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The sound of both electric guitars and acoustic guitars varies depending on the wood, pickups, amplification, effects, and actual guitar strings. There are many types of guitar strings, each of which contributes a different sound to the music you play. The sound of a guitar string depends on the material and gauge of the string, as well as the shape of its core and the way it is coated or wound.

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How Many Strings Do Guitars Have?

While guitars typically have six strings, there are several types of guitars with more or fewer strings.

  • Six-string guitars: Most guitars have six strings, tuned to the following pitches: E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4. Guitarists generally tune both acoustic guitar strings and electric guitar strings to this standard tuning.
  • Twelve-string guitars: Some guitars have 12 strings, with each pitch doubled (some in unison, some in octaves). These 12-string guitars are particularly popular in folk and country music.
  • Seven- and eight-string guitars: Some electric guitars feature seven or eight strings; they're most commonly associated with a hard rock or progressive rock playing style. A seven-string or eight-string guitar usually follows standard guitar tuning with extra pitches added below E2.
  • Four-string basses: A bass guitar traditionally has four strings (tuned E-A-D-G) and a very narrow fingerboard. Yet, like modern guitars, a bass guitar can feature any number of strings, five- and six-string models being the most common.

3 Electric Guitar String Materials

Electric guitar strings and electric bass strings are made of metal. The electric guitar's pickups capture the vibrations of metal strings and convert those vibrations into an electrical signal, transmitting it to an amplifier. Guitar manufacturers typically make electric guitar strings from three types of metal:

  1. Nickel-plated steel: The most common type of electric guitar string, nickel-plated steel is resistant to corrosion and has a reasonably bright tone that cuts through a band mix.
  2. Pure nickel: Favored by guitarists who prefer a mellow or vintage-sounding tone, pure nickel strings cut the sharp treble tones of certain electric guitars in the bridge pickup position.
  3. Stainless steel: These nickel-free steel strings last longer than most styles, and they produce less finger squeak when you slide your hands up and down the guitar neck. Their tone is very bright, which can be counterbalanced by humbucker pickups but which may lead to overkill with treble-focused single coils.
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6 Acoustic Guitar String Materials

Acoustic strings vary depending on guitar models and playing styles; classical guitars use different strings than folk and country acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitar materials include:

  1. Catgut: Catgut strings are actually made from the intestines of sheep and other livestock. For centuries, all strings were made from this animal-based material, but modern technology has made it largely obsolete. If you shop at boutique music stores, you may still be able to find classical guitar strings made from catgut.
  2. Nylon: Most classical guitars now use nylon for their top three strings.
  3. Nylon and silver-plated copper: These strings wrap a metal composite around a nylon core. Nylon and silver-plated copper is common for the bottom three strings of a classical guitar (paired with nylon strings on top).
  4. 80/20 bronze: These strings are popular for all types of acoustic guitar music. Some classical guitarists use them for their bottom three strings, while many folk and country acoustic guitarists use them for all six strings.
  5. Phosphor bronze: Phosphor bronze strings are an update to 80/20 bronze strings, featuring a phosphor component that increases string life but sacrifices a little of the strings' natural brightness. Phosphor bronze strings are favored by gigging musicians who need a consistent tone and want to avoid having to constantly restring their instruments.
  6. Silk and steel: Silk and steel strings are metal-wound silk or nylon strings that maintain a mellow sound. They're popular as low strings on a classical guitar.

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4 Types of Guitar String Gauges

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Electric guitars and acoustic guitars vary in tone when you alter the gauge of their strings. Thicker strings tend to be better for strumming, while thinner strings work well for finger picking. Three string gauges are especially popular:

  1. Extra-light: For acoustic guitar strings, the term "extra-light" refers to .010 to .047 gauge strings (referring to the diameter in inches on the highest and lowest strings). On an electric guitar, "extra-light" means .009 or even .008 gauge on the top string. The latter are also called "custom-light" strings. They're known for their easy playability but also their tendency to break.
  2. Light: "Light strings" means .012 to .053 gauge for acoustic guitars and .010 to .046 gauge for electric guitars. A "light" set of strings tends to be more durable than an "extra light" string set, while maintaining durability and a pleasing tone.
  3. Medium: Medium-gauge strings start at .013 on an acoustic guitar and .011 on an electric guitar. They're popular in blues and rock, and they provide a substantial tone while still allowing for some degree of string bending.
  4. Heavy: Heavy-gauge strings start at .014 on an acoustic guitar and .012 on an electric guitar. They're popular in jazz music, which tends to emphasize a bass-forward guitar tone and minimal string bending. Some rock and blues players use heavy-gauge strings, but then detune their guitars by a half-step or a whole-step to create a heavy tone with easy-to-bend strings. In acoustic guitar music, heavier strings produce more sustain and overtones, but they require more finger strength from the player.

3 Types of Guitar String Windings

String manufacturers have various ways for wrapping wire around the cores of their strings. The three most common string wraps are:

  • Roundwound strings: As their name suggests, roundwound strings use round wire on their outer layer. They're the most versatile and most widely-used type of string, available from the lightest to the heaviest gauges.
  • Flatwound strings: Flatwound strings have a core wire wrapped with a flat outer wire. They're popular among acoustic guitar players, particularly those who play in a bluegrass style. When it comes to electric guitar, flatwounds pair well with a semi-hollow type of guitar, commonly used in jazz and blues.
  • Half-round strings: These strings split the difference between roundwound and flatwound strings, but they can be hard to find and tend to be more expensive.

2 Types of Coated Guitar Strings

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Some guitar string manufacturers market strings coated in a polymer. This coating protects against grimy build-up and oxidation, and it generally improves the life of a string. You can find polymer coatings on both lighter-gauge strings and heavier-gauge strings. The main downside is that the coating cuts into a bit of an uncoated metal string's natural brightness.

  1. Nanoweb strings: These strings have a very light polymer coating and more closely mimic the sound of uncoated strings.
  2. Polyweb strings: These strings have a denser polymer coating. They can easily hold up for many months of playing, but the coating mutes the pleasing upper frequencies often associated with new strings.

2 Types of Guitar String Cores

Today's guitar strings feature two distinct shapes in their core wires:

  1. Hex core: Hex core strings have a hexagonal core wire, which runs from the ball end of a string all the way to its tip. The hexagonal shape prevents the outer wire from slipping, creating a consistent tone from batch to batch. It's easy to find hex core string sets, from extra-light gauge all the way up to the heaviest of gauges.
  2. Round core: Round core strings feature a round core wire. They offer a mellower sound with more sustain, but they can fall out of tune more easily. If you play jazz or fingerpicked folk, a round core set may be the right strings for you. However, most players prefer the reliable quality of hex core strings, which make them a very popular choice.

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