Guitars Reviews

The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings

Strings are the one item that acoustic guitar players will need to continuously purchase to keep their music makers up and running. While a pack of basic strings only costs a few dollars, the accumulated cost of restringing an acoustic guitar leaves many musicians searching for a long-lasting, quality product that they can continuously depend on.

After combing through hundreds of online reviews, speaking with a guitar expert, researching the science behind guitar strings, and giving several acoustic guitar strings a try, we’ve decided our favorites strings are Elixir Phosphor Bronze. These strings were extremely durable, and unlike similar brands, premature breakage wasn’t even an afterthought.

Top Pick: Elixir Acoustic Strings with NANOWEB Coating
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These strings generate the crispest tones and sound clarity for a great price. They have an exceptionally long life compared to similar brands, yet they still have the traditional textured feel of acoustic strings thanks to their extra-sheer NANOWEB coating. 

Why You Should Trust Us

We sifted through over 100 acoustic guitar strings available on Amazon, Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center to determine what players were using and why.

We also tested five of the top rated guitar strings, informally polled several acoustic guitar players of varying levels to determine the longevity and quality of several strings, and spoke with a guitar expert.

We researched into the science behind acoustic guitars to determine what product specs could truly effect the sound quality of an instrument. After hours of research and testing, we are highly confident with our recommendation.

How to Choose the Best Acoustic Strings

There are many factors to consider when choosing the best acoustic guitar strings, including the composition of the strings, playing style, sound preference, and guitar type.

While electric guitars rely on amplifiers and effects to generate sound, strings are a major factor when it comes to amplifying acoustic guitars. So musicians look to their strings to optimize their desired sound.

Since there are many different types of acoustic guitars and playing styles to choose from, there is no one right choice when selecting acoustic guitar strings. What gauge, composition, and coating are right for one musician could be wrong for another.

Many musicians become brand-loyal once they discover the string set that works best for them. We will explain the different features and benefits of acoustic guitar strings to help you better select which set is right for you and your guitar.

Sound Quality

There are a variety of specialized terms used when discussing acoustic guitar strings. We’ll define a few:

Tone – Tone refers to the quality of sound (Reeser, 2009). Acoustic guitar tones are often referred to as bright, warm, or dull.

Tension – Tension in the level of tightness generated from tuning, tightening, your strings. While tension is necessary to generate sound, lighter gauge strings will exert less tension on the guitar, making them a better choice for vintage guitars.

Polymer Coating – Polymer coating is a popular addition to acoustic strings. The coatings are usually made out of Teflon and used to prevent premature string corrosion.

String Gauge

For beginner guitarists, one of the most confusing string factors is the gauge. Simply put, the gauge is the size or thickness of the strings. The gauge is often represented individual string packages by a decimal number, usually something in between .010 and .059. This measurement represents the thousandths of an inch.

Since each set of strings contains six strings, each package contains a set of six different gauged strings. These sets are usually labeled extra light, custom light, light, medium, or heavy.

Lighter gauge strings, or those that are smaller in diameter, are easier to pluck and play. However, they are also easier to break and are often quieter. They are a good choice for beginners, vintage guitars, or acoustic guitars with electric pickups.

Heavier gauged strings produce more sound, are more difficult to pluck or strum, they have less flexibility, and put more tension on the body of the guitar.

Acoustic guitar players may opt for medium to heavy gauge strings if they are playing in a particular style, such as slide guitar. Otherwise, they may be looking to produce more volume or emphasize the deeper notes of the guitar.

String Composition

Strings are composed of a variety of metals, such as bronze, phosphorous bronze, copper, and stainless steel. One of the most popular materials is 80/20 bronze, which is composed of 80% copper and 20% zinc.

Another popular make is phosphorous bronze, which is made of copper and tin with phosphor. String manufacturers play around with string composition to generate a variety of preferred tones.

For example, bronze strings are often described as having bright tones, while phosphorous bronze strings are described as warm and heavy.

We recommend you start with either high-quality phosphorus bronze strings or 80/20 bronze strings. Musicians value both compositions, but in the end it the choice is a matter of sound preference.

Coating

Investing in a string with a coating is a matter of preference for most musicians. Coatings vary by manufacturer, but most are made of a polymer that covers the surface of the strings. The coating is used to prevent string corrosion and promote string longevity.

Arguments can be made for and against string coatings. For one, the coating effects sound. However, uncoated strings break down and therefore decrease in sound quality sooner.

While we might not recommend professionally recording with a coated string, we highly recommend a coated string for daily practice. Afterall, who doesn’t want to prolong the frustrating process of switching out strings?

A Matter of Preference

Determining which guitar strings are best for you is just as much a matter of preference as it is scientific. Fingerpickers will likely prefer extra light or light gauge strings because they are easier to pluck.

Meanwhile, strummers or combination strummer/finger pickers often desire a medium or medium-light gauge string because they are sturdier and more versatile. Those using vintage guitars will want to consider using lighter gauge strings to protect their aging instruments.

We spoke with Jay Boone, of Seattle’s Emerald City Guitars, who reminded us that, “there are as many opinions about guitar strings as there are about political candidates” (Boone).

While this is true, understanding the fundamental qualities of acoustic strings and comparing them to top user reviews can help musicians make a more informed decision. You can also check out informational videos, such as this one by Tobias Rauscher, to hear a compelling personal argument for string selection (Rauscher).

If you are just starting out, we recommend you switch out the generic set of strings that came with your instrument. Start with something fresh, like our top-pick, Elixir NANOWEB phosphor bronze acoustic strings, and play it for a while to determine if you like the feel.

If not, try something a bit different. Only you will be able to determine whether you prefer coating to no coating or vice versa. When starting out, start with light strings.

It takes time for your fingers to develop callouses and muscles needed to properly manipulate heavier gauge strings. Remain patient and keep trying different products.

Caring for Your Strings

No matter what string set you select, proper string maintenance is imperative to getting optimal results. In this video, YouTube personality “Mark the Guitar Guy” goes over basic acoustic guitar care.

Guitar string maintenance can be easily broken down into two categories: caring for and switching out. When caring for your strings, you’ll want to do your best to do your best to prevent the build-up of dirt and grime.

To do this, simply wash and dry your hands before playing your guitar. It is also a good idea to wipe your strings down after use to remove any sweat.

The decision to change your strings is determined on an individual basis. The length of time musicians go between string changes varies greatly.

However, if a player feels their instrument is producing less than desired tones or their strings are beginning to feel rough or show signs of corrosion, new strings are a good idea. Wikihow has a great tutorial on how to replace guitar strings.

The Competition

After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.

InstrumentRatingCurrent Pricing
Elixir Strings with NANOWEB Coating
Provides bright, long-lasting tones while preventing rust or corrosion to the metal beneath it$15.99
D'Addario EJ16
Provide a lengthy lifetime of bright tones$4.95
Elixir light NANOWEB 80/20
Much thinner than other polymer coatings on the market$13.99
Ernie Ball Earthwood
Produce bright tones and superb clarity$4.99
Martin MSP4150 SP
Stronger and produce optimal volume$7.95
Martin M140
Made with the same high-quality metals$4.00
D'Addario EXP16
Vibrant sound and pitch stability$10.95
Fender 80/20
Bright, clear, and had minimal breakage issues$9.23
Martin MFX130 Silk & Phosphor
Feature is great for finger pickers and beginners$8.49
D'Addario EFT16 Flat Top PB
Provided a smooth surface for easy cord changes and quick finger moves$13.68
Ernie Ball Nickel Plain
Set of six plain nickel strings serves its purpose in providing multiple easy-to-install backups$6.97
Martin M2100 Marquis Phosphor
Feature a silk cloth wrap at the ball end of each string$8.49

Our Recommendation: Elixir Strings with NANOWEB Coating

For just over $15, Elixir Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings are priced slightly higher than most competitors. However, these coated strings will likely save you money and time in the long run.

The NANOWEB coating provides bright, long-lasting tones while preventing rust or corrosion to the metal beneath it. Elixir’s NANOWEB coating is their thinnest option and preferred by many acoustic guitar players. The Teflon coating is noticeable but closest in feeling to traditional strings.

We tested these strings out on both a vintage Gibson Acoustic J-45 and a Baby Taylor Acoustic. While both instruments differed greatly, they both generated superior sound and bright, lively tones with the Elixirs.

Compared to non-coated strings, the NANOWEB coating was smooth and easy on the hands. The clarity of sound was consistent if not better than similarly rated coated and noncoated phosphor bronze strings.

After speaking informally with several musicians and comparing reviews from popular online retailers, we’d say that these strings do last up to 3-5 times more than their competitors.

The NANOWEB coating provided a protective barrier between the bridge and strings, giving us added reassurance that our beloved instruments were protected. Unlike other coated strings, the Elixirs maintained their tuning, while being sleek enough to significantly reduce unwanted finger noise.

Runner Up: D’Addario EJ16

D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar StringsD'Addario EJ16 are a great budget choice. For a third of the price of Elixirs, D’Addario’s Phosphor strings provide a lengthy lifetime of bright tones.

The EJ16s are available in extra-light, custom light, light, and medium. For beginners, we suggest giving the light a try.

Jay Boone, of Seattle’s Emerald City Guitar, said, “We prefer D’Addario EJ 16’s as our string of choice for acoustic guitars” (Boone). After testing out a set of light D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, we can see why.

These strings produced bright, well-balanced tones on a variety of acoustic guitars. However, musicians seem to agree that, while sounding great, these strings tend to wear out quickly. They felt brittle compared to the NANOWEB Elixirs.

Other Products to Consider:

We stand behind out top recommendations. However, if you are looking to try out something different. We’ve sifted through and researched hundreds of additional products to determine ten high-quality runner-ups.

Elixir light NANOWEB 80/20

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Elixir’s 80/20 bronze strings are a close runner-up to our top-choice, the NANOWEB Phosphor Bronze strings. This product has super thin NANOWEB coating, which we feel is the optimal choice to prolong the life of your strings without dramatically altering their sound output or feel.

We appreciate this feature because it is much thinner than other polymer coatings on the market. Better yet, it lends itself to the 80/20’s smooth surface, durability, and extensive life.

The main difference between the 80/20 and phosphor bronze strings are their tones. Elixir describes the 80/20 strings as sounding bright and bell-like, while the phosphor bronze ones off warmth and sparkle.

We recommend these to musicians of all skill levels. They are thin and flexible enough for beginners and minimize the need for frequent string changes.

Ernie Ball Ernie Ball Earthwood Light Phosphor Bronze

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For years these strings were sold as Ernie Ball’s “Super Slinky Acoustic,” but don’t let the new packaging fool you.

The Earthwood lights are an affordable option for beginners, with a single pack costing around $6 online. These strings produce bright tones and superb clarity.

Bands such as The Counting Crows, The Edge, and Maroon 5 have claimed that Ernie Ball’s are their top choice when touring and performing. Compared to similarly priced options, these strings are soft on the hands, easy to install, and have a prolonged life.

Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light-Medium

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These strings sell for around $6 a pack. They feature a steel core covered in a smooth, bronze wire coating. We appreciated their bright tones but can confirm that these strings are no-frills.

They seem to satisfy the expectations of the price criteria, but some of the strings, especially the high-E, are prone to easy breakage. We would recommend the medium-light variety to an experienced player.

The medium-light strings are stronger and produce optimal volume, but they are not easy on the hands. If you are just starting out, the Martin SP lights will prove to be more flexible and thus easier to work with.

Martin M140 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Light

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Martin’s 80/20 bronze strings are available online for just under $4. While inexpensive, they last long and offer continued clarity over the course of several playing sessions.

They feature a bronze composition, which is great because it gives them deeper, richer tones. This feature is really useful when looking to emphasize the bass and treble.

They are made with the same high-quality metals as Martin’s other strings but cost a fraction of the price. If you are looking for a no-frills option from a reputable manufacturer, the bronze acoustics are they way to go.

D’Addario EXP16 with NY Steel Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, Coated, Light

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D’Addario’s EXP series features Teflon coated strings with NY steel cores. Of the series, the EXP16 phosphor acoustic strings are by far the most popular option.

One of the claims to fame with these strings is their vibrant sound and pitch stability. These strings do not produce as bright of tones as D’Addario’s uncoated lights, but the sound is still top-notch.

We appreciate the Teflon coating, but it does not offer as much coverage as the Elixir NANOWEB coating. That being said, it did prove to be smoother on the fingers and reduce excess playing sound.

For $10, these strings are a budget-friendly coated string we’d recommend to both beginners and advanced players.

Fender 80/20 Coated Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Fender is well-known for their electric guitars, but many people don’t associate them with acoustic guitars. That being said, we would still give Fender’s acoustic strings a generous rating.

The strings were bright, clear, and had minimal breakage issues. They cost around $7, which is cheap considering they feature a grime-resistant coating. We appreciated this feature, but it did seem to dull the tone of steel strings.

It was less slippery that the Elixir NANOWEB strings, but reduced friction enough to eliminate some unwanted finger squeaks. We’d recommend these strings to someone looking for an extremely wallet-friendly set of coated strings. But we don’t suggest letting these strings be your only experience with the coated variety.

Martin MFX130 Silk & Phosphor Acoustic Guitar Stings, Custom Light

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For musicians looking for an extremely flexible string that is easy on the fingers, these Silk & Phosphor strings are a definite choice.

These strings have a strong, thin core with a thick outer wire wrap. But they do compromise some sound quality and volume do to their extreme flexibility. This feature is great for finger pickers and beginners.

We do not recommend plucking these strings too hard. We don’t suggest committing to these strings full time, as there are other ones on the market that are equally light and still maintain bright tones.

However, they are guaranteed to reduce string tension and take less of a toll on your hands, if that is what you are looking for. They sell for around $5 online.

D’Addario EFT16 Flat Top PB Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

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D’Addario’s flat top strings are just what they sound like, a string that has been polished down to create a smooth playing surface. The flattened surface helps to eliminate unwanted noise.

We felt that these strings didn’t have the brightest tones. However, they are worth the investment of around $12 if you are looking to drastically reduce finger noise.

For the same price, we preferred D’Addario’s coated series, which provided a smooth surface for easy cord changes and quick finger moves. However, the flat wound option is more ideal for recording sessions.

Ernie Ball Nickel Plain Single Guitar String

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For under $4, these strings are the solution for anyone who frequently breaks their high E string. No matter the quality, the high E is especially light and prone to breakage.

Therefore, this set of six plain nickel strings serves its purpose in providing multiple easy-to-install backups. Despite the simplicity of these strings, the tones were bright.

The strings were strong and held up against continued play. While single strings are available to purchase, the bulk pack is budget-friendly and eliminates the need to find replacement strings every time you snap a string.

If you are already a fan of Ernie Ball acoustic strings, these are a no-brainer.

Martin M2100 Marquis Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Martin has an extensive line of budget priced strings that work well. The Marquis are unique because they feature a silk cloth wrap at the ball end of each string.

We appreciate this feature when looking for a budget-friendly string set for our favorite acoustic instruments. While we didn’t find the tone of the Marquis strings to be extravagant, for just over $4 they were worth the piece of mind in protecting the wood of the bridge.

Martin’s Marquis strings are available in both 80/20 bronze,92/9 phosphor bronze, and silk & steel folk. If your guitar indeed comes first, you’ll want to give these a try.

Sources

  • Buying Guide: How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings | The HUB
    http://thehub.musiciansfriend.com/guitar-buying-guides/how-to-choose-the-right-acoustic-guitar-strings
  • Jay Boone Interview [E-mail interview]. (2016, December 3).
  • Professor String. The Five Things You Must Know About Coated Guitar Strings
    http://www.professorstring.com/archives/coated_guitar_strings.php
  • Rauscher, T. Tobias Rauscher]. (2016, June 8). Which Guitar Strings and Gauges Should I Use?[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3thaeJBJBTc.
  • What Is Tone in Music?
    Cynthia Reeser – http://www.ehow.com/about_4924329_what-tone-music.htm

Notable Replies

  1. Good call on the Elixir Phosphor Bronzes. I’ve tried a lot of string but stick with these most of the time now. Tried the Martins, Daddarios, and a whole list of others. I find the Phosohor Bronzes just that much more flexible. Feel good and the comfort is good. They last and hey, 6 in a box. Coating doesn’t take away from tone far as I can tell. Sound is right on. Glad to see the article saying that really its all personal. Have to find what works for you.

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