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Can You Mix Guitar String Brands, Gauges, & Materials?

You may have wondered, as I have when staring at the counters full of shiny and colorful string sets of different sizes, brands, and materials if you can mix and match guitar strings. What would happen if you got picky and went beyond the regular pack?

You can mix and match guitar strings to get different tone colorings on your set – adapt the tension and feel of the strings to your preference, and even save a gig by replacing a snapped string. Remember that mixing old and new strings or different materials might not always sound or feel good and may require a slightly modified setup.

At first glance, guitar strings seem very straightforward – buy a new pack, replace the old ones, and you’re ready to go. However, it’s never that easy when it comes to music, especially with guitarists who constantly find new picky and experimental ways to set up their instruments.

With years of testing behind me, I’ll let you in on everything you need to know about mixing and matching guitar strings.

Can You Mix String Gauges?

Mixing guitar gauges is more common than you might think. The ‘standard’ 9-46 gauge can easily become a ‘custom gauge’ if the low E is a thinner 42. Many guitar players use ‘hybrid sets’ as Earnie Ball calls them – yet they feel very normal and nothing out of the ordinary.

It all probably started with Eric Clapton decades back in the early 60s. The story goes that he would replace the high E to bend easily with a long mandolin string which could be found in just a handful of shops in London.

The real question is why and when you should mix string gauges. The process is easy to do, yet there are some reasons behind it I learned the hard way.

  • Consider a thinner high E string and a thicker low E (light top, heavy bottom) if you want easier bends high up the neck, but keep riffs nice and full sounding.
  • Use a thicker G string if it’s going consistently out of tune
  • Use a thicker top (high E and B for more sustain if you fit in the realm of the blues bender)
  • Use a thinner bottom to get more twangy tones.

Check out my previous guide to learn how string gauge truly affects tone.

Can You Mix String Brands?

You can mix string brands, as long their characteristics fit the existing set, or don’t ‘fight’ it too much if you are okay with the slight differences.

  • When you mix string brands, the first criterion to keep in mind is their quality. 

As true as it is that companies brand their string packaging and write a list of unique advantages only they claim to have, In reality, the primary division between string brands is one. There are quality, reliable strings, and not-so-good expendable ones.

A good set is only as worthy as its weakest string, so it’s only worth ruining it if you have to in an emergency gig situation.

  • The next thing to keep in mind is the characteristics of the string. 

In the next section, I’ll go into more detail, but just to give a short example, a flat-wound set of Fender strings generally won’t go well with a round-wound set of Ernie Balls.

Can You Mix String Types?

Different string types can be mixed together to get a unique feel and tone from the blend of materials, wounding, coating, etc.

Same as with string brands, if the string types don’t fight each other too much, then feel free to experiment. There’s no guideline on what you should and shouldn’t do, as the worst-case scenario is just buying a new set and learning a lesson. 

These are some to-do and preferably not-to-do things I learned in my career. They’re not set in stone, but they could be helpful.

  • Acoustic guitar strings won’t go well with electric guitar strings. If you put the first on electric, they will be too ‘rough.’ In the opposite case, electric strings won’t provide enough thickness to the sound of an acoustic guitar.
  • Flat wound bottom strings mixed on any regular set can help you avoid the “squish” sounds, make sliding smoother, and balance the overall warmth of your tone. 
  • A pure nickel low E, preferably a heavy gauge one, can help you get great bass tones out of your guitar as it doesn’t have the attack of nickel-plated ones. The opposite is true if you want more snap on the low strings but a warmer tone overall. 

There’s much to know about string material and how they affect tone, some main concepts of which I included in a previous guide.

Mixing Old and New Strings 

Replacing one string when it snaps is something we have all experienced. At times it can happen at home and startle you; other times, it can happen during a show and require cold blood to get through the situation.

Mixing old and new strings is never a good idea if you don’t have to, and it generally works only if you’re using slightly worn-out strings because you like their tone.

This counts for the situation where you have some old strings and replace a snapped one on a new set or the most likely opposite, where you have an old set and need to put a new string to make your guitar whole again.

I am one of those players who like the rusty and gentle sound of older strings, and I rarely change sets If I don’t have to. However, there’s a difference between a mature sound and just dull strings, which you should easily be able to tell.

You can mix and match guitar strings keeping in mind that your ultimate guide is the tone and feel. If something straightforward like a regular set works for you, there’s no need to experiment – and if you find that you might improve something by playing around with different strings types, brands, and gauges, go for it.