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How to Choose the Best Electric Guitar Strings

How to Choose the Best Electric Guitar Strings

If you’re playing and practicing regularly, you’re going to be spending a lot of time over the years changing your strings. So it makes sense that you should get the best electric guitar strings you can. Finding the strings that suit your playing style and genre, match well with your guitar and feel right can be a part of your musical journey. But shortcuts are always welcome and, in this article, we’re going to offer you some tips and suggestions so that you can find the best-sounding, best-playing strings. From best sellers like Ernie Ball Slinky, D’Addario NYXL, and DR Pure Blues, we’ll help you find the set that’s best for your electric guitar. 

Table of Contents

When You Need to Change Your Strings
Understanding String Gauge, Scale Length, Tension and Feel
Common String Materials
    Plain Strings
    String Wrap Options
    Coated and Treated Strings
Drop Tuning and Extended-Range Guitars
Accessories for Better String Life

When You Need to Change Your Strings

Many beginning and intermediate guitarists struggle with how often they should change their strings. Some players change their strings before every gig or session. Some only replace strings as they break. Between these two extremes, there’s a happy medium that we recommend for most players.

If you find your strings are sounding “dead,” changing tone or looking tarnished, it’s definitely time to change them. If you want consistent sound over time, though, you should just set a schedule for replacing strings. Start with the rule of thumb that you should change strings every 100 hours of playing or practice time or every three months, whichever comes first. For the majority of guitarists, that will be enough to keep your electric guitar sounding and playing great. If you are a very aggressive player with a hard attack, or if you do a lot of string bending, you may need to increase the frequency of string changes to every 50–75 hours of playing time or every 6–8 weeks. If you still find strings going dead quickly, consider changing to a coated string, like the Elixir, Ernie Ball Paradigm or D’Addario XT series, which we’ll talk about in more depth a little later.

Pro Tip: If you’re breaking strings regularly, despite string changes, it’s probably time to bring your axe in to Guitar Center Repairs for a checkup to make sure that you don’t have rough spots, or burrs, on your bridge saddles.

Ernie Ball Paradigm Electric Gutar Strings

Pictured: Ernie Ball Paradigm Electric Guitar Strings 

Understanding String Gauge, Scale Length, Tension and Feel

Unlike acoustic strings, which are usually referred to as heavy, medium, light or extra light gauge, electric guitar string gauges are usually referred to by the gauge of the high E string. While the measurement is given in thousandths of an inch, it’s always truncated. So, a player who uses strings where the E string is .009 inches will say, “I play nines.” Electric string gauges will start as low as .008, and the most common sets are .009 and .010 (nines and tens), with some players going to sets that start as heavy as an .013 gauge high E.

One of the biggest factors that will go into finding the best electric guitar string for you is the intersection of string gauge and scale length, which is the distance from the bridge to the nut. Simply put, the longer the scale, the more tension it takes to get a string of the same gauge to pitch. So, a set of regular .010 gauge strings will feel tighter on a 25.5”-scale guitar, like a Strat® or Tele® than they will on one with a 24.75”-scale like a Les Paul. Tension also affects tone, with higher tensions being generally brighter and punchier, and lower tensions being darker and smoother. Some players like the best of both worlds, and this has led to the development of hybrid sets like the Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky sets or D’Addario EXL140 set. In these sets, the low strings are heavier than the standard string gauge for that top string, which makes the bass notes punchier and more well-defined, while the top strings stay easier to bend and fret.

Your preferred playing style and genre is going to have an effect on what string gauge is going to work best for you, as well. Even within a single genre, the variations are numerous. For example, if you play progressive metal on the “djent” side of things, heavier strings are going to put a lot more beef in your low end. Whereas, if you shred metal, lighter strings will mean lower action, lighter touch and more speed. Here’s a handy chart of the most common string gauges, what playing styles and genres they work well with, and some representative string sets that you might want to give a try.

Gauge Genre/Style Recommended String Sets
.008 to .038 Shred, Rock D'Addario NYXL0838 Extra Super Light Electric Guitar Strings 
.009 to .042 Shred, Rock, Blues-Rock  D'Addario NYXL0942 Super Light Electric Guitar Strings
.009 to .046 Rock, Country, Blues-Rock Ernie Ball 2222 Nickel Hybrid Slinky Electric Guitar Strings
.010 to .046 Blues, Country, Classic Rock, Jazz Fusion 10-46 Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 2221 Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings
.011 to .048 Blues, Jazz Ernie Ball 2220 Power Slinky Nickel Electric Guitar Strings

The conclusion from this is that, if you play more than one scale length and want your guitars to feel similar, you should refrain from putting the same gauge on all your guitars. Rather, you should use a lighter string gauge on the longer-scale guitars. For example, if you’re using an Ernie Ball Regular Slinky set on your 24.75”-scale guitar, try a Super Slinky set on your 25.5”-scale axe.

D'Addario NYXL Super Light Electric Guitar Strings

Pictured: D'Addario NYXL Super Light Electric Guitar Strings 

On the other hand, tension affects tone, with lower tension being warmer, with less attack, and higher tension being brighter, with a sharper attack. So, changing string gauge for lower or higher tension (lighter or heavier strings) you can do some fine tuning on your tonal characteristics. A short scale guitar, like a Fender Jaguar or a Gretsch Streamliner with heavy strings on it, for example, can provide a piano-like bass with seriously twang on the upper strings.

Common String Materials

Although for years it’s been popular to say that “a string is a string is a string,” there are plenty of differences in string materials. From subtle differences in the alloy steel wire used in plain strings to the size and shape of the core of wound strings and material of the wire used to wrap those cores, many factors contribute to making different manufacturers strings stand apart from each other.

Plain Strings

Pretty much all plain steel strings, which means the G, B and high E on most electric sets, are made from drawn carbon steel that’s usually called “music wire,” or “piano wire.” It’s not really anything new. In fact, it’s been around in various forms in musical instruments for over 600 years. These days, however, the raw wire can be given various treatments like heat (maraging) or cold (cryogenics) to alter the crystalline structure of the wire. Different manufacturers may use slightly differing alloys, but, aside from the treated ones, they’re essentially the same basic stuff.

String Wrap Options

The wound strings are where we get into the larger differences. What are these differences? First is the string core. This is the same basic material as the plain strings, but it can be different shapes; generally round or hexagonal, which affect how the wrap grips the core. It can also be a different gauge. Since the tension of a string is affected more by the gauge of the core, the ratio of the core gauge to the wrap gauge can make two strings of the same gauge feel quite different. You don’t need to know the numbers (who wants to do equations in their head when they’re looking at the string wrap anyway?), but just know that’s what can make two different brands of the same gauge feel quite different.

DR Strings Legend Extralife Flatwound Electric Guitar Strings

Pictured: D'Addario NYXL Super Light Electric Guitar Strings 

The wraps also offer variety in material and form. Wrap alloys may be Nickel/Steel, Cobalt/Steel, Chrome/Steel, Stainless or a variety of others. The wrap material can also be round, flat or ground down from round to flat (known as “half-round”). Flatwound and half-round strings are traditionally popular choices for straight-ahead jazz players. Each wrap has its own sound and feel. Here’s a chart that looks at the tonal characteristics of the various wrap types and points to some examples for you the experiment with.

Wrap Type Characteristics Recommended String Sets
Nickel Warm, smooth Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 2221 (10-46) Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings
Cobalt Bright, with plenty of attack Ernie Ball 2721 Cobalt Regular Slinky Electric Guitar Strings
Chrome/Stainless Even brighter, sharp attack D'Addario XL Chromes Jazz Light Electric Guitar Strings ECG24 Flatwound 
Round-wound Bright, good attack, good sustain Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 2221 (10-46) Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings
Flat-wound Very warm, less sustain DR Strings Legend Extra Life Flatwound Electric Guitar Strings
Half-round Between round and flat-wound in brightness and sustain D'Addario EHR310 Half Round Regular Light Electric Guitar Strings

Coated and Treated Strings

Coated and treated strings can keep your tone and feel far more consistent from string change to string change. Over the past couple of decades, these strings have become a popular choice for many guitarists. Originating with the creation of Elixir strings, coating formulations were quickly developed by long-time industry forces like Ernie Ball and D’Addario, vastly increasing the available choices for guitarists. Using advanced polymers and plastics to apply an extremely thin coating to the string not only keeps string corrosion to a minimum, but it also keeps nasty stuff from accumulating between windings. Between the two, it helps both lengthen string life and keep that “new string” sound going much longer. While we believe you should still use the 100-hour/3-month rule, going with coated/treated strings puts more consistency at your fingertips.

Whichever strings you’ve been using, you can easily find a coated version, probably from the same company that makes your regular set. From their original coating, Elixir has expended to three variations, each with a slightly different feel—Polyweb, Nanoweb and Optiweb. Ernie Ball’s Paradigm line features their ultra-thin coating, and D’Addario’s XT family carries their proprietary coatings.

Elixir Nanoweb Electric Guitar Strings

Pictured: Elixir Nanoweb Electric Guitar Strings 

Drop Tuning and Extended-Range Guitars

With the popularity of lowered tuning for heavy sounds, there is increasing demand for information on the best electric guitar string sets for seriously heavy music. The growth of 7- and 8-string guitars, and the proliferation of multi-scale instruments from builders like Ibanez, Strandberg, Legator and others, make this even more critical. With a 6-string guitar, the biggest factor to consider is how far down you’re tuning. Taking it a minor third or more down with regular guitar gauges will reduce the tension enough that you’ll lose note definition and sustain while gaining string rattle. A good solution will be the Ernie Ball 2626 Nickel “Not Even Slinky” or the DR Drop Down Tuning XX-Heavy sets.

Ernie Ball Not Even Slinky Electric Guitar Strings

Pictured: Ernie Ball Not Even Slinky Electric Guitar Strings 

For 7- and 8-string guitars, you can stay with traditional gauges on the top six strings, but the added low strings will be critical. This is especially the case with multi-scale instruments as the lower strings are also longer scale lengths, which means higher tension. For extended-range and multi-scale guitars, stick with sets specifically designed for those instruments, like the D’Addario NYXL1059 7-string or Ernie Ball 8-String Slinky sets.

Accessories for Better String Life

Proper technique for stringing your guitar and ongoing cleaning and maintenance will help keep your strings playing easier and sounding newer, longer. Every guitar you own should have a small maintenance kit tucked in the case or gig bag, so you’re never caught out short when you need to change strings, deal with breakage on a gig or any other string emergency. What do you need to keep on hand? Here’s a list.

Winders

A string winder not only saves time when changing strings, but it makes it easier to get even winds on the tuner post, which makes for more stable tuning. For a manual string winder, we recommend the top-rated MusicNomad GRIP. If you change strings a lot or have more than a couple of guitars, you might prefer a motorized winder, like the Ernie Ball PowerPeg. If you’re in a real hurry, one of the attachment bits for a cordless drill, like the D’Addario Planet Waves Drill Bit Winder, will get the job done in a flash.

Ernie Ball PowerPeg Pro Winder

Pictured: Ernie Ball PowerPeg String Winder 

Cutters

Despite all the photos you may have seen of well-known guitarists with string ends waving free at the headstock, it’s always neater and safer (hey, you’ll put an eye out with that thing) to keep the strings neatly trimmed at the tuner post. If space in your case is at a premium, we’d recommend going with a combination winder/trimmer, like the D’Addario Planet Waves Pro Winder. If you’ve got the room, especially if you’re playing heavier strings, a pro-level cutter like the Dunlop DGT07 gives you better leverage for cutting that .074 gauge low E/F# on your 8-string.

D'Addario Planet Waves Pro-Winder/Cutter & XLR8 String Lubricant/Cleaner Kit

Pictured: D'Addario Planet Waves Pro-Winder/Cutter & XLR8 String Lubricant/Cleaner Kit 

Fretboard Conditioners

Keeping your fretboard clean and well-conditioned helps keep the grime off your strings and makes it easier to play. So, whenever you’re changing the full set of strings, we seriously recommend giving the fretboard a quick treatment while you’ve got the strings off. The MusicNomad F-One cleaner and conditioner is a popular choice for this. You also pick up a box or two of the Ernie Ball Wonder Wipe Fretboard Conditioner pre-packaged wipes and just stash a couple of the individual wipes in each case or gig bag. If you’re one of those people who also does a complete clean and polish every time you change your strings (and shouldn’t we all be one of “those people?”), it’s well worth picking up the D’Addario Planet Waves Guitar Care and Cleaning Kit to make it all nice and shiny.

MusicNomad F-One Fretboard Conditioning Oil

Pictured: MusicNomad F-One Fretboard Conditioning Oil 

String Wipes

You probably want to maximize your string life and keep that “new string” sound longer. If so, you should never put your guitar back in the case without wiping down your strings to keep them clean and protect against premature corrosion. There are a lot of choices here, from GHS Fast Fret, which has been around since the 1960s, to the individually packaged Ernie Ball Wonder Wipe String Cleaner.

Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes String Cleaner

Pictured: Ernie Ball Wonder Wipe String Cleaner 

Pro Tip: Keep a spare microfiber cloth in your case to wipe down your strings and neck every time you put it down during a practice session, jam or gig. At the end of the day, do the thorough string clean with the products mentioned to get the most out of your string investment.

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