Electric Guitar String Basics

Unplugged to Plugged

With the invention of the electric guitar and their magnetic pickups, the traditional guitar string manufacturers of the day had to evolve to keep up with this growing demand. However, since their arrival into the mainstream, electric guitar strings have remained relatively the same - as far as their basic composition and functionality.

From the String to Speaker

Since the sound output from electric guitar strings is driven primarily by the magnetic properties of the materials in the composition of the strings, highly magnetic steel has become the standard for the core of these strings. Through electromagnetic induction, the electric guitar strings’ interaction with the magnetic pickups converts the strings’ vibrations into electrical impulses, which are then amplified to reach the desired output of the player and the intended audience.

Gauges and Tensions

There are numerous electric guitar string options that differ by brands or manufactures, gauges or string tensions, material composition, manufacturing techniques, and a variety of treatments or coatings. All of these different string options were created to meet the needs of an infinite variety of guitar players and playing styles. The largest selection and most common types of electric guitar string sets are for the 6-string guitar, but there are also many options for electric 12-string guitars, 7-string guitars, 8-string guitars, and Baritone guitars.

When deciding what type of electric guitar strings would work best for your electric guitar, experimenting with and deciding on a string gauge or tension is a good place to start. Heavy gauge strings are often louder due to more steel and a greater vibrating mass for the pickups to harness. However, heavy gauge strings can be much harder to play and often require a slight adjustment to your guitar’s bridge so that these thicker strings don’t cause fret buzz – which leads to a higher action and more effort to play overall. On the other hand, lighter gauge strings allow for your guitar’s action to be set up lower and are also much easier to play and bend, but they are not as loud as a heavier set.

The gauges (thickness) of the string are often detailed on the package for easy comparison. They are usually written out starting with the 1st string to the 6th string on standard 6-string sets, (ie. 10 – 46). Often, every string gauge is listed on the package along with the associated categories of the gauges (ie. Light 9, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42).

There are also many other categories of in-between and custom gauge sets that electric guitar string manufacturers supply to meet the dynamic needs of the guitar players, such as Extra Light, Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy. These make it easier for players to easily compare the different string gauge options, and help categorize the gauges that players like for future buying.

Build Your Own

There are many guitar players that are so particular about the sound, feel, style, etc… of their guitar strings, that they piece together their own custom sets out of single electric guitar strings, and often from different manufacturers. If you found your perfect set of electric guitar strings from assembling your own custom set, you can save and name your custom set to Strings By Mail’s “Custom Customer Concoctions”. This allows you to share your research and infinite wisdom with other electric guitar players, and also have the opportunity to easily re-order your own Custom Customer Concoction at a press of a button during your next order.

Sound and Tone

The feel and sound of electric guitar strings are further shaped and enhanced by various manufacturing processes, outer string wrappings, treatments and coatings, and the overall materials used in the composition of the strings. Harder materials like plain steel strings lend to an overall brighter sound and greater volume, however they can tend to wear down a guitar’s frets and fretboard at a faster rate.

Electric guitar strings made with softer metals like 24k gold and pure nickel can help produce warmer and more mellow sounding tones, and are a much less abrasive on guitar’s frets. Some recent advances in string materials, such as using cobalt, provides a higher magnetism to the magnetic pickups, resulting in increased output and clarity.

Construction

The heavier gauge lower strings consist of a magnetic core inner wire that is most often a round core or hex core shape. They are then usually wrapped in a variety of outer materials such as nickel, silver, gold, nylon, etc… This outer wrapping process is done mechanically or by hand.

This chart helps to break down the basic electric guitar string types, and the color spectrum from mellow to bright. (click to enlarge) Electric Guitar Strings Types | Strings By Mail


The outer winding process that is most often used on electric guitar strings is called Roundwound, which consists of a round wire that is wrapped around the core and helps to produce a brighter and louder tone. Flatwound electric guitar strings utilize a flatter wrap wire around the core, and are favored by many for their lower profile and comfortable playing experience. These flatwound strings also help to eliminate the finger squeak sounds produced when sliding from note to note. Some electric guitar strings are further manipulated with a finishing process that grinds down or polishes the outer windings, and some of the more common types are known as Half Rounds, or Burnished Strings.

Many electric guitar strings have protective layers applied during the final manufacturing process, and these are known as treated and/or coated strings. These thin coatings on the strings help protect them from oxidation, dirt, and from the natural oils that comes from the players’ fingers. These coated strings also tend to last much longer due to this protective layer, as it also seals the small gaps in between the string windings, however there is much discussion as to the effect this has on the strings’ tone.

Longevity

Speaking of tone, electric guitar strings do not last forever and eventually the tone, sustain, and the feeling of the strings begin to deteriorate. This can occur from playing your strings too much and simply wearing them out, and also from the dirt and oils from your fingers that collect on the strings. Electric guitar strings can also deteriorate from not playing them at all, as the materials in the strings oxidize from the moisture in the air, as well as the dust that can collect on them over time.

This chart helps to break down the frequency of when to change guitar strings. (click to enlarge) Changing Guitar Strings | How Often | Strings By Mail


To keep your electric guitar sounding as good as possible and to achieve the fullest sonic potential from your instrument, fresh strings are essential. New strings are also much easier to play and they stay in tune much better. Experimenting with different strings is another great way to change the playability and to enhance the sound of your electric guitar, while you dial in your perfect tone. Like many guitarists, electric guitar players sometimes do not even realize that their strings have degraded due to their relative judgment. The gradual changes in their string quality over time often goes unnoticed, and the player forgets how easy it can be to tune and play, and how inspirational their guitar can truly sound.

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