Best Acoustic Guitar Strings: A Buying Guide

So many strings, so little time

With the plethora of strings available today, it can be difficult to decide which string works best for you. If you’re a beginner, it can be nearly impossible. But don’t fret! We have compiled a buying guide and a list of string suggestions for your consideration. There’s a few things we need to discuss in order to make the best choice for our acoustic guitar string needs.

First and foremost, this article discusses steel acoustic guitar strings. Therefore, you won’t find any nylon strings here. Let’s run through our criteria and then we can talk about acoustic guitar string brands.

What style of music do you play?

Do you mostly strum? Do you mostly play fingerstyle? Perhaps you play a hybrid style that combines both. Or maybe you like to bend the strings a lot. It is important to consider this when choosing acoustic guitar strings.

If you’re mostly flatpicking, medium gauge strings are a solid choice. If you’re primarily playing fingerstyle, many players enjoy a light gauge string. Similarly, if you enjoy bending the strings, you’re going to prefer a light gauge string a little more.

The heavier the gauge, the broader the bass frequency response of your guitar. This is not a problem for picking, but if you want to explore the sonic, tonal, and volume orientated nuances of your guitar, heavier gauge strings can be overpowering. Some players overcome this by using what’s called a custom or hybrid string gauge where you take lights on the high strings and mediums on the low strings or vice versa.

I will stress that this can be subject to your own personal style. Remember that this is a general guide.

String gauge

Since we mentioned it earlier, let’s talk about string gauges. Lighter gauge strings will accentuate the higher register of your guitar while heavier gauge strings will boost the lower register of your guitar.

Additionally, lighter strings are easier to play than heavier strings. I’ve been playing for quite some time now and I have fairly strong hands. However, even for me, a heavy gauge string hurts after a while. A relevant consideration is how hard we want to work at playing our guitar.

Another consideration is what string gauge to place on vintage guitars. These guitars tend to be more fragile than their modern counterparts and therefore, we generally put lighter gauge strings on them. The first thing to do is consult the manufacturer and an experienced luthier in order to find the best option for older guitars.

Here’s a quick guide to string gauges:

  1. Extra Light: .010 - .047
  2. Custom Light: .011 - .052
  3. Light: .012 - .054
  4. Medium: .013 - .056
  5. Heavy: .014 - .059

Finally, remember that electric guitar strings are naturally much lighter than acoustic guitar strings. An electric light would run .009 - .042, which is lighter than even an extra light acoustic string. Also remember that each company has their own metric for measuring the gauge of their strings.

Body shape

Generally speaking, the larger the body style, the better the guitar will be for heavier gauge strings. As we’ve previously discussed, a dreadnought body style will produce more low end response. A grand auditorium or concert model guitar naturally accentuates the higher register frequency response of the instrument.

And this is where we have to make a choice. Do we want to tame the natural EQ tendencies of our guitar or do we want to enhance them? For example, a dreadnaught body shape naturally projects more low end frequencies. Therefore, we can add medium gauge strings and make our dreadnought a powerful flat picking monster.

Conversely, we can put light gauge strings on a concert model or grand auditorium guitar and push more of the higher frequencies. This can create a very melodic, almost sing-song like quality in your guitar. The choice is up to you.

String composition

String composition, or the materials that the strings are made of, can have a noticeable effect on the tone, playability, and life span of your strings. Acoustic guitar strings start with a steel core and the lower four strings are wrapped in another metal or material.

Bronze is a mainstay material in the construction of strings. It’s actually an alloy made primarily of copper and tin. The two most popular types of strings are phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze.

80/20 bronze will have a bright, clear, chiming tone. However, this type of string tends to mellow out quickly. I liken it unto a sharp pencil. It starts out crisp and sharp, but flattens out within a short amount of time.

Phospher bronze starts out more mellow and round, but it doesn’t flatten out nearly as quickly as 80/20. To be clear, since it’s bronze it’s still going to be bright. However, it won’t be quite as bright as 80/20 acoustic guitar strings. Frequency wise, Phosphor Bronze is fairly even in projecting highs, mids, and lows.

There’s a type of string called silk and steel that is quite unique. It has a steel core but is wrapped in silk, copper or nylon. Because of this, the string has a very warm, mellow, softened tone. The is very popular with folk guitarists.

Polymer coated or simply “coated” strings can extend the life span of your acoustic strings by nearly 5 times the normal rate. However, this is at the expense of sustain and resonance. They are also generally more expensive. Some professionals don’t care for the sound.

However, coated strings can work to your advantage if you’ve got an overly bright guitar, or you simply hate changing strings. Additionally, players who often bend will love coated strings as they tend to break much less.

Finally, there are aluminum bronze strings that have a reputation for having a bright, clear sound while retaining the strong, low response of the bass strings. If you’re a metal head, you might like this sound for your instrument.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the characteristics of acoustic guitar strings, let’s look at a few brands that might fulfill our requirements.

elixir guitar strings

It should be immediately noted that a single pack of Elixirs is easily 2.5-3 times the price of a standard, uncoated set of acoustic guitar strings. However, right on the package and through experience, I can say that they do last at least three times longer than a normal set of strings. That is, unless you break them.

However, these strings are hard to break due to their coating. A word on that subject: there’s two types of coatings. One is Nanoweb, the other is Polyweb. Nanoweb is a more textured, traditional “feeling” coating. Polyweb is a more smooth, soft, fluid “feeling”. This might be worth thinking about if you ply Jazz on acoustic guitar and you don’t like to hear your fingers sliding around on the strings.

These strings sport a clear mid-range presence. Remember that coated strings will slightly dull the frequencies of the guitar. It’s a trade off. You get long life in place of initial chime and tone. To be clear, there’s still tone to spare, but a seasoned player will notice the difference.

My main detractor with coated strings and thus Elixirs is that they start to “flake” after a while, when you’ve played them a long time and the coating begins to fall off. However, if you’re looking to have strings that stay fresher longer, and you’re not a fan of having to frequently change strings, Elixirs may just be the string for you.

  • Extremely long string life
  • Potential money savings in the long run
  • Polyweb coating helps eliminate sounds of fingers sliding across the strings
  • Coating can "flake" after the strings become worn
  • Ever-so-slight loss of high end frequencies due to string coating
  • Higher purchase price means higher initial cost investment

D'Addario Phosphor Bronze guitar strings
D’Addario strings are made in the USA and sport a corrosion resistant packaging that helps keep your strings fresh. I personally have had good luck with these strings. I’ve had one string break over the past 2 years. However, there are some people who report receiving defective products in this line.

I would buy a few extra sets, perhaps the three pack set, just to be on the safe side. These are relatively inexpensive strings, so a three pack is still very economical. These acoustic guitar strings are D’Addario’s best seller.

These strings sport the warmth afforded by the phosphor bronze formula. These strings are nice for taming an overly bright guitar, or accentuating the mellow sounds of an already balanced instrument.

  • Corrosion resistant packaging
  • Affordable and budget friendly
  • The mellow tones of phosphor bronze mean help with taming a bright guitar
  • Some individuals have reported receiving defective products from this line.

Martin Acoustic strings 80:20 bronze
You’ll see quite a few different numbers after “Martin Acoustic” when you go to buy these strings. They are simply the company’s numeric designation for the gauge of the string for that particular set. A few examples would be M170 (extra light) or M150 (mediums).

These strings are Martin’s self-proclaimed “flagship” string. There’s no frills here. These are strings made with the traditional Martin formula that’s tried and true and tested for decades. These strings are designed to produce a more consistent quality and sonic profile with each set.

These are great strings for regular practice and general music making. A three pack set of these are very reasonable so you’re not breaking the bank if they don’t work for your guitar. If you’re a bluegrass or folk player, you’ve got to try Martins as they have strings made specifically for your needs with the M240 bluegrass and M130 silk and steel lines.

  • Tried and true
  • Martin formula
  • Affordable and budget friendly
  • Designed to have consistent quality and sonic profile
  • Certain versions are made for specific uses
  • The many different numbers associated with this line can make it difficult to nail down exactly which version is what you're looking for

John Pearse Acoustic 80:20 bronze
John Pearse is a small, relatively “in-the-know” company. In bluegrass and folk circles, these are among the go-to strings on which a true “grasser” will play. However, I am including them on this list because these strings have a reputation of breathing new life into various models of acoustics. Therefore these strings could be just what you’re looking for to bring that acoustic guitar you’re thinking of getting rid of back from the dead.

These 80/20s are nice and bright, but not too harsh. They are very responsive with a plethora of clarity. 

Though they are well suited for bluegrass, country and folk, they are also very versatile. Don’t let the reputation fool you, these strings will make your fingerstyle come alive.

If the 80/20s are just too much treble for you, try out the phosphor bronze. With this company specifically, I recommend trying both types of strings. Believe it or not, the phosphor bronze lend themselves well to acoustic alternative rock. I know it sounds strange, but give it a go.

Like most string companies, there are reports of individuals receiving string packs that are missing certain strings. Again, buy multiple sets just in case. That said, John Pearse strings are not quit as inexpensive as some of the more economical brands on this list. However, they’re only just above the average price for a set of acoustic guitar strings.

If you need twang, chime, and clarity, these are the strings for you. Make sure you have at least 4 wraps on your tuning machines in order to keep the string tension as low as possible.

  • A bluegrass player's delight (mainly the 80/20 bronze for the added twang)
  • Great complexity that helps add character to most guitars
  • Great projection lends itself well to fingerstyle
  • Phosphor bronze version has great versatility
  • Reports of defective or missing strings from packages
  • Marginally more expensive than the average pack of acoustic guitar strings
  • It's suggested to maintain 4 string wraps around your tuning pegs to keep the string tension low

Ernie Ball 80:20 Bronze Earthwood
I’ve included Earthwoods in this discussion because there are a lot of people who absolutely love them. However, there’s also a fair number of people who aren’t so keen on this brand. This is controversial, but it’s worth putting them here for your consideration.

These strings were previously packaged as regular slinky acoustics, but have since moved on to claim their own moniker. Earthwoods come in an element shield packaging that helps keep the strings fresher, longer.

The strings are made in California. If you’re looking for Made in the USA, these will work for you. Ernie Ball states that they use the freshest and finest materials in the construction of these guitar strings. This should help you receive a string that isn’t old and dull.

Some people complain about receiving packs without E or G strings. Others cite premature string breakage. I’ve never had an Earthwood string break on me, but I did have them break on me when they were packaged as “Slinky Acoustics”. This leads me to believe that their quality control may have been inspected and revamped. Either way, it’s worth trying them out at least once to see if they work for you.

  • Element shield packaging helps ensure you get a fresh set of strings
  • Made in the USA
  • I personally have not had one of these strings break on me since being branded as "Earthwood"
  • Budget friendly price
  • Controversial brand due to previous "Slinky Acoustic" inconsistency in quality
  • Some individuals cite quality control concerns due to receiving packages without the E or G strings.

Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze
These strings are very interesting because they provide more prominent highs and lows. These strings are a nice alternative to the standard phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze. Using these strings, you could tame a guitar that’s very mid heavy by evening out the tone.

These strings are responsive and clear. The aluminum oxide is a natural corrosion resistant. This means you get one of the main pros of coated strings without the coating that can dull your sound.

Aluminum Bronze strings feature a process called "maraging" steel hex cores. This means you’ll have a more responsive low end and clearer sonic profile.

Standard with Ernie Ball strings is the fact that they are made in the USA. Also, you get the standard Element Shield Packaging that prolongs the life of the strings and helps them get to you as fresh as possible.

  • Element shield packaging helps ensure you get a fresh set of strings
  • With prominent high and low frequency, it can help tame a mid-heavy guitar
  • The aluminum oxide of the strings provides long string life
  • Made in the USA
  • Produces a sonic profile normally EQ'd for heavy metal
  • The prominent low and high frequencies may not be everyone's cup of tea

Final thoughts

Two things:

1. Don’t let a bad experience with a specific string brand and type be your only experience with said strings.

2. Play as many different brands and types of strings as you have determined will work for you.

Use this guide to establish your needs. Is your guitar too trebly and you don’t like that? go with something that accentuates the low end and mellows the highs. Is your guitar very trebly and you like that? Go with an acoustic guitar string type that accentuates that characteristic. Do you play a very old guitar? Don’t run the risk of warping the neck, play light or even extra light gauge strings on it

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