4 Ways that the Strings Affect a Guitar’s Tone


If you’re on the search for a better guitar tone, then you’ve probably heard that your strings are super important. It’s no surprise really. The whole sound of your guitar originates when the string vibrates and this is received by pickups in an electric guitar or the saddle, soundboard and body of an acoustic guitar. But how exactly do your strings affect tone? Here are the 4 main ways, plus how you can improve your tone. 

How the Strings Affect a Guitar’s Tone
  • String gauge
  • String material
  • The age and condition
  • The coating 

String Gauge

The thickness (or gauge) of your guitar strings affects the tone produced by your instrument. Thicker strings means a beefier tone, that’s darker and heavier. Whereas thinner strings produce a thinner and brighter sound. Here’s why.

Higher gauge strings  are more tense than thinner strings, this means that they contain more energy. As you already know, the sound is produced when the strings vibrate. So if thicker strings have more energy, they vibrations take longer to disperse, so you get a longer and more sustained note. On the other hand, thinner strings have less energy so don’t vibrate for as long.

Higher gauge strings are also louder than thinner strings. This is again because they contain more energy which is transmitted to either the sound board on acoustic guitars, or the pickups on electric guitars.

So what gauge should you go for? Well you choose pretty much anything between 0.008 and 0.015 gauge strings. This refers to the top E string. Generally, you purchase strings in a set, so the gauge described refers to this top E string for consistency. 

Low Gauge vs High Gauge

There are few different considerations to be aware of when deciding on the gauge of your strings. 

  • Thicker strings have better sustain than thinner strings
  • Thicker strings are louder and have more warmth and bass than thinner strings.
  • Thin strings are easier to play with an allow you to bend them without as much force.
  • Thin strings have more of a focus on treble and mid frequencies than bass so sound clearer and crisp. 

If you’re playing songs that require a lot of finger picking, then you might want to go with thinner strings. But if you are playing heavier music, then you might prefer thicker strings. 

Most new players prefer thin strings because they’re easier to play with when you’re starting out. I’ve found that the sweet spot for electric guitars is a 0.010 gauge and for acoustic guitars its 0.013, but try a few different gauges and figure out which is best for you!

I’ve written an article all about string gauges and how they impact the tone, tuning stability and playability, check it out if you want to learn more. 

Types of Guitar Strings

Next on the list of ways that your strings affect your guitar’s tone, is due to the material they’re made out of. We’ll go through each type of guitar (acoustic, electric and classical) and the main string materials used in each. 

Electric Guitar String Material 

The most common materials that are used for electric guitar strings are steel and nickel. They can be used alone or in combination to produce different tones.

Steel

Steel strings produce quite a bright sound that produce a higher frequency which is good for cutting through the other instruments in a live performance. Hence, they’re a good choice if you’re a lead guitarist or play metal or hard rock.

Nickel 

Nickel strings on the other hand are a lot more mellow and warm than steel strings so don’t cut through sound as well. Hence, they’re better for rhythm guitarists and suit genres like blues or light rock. 

Acoustic Guitar String Material

Generally, more acoustic guitars use either brass or bronze plated strings. This means that the wires themselves are made from steel and plated in either brass or bronze. Here’s the difference between the two string materials.

Bronze 

Bronze is similar to steel in that it produces a more mellow and warm sound. They’re a good fit if you want a deep and smooth tone. 

Brass 

Brass on the other hand produces a brighter sound. If you want a sharper tone, then brass is a good option, however be careful not to go for a really thin gauge as it can make the tone a bit thin. 

Classic Guitar String Materials 

Classical guitars require a more delicate tone, that’s why they don’t usually use metal strings. Instead, nylon strings are usually used instead. They produce a more mellow and delicate tone which suits this genre of music. Nylon strings work well for folk and classical music, but they are much too weak for other genres so that’s why you’ll never really see them used elsewhere. 

String Age

The age and condition of your guitar strings is a huge factor in determining the overall tone of your instrument. It’s no surprise that old strings sound different to brand new ones.

Older and worn guitar strings have a duller sound. Whereas newer strings are brighter and more crisp. Some players are looking for this more mellow tone, so can get away with using older strings, however, they shouldn’t sound flat. If you’re compensating for a dull or flat tone produced by your strings by upping the treble setting on your amp, then it’s time to change your strings.

There are loads of other disadvantages of old strings too. They’re a lot more difficult to stay in tune because they’re more stretched out. They also can start to look discoloured due to corrosion which can also make them feel stiff, this makes it much harder to bend and slide on the strings. 

How Often Should you Change your Guitar Strings?

So now you know the impact of aged strings on your guitar’s tone, how often should they be changed? 

As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to change your guitar strings after 100 hours of playing, or every 4 months, whichever comes first. This will allow you to continue playing with a brighter and crisp tone. 

The precise answer to the question of how often you need to change your guitar strings does of course depend on a few other factors including:

  • The make and model of your strings. Higher quality strings will generally last longer. 
  • How aggressively you play. If you’re battering your strings, then you won’t be surprised that they may will changing more frequently. 
  • Their cleanliness. Dirty strings corrode faster which can impair the tone. 
Signs that you Need to Change your Strings

So you know roughly how often you should be changing your strings, but here are some things to watch out for that’ll tell you when you need to change your strings. 

  • Your tone sounds dull or flat
  • Your strings feel stiff (most likely due to corrosion)
  • You feel friction when sliding on the strings
  • Your guitar won’t stay in tune
How to Make your Strings Last Longer 

If you’re surprised to find out how often you should be changing your guitar strings, then you’re probably wondering how to make them last longer. Here are some of the best ways to extend the life of your strings.

  • Make sure your hands are always clean 
  • Store your guitar in a case to avoid dust accumulating on the strings 
  • Clean your strings using a specialist string cleaner 
  • Keep your fret board clean
  • Purchase high quality strings to begin with 

String Coating

The final way that your strings affect your tone, is due to their coating. This is a relatively new phenomena, and not all guitar strings are coated. But there is a growing trend towards coated guitar strings.

So what does this mean? A coated string has been treated with a polymer which is usually a Teflon PFT. The main purpose of this coating is to prevent corrosion. As we’ve already said, corrosion causes worn strings, which ultimately negatively impacts your guitar’s tone. So coated strings usually last longer and sound better for longer. 

 

So there you go! Those are the 4 main ways that your guitar strings can affect your tone! Thanks for reading, here are some other posts that you might like:

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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