Best Guitar Strings Review in 2018
Once you buy a guitar and an amp, the question of what strings to buy seems secondary. However, it actually makes a big difference because different strings have different gauges, materials, coatings, and other characteristics. Not only do these change how the guitar sounds, but they also affect how the strings feel and how the guitar plays. In this post I will provide an overview of how to choose the right kind of electric guitar strings and review 5 good options for a variety of different playing styles.
Key String Characteristics
The biggest way that strings differentiate themselves is via their gauge, or thickness. Gauge is measured in thousandths of an inch. The gauge of a pack of strings generally refers to its lightest string. They range from super light (about .009) to super heavy (.013 or more). A lighter string will have a brighter sound and is also easier to bend and fret. Heavier strings are darker and thicker in tone and require more strength to move. Typically, metal and hard rock use heavier strings and classic rock works better with lighter ones. The right gauge for you comes down to what genre you want to play and which type feels better in your hands. There is no best gauge. It's a good idea to try out a range of options so you can see how the sound changes. It's surprisingly easy to move from one gauge up or down a size, and you should adjust pretty fast. Start with a medium or light gauge and then experiment before settling down on a final preference.
Strings come in many different materials. In general, bronze and brass won't work well because they are not magnetic, so the pickups won't, well, pick up on their tone. Stick to magnetic metals. The most popular options are nickel and stainless steel. Some players use copper, which can create a brighter sound. More exotic metals and combinations do appear from time to time, but in general nickel and stainless steel offer the best combination of sound, durability, and price, and all the biggest brands use one or both. One key factor in the choice of metal is that the moisture from your fingers tends to corrode strings over time. That is why copper is less popular- it corrodes faster, so a set of strings won't last as long. The mainstream options may seem dull because almost every set uses either nickel or stainless as its main material, but there isn't much advantage in trying a different type. The adjustments you make via EQ and tone controls will have a much larger effect on the sound than a different metal in your strings.
Winding and Core
When manufacturers build strings, they start with a core of metal and then wind an outer layer of more metal around it. The higher strings are not wound- they are just bare metal. You can see the difference on any set of electric guitar strings. The high E and B strings, and sometimes the G string, will look thin and plain, while the rest will have a wound-up covering of metal on them. Winding makes the tone of that string heavier and thicker. Generally, sets that start at a gauge of .010 higher have the option of a wound G string or a bare one. This comes down to personal preference. Winding styles and cores can differ as well. There are two main winding styles: round and flat. Round is much more common: flat creates a flatter string with a different feel when you fret it. Cores do not matter very much, but by far the most common is the hex core. The biggest choice you have to make is whether you want a wound G string, and in general guitarists who prefer heavier strings are more likely to prefer a wound G.
Durability and Extras
You want your strings to last. There are a few important ways that strings can fail. First of all, they can just snap. This is more common with lighter strings, but is always a small risk. It's a good idea to carry a backup set of strings around just in case you break one. You should also be careful to keep them properly tuned, because if they are too tight they are more likely to break. The second main problem is that strings can accumulate corrosion until you can't use them anymore. Some string sets have extra features, like special coatings on top of the metal. These coatings are for better durability or smoother play. You certainly don't need them, but if you try out a set with a coating and you like how it feels, there are good options out there. In general, using strings is at least as much about feel as it is about sound. Most strings will sound good, so find a set that feels comfortable during prolonged use.
Five Best Guitar Strings
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound Set
The Ernie Ball Slinky model is probably the most famous set of guitar strings in history. A huge assortment of popular guitarists have used them across fifty years of production. The odds are quite high that at least one of your favorite musicians uses some variant of the Ernie Ball Slinky. It has a nickel winding over a steel core. There are several different types of the Slinky depending on exactly what nickel and steel alloys you want in the winding and the core. Each one sounds a little different. The Slinky set the standard for what a performing electric guitar string should sound like. The same design has remained popular for several decades because it produces a great tone that cuts through the mix and it is so cheap that anyone can afford to use it, at under $5 a set. All current indicators are that the Slinky will continue to be the first choice of guitarists in every genre and style. It comes in the full range of gauge sizes and has a few different types, like skinny-top heavy-bottom and uneven sets. Each of these changes the play feel of the strings a little. If you like how the Slinky sounds, then it's worth it to see how each type feels so you can settle on the best fit for you.
D'Addario EXL110-3D Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings
This is the second most popular set of guitar strings. D'Addario is the old rival to Ernie Ball in the same way that Gibson and Fender are old rivals in the guitar business. D'Addario's claim to fame comes from this EXl line, which tend to offer a slightly brighter and warmer tone compared to the Ernie Ball set. Like the Slinky set, the EXLs have several different forms. There are a few different gauge options, but there are also versions that use different metals and alloys in the construction phase. Each one creates small differences in the tone. The basic set is a round wound steel hex core with a winding of nickel. The EXL is the model that put D'Addario on the map, though, so it isn't surprising that the basic design has not changed. At a little over $5 per set, this is another highly accessible model of string that any musician should be able to afford. That is not to say that the quality is bad- quite the opposite. For the price you pay it's very hard to find better and more consistent strings.
Elixir Strings Electric Guitar Strings with NANOWEB Coating
Stepping away from the previous two legacy brands, Elixer is the new high-end manufacturer that specializes in creating coatings for their strings that will help them last for a long time. The Nanoweb coating creates a bright, classic sound while adding on rust and corrosion protection. There are a very wide range of size selections from Custom Super Light up to Baritone. They also offer 7-string light and 12-string light versions. Elixer also sells their strings with the Polyweb coating, which is similar but makes warmer, thicker tones with a smoother surface. Both coatings are designed to fight the moisture and chemicals that can accumulate on the surface of a string set. Each set costs about $12. That is a little more than twice what a set of Ernie Ball or D'Addario strings could cost. The sound quality is excellent and the coating really does make the strings last longer. You need to decide if you still like how the strings feel with a coating, whether you are willing to spend that much up front, and whether the Nanoweb or Polyweb suits you better.
GHS Strings 900 Precision Flats, Stainless Steel Flat Wound Electric Guitar Strings
This is a good example of what flatwound strings are like. For the most part, their construction is simple: a stainless steel wind around a hex core. That is about as basic as it gets, so it's just the flat winding that sets this string set apart. At $16 a set they are expensive for strings. That does not mean they are bad, but it does affect their value and they have a hard time competing with standard strings in terms of bang for your buck. This is because they don't have any means of lasting longer like the coated strings did. It can be hard to judge how flatwound strings feel until you try them yourself, so make sure you get a chance to demo a set in person before ordering them. It's hard to describe: they just fret differently. There are some genres like jazz where they tend to be more popular. The sound is also different, being a bit warmer and brighter than otherwise. It's worth trying out flatwound strings at least once just for the experience, and these are a great choice for stainless steel ones.
Fender 3150R Pure Nickel Bullet End Electric Guitar Strings
Now, the Bullets are an interesting case. Fender has been making them for decades. The design choice is different at the end of the string. On a regular ball-end string, there is a round joint that feeds into the bridge for stability. On a bullet, this end point is larger and more oblong. On some guitars, especially Fender ones, a bullet end fits much better into the bridge than a ball end. That means it will stay in tune better during bends and tremolo use. It's an intriguing concept, especially if you have a Fender guitar. At just $6 a pack, they are also rather affordable so you can experiment with them at minimal cost if you are interested. They work best with Stratocaster bridges, because those put the string through the body and have the right grooves for the bullet ends. They can transform Strat play, especially for jazz and blues. In addition, they are easier to remove and replace because they are less likely to get jammed when you are trying to take them off. Fender makes many variants of the Bullets in different sizes and configurations, so there should be an option that fits what you like to do.
In my opinion, the best combination of value and quality is with the D'Addario nickel strings. The nickel keeps your frets in better shape and for the low price, the strings do last. If you want to spend more, consider an Elixer set to see how the coatings feel, or you could try a flatwound set. Once you have settled on a favorite set of strings, you can stock up and buy in bulk to ensure you always have a few sets in reserve. I advise trying to figure out which gauge you prefer first. Then once you know that, you can experiment with different brands to see how their approach to that gauge plays and feels. Don't forget to keep your strings in good shape by wiping them down and maintaining proper tuning, and good luck!