Advice & Inspiration

Guitar String Labels Demystified

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:

Massive wall of guitar string labels

This is often what you’ll encounter when you go to a music store to buy guitar strings–especially in the larger music stores. It can be overwhelming and intimidating–even for experienced guitarists.

“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:

  1. Instrument Type: First, are you actually looking at a package of GUITAR strings?
  2. Guitar Type: Are they electric, acoustic, or Classical guitar strings?
  3. String Gauge: Can you tell what SIZE (thickness) the strings are?
  4. Number of Strings: Can you tell whether the set is for a 6, 7, or 8-string guitar?
  5. Number of Complete Sets (of strings): Don’t inadvertently buy a bulk pack if you only want one set.
  6. 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:

  1. The Brand: For now, don’t worry about brands. You’ll develop brand loyalty and a personal preference over time.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Practice Example #1:

Cool design and slick graphics, but can you tell what instrument these strings are for?

Instrument Type: Bass

Most string packages say which instrument they’re for… but it’s often one of the least prominent things on the package. So, you might need to scan carefully to find it. Were you able to find it here? If so, did you find it right away, or did you have to scan for a few seconds to finally locate it?

You Can Ignore: “Slinky,” “Cobalt” and “Engineered to maximize output and clarity.” That’s all marketing text that doesn’t help you make an informed purchase.

Practice Example #2:

Fairly no-nonsense package, but can you tell what instrument these strings are for?

Instrument Type: Guitar

Some string packages, like this one, don’t expressly say which instrument they’re for. How can you know? Without experience it’s tough to know for sure, so we look for clues based on what’s there:

  • See the 6 numbers below the title (.012, .016, etc)? These are individual string sizes (gauges).
  • Since there are 6 numbers, this is a good sign that these are probably guitar strings.

Maybe strings for a 6-string bass, you say? No way. The smallest gauges are way too small to be bass strings.

Practice Example #3:

Straightforward package, nice photo, but can you tell what instrument these strings are for?

Instrument Type: Resonator Guitar / Dobro

If you thought these were for acoustic guitar, you’re totally forgiven. After all, there’s an acoustic guitar in the picture, and “Resophonic” probably sounded like a meaningless marketing term to you. While you could use these for an acoustic guitar, they’re technically ideal for resonator guitars. And at such a heavy gauge, it would be pretty painful on your fingers.

These are probably meant for playing slide on a resonator guitar (as evidenced by the photo) with higher action.

To learn more about resonator guitars, check out the Resonator Guitar Guide (opens in a new tab).

Practice Example #4:

Last one. Can you tell what instrument these strings are for?

Instrument Type: Guitar

… but the package sure as hell doesn’t tell you. Unless you look at the back, you have to use clues to make some assumptions. Those clues are:

  • There’s a guy playing an electric guitar.
  • The “10 – 48” in the lower right–an abbreviated form of the string gauges that some manufacturers use to save space. It denotes the thinnest and the thickest strings in the set, respectively. If you want to know the gauges in between, you have to look on the back.
  • A “10” is a fairly common electric guitar string gauge for the thinnest string–not as common for acoustics.

Based on these clues, we can reasonably conclude that this is a set of guitar strings–specifically electric guitar. This is a case where you’d definitely want to double-check the back of the package before you buy it.

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.

Practice Example #1:

Are these acoustic, electric, or Classical guitar strings?

Guitar Type: Classical (nylon-string)

As is sometimes the case, there’s absolutely nothing on the front of the label that explicitly tells you that these are Classical guitar strings. I don’t believe it says so on the back of the package either. So again, we have to learn what clues to look for:

  • Notice the phrase “Normal Tension” (top center). Classical guitar strings are categorized by “feel” or stiffness, rather than listing the string sizes (gauge). So, if you see phrases like Normal Tension, High Tension, etc. you can be pretty sure you’re looking at Classical strings.
  • Notice how “Trebles” and “Basses” are mentioned separately (top, left and right). Again, another hallmark of Classical guitar strings: manufacturers sometimes call out the differences between the high (usually plain nylon) and low (usually metal-wound) strings.

Practice Example #2:

Are these acoustic, electric, or Classical guitar strings?

Guitar Type: Electric

Yet another example where they don’t tell us what kind of guitar the strings are for. The back of the package doesn’t tell us either. ARGH!

Our only real clue on this package is the 6 numbers (9, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42). These are the sizes (gauges) of the stings inside… with “9” being the thinnest string and “42” being the thickest. Since we just learned that Classical guitars don’t list string sizes, we can rule out Classical guitars.

So that leaves us with 2 possibilities: acoustic or electric. Well, a 9-gauge high string is considered really thin/light–too light for an acoustic guitar but a common size for the thinnest string of an electric guitar.

Bam! Electric guitar strings.

You Can Ignore: “Coated,” “Slinky,” and “Titanium Reinforced Technology.” This is marketing text that doesn’t help you make an informed purchase.

Practice Example #3:

Are these acoustic, electric, or Classical guitar strings?

Guitar Type: Acoustic

Did you find it? Finally, someone actually tells us what kind of guitar the strings are for! However, in typical string manufacturer form, it’s the smallest, hardest-to-read piece of information on the package.

In contrast, “EXP” is absolutely humongous… and it conveys no useful meaning or value. Pure marketing hype.

If you didn’t happen to find the “Acoustic Guitar” in the upper right, a lesser clue would have been the string material: phosphor bronze. When you see “phosphor bronze,” the strings are almost always for an acoustic guitar.

Practice Example #4:

Are these acoustic, electric, or Classical guitar strings?

Guitar Type: Acoustic

Again, the guitar type isn’t listed. Get used to it, but find solace in the fact that quite a few string labels actually do list the guitar type–they just don’t make it very visible. With this set of strings, the guitar type is listed on the back of the package, however there are some clues on the front:

  • See “Phosphor Bronze” in the upper right? Remember what we just learned? This string material is very popular for acoustic guitar strings.
  • When you see Martin strings, 95% of the time they’re for acoustic. Martin does offer some strings for Classical, resonator/Dobro, Ukulele, etc. but it’s a very small percentage of their product line. In fact, I didn’t even know they made strings for other instruments until I did research for this post.

This is one where you’d definitely want to check the back of the package before buying.

You Can Ignore: “Treated for Superior Performance and Long Life.” I’m sure Martin’s marketing dept. would blast me for this, but don’t let this marketing text influence you too much.

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.

Practice Example #1:

Can you find the gauge(s)?

Gauge: .010, .013, .017, .026, .036, .046 (also shown as .010 – .046)

Pretty easy to find on this package. Not only does Fender list the size of every individual string in the package in the lower left, they use the abbreviated version in the upper-right (.010 – .046). That’s a tad redundant, and I’m not sure why they did both, but this is such a well-designed package that I’m not going to complain.

Kudos to Fender for putting all the critical pieces of information on the front of this guitar string package.

Practice Example #2:

Can you find the gauge(s)?

Gauge: .012 – .053 (upper left and lower right)

That’s all Elixir is going to give us on the front of the package. However, turn it over and each individual string size is listed.

Just looking at the front though, we can at least tell that the thinnest string is a .012 (sometimes we say “12 gauge”) and the thickest string is a .053.

Despite the fact that it says “LIGHT,” this acoustic string set would be a little too heavy (and painful) for a beginner, in my opinion.

You Can Ignore: “Nanoweb,” “GORE,” “Great tone – long life,” “Nanoweb ultra thing coating,” “… with anti-rust plain steels,” and “Tone lasts 3-5x longer.” Tons of marketing text on this package designed to influence your buying decision. Not saying you shouldn’t give these a try–just don’t buy them based solely on the fancy promises. Make sure the vital specs are correct first.

Practice Example #3:

Can you find the gauge(s)?

Gauge: .010 – .047 (upper right)

Similar to the Elixir package above, this string set also uses the abbreviated form to denote the string gauges: .010 – .047.

This is a great acoustic guitar gauge for a beginner. It’s the gauge I currently use, even after playing guitar for 20+ years. I just love it.

Practice Example #4:

Can you find the gauge(s)?

Gauge: 09 – 42 (upper right)

Seeing a pattern here? Many times, you’re only going to be given a general idea of what the string gauge is as most manufacturers prefer the space-saving format to list string gauge.

This “09 – 42” set is a good “light” gauge set–perfect for most electric guitar players from beginner – advanced. It’s the gauge I use and love, and what I recommend beginners start out with since they’re more comfortable on the fingers.

You Can Ignore: “Boomers.” It’s just marketing text. Don’t buy these because you think they’ll be “boomier,” louder, meaner, or whatever.

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.

Practice Example #1:

How many strings are in this package?

Number of Strings: 7

Though you still have to look for it a bit, this package tells us in a few places that it’s for a 7-string guitar:

  • Top-center: “Electric Seven String Set”
  • Top-right: See those 7 numbers? Those are the individual string gauges (which we learned about earlier). Since there are 7 numbers, we know there are 7 strings in this set.
  • Lower-right: “7 String Set” in the little hexagon

All the text about heavy-this and heavy-that is irrelevant. It’s marketing text that doesn’t really help you when figuring out how many strings are in this set.

Practice Example #2:

How many strings are in this package?

Number of Strings: 8

There are a couple ways you can tell this is an 8-string guitar set:

  • In tiny letters in the upper-right it says “8-String Set.”
  • See the series of numbers running along the lower-left side of the circle? Those are the individual string gauges (as we learned earlier). Since there are 8 numbers, there are 8 strings in this set.

“XL” doesn’t convey any useful information to you, least of all how many strings are in the set.

Practice Example #3:

How many strings are in this package?

Number of Strings: 6

Yep, this is a good ‘ole 6-string set. Were you able to figure this one out, or did the giant “9” in the upper right throw you?

Again, the way you can tell is by the 6 numbers running along the bottom. By now you know that those are the individual string gauges. Since there are 6 of them, there are 6 strings in this set. The giant “9” is simply referring to the thinnest string in the set.

You can ignore fancy phrases like “Reinforced Plain Strings” and “Slinky.” This is purely marketing text that conveys little-to-no useful information to you.

Practice Example #4:

How many strings are in this package?

Number of Strings: 7

If you had no clue, you’re 100% forgiven. I’m giving Dunlop a smack on the hand for terrible package design here. Neither the front nor the back of the package tells us how many strings are in this package. All we have is the “9/62” in the upper right, which looks like it was slapped on there after-the-fact–probably because Dunlop realized no one had any frickin’ clue whether this was a 7 or 8-string set.

The only way I knew there were 7 strings in this set was by the product description online.

Obviously, the “9/62” in the upper right is the abbreviated form of the string gauges, which we learned about earlier. While a “62” gauge low string is more common for 7-string guitars, it could work for the lowest string of an 8-string guitar too. There’s really no way to be 100% sure without physically opening the package and double-checking.

I show you these kinds of examples not to trick you, but to prepare you for what you’ll actually encounter out there.

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.

Practice Example #1:

Is this one set of strings or some type of bulk pack?

Verdict: Bulk pack (3 complete sets)

Did you find it? It’s in the upper-left, just at the tip of the eagle’s wing. It’s pretty small and blends in with (and is overpowered by) the other information on the package.

Practice Example #2:

Is this one set of strings or some type of bulk pack?

Verdict: Bulk pack (10 complete sets)

How’d you do on this one? If you didn’t see it in the upper left, the good news is that a 10-pack would be pretty obvious if you were buying these in-person. Then again, if you’re a total beginner, you might not even realize you’re holding a 10-pack.

Where it can be tricky is if you’re buying these online. Online, this is all you would see–so look carefully and be sure to read the product descriptions before you add them to your shopping cart.

Practice Example #3:

Is this one set of strings or some type of bulk pack?

Verdict: Bulk pack (2 complete sets)

Did you find it in the upper right? This one really blends in with the rest of the (very bright) design. These 2-packs can fool you, because the packages are still thin enough to feel like just one set of strings, especially if you’re inexperienced.

Practice Example #4:

Is this one set of strings or some type of bulk pack?

Verdict: Bulk Pack (3 complete sets)

If you didn’t find this one, I’ll cut you some slack. Depending on the brightness / contrast of your desktop or mobile screen, it may totally blend into the black background. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can just make out “3 sets” in the upper left corner.

I guess D’Addario feels that all its customers have perfect eyesight.

6. Price

Optima Brian May 24k Gold Guitar Strings

Optima’s 24k gold plated guitar strings… for the guitarist who has everything.

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.

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