Acoustic Guitar Strings - The Lowdown

The Complete Breakdown On Acoustic Guitar Strings

You see the packages on the store shelf. Martin, DR, GHS, D'Adarrio, 80/20 and phosphor bronze.

What does all of that mean? What's the real story on guitar strings?

A set of acoustic guitar strings is made up of a combination of plain steel strings and wound strings. Most sets have a plain 1st and 2nd string and the rest are wound strings.

A wound string has a steel core and has another wire wrapped around the core. The wrap wire is made of an alloy. The most common alloys used are phosphor bronze (copper, tin, and zinc) and brass or 80/20 as it's sometimes called. The 80/20 alloy is copper and zinc.

A quick historical fact: Big Bill Broonzy used a plain 3rd string on his guitar. This was thought to give his guitar a brighter sound.


What are the differences between types of acoustic guitar strings?

Phosphor bronze tends to have a warmer sound than the 80/20s. There are pros and cons to both. Because the phosphor bronze is warmer or more "mellow" to start with, the drop off in sound as they age is less noticeable. You may not notice the decline in sound until you put on a fresh set.

With the 80/20s you'll get a bright punchy sound to start with. Because they're so bright the decline in their sound seems more obvious. Part of it is the player's body chemistry.

Some people just kill strings. Others can play the same set forever with no noticeable decline in their sound.

The way to decide what's best for you is to try different sets. Some guitars sound better with one type over the other.

This is a good method to figure out which is the best set for a particular guitar.

When you change strings, write the date on the acoustic guitar string package and stash it in the accessories pocket of your guitar case.

You can then compare which type of strings last the longest for you. This is also a good way to compare the same type of strings by two different manufacturers.

Another type of string are silk and steels. These have a wrap wire around a core of steel and silk.

Silk and steels have a lower string tension and aren't as loud as other types of acoustic guitar strings. This lower tension makes them a good choice for new players who haven't developed tough fingertips yet. They also work well on older, more fragile guitars.


If you are playing an acoustic guitar with a magnetic soundhole pickup there are a couple of other sets that you might consider.

One is the Alloy 52 used by GHS in their White Bronze sets. They seem to produce a more even sound with a mag pickup without the blaring sound on your 2nd string.

The other strings to try with a magnetic pickup are DR's Zebras. These have alternate wraps of nickel wire and phosphor bronze. Don't ask me how they do it.

Just suffice to say that they do work well in that application.

Do other acoustic guitar strings affect the electronics on an acoustic guitar? Not in my experience.

All the other type of pickups that I'm familiar with work by sensing vibration somewhere on the guitars' body. Phosphor bronze works as good as nickel or 80/20.


When should you change strings? Some people wait until a string breaks and just change the broken one.

A better way to do it is to change them when they start to become hard to tune or if you notice them developing a dull tone.

Strings become fatigued over time. There are several reasons fo this.

Some of the different reasons are:

  • Tension on the string when tuned to pitch
  • Perspiration and dirt from your fingers
  • Strings wearing on the frets
  • Humidity, even if the strings are not played
  • Changing tunings frequently

Here's a tip for people living in areas with high humidity. Buy brands of strings that are sealed in an airtight package.

Strings that come in little paper envelopes inside a bigger plastic envelope don't last as long. In fact, they are sometimes tarnished when you take them out of their envelopes.

The reason is that the paper absorbs humidity and exposes the string to it. The plastic envelope won't let the moisture evaporate and the strings start to corrode.


How much difference do new strings make in the way the instrument sounds? Here's my experience.

I worked in an acoustic guitar shop for a number of years.

Besides Taylors, Alverez, Takamine, and Martin guitars, we also carried a good number of "Boutique" lines.

These included Breedlove, Collings, Goodalls, Lowden, Santa Cruz, Huss and Dalton, and Froggy Bottoms.

We bought either Martin or D'Addario strings in bulk. We always tried to keep good strings on each guitar and would re-string for the customer if neccessary.

This is what I noticed.

A great sounding guitar would sound better with fresh strings on it.

A lesser quality guitar, say a partially laminated import, would improve dramatically with new strings. This just re-inforced my belief in what a critical piece of equipment strings are.


Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your acoustic guitar strings.

1) Always wash your hands before playing your guitar.

2) Always wipe off your strings after play with a soft, lint free cloth.

3) Buy a bridge pin puller. It also serves as a crank to wind your strings. The big advantage of a bridge pin puller is that it's lightweight plastic. If you drop it while re-stringing it probably won't mar the top of your guitar.

Now imagine dropping that pair of pliers that you've been pulling stuck bridge pins with...

4) Learn the correct way to change guitar strings.

This information should give you an idea of how acoustic guitar strings work.

I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to guitar strings.

If you want to know more, I suggest that you take a look at Professor String's book on strings .

The right strings on the right guitar will speak loud and clear.

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