide: How to Choose the Right Electric Guitar Strings
There are tons of options and possibilities when it comes to electric guitar strings. We'll go through all of the different features in this buyers guide so you can make the right choice!
Tension and gauges
For many electric guitarists, choosing strings can be a bit daunting. This is mostly because there's such a huge variety of strings out there, and they all offer different sounds. Where to begin? For starters, electric guitar string set sizes are indicated according to the thinnest string in inches (gauge). Most electric guitars have either .009 or .010 sets; .011, .012 and .013 are less common sets.
Gauge and string material
The thickness of guitar strings is measured in gauges. This is the unit of measurement in the United States, and the rest of the guitar world follows suit. The gauge and tone of a guitar string determine the tension; the thicker the string, the higher the tension. The higher the tone, the higher the tension.
Thinner guitar strings: .009, .010 and .008
The most common are .009 and .010 sets, often simply referred to as 9 sets or 10 sets, named after the thinnest string in the pack. The vast majority of new guitars are strung with one of these two string combinations. It's always a good idea to check which strings are on the guitar when you buy a new electric guitar. If the tension of the set that you'd like to put on the guitar differs from the standard strings, then we suggest that you get the guitar set up by an expert to avoid damaging your new purchase.
.009 strings are known for their suppleness, which makes it easier to press the strings down. Many electric guitar players choose these strings because they're incredibly easy to play. You have to put out a bit more effort to play a 10 set, but you do get a fuller sound in return. .008 sets aren't typically used but they're also extremely easy to play. This is a great choice for folks who can't put as much strength into their playing. The downside is that the sound is a lot thinner.
Thicker guitar strings: .011, .012, and .013
Some guitarists go for an even fuller tone. Just like the thinner sets, these are also named after the thinnest string in the set. In this category we have 11, 12 and 13 sets. Because the tension is a lot higher, it's a lot harder to press the strings down, which heightens the risk of getting blisters or even permanently damaging your fingers. We therefore advise that you use these sets with caution. We also highly suggest that you get your guitar set up by a professional guitar technician if you're going to use these string sizes, just to make sure that the tension is right so you don't accidentally damage your guitar.
Buying different string combinations
There are also mixed string sets for guitarists who want to play tight chords and still want to be able to comfortably press down on the higher strings. The three wound strings could be compared to straight steel cables, while the thinner (not wound) strings feel much suppler. For a lot of musicians, this is the best of both worlds. Just like with thicker strings sets, we would recommend that you get your guitar set up by a professional if you're going to use a combination string set. There's no need to do this every single time you replace your strings, but it is a good idea to have your guitar set up annually, just to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. Combination sets are also commonly used for drop tunings (drop D, drop C, drop B), and are indicated with the sizes .009, .010 and .011.
Balanced Tension guitar strings
One of the new trends in the world of guitars is to use string combinations where the different string tensions are better in balance with one another. These string combos are called Balanced Tension strings. The traditional packs were composed based on the electronic limitations of early electric guitars. Seeing that the quality of guitar pickups is much better than it used to be, there's no need to be so strict about sticking to the old string gauges. Thanks to Balanced Tension sets, you can pluck and press every string up with just about the same amount of strength. These packs are definitely recommended for beginners and for advanced perfectionists.
The right string gauge for lower tunings
If you want to tune down, you'll want to use a thicker set of strings. This keeps the string tension similar and means that you won't have to make too many adjustments to the guitar itself. Luckily, there's a simple trick to find out which string gauge will be the best for the job. All you have to do is go up a set for every full tone that you tune down. So if you usually play in E tuning with .009, then you'll play in D on .010. In C (two tones down), you'd play on .011. For a 10 set, it would be 11 and 12 respectively. Changing in halve steps usually doesn't make much of a different, so it's not really necessary to switch to a thicker set. If you play in E with a 10 set, for instance, then you'd play in Eb, Db and B with .010, .011 and .012 respectively.
Seven and eight string guitars: which guitar strings can you buy?
Seven-string guitars have gained some popularity in the last twenty years, largely because they offer a broader range in the low tones. Eight-string guitars take it a step further. Usually they add a low B and/or F# string under the low E string. Until recently, it was really difficult to find thicker strings, but luckily the selection of strings for extended range guitars has become quite nice in the last few years.
What are electric guitar strings wound with?
Most electric guitar strings have a steel core. The difference usually lies in the material used for the winding. Unwound strings logically don't have a winding. Typically, wound strings are going to be nickel-wound. These strings are nice and supple to play and are a great choice for a wide range of styles. Stainless steel strings are also quite common, particularly with guitarists who want a brighter sound, and for people who are allergic to nickel.
If you're trying to get that classic '50s and '60s guitar sound, then you'll want to use pure nickel strings. These strings have windings with a higher nickel content than your standard nickel-wound strings. There have been been many new developments when it comes to guitar strings, and today, you can also get Ernie Ball Cobalt strings, for instance, which give your playing dynamics and sparkling overtones. If you'd like strings that offer the same kind of performance as the Cobalt strings, but that were designed to take higher tension, then you could go for M steel or NYXL strings. The relative string tension differs considerably in sets that conform to traditional gauges. With the Balanced Tension strings by D'Addario, however, all of the string tensions about more or less the same. This small difference means that your hands won't get tired as quickly, since you can press and pluck all of the strings with the same amount of force.
Round wound, half round, flat wound and coated
By far, most electric guitarists play on round wound strings. These strings offer a prominent sound that you'll recognise in a wide range of music genres. There are two shapes available when it comes to winding: half round and flat wound, and both of these can help you by reducing noise and friction when you slide your fingers along the strings. You'll find that your fingers glide over flat wound strings more easily and that they create less noise. Of course, the sound is logically darker with these strings. If you want your strings to stay fresher and brighter longer, then you'll want to check out coated strings.