"Chemistry is the melodies you can play on vibrating strings."
- Michio Kaku
There are multiple kinds of strings out there. Out of the hundreds of types, there are some types that can suit your style and instrument the best, and among those, there are a couple that you might like.
In this lesson, I'm going to show you what kinds of string sets there are for guitars, as well as give you advice on how to choose the right set for you.
You can check out the video below or continue reading for more details.
When you purchase a guitar, it will often come with strings already in it. If you are buying it from a store, it's usually stock strings to get you playing something right away, and if it's a used one, then you'll just get whatever the previous owner had on it.
The first thing you should know about strings is that you usually find them in sets. The most common is the 6-string set for standard guitars, although there are also sets for 7 and 8-string guitars, as well as 12-string guitars (yes, there are!).
Some stores will have and sometimes they will sell you individual strings. If you can get a couple, it's a good idea, especially the thiner ones like the 1st and 2nd strings, since those are the ones who tend to break more often. I think of all the strings I've broken, 75% of them were the 1st, and the rest were 2nd strings except maybe once I broke a the 3rd string, but not the other ones.
Six-string sets are the most common, as well as the cheapest (most models at least). These are used on standard guitars, which are the most common too. If you've just purchased your very first guitar, it's most likely a 6-string model.
Let me show you some of the string sets I currently have:
Apart from a lot of colors, you'll notice that I have many brands and models.
The four on the left are Ernie Ball brand, while on the right we have a Fender set, Alexander, Arpegio, and D'Addario.
All except the two from the bottom center (the Earthwood model and Arpegio strings) are for electric guitars. The Earthwood is a steel string set for acoustic or electroacoustic guitars, and the Arpegio are nylon strings.
Although there are some proprietary technologies from each manufacturer, there are a couple of properties that they all share.
Just like we said before, the strings are always designed for a specific guitar. Although technically any string will work on any model, steel strings tend to be used on electric guitars and nylon on acoustics.
There are some exceptions, of course, but this holds true in most cases.
This is possibly the most important property of the string. The gauge is a measurement of the thickness of the strings; at higher gauges, you get proportionally thicker strings.
The gauge tends to be the most visible information on the package. Take a look at the yellow guitar package on the top left corner:
See those numbers inside the red rectangle? Those are the string gauges, ordered from the 1st down to the 6th string.
The cross-section of the strings are circular, and the number on the gauge is a measurement of the diameter of the string, measured in thousands of an inch (1/1000"). Don't blame me, I didn't invent that notation!
Although guitar players usually refer to the numbers as you read them in that package (10, 13, 17, etc) the actual measurements of the diameters are 0,010", 0,013", 0,017", etc. The D'Addario set on the lower right corner shows the real measurements, but most brands use the number notation:
Although there are some variations, most manufacturers tend to follow some rough guidelines when choosing the measurements of each string of the set. It is this reason why guitar players buy their sets only by referring to the gauge of the 1st string.
In this way, the yellow package corresponds to a 10 (0,010") string set, the purple one on the lower left is an 11 (0,011"), and the Alexander on the top right is a 9 (0,009").
You might have noticed already that in most guitars the thiner strings are a smooth piece, while the thicker ones have a wire wound over it. This is done as a way to increase the mass of the string without making the string too thick to be more heavier. We'll talk more about this below.
In general, the 3 thiner strings tend to be unwound. The exception are acoustic with steel strings, which often have the 3rd string wound as well.
This is all you will need to know about the strings themselves, but...how can you choose the right string set for you?
The choice of electric or acoustic set is straightforward. Just buy a string set for the kind of guitar you have.
The brand used to matter much more in the past, but nowadays you can get pretty much any of the major brands and they will all do their job well enough. There are some differences with the flexibility of each manufacturer (which affects the calibration, which we'll see in the future), but these are generally not critical. The ones I've used the most are D'Addario and Ernie Ball.
As for the gauge, although it's not tricky, there are a couple of things to watch out for.
The note that each individual string will produce depends on the frequency it vibrates on. That, in turn, depends on the length of the string, the tension, and the mass (the "weight" of the string).
A longer string tends to vibrate at a lower frequency, while a shorter one tends to vibrate at a higher frequency. This is why as we press on higher frets, the part of the string that vibrates gets shorter, and therefore the note goes higher, and the opposite happens when we go back frets.
A thighter string tends to vibrate at a higher frequency. That is why as we tune each string we pitch up the note by tightening it, and the opposite happens when you loosen it.
A heavier string (with more mass) tends to vibrate at a lower frequency, and this is when the string gauge starts to play a part.
A 10-gauge string set needs to be tightened less than an 11-gauge string set to get to the same notes on each of their correspondent strings. This means that the 11-gauge strings are stiffier than the 10-gauge strings. What does this mean?
If the strings are stiff, you need more force to pluck and fret them. As a beginner, because you are still developing your finger and wrist muscles it's not recommendable to use string sets that require too much effort to play, as you run the risk of over-exerting your joints and that, in turn, leaves you prone to injury.
So, you might ask yourself...
If stiffer strings are more difficult to play, why would anyone want such a string set?
Why not make all the strings thinner?
There are two good reasons why:
The strings must be thick enough to provide them with a reasonable resistance, or else they would break very easily.
Thicker strings sound better. Yes, believe it or not, this is true, and possibly the most important reason why players like to use as thick of a string as they can handle. What actually happens is that a heavier string vibrates for longer than a lighter string, because its movement is less dampened by the resistance with the air around it.
My recommendations are:
Choose any of the major brands, like Ernie Ball, Fender, D'Addario, GHS, etc.
For electric or acoustic as per your guitar. Some acoustics can use both nylon and steel strings.
Start with a 9-gauge string set. These tend to be the medium tension in which most guitar players learn on. As you gain experience, strength, and endurance, you can pump up the gauge in your next string switch and see how you fare, but avoid changing the gauge more than one step at a time (don't go straight from a 9 to an 11 or 12).
Now you know all you need to get your next string set.
So go get it!