Strings are the “vocal cords” of a guitar, and the set we select fundamentally shapes our instrument’s voice.
It pays to explore the different types of electric guitar strings and discover what catches your ear.
Even if you’re learning beginner guitar songs, knowing what strings to use is vital to improving. Let’s explore the various types of electric guitar strings, and what each is designed to accomplish.
What’s in a string
An electric guitar string is constructed by winding, or wrapping, a thinner metal wire (typically nickel or stainless steel) around a thicker central core. The exact composition of the core is not always easy to pinpoint, as string designers tend to guard their “tone recipes” closely. However, the shape of the core can help determine what type of tone to expect. Round Core strings are mellower and have softer tension, while the more common Hex Core packs a brighter punch and firmer feel. The highest three strings, G, B and high E, are typically unwound, meaning no outer material is used. In certain cases, the G string may also be wound. Some rhythm players feel that a wound G string enhances and enriches the warmth of strumming guitar chords.
What is even more vital than the core in determining the tonal character of electric guitar strings are the materials used and the method of winding. First, let’s take a look at the most common types of materials, and what makes each distinctive.
The most popular electric guitar strings are nickel plated. By combining stainless steel (which is very bright) with a layer of nickel (which is soft and mellow), the result is a full-bodied, well-balanced voice that excels in a wide variety of genres, such as rock, blues, soul, country, bluegrass, metal, pop and funk. These are the strings you’ll be using when buying your first guitar and taking your first guitar lessons. To sweeten the deal, the nickel plating resists corrosion, which not only lengthens their lifespan but also cuts down on fret wear.
If you like a bright, cutting tone, you’ll want stainless steel strings. Heavy metal shredders who seek solos that stab, rockabilly players on the endless hunt for more “twang”, or funk guitarists searching for spank, all love the signature snap of stainless steel strings. The biggest complaint is that stainless steel strings can sound too bright for some, and also lose their lustre much sooner than nickel strings.
Nickel strings produce a warm, focused tone and gentle output that is perfect for jazz, neo-soul and soft rock. Nickel is naturally a lot smoother so feels a bit faster under the fingertips.
Type 52 Alloy
The newest material to break into the string scene is Type 52 alloy. This highly responsive alloy delivers a massive output thanks to its greater magnetic interaction with the guitar’s pickups. Type 52 strings are the loudest around, and are must-use for insane metal tones. They are also a great string to revive dead tone on a vintage axe. This alloy is formed from 52% nickel and 48% iron which keeps them lasting longer than nickel plated strings, which can rust once the plating has worn away.
Rotosound makes a set using Type 52 alloy called Ultramag guitar strings.
Lost and wound
Now that we’ve broken down the materials used to create electric guitar strings, let’s take a look at the various ways strings are wound.
The method of winding electric guitar strings is the most crucial factor in determining tone. The type of winding, and how it’s finished, also dictates the hand-feel (or texture) of the strings. It is easy to get lost when shopping for the right electric guitar strings, so let’s break down the four types of winding, and how they are best utilised.
Round wound strings are the most common by far, as their bite, brightness, attack and sustain are second-to-none. They are the most versatile strings, used in virtually every genre of modern music. These are also the type of winding which you’ll see on any guitar you use while learning guitar lessons online. To boot, they are the least labor-intensive to produce, making them the most affordable! Wire is simply wrapped around the string’s core, creating a ridged surface. The downside? The bumpy texture of round wound strings makes them particularly noisy when sliding from chord-to-chord, and traps dirt easily.
PRO TIP: Keep a cloth handy! Wipe down round wound strings after you play to prevent corrosion.
Half Round (AKA Ground Wound, Semi-Flat Round)
If you’re looking for well-balanced tone and great hand-feel, half round strings are for you! Their smooth, buttery surface is the result of the unique way these strings are finished. After the core is wound, the string is compressed (or sometimes ground) leaving the surface semi-flat. The tone of half round strings is deep and sophisticated, and a favourite of jazz, soul, pop and soft rock players. While these strings are great for pillowy rhythms and cooing leads, the feel takes some getting used to and they lack the edge necessary for most styles of modern music.
Flat round strings are wound using a flat metal tape. As the surface is virtually resistance-free, flat wound strings are by far the gentlest on our fingers. Coveted by jazz guitarist’s old and new, flat wound strings offer the deepest and warmest tones of any string. What’s the catch? Their high tension makes them difficult to bend, and the darkness of their character means they don’t easily cut through a heavy mix. Flat wound strings also have the least amount of sustain, which could be good or bad, depending on your taste.
The strings we choose to put on our guitar, specifically the materials and methods used in their production, determine the voice they produce. Experimenting with different string types is the best way to learn their application and get to know their feel. Being among the least expensive guitar accessories, but the most crucial in determining our tone, it pays to explore the different types of electric guitar strings and discover what catches your ear.
Who knows, you just might learn a string or two!