You’ve had your new guitar a few months now, and the time has come for a fresh set of strings. You head to your local guitar store without much of an idea of what you like, want, or need–because you’ve decided you’ll just look around and figure it out once you get there.
You walk into the store, spot the wall where they keep the guitar strings, and are confronted with something like this:
“Holy #@!%” you think to yourself as your senses are assaulted by colors, numbers, fonts, and bizarre phrases like “beefy slinky” and “heavy core.” Do you need “nickel-plated steel” or “stainless steel” or… wait, what the hell is “cobalt”!?
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Confused? Overwhelmed? You’re Not Alone
Ever felt this way? If so, you’re not alone.
It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed–maybe even a little embarrassed–but in this article I’m going to teach you to cut through the noise and choose guitar strings like a pro. You’re going to learn what vital pieces of information you need, and how to pick them out of all the visual clutter and marketing lingo on guitar string labels.
First, we’ll review what these vital pieces of information are (and why they’re important), as well as what information you can ignore. Then, we’re going to practice by looking at a bunch of real guitar string labels. There’s no standard placement for information on guitar string labels, so the only way to get good at locating it is by practicing.
The Vital Information You Need
Hidden amongst all the marketing sludge, shiny colors, and slick graphics–you’ll need to dig out certain vital information:
- Instrument Type: First, are you actually looking at a package of GUITAR strings?
- Guitar Type: Are they electric, acoustic, or Classical guitar strings?
- String Gauge: Can you tell what SIZE (thickness) the strings are?
- Number of Strings: Can you tell whether the set is for a 6, 7, or 8-string guitar?
- Number of Complete Sets (of strings): Don’t inadvertently buy a bulk pack if you only want one set.
- Price: Lastly, don’t wait till you’re at the register to discover how much they cost.
The Information You Can Ignore (Kinda)
The following are things you can ignore (for now) on a guitar string package. It’s information that’s either pure marketing hype or just isn’t helpful to you… yet:
- The Brand: For now, don’t worry about brands. You’ll develop brand loyalty and a personal preference over time.
- The Product Name: Slick product marketing terms like “Super Slinky”, “Boomers”, “Blue Steel”, etc. aren’t helpful. They’re purely an appeal to your emotions.
- The String Material / Composition: You can usually ignore this, but not always. Info like “polished pure nickel”, “phosphor bronze”, etc. isn’t helpful until you gain experience and develop personal preferences. Where string material can be helpful is when a package doesn’t say whether it’s for acoustic, electric, or Classical guitar. More about this later. Also, if you have a skin allergy to certain metals, this info can be critical.
Okay, Let’s Practice!
Since there is no standardization for guitar string packaging, you have to be very astute–even use some deductive reasoning–when scanning packages to find the vital information you need in order to buy the right strings. So, the only way to get good at it is to practice.
First, we’ll start by practicing #1 from our list: learning to decipher which instrument the package of strings is for.
1. Determine Instrument Type
It would really suck to get home and discover you actually bought strings that aren’t guitar strings–and you wouldn’t be the first person who’s ever done it. So, let’s first learn to identify what instrument you’re looking at. Take a look at each one of the examples below. Scan each one thoroughly, then decide what kind of instrument you think the strings are for. Then, click the “Reveal the Answer” button to see how you did.
2. Determine the Guitar Type: Acoustic, Electric, or Classical
Do you need strings for an acoustic, electric, or Classical (nylon-string) guitar? Once you’ve found the guitar string section, the next thing you’ll need to figure out is what KIND of guitar those strings are for. Putting acoustic strings on your electric guitar, or vice-versa, probably won’t damage your guitar, but it isn’t ideal and won’t sound very good. However, you NEVER want to put electric/acoustic steel strings on a Classical (nylon string) guitar. Those CAN damage a Classical guitar if left on for a few days.
Now, let’s practice! Look at these 4 guitar string packages and see if you can figure out what type of guitar each is for. Check yourself by expanding the “Click to Reveal…” button on each.
3. Find the String Gauge
String “gauge” refers to the thickness of each string in the set, measured in thousandths of an inch. It’s another vital piece of info you need to locate, because it determines how “stiff” the strings feel. The heavier (thicker) the gauge, the stronger you’ll need to be to play them. This is why I recommend beginners start out with a really light gauge.
Sometimes the size of each string in the package will be explicitly spelled out, and will look something like: 9 – 11 – 16 – 24 – 32 – 42 (or .009 – .011 – .016 – .024 – .032 – .042). Other times, to save space, the package will list only the first (thinnest) and last (thickest) string in the set. In that case, our same example would look something like: 9 | 42 (with a divider or slash in between) or perhaps 9 – 42 (with a dash in between).
Now, let’s practice! Look at these 4 guitar string packages and try to find the gauge(s). Check yourself by expanding the “Click to Reveal…” button on each.
4. Determine the Number of Strings
Huh? Don’t guitars have 6-strings? Well, most do, yes.
In the past, this wasn’t something we really had to pay attention to. When you bought a set of guitar strings, you got 6 strings. However, the popularity of 7, 8, and even 9-string guitars has grown considerably over the past 10 years. Today, if you’re not careful, you could get home and discover that you overpaid for an extra string (or two) that you’ll never use.
Good news is, this is really only an issue with electric guitar strings. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a set of 7 or 8-string acoustic guitar strings.
So, let’s practice by looking at some actual guitar string packages. Look at each one, and see if you can determine how many strings are in the pack.
5. Number of String Sets Inside the Package
Strings sets are also sold in 2-packs, 3-packs, 6-packs, and beyond. The 2-packs and 3-packs are tricky because they can look like a single set of strings at a glance. Hell, even holding them in your hands, a 2-pack or 3-pack can feel like one set of strings if you’re inexperienced. You don’t want to unintentionally buy a bulk pack, especially if you’re not sure you even like those strings yet. So, this is another vital piece of information you need to scan the string package for.
The good news is that most guitar string manufacturers do a pretty good job of visibly denoting bulk packs. However, I’m going to purposely show you examples where the number of string sets is a little hidden or otherwise easy to miss.
I won’t be showing any practice examples for price. This is because… well… a price tag is a price tag. You just have to look for it the same way you look for a price tag on any other product.
Instead, I want to drive home the point that you definitely want to know how much the strings cost before you head for the cash register. After scanning a wall of string packages for all the other vital info, your brain can be fatigued and you might forget to consider the price.
Some strings sets definitely have a “premium” price tag, like the 24k gold plated Optima strings shown here–at a whopping $32 for one single set. If you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t spend more than about $5 – $10 for a set of strings. Wait till you have a little more playing experience before forking out more dough for higher-priced strings.
If you shop online, you can get a good set of guitar strings for $4 – $5 (but factor-in the cost of shipping). In a brick-and-mortar music store, the same set of strings will run $8 – $10. This is just the nature of brick-and-mortar retail. The upsides of going to a music store are the convenience of getting your strings right away and personalized service, if you want it. You pay extra for those benefits.
The Information You Can Ignore
Amongst all that visual noise and marketing hype that we just practiced wading through over the course of this 4-part series, there is some information you can partially or completely ignore.
1. The Brand
Seriously. Especially if you’re a beginner, don’t obsess right now over the brand/manufacturer. Over time, as you gain experience and develop your ear, you’ll naturally form your personal preferences. Then, it’s perfectly fine to be loyal and stand behind your favorite brand of guitar strings.
2. The Product Name
Product names like “Super Slippies,” “Beefy Boomies,” “Hardwired Hotwires”, and other such nonsense convey no useful information to you. They’re meant solely to appeal to your emotions and to get you to buy. Ignore them.
3. String Material/Composition (Kinda)
For now, you can largely ignore descriptions such as “nickel-plated steel,” “nickel wound,” “titanium,” “cobalt,” etc. These descriptions do give you some useful information–but only if:
- You have a skin allergy to certain metals.
- Certain metals like “phosphor bronze” can be a tipoff that you’re looking at acoustic guitar strings (as we learned earlier).
- You’ve got a “golden ear” and can hear the difference between these metals.
- You’re a scientist or metallurgy nerd, or are otherwise into that kind of stuff
Was This Helpful?
My sincere wish is that I could personally walk into a music store with each one of you and take you through the process of finding a set of new strings for your guitar.
Since I can’t do that, I hope this blog post and the practice examples it contains have left you feeling more confident in your ability to shop by yourself, either in a music store or online, for the right set of strings.
I love hearing from you, so in the comments below please let me know if this series helped you, or if there’s anything I can add or clarify.