When it comes to getting the best sound from your acoustic guitar, most guitarists don’t think of strings as a particularly big deal. Other factors, from the wood used in construction to the height of the action, typically take priority.
While the strings you use on your acoustic guitar might not seem significant, they’re actually hugely important in determining how it sounds and how it plays. If you use a non-standard tuning, the wrong strings could even throw your guitar out of tune.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to choose the best acoustic guitar strings for your guitar, your musical tastes and your playing style. Read on to learn the best tips for selecting strings that make you a better guitarist with a clearer acoustic tone.
Do you want to learn how to play the acoustic guitar? From fingering basic chords to strumming your guitar like an expert, learn the basics of playing acoustic guitar with our Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide to Playing Guitar.
Why strings are important for acoustic guitar players
On an electric guitar, it’s easy to mask the sound of low quality strings. Amplifiers and pickups mean that the signal from a set of weak, low-gauge strings can sound completely different when it comes out from a speaker than it does on the way in.
In addition to this, effects like distortion and overdrive can mask the poor sustain and lack of depth that low quality strings produce. On an acoustic guitar, however, the sound from the strings is exactly what your audience will hear you playing.
Acoustic guitar strings come in a wide variety of types and sizes. They’re usually made from bronze, phosphor bronze or coated materials. Just like electric guitar strings, acoustic strings also come in a variety of thicknesses for different styles.
Why it’s important to use the right strings for your guitar
Not all acoustic guitars are designed for the same type of strings. Acoustic guitars come in two basic designs: classical guitars, which use nylon strings and typically have a more compact body, and steel-string guitars.
Although beginners are often recommended to switch from steel strings to nylon, it’s essential that you use the right type of strings for your guitar. Classical guitars aren’t designed for the tension and force that steel guitar strings can produce.
This means that if you install a set of steel strings on a classical guitar, the tension can warp the guitar’s neck and make it unplayable. Likewise, putting nylon strings on a steel-string guitar can damage the guitar’s nut and ruin its playability.
Would you like to learn more about the structure of an acoustic guitar? Learn how the design of a guitar – from the fretboard to the body – determines its sound, feel and more in our Guitar Essentials course.
Choosing the right acoustic guitar string material
Is it time to replace your acoustic guitar’s strings? If you’re shopping for strings for a steel-string acoustic guitar, you have three materials to choose from: bronze, coated steel and phosphor bronze.
Each material has its advantages and disadvantages. Bronze strings tend to have the brightest, most dynamic sound when they’re first installed. However, they age quite quickly and need to be replaced more often than coated steel guitar strings.
Phosphor bronze guitar strings aren’t quite as dynamic sounding as bronze strings, but they retain their sound longer and need to be replaced less frequently. Coated steel strings are the least dynamic, but have a warm tone and need to be replaced less often than bronze and phosphor bronze strings.
If you’re recording a song or performing in public, it’s best to choose either bronze or phosphor bronze strings for a smoother, more interesting sound. Just make sure you have an extra set ready, since their sound might deteriorate relatively quickly.
Choosing the right acoustic guitar string gauge
There’s more to acoustic guitar strings than just material. Strings are available in a variety of gauges. Heavy strings normally have a more dynamic, natural sound that suits live performances and recordings, but are harder on the guitarist’s fingers.
Lighter strings don’t offer the same warmth or presence as heavy strings, but are far easier to play and are more suitable for acoustic lead guitar. Since light strings aren’t as tight as heavy strings, they’re easier to bend for solos and lead guitar melodies.
The ideal string gauge depends on your playing style and the type of acoustic guitar you use. If your acoustic guitar has a pickup, you can afford to use lighter strings. In some cases, you might even be able to use .11 or .10 gauge strings for electric guitar.
If your acoustic guitar doesn’t have a pickup and you need the clearest sound for a performance or recording, bump your string gauge up a notch. Heavier strings will make your tone more dynamic, albeit at the expense of some playability.
Having trouble choosing a string gauge for your acoustic guitar? The type of music you play will influence your ideal choice of strings. Learn more about choosing the right strings for your guitar in our Complete Guitar System course.
Choosing the right strings for alternative tunings
Is your acoustic guitar tuned down a tone? Do you frequently play songs in Drop D or an open tuning? If you use a non-standard tuning, you’ll need to use strings that have the right level of thickness for your guitar’s tension level.
When you tune down your guitar, you reduce the tension on the strings. If you use light strings, they’ll lose a huge amount of their tone due to the lesser tension, and occasionally even sit too low on your fretboard to produce certain notes.
Do you play lots of hard rock in a drop tuning, or slide and blues guitar in an open tuning? Learn more about string tension, guitar tunings and setting your guitar up for your playing style in our How to Play Guitar for Beginners guide.
Learn more about setting up your acoustic guitar
Since the sound from an acoustic guitar is completely unamplified, small things like string gauge and intonation make a big difference. Learn more about the basics of acoustic guitar in our blog post on basic tips for playing the guitar.