Guitar Strings 101
For anyone relatively new to guitar playing, I want to shed some light on the subject of guitar strings. There are a lot of different types of guitar strings (gauges, material, coating). This guide will help you understand the different types, decide what strings to get for your guitar and how often to change them.
Guitar strings are usually numbered with something like "0.09" as the Gauge. This number represents the thickness in millimeters of the high E (thinnest) string. Thinner gauges are used for electric guitars, and are easier to play and bend, while thicker strings are tougher to bend, but have an arguably fuller sound. Here are the common string gauges.
0.08 Extremely light, Electric only
0.09 Very Light, Electric only
0.10 Light/Medium, Electric only
0.11 Medium, Electric and some acoustic brands
0.12 Medium/Heavy, Electric and acoustic
0.13 Heavy, Electric and acoustic
0.14+ Very Heavy, hard to find
Guitarists debate the types of strings all the time. I personally think beginner electric players should use 9's because they are very easy to push down and bend. More experienced players will prefer something thick enough to get a good tone, but thin enough to play whatever style they are playing. For acoustic guitar, the standard is usually 12's.
There are also hybrid gauges of strings, which tend to have thinner high strings, and thicker low strings. This allows for easier solos/leads, and beefier sounding chords.
There are different materials for electric and acoustic guitar strings, and the main effect they have is on the tone. Guitar strings can come in nickel, steel, brass, bronze, phosphor bronze, etc. You can read all you want about how these materials sound, but my suggestion would be to try different ones and hear the difference for yourself.
For classical guitars, you will have a set of nylon strings, and will only need to worry about the gauge. Don't try to string a classical guitar with metal strings!
Coated strings have become more popular over the years as well. My experience with coated strings has been very positive. These strings tend to cost more, are more resistant to rust and breaking, and last a lot longer. If you are playing outdoor shows often, especially in varying temperatures and humidity, you might want to grab these. Again, try them out to see the effect they have on your tone.
How often should you change your guitar strings?
This is a common question, with pretty simple answers. It all depends how much you play the guitar and what type of strings you are using. When strings get old, they sound more dull, they lose their intonation, and they get dirty. If you notice any of these things, it's time to change 'em! Also, if you break one string, it is best to replace all of them.
This chart should give you a very general idea of how often to change strings.
Guitar Type String Type Frequency of Play String Life
Acoustic Uncoated 2-3 hours/week 6 months
Acoustic Coated 4-5 hours/week 6 months
Electric Uncoated 2-3 hours/week 3-4 months
Electric Coated 4-5 hours/week 3-4 months
Classical Nylon 2-3 hours/week 6 months
Classical Nylon 4-5 hours/week 3-4 months
You can add or subtract time from the chart if you play more or less often. Or if you notice imperfections, then you should change them. Keeping the guitar in a case will also prolong the string life as opposed to leaving it out. I personally use 10's most of the time for electric (for rock, country, pop) and 12's for acoustic. If I have a gig coming up I'll usually change the strings a day or two before. Most touring musicians change their strings for every show.
There you have it, Guitar Strings 101!