Why Are There So Many String Choices? Pt. 2

June 30, 2016

Why Are There So Many String Choices? Pt. 2

With last week's post out of the way, let me make a few recommendations. What follows is my suggestion for what set of strings will best match your instrument or playing style. Before I do that, however, let me give you one word of caution:

We often get asked the question, "Can I put steel strings on a classical/flamenco guitar, or nylon strings on my [steel string] acoustic?"

Short answer, no.

For a longer answer, scroll to the bottom.

For now, here are a few examples of instrument types or playing styles, and my favorite strings to use in each scenario.

Nylon: I don't play nylon string guitars very often, so I opt for the ole' trusty D'Addario EJ45 sets. The more discerning of our customers prefer the Savarez or Hannabach sets, which are much better strings but far less economical. If you're like me, you'll go for a "Normal" tension set, but advanced players prefer the stability and tone of "Hard" tension. As I mentioned last week, the increased tension comes from using a thicker string. 

Jazz Bass: A lot of jazz players looking to get that upright bass sound on an electric bass use a nylon tapewound or flatwound string. I suggest D'Addario Chromes on the electrics, so that you don't lose as much volume through the amp as you would using the tapewound.

Rock Bass: Anything nickel-plated round wound. I like D'Addario, some like Ernie Ball, and a lot of guys go for DR.

Martin Acoustic: Martins tend to have a warmer, darker sound, so a brighter string can balance that out. A phosphor bronze of some sort works well here; I used to have a Martin and always put D'Addario EXP strings on it.

Taylor Acoustic: Taylor makes a brighter sounding guitar, and a lot of my friends that are Taylor players get Elixirs, because the coating smooths it out a bit. Others like 80/20 strings, which in my experience start out brighter but mellow quickly and then stay consistent for quite awhile.

Slappy Acoustic: You know, the two handed percussive gimmicky thing? Some of those guys are switching to the Aluminum Bronze from Ernie Ball. It's bright and clear, which is great for the harmonics and slappy percussive stuff, and they last a long time, so they are fairly durable for those who change tunings frequently.

Shreddy Metal: If you play higher gain, you might like one of the more magnetic, higher output strings. Ernie Ball came out with M Steels and Cobalts in recent years, and whatever D'Addario NYXLs do differently, it works.


Blues: A lot of blues players I know like the DR Pure Blues strings. They're pure nickel and round wound round core, so they have a nice vintage sound and are easy to bend. Search the forums, and you'll find a lot of guys praise the quality as being equal to pure nickel strings 3-times their price.

Rock: I am a D'Addario NYXL convert, but really, any nickel-plated round wound will do. Ernie Ball, DR, GHS...I've used them all and they all perform well. Choose your gauge, string 'er up, and get after it.

Downtuned Heaviness: Really, you just need to find a thick enough gauge to handle the tuning you're in, but brighter strings or the more magnetic M Steels or Cobalts keep things from getting too muddy. I like Cobalts, myself.

Now, back to why steel strings and nylon strings are not interchangeable...

It comes down to how the guitar was constructed, and the bracing inside the guitar, as well as the way the neck was made. You see, nylon strings don't create the same string tension that steel strings do, so classical guitars don't have the bracing structure to handle the tension. You might see the top collapse, the neck bow, or the bridge rip completely off. On the flip side, steel string guitars often have stronger bracing structures, but that also means a slightly more restricted top vibration...so with nylon strings that aren't as loud in the first place, you'll get a kind of mellow, weak, uninspired tone. You might also see the guitar begin to warp, because it was built to counteract more tension than it's now getting. Also, though much less critical, you'll have to modify or replace the nut. Steel strings are smaller in diameter, so you'd have to enlarge the slots to accommodate the new nylon strings. And if you wanted to switch back to steel strings, you'd have to replace the nut again.

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