If you have just acquired your first acoustic guitar and are starting to learn, you probably haven’t considered what type of strings you should be playing. After all, your guitar likely has strings on it and they make acoustic guitar sounds. But are they the right strings for a beginner?
Beginner acoustic guitar players should always start out using light or even extra-light gauge strings. Learning to play the acoustic guitar can be a little painful since beginning players have not yet built up calluses on their fingertips. Light and extra-light gauge strings are thinner and thus require less finger pressure to play.
As you continue to play you will develop calluses and can move up to heavier gauge strings. The new strings will cause you a bit of pain at first but it will also cause you to develop even better calluses.
So What Acoustic Guitar Strings Should a Beginner Buy?
There is a tradeoff when it comes to strings. Lighter gauge acoustic strings are typically brighter and easier to play but don’t have the warm tone, volume or sustain of heavier gauge acoustic strings. Since you are a beginning acoustic guitar player, we will only discuss strings for beginners and string tone should be pretty far down on your list of concerns, though there are still some light gauge acoustic guitar string choices that allow for differences in tone.
Your top goal should be learning proper technique and chords which is most easily accomplished with lighter gauge acoustic guitar strings. After a few months your fingers will get stronger and your calluses will get thicker. Additionally, your form and technique will be improving, muscle memory begins to kick in, you’ll begin to establish a style, and you’ll have a better understanding of the tone you want to achieve from your acoustic guitar.
Extra-Light Gauge Guitar Strings
A set of extra-light string gauges typically run from a high E string of .010 inches to a low E string of .047 to .050 inches. These strings are particularly good for children and adolescents or anyone who feels they need to build finger strength.
The Good: Their thinness makes them easy on your fingers. This allows you to play longer and more often without discomfort as well as allowing you to learn techniques such as bending and hammering with less effort.
The Bad: The thinnest gauge strings in these sets are only about 20 times the thickness of a human hair. They are not strong, break easily if you strum or bend too hard, and don’t last very long. They typically sound tinny, do not have much sustain or volume, and do not produce a wide range of tones. They are not a good choice if your acoustic guitar is a turd and doesn’t have good volume or tone to begin with.
11s Guitar Strings
These strings are also referred to as ‘custom’ but I like to call them Spinal Taps. Some people have amps that go to eleven and some acoustic guitar string manufacturers have strings that start at eleven. Their gauges start at .011 inches (hence 11s) and go up to a low E string gauge of .052. If you feel you have pretty strong fingers or extra-light strings feel too flimsy, 11s might be for you.
The Good: These strings are still quite thin and therefore easy on your fingers, still making them a good choice for learning technique with less effort. They are a bit thicker and therefore a bit louder and have a bit more sustain. Kinda like if you played extra-light strings on ten and then turned them up to eleven. If you have a very low end guitar that doesn’t have good sound, 11’s will improve it without having to go to strings that are difficult to play.
The Bad: Though 10% thicker than extra-light gauge strings, 11s are still only a thousandth of an inch thicker. They still aren’t very strong and still don’t have very good tone, sustain or volume.
Light Gauge Guitar Strings
New acoustic guitars typically come with light gauge strings. These range from a high E string gauge of .012 to a low E of .052 – .054. There’s a good reason that manufacturers put these on their guitars. They contain a good combination of tone, playability, and durability.
The Good: This is an excellent beginner gauge because they are still generally light enough to allow for ease of playing but you are also starting to get into gauges that have better tone, volume and sustain. They are also stronger and will last longer.
The Bad: In comparison to the smaller gauge strings, there really isn’t anything inherently bad about light gauge strings. They are a bit harder on your fingers and require a little more force to play. However, when compared to heavier gauge strings, when it comes to tone, volume and sustain there isn’t much comparison.
What acoustic guitar strings last the longest?
Typically, the heavier the acoustic guitar string gauge is the longer the strings will last. But there are many caveats to that rule of thumb. Heavier gauge strings are thicker and therefore stronger. Some strings are made of bronze, phosphor, steel and nickel or some combination of those materials and that combination will also determine the strength of the string. Still, a .054 gauge 80/20 phosphor/bronze acoustic guitar string will be stronger and last longer than a .047 gauge of the same materials.
I personally use D’addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze acoustic guitar strings on the guitars I own as well as the ones I build. They are a high quality string that lasts as long or longer than any other brand I’ve used.
In my opinion, coated acoustic guitar strings do not last as long as uncoated. It has been my experience that they sound magnificent straight out of the package but over a relatively short period of time the coating starts to wear off and get flakey, especially if you play with a pick. This kills their tone by disrupting the strings ability to vibrate uniformly along its entire length. To be clear, that’s just been my experience and I know many players who swear by them.
What Guitar Strings Did Kurt Cobain Use?
Cobain used Dean Markley light gauge strings, or so I’ve read. But should it matter? Most of us have guitar heroes that inspire us to pick up a guitar and we want to sound just like them.
Playing the same gear they play is a good start to getting their exact tone, but you would have to have all of their gear to get their tone. Many of our heroes don’t play a particular brand of strings because they like them the most. Frequently they play them because that is the brand that paid them the most to endorse their strings. Tiger Woods never thought Nike Golf Clubs were the best, but boy howdy did he love those $100 million dollar checks he got while swinging them.
The question we should be asking is “What acoustic guitar strings did Kurt Cobain buy?” Famous musicians generally have access to gear that will compensate for any tone shortcomings in a set of strings. Further, if they are endorsed by a string manufacturer they get all the free strings they want and, as long as they aren’t breaking mid solo, probably couldn’t really care less about how long they last.
You should be buying the acoustic guitar strings that meet your needs. If that’s sounding like Kurt Cobain, knock yourself out. Buy Dean Markley light gauge strings and they’ll work out just fine. But as a beginner, you are not going to sound or play like a seasoned vet like Kurt. So buy the strings that are going to best allow you to learn and get better.
Play Around With Your Guitar Strings
At the end of the day, a set of strings is only a few bucks, so I recommend you also experiment. Most music stores have floor model guitars you can play. This is a good way to try many different types of strings. Lower end guitars will have lighter gauge strings and higher end guitars tend to have heavier gauge strings.
Also make sure to keep your guitar strings and overall guitar clean and well maintained for them to last longer and keep their tone. Expert tip: as you’re changing out strings, clean your fretboard before putting on the new set of strings.
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