Folk & Traditional Instruments

The Best Acoustic Steel Strings

The guitar strings you choose will have an enormous impact on the sound quality and playability of your instrument. Even the best quality guitars will sound dull or out of tune without proper strings.

If you have already begun to look into what strings to buy for your guitar, you’ve probably realized that there are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the right strings for your instrument. Elements like the body type of your guitar, your playing style, the strength of your fingers, the environments where you play, and even how sweaty your hands get all factor into your choice of strings.

Although we recommend doing some experimenting for yourself to find out which brands, gauges, and string materials work best for your specific situation, we want to give you a headstart on your quest to find the perfect strings.

We have spent several hours considering the factors that play into string selection, sifting through the hundreds of options available, talking with players about their favorite strings, and interviewing acoustic specialists from some of the top music stores across the country including Sam Ash, American Musical Supply, Dave’s Guitar Shop, Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater, Chicago Music Exchange, and the Guitar Center for their top picks.

Top Pick: D’Addario Phosphor Bronze light

Buy from Amazon

These strings are wound with precision to produce a warm, bright and balanced tone. They contain corrosion resistant phosphor bronze and a hexagonal, high-carbon steel core for long lasting results.

How to Pick the Best Steel Strings for Your Guitar

Acoustic vs. Classical Guitars

To begin, you must be able to make sure that your instrument is a steel string acoustic guitar and not a classical guitar. This may seem like a silly distinction to have to make, but it is crucial that you put the right strings on the right guitar.

If you happen to have a classical guitar, installing steel strings can cause major damage to your instrument. Putting nylon strings on an acoustic guitar will not necessarily cause damage, but there will be a huge decrease in sound quality.

Classical guitars have a wider fretboard, and typically the fretboard will not contain fret markings or inlays. The body of a classical guitar is much smaller than the average steel string acoustic and almost always has a symmetrical shape.

A steel string acoustic guitar will have a more slender neck and usually comes in the dreadnought style body, which is much larger than the classical guitar body.

Another major giveaway is the stock strings that are already on the guitar. If there are nylon strings already installed on your instrument, odds are you own a classical guitar.

If there are steel-strings, you probably have a steel string acoustic. Lastly, steel string guitars are normally fitted with ball-end strings whereas nylon string guitars can have either ball-end or tie-end.

If you still cannot tell after looking at these features, it may be a good idea to have a professional look at your guitar and tell you what type of strings you need. You do not want to risk the damage caused by playing with the wrong strings.

Explanation of String Gauges

The five main string gauge distinctions are extra light, custom light, light, medium, and heavy. Unfortunately, there are no set standards for these gauges, and gauge levels may feel different from brand to brand.

To make matters more confusing, gauges for electric guitar strings will be smaller than the same gauge distinction for acoustic guitar strings. Because of these discrepancies, most players and guitar string manufacturers prefer to go by the actual diameter of the strings.

String diameters are measured in 1/1000th’s of an inch and can range anywhere from .008 on the lightest string to .059 on the heaviest string. You will want to check on the exact range for any given set of acoustic strings because the exact gauges can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Here is a gauge spectrum typical for most acoustic guitar string sets:

extra light .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
custom light .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
light .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
medium .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
heavy .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

Guitarists, in an effort to simplify things, will generally refer to an entire set of strings according to the gauge diameter of the high “E” string. For example, a set of light strings from the above chart would be referred to as a “12.”

Some acoustic steel strings may have a low, medium, or high tension designation; this is a distinction generally used for classical nylon guitar strings only. The gauge is the more important distinction for acoustic steel string guitars.

Many brands now offer “hybrid gauge” strings, sometimes called light-medium strings. This set contains lighter gauges for the G,B, and E strings and heavier gauges for the E,A, and D strings. These strings are useful for players who intend to play with both picking and strumming.

How to Choose a Gauge

So how do you know what type of gauge is right for your playing situation? In deciding on a proper gauge for your guitar strings, there are a number of elements to consider.

The first is the body style of your guitar. Smaller-bodied acoustics generally sound better with lighter gauges, and larger bodied instruments with heavier gauges.

The heavier gauge strings played on a sizable dreadnought will make more of the larger sound chambers of the guitar. Likewise, small grand auditorium and parlor guitars will have a more pleasant sound when played on lighter gauge strings.

The second factor to take into account is your preferred playing style. Do you plan to do a majority of fingerpicking styles, strumming, or maybe a mix of both? Fingerpicking is much easier with lighter gauge strings.

Lighter gauge strings will also be easier on a beginner’s fingers when learning to pick for the first time. If your playing consists of hard strumming, medium or heavy gauge strings will be a better choice for you because they have more sustain and are less likely to break. If your style includes both strumming and picking, you may want to try a hybrid light-medium string set.

Third, what is your desired tone for your playing? Heavy gauge strings tend to amplify your guitar’s bass register. These heavier gauge strings will produce the deep and powerful tones that are sought after by those who love dreadnought guitars.

On the opposite side of things, a lighter gauge set will emphasize the treble notes and will bring clarity to subtle picking and strumming. Heavy gauge strings are less likely to create fret buzz and are better for slide playing or drop tunings.

If you are playing un-amplified, heavier strings will project a louder volume for you. Lighter gauge strings make it easier to bend notes, which is a useful trait for blues style or soloing.

The last component to look at is the age of your guitar. If your guitar is vintage, chances are it will be more frail than a brand new guitar. Heavier gauge strings can cause tension on the neck causing it to bow and can lift the bridge.

If you are not sure if heavy gauge strings are safe for your guitar, it is a good idea to consult the manufacturer or another guitar professional you can trust to make sure you do not damage your instrument.

Acoustic String Construction Materials

Acoustic strings are most commonly made of four popular materials: 80/20 bronze (sometimes just referred to as bronze), phosphor bronze, brass, and silk and steel (also referred to as “compound strings”). 80/20 bronze are usually made of 80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc.

These strings have the clear, bright and ringing tone that is sought after by acoustic guitarists, but loses its tone quickly as the metal oxidizes and corrodes. Phosphor bronze is similar to 80/20 bronze, but the added phosphor extends the life of the strings by preventing oxidation.

The added phosphor causes the guitar to have a warmer, darker and less bright sounding tone. Brass strings have a bright, metallic sounding tone to them.

Silk and steel (or compound strings) are often referred to as a hybrid between traditional metal strings and nylon strings. These strings are made with a steel core and are wrapped with silk, nylon or copper wire on the lower strings to produce a softer tone.

Silk and steel strings are more flexible and have a lower string tension which adds to their mellow sound. These strings tend to be popular among folk guitarists and finger style players.

String Coating

In the late 90’s, the Elixir company invented the concept of “coated strings” for guitars. Their coated strings are covered with a thin polymer coating intended to create a barrier to protect the steel strings from oil, sweat, dirt and other materials that can be damaging to guitar strings.

The polymer layer gives the guitar strings a smoother feel, making it easier on the fingers as well as reducing the amount of squeaking. The most revolutionary benefit of coated strings was that they lasted much longer than non-coated strings.

Since the 90’s, brands other than Elixir have started producing coated strings, but Elixir is still the most popular brand for those looking to purchase coated string varieties.

There are currently two varieties of coating: NANOweb and POLYweb. NANOweb strings have a lighter coating with a sound and touch more similar to uncoated strings. POLYweb strings are made with a heavier coating. They feel smoother than NANOweb strings and last longer.

Although there are benefits to having coated strings, they are not for everyone. Unfortunately, there is a faint reduction in the brightness and sustain because of the coating. To many, the added benefits of a longer life and softer feel do not justify the increased cost.

Coated strings can be helpful to those who play frequently, play in dirtier environments, or have naturally sweatier hands as they can significantly prolong the life of your strings. As you experiment with different brands and types of strings, we recommend trying out a set of coated strings to see if they work for you.

Other Tips on Strings

How to Care for Your Strings

No strings will live forever, but there are several things you can do that will help extend the life of your guitar strings. Keeping a clean cloth with you to wipe down your strings after playing will eliminate some of the sweat and grime that can collect on and degrade your strings.

Washing your hands before playing will also help in cutting back on deteriorating substances and prevent string oxidation. Pay attention to the environment where you are playing.  If it is often dusty or smoky, you need to be extra careful that you keep your strings clean after playing.

More frequent tuning changes, aggressive playing with bending or hard picking, and successive playing will all result in shortened string life. Plan on a higher budget for strings if you find yourself engaging in these activities.

Lastly, make sure you wind your strings properly. Improperly wound strings are more likely to break prematurely and will wear down much faster. Here is a helpful video to show you how to properly wind your acoustic guitar strings.

When to Change Your Strings

Although there are no set rules for when it’s time to change your strings, there are several signs that it may be time to buy a new set for your guitar. If your guitar is having a harder time staying in tune, or your tone starts sounding colorless or lifeless, a new set of strings will give you a brighter tone and improved sound.

Signs of rust or other discoloration as well as unwinding string wraps can be a good indication that it is time for a change. Odds are, if you cannot remember the last time you got a change, it’s time to hit the guitar store and get some new strings on your guitar.

It can be helpful to keep a new set of strings on hand to compare to your current strings. This will give you a better idea of how much your old strings have been worn down since being replaced.

You can save a lot of money by buying strings in bulk once you know which type is your favorite. Strings usually don’t go bad in their packaging, so it does not hurt to have more than one at a time. In fact, it can be a good idea to keep an extra set on hand with you in case of emergency string breakage.

The Competition

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

InstrumentRatingCurrent Pricing
D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Light
High-carbon steel core for long lasting result$4.95
Elixer Phosphor Bronze with NANOweb coating
Have a wonderfully soft feel to the fingers and are great for beginner players because they are easier on uncalloused finger$15.99
GHS Silk and Steel Silver-plated Strings
Made with a silk and steel core and are wrapped with silver-plated copper to create a pleasant and mellow sound$11.84
D’Addario Nickel Bronze
Made with high-carbon steel for increased corrosion defense, strength for avoiding string breakage, and tuning stability$11.99
La Bella Phosphor Bronze
Have a nice bright tone and a relatively long string life$12.06
Martin MSP3100 80/20 SP Strings
Have a beautiful, crisp sound$8.90
Cleartone Phosphor Bronze
Provide consistent tuning and long tonal life$33.98
Ernie Ball Slinky Phosphor Bronze
Provide wonderful tone for a wide range of playing styles$4.45

Our Recommendation: D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Light

D’Addario is the oldest guitar string company dating all the way back to the 1600’s. Today, they have become one of the most distinguished string manufacturers in the world.

Not only have they been the trailblazers for much of the modern guitar string making methods, especially for electric guitars, but they now manufacturer quality strings for just about any stringed instrument on the market.

D’Addario has a reputation for keeping all of their production in the United States to ensure that quality standards are kept. D’Addario Phosphor Bronze strings have become a very popular choice for both amateurs and professionals alike.

These strings are wound with precision to produce a warm, bright and balanced tone. They contain corrosion resistant phosphor bronze and a hexagonal, high-carbon steel core for long lasting results. The D’Addario Phosphor Bronze are known for being comfortable to play and having a beautiful sound that lasts.

If you are new to guitar playing and you don’t know where to start in your search for the perfect guitar strings, we highly recommend trying the D’Addario Phosphor bronze strings first. We don’t think you will be disappointed.

Runner Up: Elixer Phosphor Bronze with NANOweb coating

Elixir is known for having high standards in string production and for having a drive to continue to push the bar higher for even better product lines. With their patented string coating technology, they are still the forerunner in coated strings production.

The Elixir Phosphor Bronze with NANOweb coating string set uses this top-notch technology to provide strings with great tone that will last up to five times longer than uncoated strings.

According to several players and acoustic specialists, these strings have a wonderfully soft feel to the fingers and are great for beginner players because they are easier on uncalloused fingers.

Because the NANOweb coating is ultra thin, it provides a high level of protection without sacrificing the rich sound and feel of traditional strings. The Elixir Phosphor Bronze with NANOweb coating should definitely be at the top of your list for strings to try.

Other Strings to Consider: GHS Silk and Steel Silver-plated Strings

Credit: GHS Strings

The GHS Silk and Steel Silver-plated String set is another good acoustic string option if you are looking a softer, more classical guitar sounding tone and feel in your guitar playing.

These strings are made with a silk and steel core and are wrapped with silver-plated copper to create a pleasant and mellow sound and lower tension for your fingers.

According to one reviewer, these strings are great for amplified or studio playing because they make less squeaks and other extra noise. If you are a hard player, these probably aren’t the strings for you, but if you like a soft warm sound for finger picking, consider giving these strings a try.

D’Addario Nickel Bronze

Another popular option from D’Addario is the Nickel Bronze Acoustic String set. These strings are made with high-carbon steel for increased corrosion defense, strength for avoiding string breakage, and tuning stability.

As an uncoated string set, these strings will produce a warm, bright tone and stronger projection. These strings will emphasize the distinctive tone of your guitar with beautiful sound.

Because these strings are uncoated, they won’t last as long as coated strings, but they will produce a crisper, brighter sound and are definitely worth a try.

La Bella Phosphor Bronze

Credit: Amazon.com

La Bella Phosphor Bronze acoustic strings have a nice bright tone and a relatively long string life compared to other phosphor bronze sets.

These strings are specially packaged in MAP Technology (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) to help avoid tarnishing and keep freshness before use. La Bella strings tend to be more budget friendly and are a solid option for guitar enthusiasts.

Martin MSP3100 80/20 SP Strings

Martin MSP3100 SP 80/20 bronze light acoustic guitar strings are composed of 80/20 composition alloy and have a beautiful, crisp sound. These strings really bring out the rich basses and dazzling trebles.

The Martin 80/20 SP strings are generally chosen for their excellent sound and not for their longevity as they have a much shorter lifespan than coated strings. If you are someone who changes your strings after every gig and want relatively inexpensive strings that sound amazing, this is a good option for you.

Cleartone Phosphor Bronze

Cleartone Phosphor Bronze light acoustic guitar strings is another good option for those who want coated strings for added longevity.

Although slightly more expensive, these strings have a thin micron coating that is extremely durable and won’t flake off with hard playing to provide you with a longer playing time between string changes.

Cleartone strings have a high tension winding over a hex-core to provide consistent tuning and long tonal life. These strings are recommended for guitarists who have sweaty hands because they will provide a high level of protection against deteriorating substances.

Ernie Ball Slinky Phosphor Bronze

The Ernie Ball String Company is well-known for their electric guitar strings, but they also produce a very nice line of acoustic strings. The Ernie Ball Slinky Phosphor Bronze strings are very affordable and provide wonderful tone for a wide range of playing styles.

These strings have excellent sound and last a decent amount of time. Ernie Ball strings are the highest quality option when compared to other strings in the same price range.

Sources

American Musical Supply. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.americanmusical.com/
Chicago Music Exchange. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from
http://www.chicagomusicexchange.com/
Dave’s Guitar Shop. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.davesguitar.com/
Glynn, L. (April, 19 2016). Classical vs. Acoustic Guitars – which is right for me? Retrieved from http://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/classical-vs-acoustic-guitars-right
Glynn, L. (April 29, 2016). Acoustic Guitar Strings Guide. Retrieved from http://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/acoustic-guitar-strings-guide
How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar. (February 20, 2014). Retrieved from http://thehub.musiciansfriend.com/guitar-buying-guides/how-to-choose-the-right-acoustic-guitar-strings
Musicians Friend. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2016, from http://www.musiciansfriend.com/
Sam Ash. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.samash.com/
The Definitive Guide to Guitar Strings for Acoustic/Electric Guitar. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://ehomerecordingstudio.com/best-guitar-strings/
Music, Instruments & Pro Audio. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.sweetwater.com/
The Guitar Center. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.guitarcenter.com/
The Top Acoustic Guitar Strings to Consider. In-Depth Beginner’s Guide with Reviews, Tips and Recommendations. (n.d.) Retrieved December 23, 2016, from http://www.guitarfella.com/best-guitar-strings/acoustic/
GLM. (July, 22 2015). What Are The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings: Reviews and Comparisons. Retrieved from http://guitarlessonsmag.com/best-acoustic-guitar-strings-reviews-comparisons/
Whitmore, L. (May 25, 2015) 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Acoustic Strings for You. Retrieved from http://www.guitarworld.com/acoustic-nation-10-tips-choosing-right-acoustic-strings-you

Start the discussion at talk.hearthemusicplay.com

/* ]]> */