When it comes to choosing guitar strings, players seem to fall into one of two categories. The first of these is comprised of guitarists who have never really experimented with their strings. They have always used the same type of guitar strings, and they are happy to do so.
The second is comprised of those players that are constantly searching for the perfect set of guitar strings. They are continually looking for that elusive set of strings which will instantly improve their tone, as well as the playability of their guitar.
Even within this second category however, I think there are guitarists who overlook some of the key differences between guitar strings, and how these differences affect tone and playability.
It is these differences that I will be covering in this article. Here I will be looking at all of the different factors you need to consider when you are looking at guitar strings. This includes:
- String gauge and its impact on tone and playability
- The different materials from which strings are made
- The construction of guitar strings, and how this affects their tone and feel
- String winding – an often forgotten but important element of choosing guitar strings
- Different brands of guitar string that work well for the blues
If you have only ever played one set of guitar strings, then I hope the information outlined here helps to convince you of some of the benefits of experimenting with different strings.
Similarly, if you have long been searching for the perfect set of guitar strings – then I hope the information in this article helps you with your search.
It is worth pointing out before we start that this article will be focused on electric guitar strings. Choosing guitar strings for acoustic guitars and resonator guitars is a whole different and lengthy topic. As such, it is one that I will address separately in a future article.
In the meantime however, here is everything that you need to know about electric guitar strings for the blues:
Some opening thoughts…
Before you buy any new piece of guitar gear – be it something as small and inexpensive as a new pick, or something as significant as a new guitar – you need to consider how it fits within the context of your current set-up. You need to consider your playing style and experience, and the tone that you want to recreate.
This might sound obvious, but it is a point that I think most guitarists overlook. They see a new set of strings, or learn that their favourite guitar player uses a certain type of guitar strings. And so they rush out to fit their guitar with the same strings.
This of course isn’t always a problem. Taking inspiration from your blues guitar heroes is a good place to start when you are thinking about buying new gear. It is however, just one of many factors that you need to take into account.
I speak from personal experience here. Like so many blues guitarists, Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of my early influences. His playing style and tone blew me away. So when I discovered that he used .013 gauge guitar strings, I rushed to fit my guitar with strings of the same gauge. I didn’t jump up all the way to .013s. But I did move up to .012s, and I played them in standard tuning.
Instead of sounding more like Vaughan, my tone actually got worse. My fretting hand wasn’t strong enough to handle the heavier strings. And so I wasn’t able to bend, slide or apply vibrato properly. I hadn’t considered my playing ability at the time, or the impact that jumping up to such heavy gauge guitar strings would have on my playing.
So keep returning back to this idea as you’re going through the information laid out below. Think about your own playing style, your playing ability and also your current rig. Take time to consider how all of these areas will potentially be affected by a new or different set of guitar strings.
I would argue that there are five key elements that you need to consider when choosing guitar strings. These are as follows:
- String gauge
- Construction of the string
- String material
- Winding of the string
- String durability
Some of these elements are ones with which you are likely to be familiar. String gauge, for example is a topic that a lot of guitarists discuss. And so many players have an awareness of what string gauge is and also how it impacts tone and playability. However, whilst that may be the case, I suspect that the same is not true for the construction of guitar strings, or the way that they are wound.
All of these elements have an impact on tone and playability. As such, I will be addressing each of them below.
Having said that, it is arguably string gauge which has the biggest effect on both tone and feel. And by comparison, some of the elements of string construction and the different winding techniques which I cover below are more nuanced. This is because there are common ways of constructing and winding guitar strings. And alternatives to these – as you will see below – are considered to be out of the norm.
This is not really true when it comes to the gauge of your guitar strings. For although there are different gauges of guitar strings which are more common, there is not really a ‘standard’ approach when it comes to string gauge.
As such, I will start here, before looking at some of the more nuanced elements of string construction that you need to consider.
What is string gauge?
String gauge is a measure of the thickness or diameter of a guitar string. Comparatively speaking, all guitar strings are very thin. They are measured in 1/1000ths of an inch. So a .009 gauge guitar string is 0.009 inches, and a .010 gauge guitar string is 0.010 inches.
When guitarists talk about string gauge, they generally refer to a string set by its thinnest string. So if someone says that they play ’10s’, they mean they play a set of strings where the high E string is a .010 gauge.
It is worth noting though, that there are a huge variety of .010 gauge string sets, which I will cover in more detail below. As such, there is not really a ‘typical’ set of guitar strings. Every brand of string manufacturer produces sets of guitar strings with slightly differing thicknesses.
Having said that, .009 and .010 gauge guitar strings are probably the most common guitar string gauges.
.008 gauge strings, or anything lighter, are considered very light.
.011 gauge strings are quite heavy, and any guitar string gauges heavier than that would be considered to be very heavy.
Heavier gauge guitar strings need to be wound tighter to get up to pitch. This places greater tension across the neck of your guitar and affects the tone and playability of your guitar in a variety of ways, which I cover in more detail below.
Heavy vs. light gauge guitar strings
Amongst many blues guitarists there is a long held idea that you need to play heavy gauge guitar strings if you want great tone.
Stevie Ray Vaughan helped to perpetuate this idea. As noted above, Vaughan favoured very heavy gauge strings. He also has what is arguably one of the best blues guitar tones of all time. As a result of this, a lot of players have focused on Vaughan’s heavy gauge strings as being a key factor contributing to his tone.
Whilst I would agree that Vaughan’s heavy gauge guitar strings do contribute to his beautiful blues tones, it is not simply a case that heavier gauge strings always sound better.
There are some inherent differences between guitars strings of different gauges. And I will run through these in more detail below. Yet firstly it is important to note that when you look at the benefits of different gauge strings, there are two main factors you need to consider – tone and playability.
It is important to take both of these factors into account. The tone that you produce is a direct result of your playing style and how you manipulate your strings. In other words, the two elements are directly linked to one another.
As such, when you are thinking about which guitar strings are right for you, it is important to look at some of the key areas of playing that are affected by the gauge of string you use. These are as follows:
Vibrato is a crucial technique for expressive blues guitar playing. It is also a highly nuanced technique and one that you need to adjust and adapt to change the feel of the phrase you are playing at any given time. For example, you may want a gentle and subtle style of vibrato for the beginning of a guitar solo, and a wider and more aggressive vibrato style as the solo builds up.
Yet whilst vibrato is a technique that can be adjusted, I do think that we all have a style of vibrato that could be considered our ‘default’. For B.B. King this was a very fast, trilling style of vibrato that made him sound almost like a slide guitar player. For Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was a wider and more aggressive style of vibrato.
The former used relatively light gauge guitar strings. Conversely, the latter used very heavy gauge strings.
That is not to say that you can’t adjust your style of vibrato to different string gauges. It is just that in my opinion, particular gauge guitar strings are better suited to particular styles of expression.
The lighter the string, the less resistance it provides against your fingers. If you move your fretting hand fast on light gauge strings, you will achieve the B.B. King style vibrato sound. Do the same thing on heavy gauge strings and – unless your fretting hand is very strong – the string won’t move nearly as much. Rather than get a fast trill, you are more likely to get a broader, slower and more sweeping style of vibrato.
If you do decide that you want to play heavy guitar strings and also use a fast style of vibrato, you will have to work harder with your fretting hand.
It is a similar story when it comes to string bending. Heavier gauge strings resist your fretting hand more than lighter strings. So you have to apply greater pressure to your strings to bend them up and down.
As a result, it is more difficult and physically demanding to bend heavy gauge strings. And it is for this reason that a lot of blues guitarists favour lighter gauge strings.
Bending is a key element of lead blues guitar playing, and one that you do not want to compromise. So if you struggle at all with the accuracy of your bends, or if you favour big, two tone bends in the style of guitarists like Albert King, lighter gauge guitar strings would be a better option.
Lighter gauge strings are also a better choice if you want to play fast. Heavy gauge guitar strings require you to apply more pressure on the strings to sound each note. This isn’t conducive to playing at speed, where you want to move from note to note as quickly and with as little effort as possible.
Personally I don’t think that playing at speed is as an essential skill when it comes to blues guitar. But it certainly is a great tool to use to add intensity and variety into your playing. Just look at guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and more recently, Joe Bonamassa and Philip Sayce. They all use speed very effectively in their playing.
If you endeavour to do the same, then I would suggest opting for lighter gauge guitar strings.
Conversely, if you don’t care about speed but you do favour a slow and emotive style of soloing, I would recommend going for heavier gauge guitar strings. Heavier strings have greater mass and so take longer to stop vibrating once played. This means that each note sustains for longer.
In other words, if you were to play the same note on two identical guitars that differed only in their string gauge, the notes would resonate more clearly and for longer on the guitar with thicker strings. It is largely for this reason that people proclaim that thicker guitar strings have better tone.
Whilst that is slightly overstating the case, sustain is a key part of your overall sound, and better sustain has benefits for both lead and rhythm playing.
For lead, heavy guitar string gauges allow you to play long, soaring notes and bends, which are a key element of effective blues soloing. Notably, they allow you to do this without applying vibrato to sustain the note, as you have to do on thinner strings. In this way you can get more out of your guitar without colouring the notes.
The benefits of using thick guitar strings apply equally to rhythm playing. When you play chords on thicker guitar strings, each note will sustain for longer and the chord will really ring out. So if you are predominantly a rhythm guitarist and you aren’t so concerned with string bending and vibrato, then heavier gauge guitar strings could be the way to go.
Tuning & intonation
Heavier gauge guitar strings are also more suitable for down tuning. This is because there is more tension across the strings, and so you can tune them down to play in a lower key without the strings becoming slack. A lot of blues and rock guitarists – including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Philip Sayce and Slash tune(d) down a half step to Eb (E flat).
This makes playing heavy guitar string gauges easier, as it reduces the tension on the strings. It also sounds brilliant. As I noted in more detail here, tuning down to Eb adds a thickness and warmth to your tone and makes your playing sound distinctly bluesier.
Heavier gauge strings also stay in tune better. This is a significant benefit, especially when you consider that string bending, vibrato and a heavy pick attack will all cause your guitar to fall out of tune. Heavy gauge guitar strings can help to reduce the extent to which this is the case. And so if you have quite a heavy pick attack, or if you are playing in a band and gigging a lot, then using slightly heavier gauge guitar strings will help with your intonation.
Finally, I would argue that you can achieve a greater dynamic range when you play with heavy gauge guitar strings. On guitar strings of any gauge, you can use a soft touch to play quietly. But when you play thinner strings I think you are limited by how much you can dig in with your picking hand.
If you watch a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you’ll see that he often uses a very aggressive pick attack. When he does this and strikes his strings hard, he instantly adds a power and intensity to his sound, which comes from the pressure he applies to each string.
It is not possible to adopt such an aggressive pick attack on thinner guitar strings, and so the variation in tone you can achieve using nothing but your strings and pick is more limited.
The importance of playing style
As you can see from these points, there are pros and cons to both heavy and light gauge guitar strings.
Light gauge guitar strings are easier to play. This makes them great for string bending, applying vibrato and for playing fast.
Heavy gauge guitar strings are harder to play. Yet they sustain better, have better intonation and are arguably more versatile than lighter strings.
Really then, there are no good or bad guitar string gauges. There are simply different string gauges, some of which will work better for you, depending on your playing style and preferences. And this is the point you should focus on when looking at new guitar strings.
A lot of players get caught up in thinking about the inherent tonal quality of their guitar strings. Yet this is only part of the equation. You can have the best sounding guitar strings in the world, but that means very little if you can’t play and express yourself properly.
In other words, make sure that you are never sacrificing comfort or playability in your quest for tone.
In the blues, getting great tone is a compromise between tone and playability. It is about finding the sweet spot where you get a great tone and you can play comfortably.
Mixed gauge guitar strings
In an effort to find this sweet spot, a lot of string manufacturers now offer mixed, or ‘hybrid’ guitar string gauges. Typically – but not always – these are string sets where the bass strings are a relatively heavy gauge, and the treble strings are a comparatively light gauge.
The assumption is that most guitarists are bending and applying vibrato on the treble strings, and hitting their bass strings with greater force. In this way, mixed gauge string sets aim to provide the best of both worlds. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense, and so it is perhaps not surprising that a lot of famous blues guitarists have used mixed gauge strings. For example, Albert King reportedly played strings that ran from .009-.050 gauge. So there was a big contrast between his treble and bass strings. His treble strings were really quite light, whereas he used a heavy gauge on his bass strings.
In recent years there has been a surge in the popularity of mixed gauge string sets. So there are a lot of different options to choose from here. You can get mixed gauge strings ranging from .008 to .011 on the top, and .040 to sometimes as high as .060 on the bottom!
Although they are less common, you can also get mixed gauge strings where the treble strings are medium or even heavy gauge, and the bass strings are a comparatively light gauge. In this sense, the gauges are the opposite to what you might anticipate. Yet despite this, some amazing blues and rock guitarists played with their strings set up in this way. Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman and Rory Gallagher are just three notable players who took this approach.
If you are interested in trying out mixed guitar string gauges, experiment with a few different sets. This will help you to find what works best for you.
Half gauge guitar strings
In more recent years, string manufacturers have also started to create half gauge string sets. Typically, guitar string gauges go up in whole increments. So you have a set of .008s, then .009s, then .010s. Now though, there are half gauge guitar strings. So you can get .0085s, .0095s and .0105s etc.
When I first saw these string sets, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical. I just didn’t think there would be any appreciable difference between the half gauges. Actually though, it does make a real difference. And so if you have ever found yourself feeling that .010s were too light, but .011s were too heavy (or something similar) I would definitely recommend trying these strings out.
They also work well as a training tool if you want to start playing heavier gauge strings but you don’t want the pain of using much heavier strings. It is quite challenging to jump up whole string gauges at a time. When you use half gauge strings you can work up incrementally until you feel comfortable playing your desired string gauge.
Some practical recommendations
With all of these different choices, deciding which gauge of guitar strings to try can feel like an overwhelming task. Truthfully, there are no hard and fast rules on which guitar string gauges will work for you. It depends largely on your playing style, and ultimately comes down to feeling and what helps you play at your best. Having said that, there are some guidelines that you can follow which will help you to determine which gauge of strings to go for. These are as follows:
Choose Light Gauge Guitar Strings If:
- You are a beginner
- Your fretting arm is not that strong or you have smaller hands
- Big bends and fast vibrato are key elements of your playing style
- You like to play fast
Choose Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings if:
- You are a more advanced player, your fretting arm is strong, and using heavy strings won’t compromise your playing
- You are less concerned with playing fast and more concerned with sustain and the quality of each note
- Your pick attack and playing style is quite heavy
- You down tune or often play in keys lower than standard tuning
Beyond that, and if you are looking to try out different guitar string gauges, I would also recommend the following:
Play it safe
At least when you are starting to experiment with string gauges, avoid opting for guitar string gauges on the very extreme ends of the spectrum. Very few guitarists play .007 or .013 gauge strings. Put simply, this is because they are not suitable for most guitarists.
Make small changes
Similarly, be conservative when you make changes to your set-up. Let’s say you like how .009s feel, but you want to play a heavier gauge of string. Don’t jump straight up to .011s. Move to .0095s and play them for a few weeks. Then move up to .010s, and so on.
You will better adjust to each change and will never be in a position where your fretting arm and fingers are very sore.
Guitar string construction
Once you have decided on the gauge of your guitar strings, you can turn your attention to how your strings have been constructed, and also the material from which they have been made.
Of these two factors, I would argue that the material from which your guitar strings are made is more important. The different materials used in string manufacture have an impact on your tone, and to a lesser extent, also on playability and feel. And so in my opinion, after string gauge, this is the next most important factor to take into consideration.
However, before we look at the different materials from which guitar strings are made, it is important to have a basic knowledge of how they are manufactured. This will help you to appreciate the differences between strings of different materials. It will also help you to understand what you are looking at when you are buying a set of new guitar strings.
The construction of guitar strings itself is a lengthy topic, and one that goes beyond the scope of this article. The good news though is that you only need to know the key points to appreciate which guitar strings will work best for you.
The basics of guitar string construction
Almost all electric guitar strings (at least of which I am aware), are made from a type of high-carbon steel wire.
The composition and manufacture of this wire – often referred to as core wire, or music wire – varies between different string manufacturers. And this is one of the key factors which makes strings from different brands feel and sound different.
Even if you take two sets of guitar strings from different brands – and those strings are identical in regards to their gauge, construction and material – they will still sound and feel a little bit different to one another. It is partly for this reason that guitarists usually feel more comfortable playing one particular brand of string, compared with another.
In a normal set of electric guitar strings, the low E, A and D strings are then wrapped in a different material (more on this below). Conversely, the G, B and high E strings are normally left ‘plain’. They are not wrapped in any other material, and are constructed just using steel.
This wrapping process gives string manufacturers three further ways that they can alter the tone and playability of their guitar strings. They can (and do) change the following:
- The shape of the core wire
- How they wrap the bass strings
- The materials they use to cover the bass strings
Let’s look at each of these factors in a bit more detail:
As noted above, guitar strings are made from steel core wire. In the case of the bass strings, this core wire is then wrapped in a different material.
Traditionally, the core wire used in guitar strings was circular in shape. In essence this meant that the entirety of the core wire came into contact with the material used to wrap the string.
However in more recent years, guitar string manufacturers have moved towards using hexagonal shaped core wire. This is usually referred to as ‘hex core’.
In contrast to strings constructed with a round core, only the corners of the hex core come into contact with the material used to wrap the string.
Hex core vs. round core
At the time of writing, the vast majority of guitar strings on the market are constructed using a ‘hex core’. As such, the likelihood is that you are currently playing strings with a hex core.
The move towards hex core was partly for practical reasons. This is because it allows string manufacturers to machine wind their guitar strings more consistently. However, depending on the sound you are trying to create, there are potential benefits of using hex core – from both a tonal and feel perspective. Broadly speaking, guitar strings with a hex core:
- Have a more consistent tone
- Stay in tune better
- Have a stronger attack
However despite these benefits, there are a number of manufacturers who choose to produce their guitar strings with a round core. This is because again – depending on what you are looking for – strings with a round core offer a number of benefits.
From a feel perspective, the most significant of these is flexibility. Guitar strings with a hex core tend to feel slightly more stiff than those with a round core. So if you play with fast vibrato and favour big bends, opting for more flexible strings could be a great idea.
Tonally, the potential benefit of round core guitar strings is that they have a more pronounced bottom end sound. Conversely, their top end is a little less bright and well defined.
So if you are playing chords and rhythm, and are looking for a chunky bottom end sound, choosing guitar strings with a round core could be a great option.
As a final point, it is worth noting that all vintage guitar strings were made with a round core. Of course this alone doesn’t provide them with any significant tonal properties. But if you want to create vintage blues tones and are interested in authenticity, then I would recommend opting for round core guitar strings.
The second way that string manufacturers alter the tone and feel of their strings is by changing the methods they use to wrap the bass strings in a different material.
This process is called string winding. The bass strings are ‘wound’ using different methods, and this has an impact on both tone and feel.
There are three different types of winding technique used on modern guitar strings. And these techniques produce strings which are roundwound, flatwound and halfwound.
As the name suggests, roundwound strings are constructed using a wire that is round in shape.
Conversely, flatwound guitar strings are wrapped in a wire that is flat and shaped like a piece of tape.
Finally and somewhat unsurprisingly, halfwound strings are those which are shaped somewhere between round and flat guitar strings.
The impact of string winding
Roundwound guitar strings are by far the most common. If you have never heard of the different ways that guitar strings are wound, then you will have almost certainly been playing roundwound strings up to this point. This is because the standard guitar strings offered by all of the main string manufacturers are roundwound.
From a tonal perspective, roundwound guitar strings offer a balanced and slightly brighter tone. It is also argued that roundwound guitar strings are more harmonically complex when compared with flat or halfwound strings.
By contrast, flatwound guitar strings produce a much darker and more mellow tone. They sound less bright than roundwound strings and are arguably less harmonically complex.
Lastly and again as you would expect, halfwound strings have tonal characteristics somewhere between roundwound and flatwound strings.
These different winding techniques also have an impact on feel and playability.
Compared with roundwound guitar strings, flatwound strings feel smoother to the touch. And one of the significant benefits of these strings is that they reduce the chance of creating unwanted string noise, which can be fairly easy to create when moving around on roundwound strings.
The drawback of flatwound strings is that they are more difficult bend. This is because they feel a lot stiffer than roundwound strings. For the same reason, it is also more difficult to apply vibrato to these strings.
Again, halfwound guitar strings have a feel somewhere between roundwound and flatwound strings.
Roundwound vs. flatwound guitar strings
In contrast to the gauge of your guitar strings (and also to an extent the shape of their core) I would argue that you don’t need to worry so much about the way your strings are wound.
Almost all guitar strings produced by the major string brands are roundwound. And not only this, but as far as I am aware, almost all notable blues and blues rock guitar players use(d) roundwound strings.
In fact, it tends to be jazz guitarists who use flatwound guitar strings. They often favour a very dark and mellow sound. And the fact that flatwound strings make bending and applying vibrato more difficult is less of an issue in jazz, where these techniques are not as heavily utilised as they are in the blues. As such, I would not recommend opting for fully flatwound guitar strings.
Having said that, if you want to experiment, then you could try halfwound strings. In my opinion these could potentially offer some tonal benefits and also help to reduce string noise, compared with roundwound strings.
Although these are a little unusual, Eric Johnson is one notable blues rock guitarist to use halfwound strings. Johnson has long used GHS strings. He now uses his own GHS Eric Johnson Signature Strings. But for the majority of his early career, Johnson used GHS Nickel Rockers, which are slightly flattened during the winding process.
Wound G strings
As a brief side note before moving on, it is worth mentioning that you can find sets of guitar strings with a wound G string. With these string sets, the G string is constructed in the same way as your low E, A and D strings. It is wrapped in a different material, and so it has a feel that is more similar to your bass, rather than treble strings.
In the early days of electric guitar playing, all guitar strings were made with wound G strings. And this was actually how string manufacturer Ernie Ball started business. He was teaching guitar in the 1950s, and observed that many of his students struggled to play the popular songs of the time.
He asked Fender to make him a set of strings with a lighter gauge without the wound G, which he felt made it more difficult to play rock n’ roll. Fender rejected his request, and so he set about creating his own strings.
This began a move away from wound G strings, which many players welcomed. For even before Ernie Ball started business, guitarists had tried various different ways of reducing their string gauge. The most common of these was to throw away their low E string, move all of their strings up one and then replace their high E string with a banjo string.
As such, it is now much less common to find string sets that have a wound G. And aside from slide guitar players (who typically use heavier gauge strings), I do not know of any notable blues or blue rock guitarists who use a wound G string.
This is because whilst a wound G string will give you greater tuning stability and sustain, it will also make string bending and applying vibrato more difficult. As such, I wouldn’t recommend this option for most blues guitar players.
Having said that, if you would like to experiment, then you can do so with ease. Boutique string manufacturers String Joy give you the option to custom build your guitar strings and choose either a wound or plain G string. Both Ernie Ball and D’Addario also offer string sets with a wound G that could work well.
Guitar string materials
The final and significant factor to consider when looking at different guitar strings, is the material from which they are made.
As noted above, all electric guitar strings (at least those of which I am aware) – are constructed using some variation of high-carbon steel wire. In the case of your bass strings, this steel wire is then wrapped in another material.
Manufacturers change the material they use as part of this wrapping process. And this has an impact on the tone, feel, and also arguably on the durability of your guitar strings.
The most common materials in which strings are wrapped are nickel, cobalt and stainless steel. And string manufacturers offer sets of guitar strings based on these different materials.
From a buying perspective, this keeps things nice and simple. You can choose a set of pure nickel, nickel plated or steel strings and you’re all set.
Having said that though, categorising guitar strings in this way is also overly simplistic. This is because as noted at various points during this article – the core of all of your guitar strings is made from steel. And in most cases, your three treble strings remain plain. They aren’t wrapped in any further material.
So when string manufacturers talk about ‘pure nickel’ strings, they are actually just referring to the material used to wrap the bass strings. And the same is true of nickel plated and steel strings etc.
I appreciate that I have revisited this point a number of times. But I think it is worth reiterating, so that you know exactly what you are buying, and the impact that this has on your tone.
With that in mind then, let’s have a look at some of the most common materials used on guitar strings:
Pure nickel guitar strings
In sets of pure nickel guitar strings, the bass strings are wrapped in 100% nickel.
This was the material used in the wrapping of all vintage guitar strings. As such, guitar strings made from pure nickel have a more vintage sound and a naturally warm and rich tone. Tonally, they are perfect for the blues. And so it is perhaps little surprise that a huge number of different blues guitarists have used pure nickel strings over the years.
The one drawback of pure nickel strings, is that they can feel a bit stiff and heavy. So even if you opt for a lighter set of pure nickel strings, they might still feel a little tougher to play.
It is perhaps for this reason that as noted above, a number of blues and rock guitarists have opted for mixed gauge string sets, where the bass strings are a comparatively light gauge, and the treble strings are standard or even heavy gauge.
Nickel plated guitar strings
Nickel plated guitar strings are by far the most commonly available strings on the market. If you go and buy any ‘standard’ set of guitar strings, then the likelihood is that they will be nickel plated.
The exact composition of nickel plated wire varies between different brands. But the string wrap is typically composed of around 8% nickel and 92% steel. So compared with pure nickel guitar strings, these guitar strings contain much more steel.
Tonally, this makes them sound brighter and crisper. These strings have a higher output and a more pronounced mid-range than pure nickel guitar strings.
Nickel plated guitar strings were first introduced in the 1960s. And a lot of players started using them at this point – favouring them for their more balanced sound. Eric Clapton is one notable example here. In Clapton’s early career, when he played with The Bluesbreakers and Cream, he used pure nickel strings.
Then in the early 1970s he switched to using nickel plated guitar strings. And he has played these ever since.
Stainless steel and cobalt guitar strings
In more recent years, brands like Ernie Ball and D’Addario have made guitar strings that are wrapped in cobalt or stainless steel. Tonally, these are at the opposite end of the spectrum from pure nickel strings.
They have a high output and produce a bright and sharp tone. As such, guitarists playing heavier genres of rock and metal tend to favour these strings. The extra output and sharpness results in greater separation between notes. And this allows these guitarists to down tune and use heavier amounts of distortion, without their playing losing clarity.
These characteristics are not particularly suitable for the blues. I don’t know of any notable blues guitar players – either past or present – that have used these strings. And so if you are looking for a vintage blues guitar tone, these wouldn’t be my first choice.
The material of your guitar strings does have an impact on their durability. Pure nickel strings are more durable compared to those that are nickel plated. Although they have a darker and more mellow tone to begin with, they hold that tone for longer.
Conversely, the tone of nickel plated guitar strings tends to degrade somewhat over time. That is not to say the tone becomes worse – it just loses some of the brightness and crispness you get with a new set of strings.
In an effort to make their guitar strings last longer, a number of manufacturers now offer coated guitar strings.
Coated guitar strings are covered in a thin layer of polymer. This is designed to prevent sweat, dirt and humidity getting to the strings. Manufacturers who offer coated strings state that this is particularly important on the bass strings, where there are small grooves between the winds of the wrapped material in which dust and moisture can get trapped.
To my knowledge, Elixir Strings were the first manufacturer to use coated strings. And they remain the brand best associated with them. In fact, they offer strings with a variety of different coatings – each creating a different feel and tone.
As a result of the popularity of these coated strings, many of the main guitar string brands now also offer coated strings.
The main advertised benefit of these strings, is that they are more durable. So you need to change them less frequently, and they hold their tone for a longer period of time.
Beyond that however, it is worth nothing that string coating also has an impact on both tone and playability.
The details of this are beyond the scope of this article. However some of the different characteristics of these strings that broadly apply, are noted below. Coated guitar strings:
- Feel smoother to the touch
- Eliminate unwanted string noise
- Have a less pronounced top end in their tone
Whether you view these characteristics as being positive or negative will depend on your desired tone and playing style.
It is perhaps worth pointing out though, that I have never seen coated guitar strings made of pure nickel. So if you want a vintage style blues guitar tone, opting for uncoated strings might be a better option.
Is string durability important?
Manufacturers of coated guitar strings often put forward cost and time savings as significant benefits of the strings. Their strings are more durable, and as a result need changing less, which saves time and money.
However when stacked up against many of the other factors outlined here, personally I don’t think either of these factors are particularly important.
From an economic perspective, coated guitar strings tend to be quite a bit more expensive than their uncoated counterparts. And so even if they do last twice as long as uncoated strings, the costs more or less balance out over time.
Likewise, spending less time changing guitar strings also seems fairly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Changing guitar strings is part of being a guitar player. All guitar strings have an expiry date, and in my experience, this expiry date is relatively similar between most different sets of strings.
As a result, string durability is the one factor outlined here that I tend to consider reactively, rather than proactively.
In other words, when I am trying out a new set of guitar strings, I don’t think much about durability. I do however adjust my approach if I play a new brand of strings and discover that I wear through them much more quickly than similar strings from a different brand. In instances where this has happened, I just make a note and avoid that particular brand in the future.
I am not saying here that particular brands make poor quality strings. Rather I suspect that our skin and our particular playing environment will react differently to the composition of different strings. And so what works well for me, might not be so suitable for you, depending on the acidity of your sweat and the humidity of your playing environment.
Best guitar strings for the blues
If you are looking for some practical advice on where to start with looking for guitar strings, then I would start with any of the following brands:
Of these, Ernie Ball is the most famous and notable manufacturer. Over the years a huge number of different blues guitarists have used Ernie Ball Strings. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are just some of the notable guitarists who play Ernie Ball Strings. But the list goes on and on. So if you are looking for somewhere to start experimenting with different types of guitar strings, Ernie Ball would be a great choice.
Having said that, a number of notable players have played guitar strings from all of the big brands listed above. So don’t feel compelled to opt for one brand compared with another.
Personally after many years of trying out different brands, I have settled on Curt Mangan guitar strings. I think they sound amazing, have a great feel and they are durable.
Some further considerations
I hope the information above helps you to navigate the many different guitar strings available. Yet if you are still feeling confused – or if you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice – then here are some general points to keep in mind when trying to find the perfect set of strings:
When you are starting out, avoid opting for guitar strings at the extreme ends of the spectrum. I have encountered very few guitarists who use very unusual or different guitar strings. Most guitar players use one of the brands listed above. They play strings of a moderate gauge that are manufactured using standard winding techniques.
So whilst everyone has a personal preference, it is useful to look to other guitarists for guidance. I would always advocate starting with relatively safe options and then being more adventurous after that.
Compared to guitars, amps and pedals, guitar strings are relatively inexpensive. Even if you were to go wild and buy 10 sets of different guitar strings, you could do so for less than $100/£75. I appreciate this is still a decent chunk of money. But it is much cheaper than buying just one boutique guitar pedal.
The cost will also be spread out over time. For you will be playing and using each set of strings before moving on and experimenting with the next.
In other words – provided you don’t go crazy and start changing your guitar strings every other day, you can try out a range of different guitar strings, without incurring too much expense.
Control your G.A.S.
Having said that, try not to get carried away. I know as well as anyone the dangers of guitar/gear acquisition syndrome (G.A.S. for short). It is easy to think that the perfect piece of gear is out there just waiting for you. And whilst I do advocate trying out different guitar strings, you don’t need to make this a frequent or even continual process.
If you find a set of guitar strings you like, stick with them. Then every now and again, try out a similar but slightly different set of strings.
Putting it all together
At this point, you might understandably be feeling a little overwhelmed. After all, who would have thought that so much could go into choosing a new set of guitar strings?
The challenge really is that broadly speaking, there are no good or bad sets of guitar strings. There are just strings that will be more or less suitable for you. And this depends on how long you’ve been playing, your playing style, and the type of tone you are looking to create, amongst other factors.
So the first step is to work out roughly what you are looking for from your strings, and then refine your search from there. This will help you get into the right ballpark, before you zone in on the exact guitar strings that will work best for you.
And this is actually simpler than it sounds. If you condense all of the information above, the main takeaway points are as follows:
- The gauge of your guitar strings has a significant impact on the playability of your guitar. This in turn alters your playing style, tone and how you interact with your instrument.
- The material from which your guitar strings are made affects your tone. I would recommend choosing either pure nickel or nickel plated strings for blues and blues rock tones.
- When it comes to string winding and shape, there are a number of ‘standard’ techniques. If in doubt, stick with strings that are constructed using these techniques. In other words, opt for roundwound strings with a hex core. However if you are a more advanced player, try experimenting with some of these elements to see if you prefer their sound and feel.
- String durability is important, but I wouldn’t base your initial buying decisions on durability. Instead, I would recommend focusing on the other elements laid out here. If you do then find yourself with a set of guitar strings that corrode very quickly, simply make a note and avoid those strings in future.
- Experiment with different guitar strings. Try out different gauges, brands and sets over time. See how they feel and how they sound. After a bit of trial and error you’ll soon discover what works for you and what doesn’t.
Some closing thoughts…
The information outlined here is intended as a guide. When you are buying guitar gear, it is good to know what you are buying and why. This will empower you to make the right buying decisions.
And yet whilst all of this information is important, don’t buy new gear based solely on facts. Buying guitar gear is about finding the sweet spot between tone and playability. And most importantly, it is about figuring out what works best for you. On paper, a heavy gauge set of pure nickel guitar strings might seem like the obvious choice for your hand size and playing style. But if after repeatedly playing them, you find them to be difficult and challenging, try something else.
Your guitar strings are what actually enables you to create music with your instrument. So if in doubt, err on the side of comfort and playability. Don’t get so wrapped up in the tonal properties of the different materials or in what you think you should be playing. If you are playing at your best, then you will be producing a great tone, and enjoying yourself. And that’s what this is all about.
Good luck with your search! And if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to [email protected] I’d love to help.
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