Guitar Strings

Guitar Strings

A blog reader emailed me recently to ask how often I change my strings.  The answer is whenever they start sounding dull, which for my quantity of playing (7 to 14 hours per week) is anywhere from 4 to 8 times a year.  I should probably do it a bit more often but I have some Old Yankee in me so I tend to be on the frugal side.  Also, do not change your strings on Saturday for a Sunday service.  Give them at least a few days to stretch out.

If you’ve never changed your strings before; it’s way overdue.  Do it this week and you will be amazed at the sound.  You can do it yourself (see this blog post: or let your local music dealer do it for you for a fee.  It’s very easy to do, but you will need to know what gauge of string to use.  Here are some guidelines for steel string guitars:

  1. Most electric guitars are strung with extra light (XL) strings.  These are referred to as “nines” which is the diameter of the first string (0.009 inches).  Some players who do a lot of bending or shredding might even use “eights”.
  2. Most acoustic guitars are strung with light strings.  These are referred to as “tens” (0.010 inches) for the reason listed above.
  3. I use a medium gauge because my acoustic guitar is quite old and I get unwanted fret noise with the lighter gauges and I like the fuller sound of the heavier gauge.  They are however a bit more difficult to play.  They are known as “twelves”.
  4. If you are familiar with how to use a micrometer or calipers, go ahead and measure the diameter of your first string.  This is all you need to know to buy replacements.  If you are at a loss on what gauge to use, bring it into the shop where you plan to buy strings and ask for help.
  5. String material is another issue.  I like phosphor bronze, because I’ve tried others and they tend to sound best on my guitar.  These are fairly common and will work best for most situations.
  6. Change your strings one at a time, tuning them as you go.  Also once tuned, bend your strings a lot to break them in.  They will stretch and go out of tune easily for the first hour of playing.
  7. Most strings will have “plain” E and B strings and the rest will be “wound.”  You might also see what are referred to as “flat wound” strings.  These are more expensive but might be worth it if you shuffle up and down the neck a lot as they reduce that scratching sound that your hand and fingers produce as they slide along the strings.  I don’t use them myself; another case of Old Yankee I guess.
  8. Finally, some strings are also coated for longer life, for example Elixir strings.  I actually use these on my 12 string guitar because it’s such a chore to change all 12 strings so in this case it’s helpful to have strings that can last a real long time.  One word of caution with 12 string guitars.  All these strings put a lot of tension on the neck.  For this reason, I don’t tune my 12 string to normal pitch.  In fact, I always put a capo at the first fret and tune it with the capo in position.  This essentially drops the tuning by a half step and reduces the string tension.  Your 12 string will thank you for this.

One thought on “Guitar Strings”

  1. Hey, great aritcle again! Just a few comments. Most guitars are set up for a certain string gage. When you change them you should keep use that gage. If you use a lighter gage it will likely cause some rattling. You can have your Luthier set your guitar up for a light gage or the gage you prefer. I have found it is worth it to get a professional to set up your guitar at least once. New guitars are NOT always set up for the lowest action/best sound. In fact they rarely are.

    Secondly I find that the style of your playing makes as big a difference in regard to the best gage for your strings as the instrument itself. I play in a wide variety of styles but in Saturday night jam sessions we sometimes do some pretty intense rifts. If your attack is intense you will go through a ton of extra light strings, snapping them off left and right. I prefer medium light on my Strat, light on my Taylor accoustic, and medium on my Dean 12 string. Any lighter on my 12 string and I start snapping off the super skinny g string.

    Finally I won’t use anything but Elixir and the price is worth it. I think they sound better and they last longer. Every guitarist is searching for just the right tone though so others will not agree. One thing I have learned with strings moving to a tropical climate is that they deteriorate more quickly in moist air. I never had this in the Northern USA. I have had to adjust my guitar care considerably to adjust to the climate in which I live. Thanks again for your wisdom, Steve!


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