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  Acoustic Guitar Strings

There are four things to consider when buying acoustic guitar strings: gauge, metal composition, coating, and brand.

GAUGE

The gauge of the strings tells you how thick they are.  The higher the number, the thicker a string is.  Here’s the tradeoff: The thicker the strings are, the louder they are and the better they sound when played loudly… but they hurt fingers more and are more difficult to press down onto the fretboard.  Most steel string acoustic guitars come from the factory with “Medium” gauge strings, which are 13 gauge on the thinnest high E string and 56 gauge on the thickest low E string.  They have a good tone but are hard to press and are quite painful for beginning students.  “Light” gauge strings are usually 12 gauge on the thinnest and 53 gauge on the thickest.  These are a good compromise between good tone versus ease of playing.  The next gauge down is called “Custom Light”, which are 11 gauge on the thinnest and 52 gauge on the thickest.  They don’t create as much volume but are easy on the fingers.  Finally, the lightest strings are called “Extra Light” or “Slinky” strings.  These are usually 10 gauge on the thinnest string and 47 gauge on the thickest one. They are super easy on the fingers and are easy to bend but they don’t create much volume and are thin sounding on the bottom end.  They are not generally recommended for acoustic guitars without electric amplification.

For beginner students, I usually recommend Custom Light (11-52 gauge) strings. This is the gauge I use on my Taylor.  They are MUCH easier to press than the factory strings, which allows the beginning student to play for much longer stretches of time during the months while his or her callouses are building up.

METAL COMPOSITION

On an acoustic guitar, the two thinnest/highest strings are steel, and the lowest four strings are steel inside but with brass wound around the outside.  There are two types of brass alloy that are used to make these strings: “80/20 bronze” and “phosphor bronze”.  These two different alloys result in very different sounds.

“80/20 Bronze” strings are OEM on most acoutsic guitars.  They are the “standard” sounding strings.  They have a good tone from top to bottom.  They have a “punch” when you first hit them with a pick, but they are mellow and warm after the initial punch.  On most guitars, these strings sound great when using a pick.  (They call them "bronze" but they are actually brass.)

“Phosphor Bronze” strings come OEM on many Taylors.  They have more complexities in the overtones/harmonics that give them a richer midrange.  But they do not have as much thickness on the bottom.  Because they are brighter, on most guitars, these strings sound great when finger picking.

There’s no right or wrong; it is a matter of individual taste.  If in doubt, go for the 80/20’s.
 
COATINGS

Normal (non-coated) strings sound good for a few weeks then go bad fast.  Oxygen in the air attacks the bronze, and oil and dirt from your fingers seeps through the windings, which dulls the sound.  During the last decade or so, technology has solved these problems.  String manufacturers have started making strings that last longer by nano-coating them with a substance that keeps oxygen from attacking the bronze and keeps the oil out of the windings.  Although coated strings cost a little more, they last a LOT longer, so they are extremely cost effective.  Instead of a few weeks or months, it is not uncommon to get almost a year’s use out of a set of coated strings before they start sounding dull.

Coated strings are highly recommended.  All the strings listed below are coated.

BRAND OF STRINGS

Elixir is my favorite brand of string, because they sound better and last longer than any other strings I have tried.  Elixir makes two kinds of coatings: Nanoweb and Polyweb.  They are both fantastic sounding and they are both super long lasting.  The Nanoweb’s are a little brighter and thus in most cases they sound slightly better than the Polyweb's.  They make a little more “finger noise” than the Polyweb’s but are still really quiet.  The Polyweb’s are slightly more dull sounding but are very silky feeling and are the quietest of any strings on the market for “finger noise.”  Most people say they also last longer than Nanoweb's.  I like Nanoweb’s best, but some of my friends prefer Polyweb’s.  The only bad thing I can say about Elixirs is that the thinnest wound string (G) is prone to breaking when played hard.

D’Addario EXP’s are another excellent string.  They sound great and last a long time.  In my opinion, they are not quite as rich sounding as the Elixirs, but they are a little less expensive and they have a good reputation for not breaking.

The highest technology strings are the brand new "Paradigm" strings from Ernie Ball.  These strings sound nearly as good as Elixirs and are coated, but are made out of a steel alloy that makes them almost impossible to break.

There are many other brands, but these three seem to be the best.  Cleartone’s are super long lasting but are extremely bright sounding.  If you have a dull sounding guitar, you may want to try them.  On most guitars, they are too bright, in my opinion.  Some people swear by them, but I’m not a big fan of the tone.

RECOMMENDATIONS

For most beginners, I recommend either Elixir Nanoweb’s or D’Addario EXP’s in the Custom Light gauge (11-52), as follows:

Elixir, NanoWeb Coating, 80/20 Bronze, Custom Light gauge (.011-.052), Manufacturer Product Code: ELX_11027.

Elixir, NanoWeb Coating, Phosphor Bronze, Custom Light gauge (.011-.052), Manufacturer Product Code: ELX_16027.

D’Addario, EXP Coating, 80/20 Bronze, Custom Lite gauge (.011-.052), Manufacturer Product Code: EXP13.

D’Addario, EXP Coating, Phosphor Bronze, Custom Lite gauge (.011-.052), Manufacturer Product Code: EXP26.

KSM Music usually has some, but not all, of these strings in stock.  If they run out and don’t have the set you want, don’t let them talk you into buying what they have on hand.  Ask them to order them in.  Or you can always purchase strings at www.juststrings.com, but I prefer to support local businesses when I can.

When changing strings, there are many ways to wind strings onto the tuning pegs, but there is a “best” way.  Ask Irv and he will show you.

For students who have been playing for a while and have good callouses, and who want a little more volume and tone, keep your favorite brand and coating and type of brass, but go up one gauge thicker to Light Gauge (.012-.053).

For students who are having difficulty doing bar chords or whose fingers don't develop callouses so it is painful for them to play for more than a few minutes at a time, keep your favorite brand and coating and type of brass, but go one gauge thinnner to Extra Light Gauge (.010-.047).

You can change brands and brass types and coatings all you want, but if you change gauge of strings, you will need to adjust the truss rod in the neck.  Talk to Irv and he will help you do this.


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