Which guitar strings should I use?
I am often asked about guitar strings: What gauge would I recommend? Which brand do I prefer? How often should a set be changed? I figured it was about time I shared some of my observations on what I have come to know about guitar strings during my 30 years as a guitarist.
Ultimately, the gauge of string you use comes down to personal preference, based on factors such as the size and strength of your hands and simply what feels comfortable, especially when it comes to string bends. Your preferred string gauge can (and often will) change as you experiment. Some guitarists settle on their favourite gauge after years of trying different string thicknesses and tensions, while others stick with the same gauge for their entire playing career.
When it comes to string brands, your preference will, for the most part, be dictated by your personal experience when trying that particular brand. This, too, is highly subjective. For example, I have had negative experiences with strings by leading brands that some of my peers swear by. While it would be unprofessional of me to mention brand names, there is one leading string brand that I always seem to break more easily than others. Similarly, strings by another popular manufacturer tend to corrode very quickly when in my sweaty paws. You may wish to experiment with the leading brands until you settle on your personal favourite, based on what feels the most durable and long lasting.
Don’t Sweat It
While we’re on the subject of sweaty hands, your skin chemistry is another key factor in the lifespan of a guitar string. The sweatier your hands become when playing, the quicker the string will corrode, rendering it dull-sounding and more prone to breakage. How long a string lasts varies greatly from one player to the next.
A set of strings on a guitar you only use at home will last longer than strings on guitar that you play on stage while perspiring under hot lights. That’s not to say that a brand new string can’t be broken. I have broken new strings mere minutes after changing them. Snapping a brand new string is often just bad a case of luck. However, there is sometimes such a thing as a bad batch of strings, regardless of the reputation of the manufacturer.
Time For Change
So, how often should you change your strings? This depends on how often you play and whether or not you perform live. If you only ever play daily at home, I would suggesting changing your strings every 2 to 4 weeks, or whenever they become noticeably dull or start to break. It is also good practice to keep a small supply of individual high E strings, if your guitar store sells them separately. The high E is the thinnest string and therefore the most prone to breakage.
The older and dirtier the string becomes, the more likely it is to snap. This is why many touring guitar players change their strings before every show. Of course, this gets expensive, but much like petrol, picks and stage clothing, strings are a necessary, regular expense for the gigging guitarist and there are few more embarrassing live experiences than that moment you snap a string mid song. Rest assured, this will happen and it’s okay. Along with death and taxes, string breakage is one of the few certainties in the life of a guitarist. When it happens to you, try to laugh it off. It’s a known casualty of rock ‘n’ roll and your audience and bandmates will forgive you.
Along with death and taxes, string breakage is one of the few certainties in the life of a guitarist
Wear And Tear
What you do to a string also plays an important role in its lifespan. Over-bending, or sometimes simply repeatedly bending the same string on the same fret will gradually bring it closer to breakage, as will an overly aggressive strumming or picking technique. When we perform live in our adrenaline-pumped states, we unconsciously tend to play heavier, sometimes losing our sense of dynamics completely. Of course, a heavy-handed attack can be exciting for our audience (check out some of the live footage of Steve Ray Vaughan on YouTube). Just be aware that all 6 of your strings may not make it through the show.
Many string manufacturers now produce coated strings. These can be more expensive than a regular set, but the thin layer of protective coating makes the string less prone to rust, debris and dirt and therefore allows it to last longer. In my opinion, the champion of the coated string, above and beyond the leading competitors has always been Elixir. The strings that I use exclusively on all of my electric guitars are Elixir Nanoweb, gauge 10-52.
I feel honoured to have recently become an endorser of Elixir strings. However, I have been using their strings for many years, regularly singing their praises to anybody within earshot. In fact, even before I joined Elixir’s artist programme, I used their Nanoweb strings for the filming of this site’s entire launch content, re-stringing every guitar with a fresh set.
Amazingly, each set lasted the entire duration of the filming. The studio lights were hot and I played all day, every day for several weeks, only ever breaking one string (which may have been captured on camera). That’s testament to how long these strings can last.
Of course, the string brand you choose should always come down to personal preference, but I cannot recommend Elixir strings highly enough. They really are super long-lasting and they feel great to play on both electric and acoustic guitars. Even if you’re not a fan of the slightly smoother-than-usual coating, Elixir now offers the fantastic Optiweb strings as an alternative. While still coated, Optiweb strings retain the feel of a regular, uncoated set of strings.
I have tried all of the popular brand’s coated strings. A couple of years ago, one leading brand’s expensive coated set actually corroded within 45 minutes of me putting them on my Gibson SG. That is in no way an exaggeration. It was a hot day and of course, they may have lasted longer in the hands of another guitarist, but in my mitts, they had a shorter lifespan than a regular, uncoated set.
In stark contrast, around the same time, I put a set of Elixir Nanoweb strings on a Les Paul that I now only play at home. That very same set of strings is almost as good as new at the time of writing this blog. That’s right…one set of Elixir strings has lasted two years and counting!
Since everybody’s hands are very different, recommending the ideal string gauge is an impossible task. For the past 25 years, I have been using gauge 10-52. However, this is simply a preference that I settled on after a few years of experimentation.
Gauge 10-52 consists of a fairly regular trio of top strings, followed by a relatively thick D, A and low E. A regular set of “10s” is rated at gauge 10-46, but I prefer the fat tone of a thicker low E string. However, I still want to bend the higher strings without my putting too much strain on my fingers. This hybrid gauge may not be right for everybody and I know many guitarists who get a huge sound from gauge 9-42 or even 8-38 strings. Billy Gibbons is rumoured to use gauge 7-38 strings these days and we all know how big he can make his guitars sound!
When I was a beginner player, I used gauge 9-42 strings for a couple of years before graduating to 10-46 and finally settling on 10-52. A couple of years ago, while I was on tour and suffering from a mild wrist injury, I tried switching down to a hybrid gauge of 9-46 for a couple of days before settling back into my regular gauge. The sudden change felt alien to me, throwing me out of my comfort zone, so back I went, once again, to my preferred gauge.
Ultimately, the string gauge and brand you choose doesn’t have to be the one you settle on. Though not always cheap, a set of guitar strings is a far smaller investment than a guitar or an amp, so it’s okay to experiment and change things up as often as you like. As your playing develops and you begin to settle into your own style, you will naturally develop an instinct for choosing the gear that’s right for the sound you want to make.
Until next time, happy playing!