I’m often asked either what kind of guitar strings I use or what the best strings are. The first question is easy to answer and I’ll do so at the end of this post. The second question, on the other hand, is harder to answer because it’s mostly subjective.
There are at least 40 different brands of strings out there and most of them are made by each company’s own factory. Although the construction process is very similar for strings, subtle variations in materials make a huge difference in tone, volume, feel, durability, and, price.
There are 4 types of treble strings: nylon, nylon-blend, gut, and carbon. These materials and subtle variations in their chemical compositions create a range of tones (timbres) from very mellow and dark to very bright. They also affect the string's tension (light to hard), volume (quite to loud), and sustain (long to short). Here is a broad-brush guide that you can reference concerning tone:
Darkest Tone = 1 ↔︎ 6 = Brightest Tone
Rectified Nylon = 1
Black Nylon = 2
Clear Nylon = 3
Polished Nylon (Red) = 3.5
Composite (Nylon + Flurocarbon) = 4
“Titanium” Nylon = 5
Gut = 5.5
Carbon or Fluorocarbon (polyvinylidene fluoride)= 6
A similar variation occurs with bass strings in terms of materials and their resulting tone, tension, volume, and sustain. Bass strings are made with either a monofilament (single strand) or multi-filament (multi-strand) core which is usually nylon or carbon wrapped in some kind of metal. The denser the materials are (core and metal winding), the higher the tension. Here's a guide that you can reference regarding tone:
Darkest Tone = 1 ↔︎ 4 = Brightest Tone
80/20 Bronze, “Gold Wound,” “Gold Alloy,” or “Brass Wound” = 1
Gold-Plated Copper = 2
Silver-Plated Copper or “Silver wound” = 3
Silver or “Pure silver” = 4
TENSION & VOLUME
Another factor that influences how bright, dark, or loud your strings will sound is the tension. A counterintuitive fact about tension and volume is that string tension is directly proportional to volume and inversely proportional to tone. For example, high-tension strings will produce more volume and a darker tone (3). Most professional guitarists use either medium (e.g., normal or standard) or hard (e.g., high) tension strings. Here's a simple guide to help you decide what tension to use:
Low Tension = Brighter sound, lower volume, higher sustain, easy to play.
Medium Tension = medium sound, medium volume, medium sustain, neither easy nor hard to play.
High Tension = Darker sound, higher volume, lower sustain, hardest to play.
Another factor to consider with regard to tension is the scale length of your guitar (i.e., the distance between the nut and the saddle). String tension is directly proportional to scale length, meaning that the longer the scale length, the higher the string tension. For example, if you put medium tension strings on a 655mm scale, their tension will be higher than if you placed the same strings on a 645mm scale.
For classical and flamenco guitar strings, the gauge or diameter of the strings mostly affects the feel of the strings (i.e., thicker or thinner strings). That said, tension and chemical composition being equal, less mass does equate to more sustain. Of course, since there is so much variability in the chemical composition of classical and flamenco guitar strings, it’s impossible to associate a specific range of gauges to a specific sound, volume, ease of play, or sustain. Personally, I only consider a string’s gauge with regard to how it feels. For example, I don't like tubby treble strings, so when choosing them, I pick strings with a smaller gauge.
WHAT’S OUT THERE?
My favorite resource for strings is StringsByMail.com where you can find pretty much every brand in existence. Amazon is also a great choice if you have a Prime membership. When choosing strings, think mainly about the sound and tension you want rather than how they are marketed. To find the best strings for your guitar, you really do have to try many brands and see which one(s) you like most. (*NOTE: Flamenco and classical strings are the same. Don't let the marketing fool you!)
Use the guides for materials and tension I mentioned above when choosing strings. You can start with these popular string brands to see what you like most:
Agustine (The first to develop nylon strings)
MY FAVORITE SET
At this point in my guitar life, I’ve tried just about every string out there and continue to go back to a combination set by D’Addario that gives me the exact sound and feel I want for all of my guitars. I like bright and powerful basses and low-gauge trebles that are somewhere between bright and mellow. That said, here are the basses and trebles that I love:
Regardless of what you decide to buy, make sure to buy 3 sets of basses for every set of trebles. You should be changing your bass strings, generally, three times as often as you change your trebles.
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