The Best Guitar Strings
Every guitarist swears by their choice of strings. It can be hard to get biased information about strings, though. After all, many musicians think their strings are the best simply because they’ve been playing them for a long time, and have gotten used to them. To truly find the best guitar strings on the market, you have to try a lot—or at least read some advice from someone who has tried a lot.
I’ve selected six of the best strings on the market—strings I’ve personally loved, and strings that are very popular and that great musicians have endorsed. In this article, I’m here to help you weigh the pros and cons of every set, to find the best across the board and the best for your playing style, your genre of music, and your budget.
This comparison table will help you keep all the specs and features of each string straight when it comes time to make your final decision. I hope you enjoy it!
I’ve always enjoyed playing top brand Elixir’s electric guitar strings with a jazz combo I’m part of and was excited to try out these acoustic strings from this near-legendary brand for the purposes of this review.
I started off my testing process by inspecting the packaging and the way the strings came out of the packs.
Everything looked great—and I bought quite a few of these for testing purposes.
One of my biggest concerns when buying strings online is worrying about getting one that’s kinked before it ever comes out of its cover, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem here.
That being said, one of the big disadvantages I hear some other musicians talk about when it comes to Elixir’s strings is how slick they feel while playing, especially right out of the box.
I’d agree with this assessment to a certain degree when it comes to a lot of Elixir’s strings, but their Nanoweb series seems to be designed with more balanced playability in mind.
Let’s talk about something more objective than how a string feels, though—how the strings sound. These strings provide a nice, even tone.
I played around with these on my Taylor in the home studio for a while, then slapped some on my Fender acoustic-electric to play with a folk-indie rock group I’ve been sitting in with recently.
The strings sounded great in a variety of settings. Again, Elixir is seeking balance with the sound—these don’t have that distinctive twang that some players love and other players hate but are full of warmth and clarity.
All in all, I’d recommend these strings to any serious acoustic guitarists, especially those who tour or record a lot and find themselves replacing strings more often than they would like.
While they don’t have a highly specialized sound, they will work in a variety of musical settings with their well-balanced tone and high level of acoustic warmth.
D’Addario has been my go-to brand for acoustic guitar strings for several years now, so of course I had to review one of their classic sets for this article.
I love these strings because they are extremely balanced but never boring.
Their bright and warm tone allows a good guitarist to pluck a variety of sounds out of them that will go perfectly with all genres of music.
For the purposes of this review, I got a special set online that came with 4 packs on these strings in a collectible tin, along with a clip-on headstock tuner.
In addition to looking cool, the tin is actually a better way to package strings than traditional cardboard sleeves, which can let in moisture that occasionally finds its way into the individual string wrappings inside.
That being said, I’ve always admired D’Addario’s normal packaging too—but the tuner and four sets deal were hard to pass up! One small drawback I have noticed with these strings is that they don’t produce quite as much volume as some strings of the same size, even other D’Addario models.
On the other hand, the slightly lower volume output can make them perfect practice strings, and their durability adds to this appeal as well.
I recommend these strings to acoustic guitarists for practice and recording work and acoustic-electric players for stage work as well as practice, recording, and other activities. While their overall volume output is a bit lower, they have that signature D’Addario tone and durability that so many guitarists love.
If you play acoustic guitar or even listen to acoustic music, you know Martin.
One of the oldest American guitar brands, they specialize in high-end acoustic instruments that are legendary for their association with high-profile musicians and the fact that they have been carried by soldiers into every American war since the Civil War.
Martin is also known for its strings, especially since the company was one of the first to manufacture guitars made for modern steel strings as opposed to the gut or nylon strings associated with classical guitar.
Their Marquis strings are one of their top-of-the-line offerings, so they don’t come cheap. However, I found during my testing that their enhanced playability and durability made them a great value despite the higher price tag.
Because the silk is not exactly a coating—it’s more seamlessly integrated into the metal winding around the strings’ core than that—it doesn’t make these strings feel slick during play, just more comfortable.
That makes them easy to adjust to from more standard guitar strings, and also makes them a joy to play even for very long hours.
Even with the silk giving them a more modern smoothness, these do tend to sound twangier and more traditional, which lends them to a folk or country playing style—though I’ve found that this sound can also be creatively integrated into rock and experimental music with just a little work.
One complaint I have heard about these strings and others by Martin from some of my fellow musicians is that quality control doesn’t seem to be as consistent, and they’ve gotten a few weak strings straight out of the pack before. I bought over twenty sets of these for testing, though, and didn’t run into that problem.
To be honest, weak strings are something that happens with every brand due to flaws in packaging—I think people just tend to notice it more when they’re paying for strings! Besides, a weak string is an inconvenience, but it’s nothing a call to the right customer service person can’t fix right away.
Their higher price tag may put some off, but buying in bulk may net you a much better deal.
These strings from Dunlop, a string manufacturer known for its creative and innovative forays into the future of electric guitar string, are designed with two things in mind: power and versatility.
Favored by musicians such as metal legend Zakk Wylde, Dunlop strings pack plenty of aggression and power, but are also great for intricate solo work and putting into alternate tunings.
If you want growling low and midrange tones combined with crystal-clear high notes, these might be the strings for you.
The most common complaint I see about string setups like this is that the heavier strings last longer than the lighter strings. Unfortunately, this is just a fact of these kinds of matched sets.
You could also mitigate this by buying some extra single strings in the same gauge to replace the higher strings—singles are available online and at many music shops, and are great to have around anyway, especially if you’re a touring musician.
Whether it’s pure aggression, intricate arpeggios, or unbridled creativity you want, these strings can provide them.
I’d also recommend this set to new and young electric guitar players. The heavier low-end strings will build finger strength, while the lighter high strings will allow for a smoother, more confidence-boosting introduction to the basics of soloing and improvisation.
Ernie Ball, a company known for making a wide variety of guitar components and accessories, is doubtlessly known best for its electric guitar strings.
From their nontraditional, brightly colored plastic packaging (that actually seems to do a better job of protecting strings than cardboard) to their wide variety of products for all types of musicians, Ernie Ball stands out in the world of electric guitar strings.
I hate to dwell on the packaging, but it truly is amazing.
This list is fun, and it proves that Ernie Ball produces a wide variety of strings for a wide variety of sounds.
Eventually, though, I had to rip that distinctive packaging open and get these strings put on some guitars. I used them with a Les Paul for rehearsing with a local punk band and a Stratocaster for my jazz combo.
The strings sounded great in both settings.
This setup felt most at home while playing with my punk band, but I could easily make it work with a lighter touch for the jazz combo as well, as it allowed me to more distinctly separate bass notes from melody bits and chords.
While I’d say these strings are definitely suited to more aggressive musical styles because of their gauge, they’re truly versatile and can work very well in all musical settings. I recommend these to any musician—these strings are one of the best values on the market because of their versatility and durability.
If you never put your guitar in drop tunings, a different Ernie Ball set might appeal to you, so check them all out!
In addition to manufacturing acoustic guitar strings, D’Addario is known for its electric guitar strings.
While most manufacturers do work in both acoustic and electric strings, D’Addario is well-known for being an excellent maker of both, while most companies specialize in one or the other.
Like their acoustic strings, D’Addario’s electric XL Nickel-Wound strings strive for a balanced tone and serious versatility, as well as durability.
Their durability may be their greatest feature besides their distinctive sound, but D’Addario brings another great innovation to this set: a simple color-coding system for changing strings quickly.
While these strings don’t break often, every touring musician knows replacing a broken string as quickly as possible is a great advantage, and the XLs offer the opportunity to do just that.
In addition, these strings are a great value. While D’Addario doesn’t manufacture cheap strings, they also don’t seem interested in price-gouging either, and buying these either as single sets or in bulk packages always seems like a great deal to me.
My one caveat when it comes to buying these is that they’re fairly difficult to get into altered tunings, and doing so affects their durability.
All in all, I recommend these to musicians working in any genre, especially those who tour frequently, because of their durability and quick-change friendly color coding system. They’re also a great value for the beginner musician, especially when bought in large packages of several sets.
Electric vs. Acoustic Strings
Many new guitarists ask me what the difference is between acoustic and electric strings. There are a couple key differences.
One is size. Acoustic strings are generally thicker, to produce more volume.
Because acoustic instruments do not have built-in amplification, acoustic guitars actually need to be much louder than their electric counterparts (even though we think of electric guitars as louder because of their amplification).
The other is material. There is a variety of materials used to make both acoustic and electric strings, and there’s plenty of overlap between them, but overall the materials are different.
If you play an acoustic-electric instrument, I’d still generally recommend playing acoustic strings. Remember, acoustic-electric guitars are meant to sound like acoustic guitars, only louder so that you can record more easily or play for bigger crowds.
Using electric strings makes them sound more like traditional electric guitars, and can cause more feedback issues in some cases as well.
Luckily, most string manufacturers have models for both acoustic and electric guitars. If you really like a brand of electric strings, check out their acoustic products as well.
They may not be your favorite, but they’re often a great place to start and can help you seamlessly transition from electric to acoustic and back again.
What Gauge is Right for Me?
Finding the right string gauge, just like finding the right string brand and model, is tough, and can take years to figure out. The right string gauge for you can also change over time.
All that being said, light gauge strings are also perfect for serious professional musicians. Again, it’s all about personal taste, but I find that lighter strings are great for blues and jazz because they’re much easier to bend.
They also have a place in experimental and psychedelic music for the same reason.
Lighter string gauges are also amazing for hard rock and metal lead guitar because of their bending capability.
Heavy Gauge Strings
Heavy strings are also used in folk and country music, not because those genres are known for being particularly loud, but because they utilize acoustic guitars, which need to produce more actual volume than electric guitars because they’re not amplified (or less amplified, in the case of most acoustic-electric guitars).
Heavier strings are also favored by rhythm section musicians in all genres because they can provide chunky, bassy sounds. I personally always favor heavier strings when playing with my small jazz group, because outside of solos in a few songs I’m essentially holding down and filling out a rhythm just like the bassist.
Medium and Mixed Gauge Strings
Medium gauge strings, which are what I play most often, give you a few of the benefits of both. They’re favored by many musicians for their versatility—they allow you to seamlessly transition from more rhythmic or chord-focused work to melody work and solos.
There are also mixed gauge strings with very heavy “bottom” strings (Low E, A, and D strings in standard tuning) and much lighter “top” strings (G, B, and high E in standard tuning). These are most popular in heavy metal because they allow for plenty of mean-sounding power chords and intervals, but still, allow fluid bending for solos.
However, they’re also popular with several folk and classical guitarists I know. That’s because playing an acoustic guitar by itself often means picking out your own bassline along with the melody or chord over it (which is why most folk and classical musicians play with finger-picks rather than the plectrums rockers use).
Having heavy bottom strings can make that bassline stand out.
Guitar strings come in a wider variety of materials than ever nowadays, so I won’t be able to cover them all here. However, the material is certainly worth discussing, as it has an effect on the sound.
Metal vs Nylon/Gut
First of all, there are nylon strings and metal strings. Metal strings are the most common in rock, pop, jazz, and blues styles.
Nylon strings are essentially only used in classical guitar and Spanish and Latin-American styles such as flamenco and mariachi. However, they can also be utilized to create interesting sounds in other genres as well, and are used by some folk and country players, particularly the more traditional ones.
You may also run into gut strings. Gut strings are actually made from animal intestines, which was how all guitar strings were made before the industrial period.
They essentially function the same as nylon strings, which were made as a cheaper, easier to use, and more palatable alternative to gut strings.
You may notice that I haven’t reviewed any nylon strings above. That’s because most of my readers aren’t classical guitarists.
However, for those of you who are interested in playing with nylon, I recommend starting with Martin’s nylon string offerings. They’re some of the best around that are at a reasonable price point—while they’re definitely not a budget choice, they’re easy to find and won’t break the bank for most people.
One last thing I’ll say about nylon: if you’re teaching a young child to play guitar, or if your fingertips are sensitive to pain (for example, if you have diabetes and use your neck hand for blood sugar testing), nylon strings may be the best bet for you.
Types of Metal Strings
Almost all metal strings consist of a steel core and are “wound” with some other material. When buying “wound” sets, it is normal for the top 2 or 3 strings (high E, B, and G) to be “unwound,” consisting only of the steel core.
The lower-end strings are generally wound.
This is because the wound metal makes the strings able to produce the lower pitches they’re intending to make without adding as much mass and thickness.
While you can find some traditional, unwound strings, wound strings are usually the best bet for most players, unless you’re very concerned with playing music from another time period very accurately.
Phosphor bronze strings are made to be long-lasting and to hold their bright but even tone consistently, whereas 80/20 bronze strings tend to have a bright, twangy sound that’s perfect for folk or country, but don’t last as long generally.
Additionally, some very high-end strings use silver or gold, which last much longer but are obviously highly expensive. Some brands also use silk—actually the material that was used to make most instrument strings in traditional Chinese music—in their winding as well, both to make the strings last longer and to make them more comfortable.
Elixir, Martin, and a few other brands specialize in making these strings, which are often called “silk and steel.”
Coated vs. Uncoated
Most guitar strings you’ll see online and in music shops nowadays are coated or plated with metal at the very least, because this helps prevent corrosion. However, some guitar strings are also coated with Teflon or similar polymers.
There are some advantages and disadvantages to this that you’ll have to consider. The biggest advantage is that they make the strings last much longer, and also make them more comfortable to play for hours and hours.
The disadvantage is that they feel much slicker—which is generally great for new players, but may throw people who have been playing strings not coated in these polymers off.
Conclusion: The Best Guitar Strings Are…
When it comes to picking the best guitar strings, personal preference is a big part of it. That being said, I want to give you an idea of the best strings across the board, for both acoustic and electric guitars.
While my word isn’t the end-all-be-all, I do know a lot about playing guitar in a variety of settings—and about the importance of value and durability to the touring musician.
The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings
I recommend these so highly because of their bright and balanced but intensely variable tone, as well as for their durability and relatively low price point. Their straightforward design is perfect for everyone from beginners to seasoned professionals.
The Best Electric Guitar Strings
In the world of electric guitar strings, Ernie Ball is a legend for a reason, and they have the history and the long list of artist endorsements to prove it. Their Beefy Slinky strings are some of my favorites because of their ability to work in a variety of tunings and musical settings.
While they favor lower and more adventurous tunings, they’re not off-balanced in any way, and can still perform perfectly well in softer and more straightforward applications as well.
Honorable Mention and The Last Word
When it comes down to it, finding the best guitar strings for you and your own personal playing style will take some experimentation and hard work. I can recommend all the strings on this list to you confidently, no matter what genre you play in, and encourage you to try them all in order to find your perfect fit.