Choosing the Best Acoustic Guitar Strings

Guitar strings are a functional part of a guitar and play a compound role in ensuring your acoustic guitar is sounding full and crisp. The quality of sound produced by guitars varies a lot, and this can depend greatly on the strings/materials used to make them. The materials used to make guitar strings most commonly fall into one of two categories:

  • Phosphor bronze
  • Bronze

Although the materials mentioned above are amongst the most popular, there are strings made with other materials such as silk and steel, brass, aluminum, etc. There are various factors at play which will determine the quality of playability as well as the lifespan for a particular set of acoustic guitar strings. This article will cover everything you need to know about what acoustic guitar strings are made of and how to choose the best acoustic guitar strings.

What are Acoustic Guitar Strings Made of?

As mentioned above, different strings are made with different materials. Each material produces a distinct sound and along with the coating that some manufacturers add to strings, it can also affect how well the strings age. Choosing the best acoustic guitar strings for you can be greatly influenced by the materials used and the sound you are aiming to achieve.

  • Phosphor bronze – Produces a crisp and clear sound; prolongs the life and prevents rust from forming.
  • Bronze  – Produces very clear and bright tones though can wear out quickly due to the chemical reactivity of bronze with oxygen.
  • Brass – Produces a bright, metallic sound.
  • Aluminum bronze – Produces distinct bass notes and pronounced highs.
  • A combination of silk and steel – Produces a soft tone, mostly preferred by fingerstyle players.

Now, if you are playing a classical acoustic guitar you’ll likely be using nylon strings. Be aware of the type of guitar you have as putting a set of steel string on an acoustic-classical guitar is not recommended due to the tension that this would create on the guitar’s neck.

What Are Guitar String Gauges?

Guitar string gauges also have a big role to play in how your guitar strings will sound when played. Guitar string gauges refer to the thickness or diameter used in each string. Gauges are classified in thousandths of an inch. When reading the gauges on a pack of guitar strings you may see something similar to: .013 – .056. The first number is in reference to the gauge of the high E string (your thinnest string) and the second number is in reference to the gauge of your low E string (the thickest string). All other strings are within the defined gauge range. Depending upon the gauge of string you wish to use, they will come in different sizes. Typical examples available include:

  • Custom Light Gauge: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
  • Light Gauge: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
  • Medium Gauge: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
  • Heavy Gauge: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

You may be asking yourself, “great there are different string gauges, but how do I choose which gauge will work best for me / my guitar”. Well, that is dependent upon a variety of factors.

  1. Playing Style / Tonal requirements – Heavier gauge strings produce more volume and sustain than lighter gauge strings. Additionally, if you wish to accentuate the bass tones choose a heavy gauge string, if you want to accentuate the treble tones, choose light gauge strings. Heavier gauge strings are also more commonly used if you do a lot of strumming and not much picking, whereas light gauge strings are the opposite. If you know you’re going to be doing a bit of both (strumming and picking), choose to go with medium gauge strings.
  2. Guitar’s Body Size – It’s suggested to choose your string gauge based on the body size of your guitar (i.e. if your guitar’s body is small, choose a lighter gauge, if your guitar’s body is larger, choose a heavier gauge).
  3. Guitar’s Condition – It can also depend on your guitar’s age/condition which will determine which string gauge you should be using. Heavy gauge strings create more tension on the guitar’s neck than light gauge strings which can cause the neck to bend if you have an older guitar. Ensure that you take this into account when choosing which guitar strings you should purchase. On the other hand, light gauge strings are more prone to buzzing if your guitar’s action is low, although they won’t create as much tension on your guitar’s neck; thus safer for older guitars. Ultimately, your best bet is to bring your guitar into a guitar technician and get their professional opinion on which string gauge you should be using.
  4. Level of Experience – Lastly, choosing the right guitar string gauge will depend on your level of experience. Heavy strings are harder to press down than light gauge strings. Therefore if you’re a beginner, it’s recommended to start out with a light gauge or custom light gauge string. These will allow you press down on the string with greater ease until you build stronger calluses. Additionally, you can also purchase strings specifically designed to be flexible and easier to play for beginners (discussed in more detail below).

List of Best Acoustic Guitar Strings

I’ve outlined some of the best acoustic guitar strings (in my opinion) in the list below. The following list was chosen based on a few factors including sound, longevity, playability, and price.

1.D'Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze, Light

D’addario’s phosphor bronze light gauge strings are the company’s most popular string type. D’addario was officially founded in 1974 and primarily manufactures guitar strings however also offers other products such as capos, tuners, straps, etc. Their light gauge strings are great for beginner guitarists as they’re easy to play and offer a great warm and bright tone. The strings are also corrosion resistant making them last longer if you don’t play very often.

D'Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light
2756 Reviews
D'Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light
  • D'Addario's most popular acoustic guitar string set, known for its superb, long-lasting tone and comfortable playability
  • Preferred for its warm, bright, and well balanced acoustic tone
  • Corrosion resistant packaging for strings that are always fresh
  • Made in the U.S.A. for the highest quality and performance
  • String Gauges: Plain Steel .012, .016, Phosphor Bronze Wound .024, .032, .042, .053; The six "edges" of the core wire bite into the softer wrap wire, securing it all along its length

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

2.Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze - NANOWEB Coating, Light

Elixir also made it to my list of best acoustic guitar strings. Although they are a little more pricey than D’addario strings, they offer great tone and have been known to last longer. Their nanoweb coating protects against rust and extends the life of the strings all while providing a traditional uncoated feel. These 80/20 bronze strings, in particular, provide a crisp and bright tone with a vibrant presence, great for players who like to do a little more picking or solo action.

Sale
Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings w NANOWEB Coating, Light...
3597 Reviews
Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings w NANOWEB Coating, Light...
  • Acoustic guitar strings constructed with 80/20 (80% copper, 20% zinc) bronze wrap wire
  • Played for a crisp, bright tone with an expressive, vibrant presence
  • Ultra-thin NANOWEB Coating provides a more traditionally textured, "uncoated" feel
  • Our patented coating technology protects against common corrosion, extending tone life longer than any other brand's coated or uncoated strings (Elixir Strings player survey)
  • Light gauge: .012 .016 .024 .032 .042 .053

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

3.Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze - POLYWEB Coating, Light/Medium

Elixir also offers acoustic strings that come with a polyweb coating. This type of coating was their first string coating innovation back in the 90’s. The coating provides a warmer tone and also gives a faster, slick feel to the strings. This allows players to move up and down the fretboard faster without having the strings slow them down. The light/medium strings also offer a little more bass tone compared to their light gauge alternatives. It really depends on preference whether you choose to use Elixir strings with the nanoweb coating or the polyweb coating. I’d suggest trying out both and deciding which you prefer.

Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings w POLYWEB Coating,...
3597 Reviews
Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings w POLYWEB Coating,...
  • Acoustic guitar strings constructed with 80/20 (80% copper, 20% zinc) bronze wrap wire
  • Played for a warm and robust tone that sounds "played-in" but still retains a remarkably clear mid-range presence
  • Original POLYWEB Coating provides a soft, smooth feel that keeps the strings from getting in the way of playing
  • Our patented coating technology protects against common corrosion, extending tone life longer than any other brand's coated or uncoated strings (Elixir Strings player survey)
  • Light/Medium gauge: .012 .016 .024 .035 .045 .056

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

4.Martin MSP4100 SP Phosphor Bronze, Light

Martin is another great acoustic guitar string brand to try. Not only do they make guitars but they also make fantastic sounding strings to go with them. The SPs are among the most popular type of Martin guitar strings. They’re made of phosphor bronze and provide great tone for both deep rich basses and clear bright trebles.

Martin MSP4100 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light
418 Reviews
Martin MSP4100 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light
  • Gauges: .012 - .054
  • Bronze alloy for brilliance and long life

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

5.D'Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze, Medium

These strings are similar to the d’Addario set mentioned in #1 of this list. However, the difference is that these are medium gauge. These strings are preferred for players who do more heavy strumming and flat-picking. They have the same great corrosion resistant qualities and are made of phosphor bronze.

D'Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Medium, 13-56
2756 Reviews
D'Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Medium, 13-56
  • D'Addario's most popular choice for heavy strumming, flat-picking and resonant, projecting tone
  • Preferred for its warm, bright, and well balanced acoustic tone
  • Corrosion resistant packaging for strings that are always fresh
  • Made in the U.S.A. for the highest quality and performance
  • String Gauges: Plain Steel .013, .017, Phosphor Bronze Wound .026, .035, .045, .056; The edges have radii that prevent the ball end from cutting into wooden bridges or guitar tops

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

6.Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Phosphor Bronze, Medium Light

Last but not least, Ernie Ball acoustic guitar strings are also worth giving a shot. Although Ernie Ball strings are more commonly known in the electric guitar market, they do offer a phosphor bronze-based acoustic guitar string set which provides rich sound and clarity.

Sale
Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Medium Light Acoustic Phosphor Bronze String Set (12 -...
835 Reviews
Ernie Ball 2146 Earthwood Medium Light Acoustic Phosphor Bronze String Set (12 -...
  • Rich Expressive Sound
  • Excellent Clarity
  • Made in California, U.S.A. Featuring the finest and freshest materials.
  • Made from 92% copper, 7.7% tin, 0.3% phosphorus wire
  • Element Shield Packaging Prolongs string life and keeps strings as fresh as the day they were made

Last update on 2018-01-16 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

Now, it should be noted that choosing the best acoustic strings is quite a subjective process. One guitar player may prefer the feel of one brand of string over another. Also, it greatly depends on what style of acoustic guitar you’re playing. If you are going to be doing more soloing, it’s commonly better to use lighter gauged strings rather than heavy or medium. Ultimately, what it comes down to is experimentation. Don’t just stick to buying the same guitar strings over and over again. Experiment a little and decide for yourself what you like best.

A quick tip to keep track of what guitar strings you currently have on your guitar is to save the box that the strings came in and write the date for which the strings were applied on the front of the package. This will help you keep track of the string brand/type as well as how long they’ve been on your guitar (so you can better determine their longevity).

Best Acoustic Guitar Strings for Beginners

As for beginners, the best acoustic guitar strings to start out with are light gauge strings (.012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054) or custom light gauge strings (.011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052). These strings are easier to press down and bend, thus making it easier for a beginner to learn songs/technique without hurting their fingers to the point where they lose interest. I’d recommend first starting out withD'Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze, Lightstrings as they are cheap, sound great, and won’t hurt a beginner’s fingers as much as a heavier gauge will.

Once you’ve built some calluses on your fingers and are more comfortable in playing the guitar, you can then move on to deciding whether you want to experiment with medium / heavy gauge strings, or anything in between. Martin strings also have a type of string which is specifically designed to be more flexible. This allows beginners to bend notes with even greater ease. TheMartin FX stringsare made of silk and phosphor and have a thin wire core which allows them to be more flexible without sacrificing too much tone.

As mentioned above, choosing the best acoustic guitar strings for you is all about experimentation. Once you get comfortable in playing guitar with light gauge strings and feel that your fingers are stronger than they were when you first started, try moving on to a different gauge/string brand. Lastly, keep track of what’s currently on your guitar so that you can accurately judge what you prefer in terms of tone, playability, and feel.

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