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How to Choose Electric Guitar Strings

When chasing your ultimate guitar tone, one of the most important aspects is your strings. These often-overlooked consumables generate the core of your sound, and the tonal varieties on offer are myriad. The vast number of options can quickly become overwhelming, however, so read on to discover the materials, measurements, and manufacturing techniques that will help you settle on the perfect string.

Electric Guitar String Gauge

The gauge of a string represents the thickness in 1/1000th of an inch. A 10-gauge string, for example, is 0.0010 inches thick. The gauge of the 1st (lightest) string is usually used as a shorthand for the entire set. Most electric guitars you play in a store are strung with 10s, meaning the 1st string is 0.0010 inches thick.

When looking at an electric guitar string set, you'll be presented with two numbers. A set of 10s might say 10-46, 10-48, or 10-52. The second number is the gauge of the 6th (lowest) string. Sets with a large disparity between the highest and lowest gauge allow you to play full-bodied riffs on the low strings, and articulate leads on the high.

Lighter gauge strings are easier to bend and fret while exerting less pressure on the neck of the guitar. They are more prone to breaking however, produce less volume and sustain, and can cause fret buzzing on guitars with low 'actions' (when the strings are close to the frets). Lighter gauges are typically 10s, 9s, and 8s.

Heavier gauge strings are generally harder to play, requiring more finger pressure to fret and bend. They also exert more tension on the neck, which could be an issue for vintage guitars. Conversely, they produce more volume and sustain, and help prevent buzzing when tuning down for heavier styles of music. Heavier gauges are typically 11s, 12s, and 13s.

Close up of a Telecaster bridge

Electric Guitar String Core & Winding Type

The core refers to the single strand of metal at the centre of the string, the material and shape of which determines the base tone and flexibility of the string. Historically, all cores were round, but modern strings typically use a hexagonal core as this leads to to a brighter tone. If you're seeking vintage warmth and booming low end, however, a round core is the way to go.

The winding is the wire wrapped around the core of lower strings (usually the 4th, 5th, and 6th). The type of winding determines the tone, texture, and flexibility of the strings. Higher strings (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) typically aren't wound.

Roundwound strings are the most common type sold today. They feature a round wire which is wrapped around the string core. They have a bright tone, a textured surface, and are generally the easiest winding type to fret and bend.

Flatwound strings, as you might guess, feature a flat wire wrap. They produce a dark and understated tone that suits clean, theoretical styles of music such as jazz. Flatwound strings eliminate finger noise but are stiff, and struggle to cut through the mix.

Halfwound or 'ground wound' strings are wrapped like roundwound, but then the outer layer is ground down for a smoother feel. Sonically, halfwound strings are somewhere between the brightness of roundwound and the warmth of flatwound with reduced finger noise.

You can view the full range of guitar strings available at Mannys here.

Pile of Ernie Ball string packets

Electric Guitar String Materials

The energetic sounds of an electric guitar come from the interaction between the magnetic pickups and the 'ferrous' metal strings. The varying magnetic properties of these iron-rich metals determines the tones they can produce. The alloys themselves also govern other factors such as flexibility, durability, and corrosion resistance.

Stainless Steel provides a balanced tone with a bright pick attack. It also resists corrosion from hand sweat, which makes your strings last longer, and tends to be less squeaky than other materials.

Nickel Plated Steel has similar properties to stainless steel. It is balanced with an articulate pick attack but has a warmth to it that makes it very popular with players of all genres.

Nickel was a common string material in the past and is therefore associated with the iconic sounds of yesteryear. It carries a generously warm and rounded tone that makes it perfect for precursor genres like blues, jazz, rock & roll, and country.

Titanium is a newer material found in some string cores. It's as strong as steel while being more flexible, which reduces stretching, breaking, and slippage, while being easier to fret and bend.

Cobalt is a particularly magnetic ferrous metal. Cobalt strings produces a strong relationship with guitar pickups for extended dynamic range, increased harmonics, and articulate low and high end while remaining physically thin and easy to play.

M-Steel (AKA Maraging steel) is a material that has gone through a special tempering process to increase its strength and durability while maintaining its flexibility. M-Steel strings have a higher output and increased low-end response.

Close up of string post on guitar

Electric Guitar String Coatings

Electric guitar string coatings are microscopically thin layers of polymer on the outside of electric guitar strings. They protect the metal from corrosion as well as from the build-up of grime in the gaps between windings, both of which dull your tone while making the strings more susceptible to breaking.

Coated strings were controversial when first introduced at the end of the 20th Century, and some guitarist still claim that they sound or feel significantly different to uncoated strings. We believe that the technology has advanced far enough now that they are virtually indistinguishable except in longevity and price.

Most of the major string manufacturers have coated options including Ernie Ball, D'Addario and Elixir.

Wall of guitar strings

Strung Out Yet?

As you can see, there's a lot going on in your humble electric guitar string. The bottom line is though, any fresh set of regular strings from a reputable brand is going to improve your tone. Try to match the gauge that's already on there, and if you do decide to change gauges, get your guitar set up for them. Of course, if you're ever in doubt, you can talk to our friendly electric guitar experts in store or online.

If you're new to changing your strings, check out the helpful "How to" videos below for instructions.

For more information, visit us in store or talk to our friendly guitar experts.

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