This page may contain affiliate links. We make a small commission on purchases at no additional cost to you.

5 Ways Guitar Strings Affect Your Tone

Do guitar strings affect tone, and if so, how? We have all stood in front of tens of colorful string set packages, different gauges, materials, and prices in a music store, asking ourselves these questions.

Each packaging promises more sustain, more snap, or that they never break under extreme pressure. Is it all born out of the subjective nature of tone and guitarist, or is there truth to it?

Depending on the gauge, materials, design, and how long you have been using them, strings will change your guitar’s overall brightness, warmth, sustain, and even intonation. 

How string affects tone is arguably the most demystified among the countless tone myths. Yet, since all guitars and hands are different and there is no best tone – I will list the five primary criteria that affect tone and will help you evaluate what strings to choose and when to change them.

String Gauge

A thicker string gauge makes for a thicker tone and vice versa. The truth is the same for thinner strings. However, the difference is minimal compared to anything that a knob roll on the amp or guitar tone will do. It also depends on how much the gauge difference is between the new and old sets. 

If you go from 9s to 10s, you won’t feel much difference; from 9s to 11s, you will probably start to hear it and especially feel it. At times the most significant tone difference comes from how our hands react to the new string gauge rather than the physical difference between the strings. 

Keep in mind that guitar string changes affect the tone much more on an acoustic guitar, where there’s no amplification involved. Many factors are involved in producing the tone on an electric guitar, and electronics have the biggest impact by far. 

Sustain is a natural consequence of thicker string, but as with the tone difference, it’s minimal on electrics, and more felt on acoustic.

To my surprise, B.B king, the master of blues bends who never suffered from a lack of sustain, used 8s, and so did many greats of the 60s and 70s like Jimmi Hendrix, Page, and Clapton. 

There’s a remarkable story involving Billy Gibbons and B.B king. As Billy tells it, B.B. King asked him to try out his guitar with 10s backstage, and when he gave it back said, “why are you working that hard? 

Changing the string gauge comes with a to-do list. If the difference is significant, you might need a completely new setup to avoid fret buzz, dead notes and overall have your guitar play better.

String Material

String material is a big factor in changing the guitar’s tone if the difference in materials is significant.

Classical Guitar

A classical guitar has its unique tone, immediately distinguishable from an acoustic only because of the nylon strings. If you put steel string on a classical guitar, as I did on my first instrument, it will sound like any other acoustic of a similar shape and tonewoods.

I don’t advise anyone, though, to do the same. I did as I didn’t know any best at the time. Nylon strings are soft and gentle to a beginner’s hand; steel strings, combined with a high action, are not!

Even in the world of nylon strings, there are different materials you can choose for the Treble (E, B G) and Bass (D, G, E) string.

Treble strings are commonly made out of

  • Clear Nylon – balanced tone, leaning from the bright side.
  • Black Nylon – more rounded and warm.

Bass strings are made from a nylon core wire but wrapped with what looks like a podium of wraps. 

  • Bronze – the most common type that strings with the brightest tone. Typically they are made out of 80% copper and 20%, which varies from silver to gold.
  • Silver – warmer and fuller.

Acoustic Guitar

Acoustic guitar strings are typically made out of a steel core and different combinations of brass and bronze with other alloys – insisting on materials that resonate well acoustically and don’t need any magnetic properties to interact with the pickups. 

The number of alloy brands that have come up is endless, yet the main rule of thumb is that bronze strings are generally brighter than brass strings. I recommend using phosphor bronze as they are sweet-sounding as brass and round up highs just enough.

Electric Guitar

Electric guitar strings are all made out pickups friendly materials like steel and nickel.

  • Nickel Plated – Steel core and nickel wounding are the familiar “balanced” sounding with enough attack and mids.
  • Pure Nickel – 100% made out of nickel wire with a darker, at times called “vintage” tone.

Imaginations of builders are the limit on this topic, with stainless steel, zinc, and all sorts of superalloys that barely make a difference in tone but improve durability. 

Sweetwater has an in-depth guide on choosing electric guitar strings that cover most modern sets and more details on acoustic string sets.

Roundwound vs. Flatwound

Roundwound vs. Flatwound is an ongoing debate, especially in the jazz guitar world. It all comes down if the wrapping around the lower string is round or flat. The first is the most common; the second was once the standard but slowly became an acquired taste.

Roundwound strings are brighter sounding, with more attack. The round wounding is partly why you get the sparkling fresh new tone from news sets. The main disadvantage is that the brightness wears out quickly, and they can be bothering when recording on acoustic guitar due to the ‘squicks’ you get when sliding your finger.

Roundwounds are the standard for modern music for a good reason, so it’s safe to go for them for anything from pop to rock to metal.

Flatwound strings, as the name suggests, have a flat surface and sound darker and mellower. They are heavily used in jazz but not secluded in it. Many famous guitarists used them in big records in rock and country.

They have saved my acoustic sessions in the studio as sliding sounds smoother, and the classic bluesy solo sound sweet. Some player argues that they last longer as there’s wounding that decays over time.

The major downside of flatwounds is they don’t handle gain well and muddy up quickly. If you can’t pick, halfwound strings also share both sides’ good and bad.

Coated vs. Uncoated

Coating is the process of adding an extra polymer protective layer to the string wounding, core wire, or both. Most modern sets are coated as it prolongs the string’s life, protecting them better from sweat. Once one brand released the genie and all others allowed, writing in capitals the word “coated” on every packaging.

Coating affects guitar tone; as good as corrosion resistance sounds, the polymer layer slightly kills the highs. It’s not a considerable difference, changing from round to flat wounds, and some brands like Elixir and Ernie Ball do an excellent job of keeping the brightness almost untouched using new tech.

If you’re going for a set of coated strings, go for expensive ones. Lesser quality sets might last but won’t sound as fresh as expected.

String Age

Time is the ultimate tone shape for your guitar string. Every set of strings, over time, starts to dampen and sound mellow.  

It doesn’t matter if they are thick, wound, copper, or steel – all strings eventually change the guitar’s tone as they age. The difference is how they do so. If the set is good, they age well, the tone darkens nicely, and they keep intonation for long; if not, they soon become ‘lifeless.’ 

I occasionally like the well-rounded nature of older strings, especially on acoustics. The red light starts to flash for me when bends die out quickly or chords sound out of tune, no matter how much I tweak the intonation.

All factors can be amended to fit a particular situation best. As long as the strings are enjoyable to play and deliver if needed, you can make the tone of different strings work for you.