After 30+ years of playing guitar there are few surprises when it comes to caring for your instrument. I actually feel sad when seeing an acoustic guitar in the corner of some room collecting dust, warping, and not aging properly. For such a beautiful, percussive, adaptable sounding instrument, they are not too difficult to care for. A simple humidifier, solid case, polish, and, of course, strings. Just like a well struck golf shot, I love the sound of new strings. Some love the warmness of old strings which is great if you keep them waxed. Eventually they wear out and break. That is a jarring experience! Either way, which ones do you choose? Let’s walk through some thought process of buying acoustic guitar strings.
What type of acoustic guitar do you have?
Sounds like a silly question but some folks aren’t aware of the type of acoustic they own and waste money on strings that don’t fit properly. For those of you rolling your eyes, skip on down the page. For those of you asking yourself “there are types of acoustic guitars?”, keep reading.
Dreadnought, Parlor, Jumbo and other variants are more about the shape and size of the guitar. For the most part, they all use steel, nickel, brass, and bronze wound strings. On larger models one might invest in heavier gauged strings. Smaller models will need the lighter gauge strings. Part of this involves the sound quality but the materials that the guitar were constructed also drive the gauge of string to choose. On cheaper guitars a heavier gauge could wind up warping your instrument or just not staying in tune.
If you have a classical acoustic, the material, head, and sound will require a natural gut, nylon or synthetic string. They are softer and more suited to the high action and space provided on the neck of the guitar to promote more finger play. These strings also provide a softer tone better suited to the music. This is not just for classical guitar but other styles like flamenco, Brazilian, bluegrass, jazz, etc.
This is general advice considering I’ve seen some wiring up traditional auditorium style acoustics with classical strings just to get a sound the musician desired. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just know that guitar technicians are experts and often helping these players. But I would encourage your experimenting if you have the patience and means.
So … how do you tell which kind of acoustic guitar you have? I will have to point you to Google. Use the name on the head of the guitar and other identifiers like the sticker or plaque inside the sound hole to do a search. Once you have the type, you can nail down the kind of string required.
Picking the right non-classical acoustic string.
Martin, D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Elixir … who’s the best? What’s the best for your guitar? Which one sounds the best?
The answer to these questions go on and on and cause a lot of in-fighting among musicians. I personally do not understand how this could be so difficult. Here’s my opinion … go to the guitar shop, kindly ask to open a pack, and touch the strings. It sounds a little creepy but this is perfectly legit. Just don’t make weird sounds while you do it. 🙂
Why? It’s got to feel good to your fingers. All steel string acoustic guitars can be wound by the top brands. You would be best suited for the one that feels best on your fingers.
There is, of course, pricing. Sometimes a solid D’Addario, middle of the road, string is the best choice.
Gauge … if you play hard getting a heavier gauge. Make sure your guitar can handle the gauge. It helps to bring your instrument with you to the store if not sure. Show the team at the store and let them guide you a little.
A lighter gauge will bring a different sound and can be very pretty. They will put less wear and tear on your guitar. They will also break easier (especially when installing) and require light picks. Keep this in mind if going with the lighter gauge.
Not heavy and not light? Go medium. There are tons of options in the medium gauge range that are safe for most guitars, sound great and feel good on the fingers.
My personal favorite sounding strings are bronze wound on the lower E through G strings. I don’t know why but they seem more versatile and sound really warm when broken in. I’ve tried all the brands and certainly lean towards Elixir but there are lower priced strings that always sound good. I’m also a big Dean Markley fan, the Blue Steel line in particular.
Picking the right classical acoustic string.
There is not much more that I would change when looking for a great classical acoustic string. It’s the same process … ask the store to allow you to feel. I had mentioned installing above. I made some assumptions that you know how to remove and install your own strings. That being said, it is best to allow an expert to do so if you’re not comfortable. It’s even more critical with classical strings. The tension must be just right and it will depend on the type of string your purchase.
I don’t have a particular favorite in this area but usually lean towards more expensive.
It’s all about feel …
In the end it really is all about the feel. And by that, I mean how it feels to you. After all, this is your instrument not anyone else’s! (I think) One thing we didn’t cover is 12-string acoustics and other types that may not be 6-string acoustics. In those cases you can use the same process. Local guitar shops are typically handy places to get advice, try new things, and make a confident purchase. I know that sometimes they can seem like elitists or just uninterested in human contact in general. Keep in mind they are musicians. We are weird. 🙂
Do You Feel More Confident?
The point of all this babbling about going to the store to feel strings is I hope you can see that buying acoustic guitar strings is not that scary. It’s a simple process that start with 1) discovering your type of guitar, 2) matching the type of string, 3) getting a feel for what you like.
Three simple, personal steps. It’s not about brand, or me giving you a list of the best brands, or cool pics of guitars. The last one is kind of fun.
So, put down those Guitar Hero plastic guitars, pick up the real one in the corner collecting dust, and go have some real fun!
All the best, jerry