Electric guitar

Top Tips: Choosing Electric Guitar Strings


When it comes to selecting guitar strings, gauge is the most obvious measurement used to differentiate between sets. It simply refers to the thickness of the guitar’s strings, with the lighter end of the scale a .008 and the heavier a .056. Six-string electric guitar sets are designated by the size of the smallest or first string, and the largest or sixth string, the most commonly used of which is the standard .010-.046 gauge. However, gauges set generally range from “extra super light” .008-.038 to “heavy” .012-.054. So what difference does a thousandth of an inch here or there make?

D’Addario Guitar Strings

The primary benefit of playing with a lighter string gauge is easier playability due to decreased string tension. This promotes fast and accurate playing by allowing easier note bending and fretting – perfect for working on extra-low action. The most popular exponent of standard tuning and quick play is the .009-.042 gauge, which offers less tension without compromising sound circumference too much.

There are drawbacks to using a lower gauge, however, including the risk of them breaking more easily, poorer tuning and intonation stability, and potentially less sustain. The likelihood of unwanted fret buzz is also increased, due to the lower action. As such, tone technique is key to getting the most out of lighter gauge strings.

At the other end of the spectrum, a heavier gauge of .011-.048 or .012-.054 provides greater string tension and, in turn, the stability to play hard; dig in and attack with some extra stylistic venom, which is the main tonal antidote for using alternate tunings at low range – say your open D or a lowered D. With this increased tension, the strings are more likely to stay in tune, while it also helps alleviate irritating fret buzz. Still, there are consequences to working with thicker strings – notably the greater finger pressure required to fret and bend notes.


Electric guitar strings are made of steel, nickel, and other magnetically conductive metal alloys, but it is the choice of plating or coating to match the metal alloy that is responsible for providing a unique tonal foundation.

Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt Strings

Nickel-plated steel strings provide a balanced tonal palette, a slightly brighter hue balanced with warmth for all-around versatility, while pure nickel strings provide extra warmth for added pop and snap. Stainless steel strings bring forth a brighter bite and liveliness, backed by improved sustain. For jazz and blues players, chrome strings are usually the preferred choice, due to their enriched warmth and tonal roundness. And then there are the cobalt strings which, with a deeper magnetic connection, work to get the most out of your pickups.


How your strings are wound affects both tone and playability. Roundwound is the most commonly used method of winding strings, signified by the noticeably grooved texture. With this winding you get more sustain, responsiveness and overall string energy. A consequence of this is increased finger squeaking and noise due to increased friction.

Strings for flat and round wound guitars

Half-round strings, on the other hand, have a smoother feel, with a darker tone and less attack. Whereas flat strings use an additional layer of ribbon wrap which is polished, smooth and smooth, and produces a smooth tonal output – the even response well suited to jazz guitarists.