Your guitar strings are one of the biggest factors that determine the quality of the overall sound and play-ability of your acoustic guitar. Electric guitar players tend to select nickel strings in a lighter gauge that do not have a wound G string. Acoustic guitar players prefer a heavier gauge with a wound G string and a bronze finish. I have personally tried many different brands and thickness of strings throughout my guitar playing journey as I progressed through different guitar styles. In this post, I go over the different factors you should consider when selecting a good set of strings for your acoustic guitar. We will focus specifically on bluegrass flatpicking style guitar and how your strings can enhance your tone and playing.
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There are a wide range of string gauges and types out there ranging from very light to heavy. Some guitar players have specific preferences for the thickness of each string and buy individual strings as opposed to a full pack. Even though the type of string that you select is largely a matter of personal preference, the flatpicking bluegrass style acoustic guitarist is best suited using light-medium or medium* gauge strings. A medium gauge string will give you nicer tone (especially if you use a heavy pick), and a tighter surface to pick on which will help you to pick smoother and faster.
*Take a look at the inside of a Martin guitar soundhole. Inside the body of the guitar is written “USE MEDIUM GAUGE OR LIGHTER STRINGS ONLY”. This is a warning that using any gauge of strings heavier than MEDIUM could actually damage the guitar by over-stressing the neck.
String Type and Coating
Each individual string is generally either coated in a silver nickel finish for electric or a phosphor bronze coated string for acoustic guitars. The type of string you choose depends on how much you play and how often you intend to change your strings. If you play regularly, it might be good to invest in a string that will give you longer life so you don’t have to change your strings as often.
I’ve been playing Elixir strings for years and I find that they keep their tone and play-ability at least twice as long as regular strings. I have tried many different types of Elixir strings and have settled on Elixir Phosphor Bronze HD-Light (.013-.053). I like this particular set of strings because they are actually two gauges in one: medium on the higher strings (.013 .017 .025) and medium-light on the lower register (.032 .042 .053).
While I do consider Elixir strings to be the absolute best in terms of ease of play and tone, there are many other great alternatives that are a bit more cost effective. When I bought my Martin HD-28V guitar, the manual that came with it recommended using Martin brand strings. In addition to its regular string packs, Martin offers a coated set of strings which are a great alternative to the coated Elixir strings.
Another good brand of strings that work well for bluegrass and folk style acoustic guitar is D’Addario. They also offer a coated version of their phosphor bronze strings that are a great alternative to Elixir or Martin strings.
In addition to purchasing full packs of strings, you can also purchase bulk strings in case you just need to replace a single string on the fly. I always have a bulk set of strings on hand in case I break a string because I never like to open a fresh pack of strings just to grab one string. I currently have the D’Addario Phosphor Bronze, Medium bulk acoustic guitar strings box in case I ever need a single string.