String Basics

What Are Strings for Guitars and Other Instruments Made Of?

Originally, strings were made from animal gut (not cat gut, despite sometimes being called “cat gut” strings). Special historical strings still use gut, but modern strings are made of either metals such as bronze and steel or plastics such as nylon and carbon.

How Does the Type of Material Used Affect Instrument Strings?

Generally, the harder the material, the brighter the sound. Thus, for instruments that use nylon strings such as classical guitars and ukuleles, fluorocarbon trebles and titanium trebles are brighter than regular nylon. For instruments that use metal strings such as acoustic guitars and violins, 80/20 Bronze strings are brighter than Phosphor Bronze strings and plain steel is brighter than nickel.

Are Tensions and Gauges Important When Choosing Strings?

Yes. Tension signifies the amount of force that you must apply to the string to bring it up to pitch. Thicker strings of any given material will have a higher tension at the same pitch and with the same scale length. A player will sense this higher tension on an instrument with a higher action.

The lighter a string’s tension, the easier it is to press to the instrument's neck or fret. But lighter strings may not bring out as much of the instrument’s character. They also are more inclined to buzz, although this also depends on the instrument’s setup.

For nylon strings, the tension ratings are usually extra-light, light, medium, medium-hard, hard, and extra-hard. For steel strings, the tension ratings are similar but usually refer to “heavy” instead of “hard.” They also usually list the gauge, such as .011 and .034, of each string in the set. The gauge is the string’s diameter in fractions of an inch. Some players refer to their set by the gauge of its first string, such as 10s or 11s.

Are Higher Tension Strings Louder?

Generally yes, but not necessarily. Higher tension generally gives an instrument more initial punch, but the duration or sustain may diminish with these strings. It’s also possible for higher tension strings to put so much stress on the top of the top of the instrument that it becomes constricted, thus decreasing volume.

So What Tension Strings Are Best?

Most players will prefer strings with tension ratings of light, medium, or medium-hard. Some players avoid extra-light tension strings on standard scale-length instruments because the sound is thinner than they want. However, other players find that the ease of playing is worth the sound tradeoff. These strings also may be ideal on a longer scale-length instrument.

Before using extra-hard or heavy tension strings, check with your instrument’s manufacturer to make sure it can handle them. Many luthiers recommend avoiding these strings with their instruments. Hollow body electric instruments may have similar issues, but solid body electric instruments do not.

Besides changing the sound and feel of an instrument, string tension affects the action and intonation. So if you try a new tension that’s much different than what you’ve been using, you may want to take your instrument to a qualified luthier for proper adjustment and setup.

How Do I Learn More?

Read our specific articles about classical, acoustic, and electric guitar strings or visit the Strings By Mail blog for in-depth articles about guitar strings and related subjects.

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