Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty

If you've read Ted Drozdowski's excellent feature on strings on, you'll already have a good idea of your choices. But, as with any facet of your fretted friend, strings are a hugely complex topic. Just like tonewoods or tailpieces, your strings will affect the way you play and the sounds you summon.

Some players are fussy about strings as they are about picks. Others are not too bothered as long as they stay in tune. But you can never have too much knowledge. As the saying goes, how long is a piece of string?

We're focussing mainly on electric guitar strings here. Acoustic guitar strings have, of course, their own characteristics and construction methods. So, plug in for some more detailed info on electric string types, stringing tips and the particular preferences of some hallowed guitar heroes...

String Materials and Tones

When it comes to electric guitar strings, there are so many variations of materials used, we have to make some broad generalizations. But some materials are generally favored by certain styles of player. Here we go for the major options...

• Nickel-Plated Steel – Balanced, and hugely popular across genres. You'll get plenty of brightness but with warmth, and plenty of attack from a new-ish set

• Pure Nickel – These are less bright-sounding than nickel-plated steel but are warmer sounding. Good for pure blues.

• Stainless Steel - Offer a bright, crisp, tone with sustain. They are also more resistant to corrosion and less prone to “finger squeak.” That said, if you're after a deep bluesy tone, pure stainless steel is likely too bright.

• Chrome – Warm-sounding but the compromise is less resonance. As such, you'll more likely see them used by jazz and blues guitarists rather than rockers.

• Titanium – As you'd expect from such a metal, titanium strings offer excellent strength. They're pretty bright in tone, too.

• Cobalt – Cobalt offers a wide dynamic range with notable brightness and impressive pickup response. Cobalt alloys are also corrosion resistant.

• Polymer-coated – These offer less sustain than equivalent uncoated strings, but they are

corrosion-resistant and their manufacturers promise they will last longer. They are, however, generally more expensive and once the polymer coating is worn away, they're just as vulnerable as any other string. Generally aimed at acoustic players. That Teflon polymer coating means they stay bright for longer but they are “slippy” (think non-stick cooking pan!) and extensively bending strings can be a tough task.

• Color-coated – Just that, colored. Used for visual appeal, and the tone will vary depending on the strings' “core” material.

Did you know? Jimi Hendrix played pure nickel strings early in his recording career, but nickel-plated steel wrap strings later on. Does this explain the leap from “Hey Joe” to “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”? Probably not!

Gibson Strings

Know Your Gauges

Ahh, the lexicon of the string fiend. You'll hear some players say “it's strung with 11s” or “I only play 9s.” Although strings come in sets, some players mix and match so such sentences can sometimes be less than accurate. But broadly, once again, these are the gauges of strings used in different sets. All numbers denote the width of the string in inches.

• Extra super light – .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038

• Super light – .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042

• Light – .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046

• Medium – .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .050

• Heavy – .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054

Gibson Strings

When it comes to screaming heavy metal, you probably want to be looking at .008s or .009s. The proviso is if you also down-tune for heavy riffage, in which case you'll want a heavier set as down-tuning reduces the tension of the strings. You don't want super lights flapping around if you're down-tuned to C#!

If you play an archtop jazz guitar, you'd maybe be best starting with .011s and experimenting up and down. But you will need a medium/heavy-ish set to get the most tonal response from your jazzbox's soundboard. .008s just ain't going to make your ES-L5 sound its best.

For mainstream rock, it's more likely going to be about personal preference and likewise for blues. Many players will tell you the heavier your string gauge, the fatter your tone. But string gauge is just one component and there's always an exception to the rules. Everyone has their own choice and individual tone.

Buddy Guy uses 010s. B.B. King's Signature Gibson string set is .010 to 0.54 with Pure Nickel wraps around a hex steel core.Derek Trucks strings-up with .11 to .46. Slash plays an .011-.048 set, but remember he usually tunes down half-a-tone. Stevie Ray Vaughan was renowned for his fat tone and he always used heavy strings, even though he often changed gauges, depending on the condition of his fingers. A typical SRV set would be .013, .015, .019, .028, .038, .058, which is super thick. But remember, SRV also tuned down one half step and put Superglue on his fingertips (we wouldn't necessarily recommend the latter!). The down-tuning reduced the string tension.

Says Neal Schon, “Some people use strings as large as cables. Anything heavier than a 010 is silly. But for the blues, heavier strings are better.” But are they? Jimmy Page uses .009s, and sometimes even .008s – just like ZZ Top's Billy F Gibbons. “I, too, once believed in the heavier gauge string as a superior tone source,” says Billy. “However, thanks to the graciousness of B.B. King I learned that a lighter gauge string offers superior playing comfort. Detuning requires some adjustment of attack, approach and feel. Try it. You may like it.”

Joe Bonamassa uses heavy strings as a “preventative” measure. “I’m not a shredder guy,” Bonamassa once told Premier Guitar, “but I have shredder tendencies that I think get in my way. I have a tendency to put in a million notes and show off to the world, and that’s not usually my best solo. So, the .011s keep me from going there all the time. I can ramp up to it, but I’m not living there, over-playing all the time.”

Gibson Strings

The exception of all exceptions? Tony Iommi. Iommi says he’s been told by many producers that he needed a set of thick strings to get a big sound. “I’ve never used a set of thick strings and I do have a big sound,” he shrugs.

For D# (root) tuning, Iommi's gauges are .008, .008, .011 (unwound), .018 .024, and .032. For C# tuning, he uses .009, .010, .012 (unwound), .020, .032 and .042. Super light strings, but a super heavy sound.

Did you know? Eric Clapton 's “Slowhand” nickname was a result of his string choice! Of his Yardbirds days, Clapton recalled: “I used light-gauge strings, with a very thin first string, which made it easier to bend the notes, and it was not uncommon, during frenetic bits of playing, for me to break at least one string.

“While I was changing my strings the audience would often break into a slow handclap, inspiring Giorgio [Gomelsky, The Yardbirds’ manager] to dream up the nickname of ‘Slowhand’ Clapton.”

String Maintenance, Tips and Tricks

Whatever strings you favor there are a number of ways to get the most out of them. As always, not every player agrees! Ry Cooder famously likes worn-in strings (though he's picky about particular gauges for particular guitars) while U2's Edge demands brand new strings for every show. Pity his tech, Dallas Schoo, who has to restring up to 20 guitars every day. There's no getting around it either: “He'll even ask me while he's soundchecking,” says Schoo. “'Dallas, are these strings new?' He can tell.” Here are some more workable tips...

• If you can't remember when you last changed your strings, they probably need changing.

• Note the date you changed strings on the package, then put it in your case to keep track of the age and type of strings you’re using.

• Wash your hands before playing to help prevent string oxidation.

• Keep a clean lint-free cloth handy and wipe down your strings after every playing session to prolong their life.

• If you use a dedicated string-cleaning product, tuck a cloth between your guitar's fretboard and strings when cleaning to protect your 'board... just in case.

• Invest in a string-winder for quicker changes.

• If you play lighter gauge strings, you're more likely to break your high E. So buy a set with at least an extra high E as spare.

• Always keep spare sets. Gibson Brite Wire strings come in a bargain 5-pack with 2 extra Bs and 2 extra high Es.

• Experiment with gauge and materials. For example, Gibson Special Alloy sets are specifically designed to get the best tones from humbuckers.

Further reading Why Guitar Strings Break and How You Prevent It