Beginners Guide to Buying Guitar Strings

If you're new to guitar playing and need some advice on purchasing strings for your instrument, this handy guide will help you get the best for your money. After all, there's no need to spend a lot of money at first on professional grade strings that may not even be suitable for your guitar!

When you get your first guitar and you start playing real basic stuff like strumming chords and trying out new fingering patterns, chances are you're going to break a string or two along the way. This is perfectly normal and to be expected, especially if you're a little heavy handed which is often the case with new players.

Which Guitar Strings Should You Buy?

fender guitar stringsBefore you run out and make a dash for the local music store, you should stop and think about the kind of strings you're actually going to need for your make and type of guitar. Yep, there are many different kinds of guitar strings to choose from and each is suited to a certain kind of instrument.

For example, a set of phosphor bronze that are suited to an acoustic steel strung guitar will not sound much good on an electric shredding machine! Similarly, a super light set of electric guitar strings will not do your acoustic jumbo any favours in terms of sound or playability!

What Are the Best Strings for an Acoustic Guitar?

Depending on what you intend playing on that acoustic of yours, you will need a set of strings to match if you want to get the best from it. As a general rule of thumb, a medium to light set of steel strings (the lightest "E" string being about 10 or 11 gauge) will suffice for chord strumming and basic finger work.

You can choose between steel and nylon sets depending on the type of guitar you own. You will notice nylon strung guitars have very different tuning pegs in the headstock than the regular machine heads of steel strung instruments.

Steel gives a brighter, more jangly sound while nylon is warmer and rounder. There are different kinds of steel from basic stainless steel wound to the phosphor bronze wound variants already mentioned.

Which Strings Would Suit a Strat?

I actually prefer standard Fender strings for my Strat (which is the short-lived US made "Heavy Metal" model from 1990 complete with locking nuts and Kahler Spyder trem), opting for a light set with 9 at the top. This gives me plenty of scope to achieve a decent chord sound while allowing me to finger pick fast runs when using the amp on a clean setting, or going for the insane shred when the amp is wound up and the tubes are cooking!

They are really versatile in that I can play many different ways with all kinds of different pickup settings and they sound great whether I'm playing clean or dirty. One thing here is that I tend to shy away from the really processed dirty sounds that are popular especially with metal players in preference to the warmer natural tube overdrive I get from my Marshall amp.

However, I realize this is not the way everyone wants to play (and we should all cultivate our own individual style and sound) so for everyone else who plays whatever variation of Stratocaster they play, the stringing will be a personal choice after a while once you figure out what you like playing with best.

I Want to Play Slide Guitar so Which Strings Should I Buy?

When playing slide with a steel or glass bottleneck it is common to work with a different tuning to the standard. The most often used tuning is "G" where both low and high "E" strings are tuned up three semitones to "G" and the "A" tuned up to "B".

This presents a challenge for a standard set of strings as the tension is higher for those altered tunings. A fairly heavy set is required combined with a raised action to get the best tone from the slide.

Some players choose custom sets that have slightly lighter lower "E" and "A" while staying with a 10 or 11 top "E" to maintain that great sound. You should experiment with this to find a combination that suits your own individual style.

Shredding

For shred players (especially heavy metal axmen) you're most likely going to be playing a Strat clone of some sort with a fairly light set of strings and a very low action to get a fast and fluid run. The last thing you need is to have to use any pressure with your fretting hand so the lighter the better.

One thing I would advise you avoid is going for the ultra-light sets with an 8 at the top. This not only breaks too easy, but when you bend a high note it loses its sound, or sounds very weak. Go for a top 9 as the lightest and you'll still get a pretty good tone.

Whammy Bar

Following on from the shredders and in the same breath you have to include the dive bomber maniacs (OK, I admit it I love doing that too). A good Floyd Rose with locking nuts both ends is great to play and the strings will stay in tune no matter how badly you abuse them.

But don't expect them to last a long time!

Again, follow the logic for shredding and opt for a fairly light set of 9s or 10s. You want the tone but you don't want to be too heavy that pulling down the whammy bar gets hard work.

Classical Guitar

What may come as something of a surprise to most guitarists is there are some who actually play classical and there are some beautiful acoustic guitars built for this purpose. Very few are steel strung, with most being nylon strung.

Nylon strung guitars are seen by many of the younger popular music fraternity as being something you do when you retire from thrash metal shredding. But that's not really true. I dare you to check out some top classic players and just hear what they're doing and you'll be floored.

Maybe the origins of shredding (like most musical styles come to think of it) lie in classical pieces that the players have to work their butts off to be able to play because of their complexity. And the surprisingly manic speed runs that you'll find in many classical works will test even the best shredders (since they were likely originally written for pianists or woodwind players with hemi-demi-semi-quaver runs featuring in some scores.

There are several variations of nylon string sets you can buy and which you choose will largely depend on your playing style and your level of ability. Lighter strings tend to be for those with less playing experience while the top players often go for heavier sets.

Your guitar will also dictate which you chose to a point as you wouldn't put a set of cheapies on a five grand Martin!

Round Up

Your guitar choice and your personal playing style will evolve over time. Some players like me tend to find an instrument they just like playing and will stick with it like forever, while others might change theirs like the wind.

Playing styles will dictate the type of hardware you put on your instrument and stringing it will start off by trial and error until you find the way that you like. So really this whole article can only ever be a kind of a beginner's guide to stringing a guitar because things do change.