Which electric guitar strings are best for you? Consider firstly the gauge, as well as the make, model, and occasionally a few other variables, to determine what sounds and feels right for your playing.
Your Strings Help Shape Your Sound
Without a doubt, strings play a pretty significant role in how your guitar sounds. Old strings lose their edge and tend to have a dullness and lifelessness to them compared to a fresh set of bright, ready-to-go strings. New versus old strings also have a different feel to them, as the grime from our fingers tends to build up over time and cause older strings to feel — well, grimy!
With that said, electric guitar strings are subjective. Many players actually prefer broken-in strings compared to brand new ones, particularly in cases where they’re entering the studio. Sometimes that fresh pack of strings is a little too bright initially, and they could begin to dull over the course of a studio stint, ultimately altering the overall tone unless you replace them continuously.
In any case, it’s generally good practice to replace your strings at fairly regular intervals if you’re a consistent player. It’s sort of like getting an oil change, or even a haircut. A quick freshen-up is never a bad thing!
How Do I Know Which Electric Guitar Strings Are Best for Me?
Your Skill Level May Affect Your String Choice
Believe it or not, proficiency at the instrument could potentially play a role in which strings you prefer. Newer players typically don’t have the dexterity and finger strength to handle thicker gauges. It also takes time to build up calluses, which, without exaggeration, can be a painful experience for beginners. Thinner strings ease some of that tension and make the guitar feel more approachable early on.
Gauge is usually the most important factor for guitarists when choosing a set of strings. That’s how thick or thin the strings are, from top to bottom (high E to low E). For example, 10-46 is one of the most popular gauges for standard tuning on a standard scale guitar, referred to by the littlest string as “10s.”
If you play in drop D there are optimized gauges for that, and if you tune down even more there are optimized gauges for that. As a rule of thumb, the lower you go, the thicker you’d want your strings to maintain a regular-feeling tension on a standard scale guitar.
- RELATED: Understanding Guitar String Gauges
Apart from alternate tunings and the considerations therein, thinner strings are easier to bend but slightly more breakable, whereas thicker strings are slightly harder to bend but a bit more resilient. Experienced players typically seek a nice middle ground — something that’s playable, suits their tuning, and doesn’t bend out of tune too easily under regular finger tension.
Electric guitar strings are usually built of a metal core like steel, while the bottom three strings are wound with nickel or nickel-plated metal, and occasionally steel or cobalt windings. There’s less variety when it comes to electric strings versus acoustic strings; for most players, the actual material is of little concern, despite the subtle sonic differences they can impart. If you can find a gauge that works and sound/feels right, you’re golden.
Some strings even come coated in a protective material to resist dirt and grime, and therefore last a bit longer than standard uncoated strings. The tradeoff is that they’re more expensive, and particular players may find coatings to feel a bit awkward under their fingers. Again, there’s a ton of subjectivity here.
To close out this section, electric guitar strings are inexpensive enough to try out various sets and decide what you like. For the best results, make sure you’re also setting up your guitar or having a tech set it up whenever you change gauges or tunings.
The 8 Best Electric Guitar Strings (For Any Skill Level)
Ernie Ball Super Slinkies (9-42) are one of the most popular sets around. The gauge is accommodating to newer players and works great for veterans in standard tuning as well. They’re cost effective, sound great, last a good while, and are just a reliable set of strings in every way. These feature a steel core and nickel-plated steel winding on the bottom three strings.
2. D’Addario XL
For many, many players, the decision boils down to D’Addario or Ernie Ball. The D’Addario XL is another super reliable set of strings in numerous gauges for players of all styles and preferences. Steel core, nickel-plated steel wrap — pretty standard stuff. The Regular Light (10-46) is one of the most common sets available for standard tuning or even a half-step or step down.
Players who are harder on their strings may opt for something longer-lasting, like the Elixir Optiweb coated strings. The coating is specially designed to feel like a regular string under the fingers, sound like a standard string in every aspect, and play like one as well. They’re on the pricier side, but worthwhile if you want to give coatings a go.
Next up from Elixir is the Nanoweb series. Again we have a coated string built to last long and play/sound normally. If you’re not for either Ernie Ball or D’Addario, you might be in the Elixir camp. As slightly pricey as they are, if you can get twice the life out them, it’s definitely worth it!
GHS has been in the string game since 1964, and players of all genres have favored them for their consistent quality and tone. Their Nitro-Packs enclose each string in a nitrogen-sealed packet that keeps them totally fresh and corrosion free, so as soon as you open the pack, your strings are as new as they come.
Cobalts by Ernie Ball feature an iron/cobalt alloy winding over a steel core that’s meant to give players higher output and better sound by interacting with the pickups in a unique way that a nickel or nickel-plated winding doesn’t. A who’s-who of guitarists beta tested these strings in the development phase, including John Petrucci, Steve Morse, and Slash. If they’re good enough for them, well…
A signature set of strings just plain isn’t a common occurrence. But who better for than the legendary, inimitable Brian May? The Optima Gold are legitimately gold-plated, and the price reflects it. Apart from looking incredible, these are premium strings handmade in Germany with the attention to detail you’d expect from a luxury guitar string.
We all know Hendrix is one of the most innovative and inspiring guitarists of all time. Many have tried to replicate his style and tone through a combination of guitars, amps, and effects. Perhaps a lesser-known detail of his one-of-a-kind sound is the unconventional strings he chose: a heavy top, light bottom set of 10-38s. For that slinky, jangly blues/rock tone he perfected, these could be a guitarist’s holy grail.