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The best acoustic guitar strings in 2021 to help you get the most from your guitar

The best acoustic guitar strings in 2021 to help you get the most from your guitar
(Image credit: Gibson)

Strings are crucial to your sound when it comes to acoustic guitars, playing as vital a role as your playing style or your guitar’s tonewood or bracing pattern. With so many types on offer, choosing the best acoustic guitar strings can feel like a minefield. Thankfully, our experts have been test-driving set after set of acoustic strings to help you zero in on the ones that will help your guitar sound the way you want it to. 

We've also taken a look at acoustic strings at a variety of price points, covering off budget and more luxurious strings for your instrument, whether you're rocking a cheap acoustic guitar or one of the best high-end acoustic guitars.

There are a few considerations to be made about material, gauge, and price when it comes to selecting the best acoustic guitar strings for you.

Coated guitar strings have made huge advances in recent years when it comes to tone and feel. They’re becoming an increasingly popular choice among acoustic players who want to extend the life of their strings.

Coated strings enhance higher frequencies, too, but these benefits do come at a price – quite literally, as coated strings are typically more expensive.

Many of the string sets featured in this acoustic guitar strings buyer’s guide are coated, but we've included some alternatives, uncoated and more traditional string options too.

Best acoustic guitar strings: MusicRadar's choice

Martin make some of the top acoustic guitars in the world, but they also make some of the best strings. The Martin SP Lifespan acoustic strings are a case in point. Treated to extend lifespan and boasting an excellent frequency response and feel, they also present excellent value - hence why they head up our best acoustic guitar strings guide.

Developed with US acoustic guitar giants Taylor, Elixir’s Nanoweb HD also provide a solid, pronounced low-end and bright highs, with less of the finger squeak that can be a nails-down-the-blackboard moment when playing. Plus, they won’t go dead on you after three days of heavy playing.

If you want to read more in-depth information on the best acoustic guitar strings around, click the ‘buying advice’ button above. If you’d rather get into the product guide, keep scrolling. 

Best acoustic guitar strings: Product guide

Best acoustic guitar strings: Martin SP Lifespan

(Image credit: Martin)

1. Martin SP Lifespan

Treated guitar strings from an acoustic legend

Price: From $13/£13.99
Material: Treated bronze
Reasons to buy
+A great value treated string+Versatile response for strummers+Hard wearing
Reasons to avoid
-Nothing of note

Martin offers a wide range of acoustic guitar strings, and these Lifespans are its treated option of the SP 'Superior Performance' line. They have ultra-pure steel SP core wire and are available in 80/20 and phosphor bronze sets, while 12-string and acoustic baritone players are also catered for. This is simply a great-sounding acoustic guitar string that's durable and fit for all styles of playing.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Elixir Nanoweb HD Light

(Image credit: Elixir)

2. Elixir Nanoweb HD Light

Among the best coated strings for acoustic guitar

Price: From $17.99/£15.99
Material: Nanoweb-coated phosphor bronze
Reasons to buy
+Outstanding frequency response+Nice balance between warm and bright+Long lasting, low squeak
Reasons to avoid
-Cheaper options available

Elixir is the first name in coated guitar strings, and this coated phosphor bronze light/medium hybrid (0.013-0.053) set has been treated with Nanoweb, which not only keeps the strings fresh longer, and protects the entire string, but reduces finger squeak. It's designed to provide a warmer bottom-end and bolder top-end with some mid projection boost in between.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Ernie Ball 2564 Medium Aluminum Bronze Acoustic Strings

(Image credit: Press Material)

3. Ernie Ball 2564 Aluminum Bronze

The best acoustic guitar strings for a brighter sound

Price: From $11.99/£11.99
Material: Aluminium bronze
Reasons to buy
+Wonderful clear tone+Natural feel+Long-lasting without coating
Reasons to avoid
-Might be too bold for some

String up with these and steel yourself for a booming performance that sees a fat low-end pair well with detailed mids and enough top-end shimmer to really make your chord playing ring out. 

But these aren't just for strummers... The Aluminum Bronze set has a nice natural playability, with the copper and aluminium wrappings over Maraging steel hex core promising long life without coating.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Dean Markley Blue Steel

(Image credit: Dean Markley)

4. Dean Markley Blue Steel

Cryogenically processed strings with greater tuning stability

Price: From $7.99/£6.99
Material: Cryogenically-processed steel
Reasons to buy
+Incredible value for money+Bright and clear tone+Stable and consistent
Reasons to avoid
-None at this price

The ‘cryogenic processing’ with liquid nitrogen that Dean Markley use for the Blue Steel range may sound a little like something from a sci-fi movie, but by freezing strings to -320 degrees Fahrenheit and then gradually bringing the temperature up, greater frequency response and tuning stability is claimed.

Best acoustic guitar strings: D'Addario EXP

(Image credit: D'Addario)

5. D’Addario EXP

The best acoustic guitar strings with reduced string noise for recording

Price: From $15.99/£12.50
Material: EXP-coated phosphor bronze
Reasons to buy
+Natural feel will convert traditionalists+Great price for coated strings+Longer-lasting than untreated strings
Reasons to avoid
-$5 more gets you an ultra-premium XT set

We highly recommend sampling a range of coated strings from various brands in order to narrow down your preferences. The New York company’s EXP range should be on your list. D’Addario claims that its coating offers more of the natural feel you get with uncoated strings, while still having the life-extending benefits of the coated types.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Ernie Ball Earthwood

(Image credit: Ernie Ball)

6. Ernie Ball Earthwood Extra Soft Silk And Steel

The best acoustic guitar strings for those with finger issues

Price: From $8.99/£14.49
Material: 80/20 bronze wrap, silk, steel core
Reasons to buy
+Great feel+Soft feel+Low noise
Reasons to avoid
-Too mellow for some

The 80/20 bronze Earthwood range offers this Extra Soft Silk And Steel iteration, which adds a layer of silk between the wrap and steel core to make playing easier on your fingers. It promises a mellower sound with reduced finger noise that could prove useful for recording sessions.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Martin Retro Monel Vintage Tone Acoustic Strings

(Image credit: Martin)

7. Martin Retro Monel Vintage Tone

Vintage acoustic guitar strings to bring out your guitar's true voice

Price: From $8.99/£7.99
Material: Monel
Reasons to buy
+Old-school tone will please purists+Soft feel and smooth playability+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-A little dark-sounding for some

A back-to-the-future move from Martin saw these strings launched back in 2014; think of these as a vintage string. Returning to the old nickel-based alloy blend of monel results in a softer touch and warm tone, to bring out the inherent tone in your acoustic’s wood. There’s also a claimed longer life than some other phosphor or 80/20 options.

Best acoustic guitar strings: D’Addario Pro-Arte Laser Selected Classical Strings

(Image credit: Press Material)

8. D’Addario Pro-Arte Laser Selected Classical Strings

These acoustic guitar strings are made in the USA with lasers!

Price: From $/£9.99
Material: Silverplated copper wrap and mutli-filament core on wound strings, extruded nylon on treble strings
Reasons to buy
+Enhanced intonation and stability+Normal tension is hugely playable+Price is hard to argue with
Reasons to avoid
-Nope, nothing here...

Available in light, normal and high tensions, these classical guitar strings from D’Addario are manufactured in the USA and have a wonderful punchy and bright tone. They might be classical by name, classical by nature, but the custom-extruded treble strings are produced by a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled laser.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Gibson Masterbuilt Premium Phosphor Bronze

(Image credit: Gibson)

9. Gibson Masterbuilt Premium Phosphor Bronze

A premium string at a bargain price

Price: From $9.99/£5.99
Material: Phosphor bronze
Reasons to buy
+Bright, sparkling, upfront tone with warm aftertaste+You could tow a truck with them+Dirt cheap
Reasons to avoid
-Runs a little thick so check the gauges on the pack

This must be a great acoustic guitar string to use once you’ve dropped three grand on a Hummingbird and find yourself paying for a top-quality string with the loose change in your pocket. Designed under the watchful eye of Gibson’s acoustic guitar builders, these phosphor bronze strings balance a sharp brightness that rounds out as it sustains.

Best acoustic guitar strings: La Bella Vapor Shield

(Image credit: La Bella)

10. La Bella Vapor Shield

The technologically advanced alternative to coated acoustic strings

Price: From $30/£22.25
Material: Treated phosphor bronze
Reasons to buy
+Sharp treble bite+Long-lasting treated phosphor bronze design+Made in USA
Reasons to avoid
-These are really expensive

La Bella coats its strings in a different way to others; changing the actual surface of the string during the Ionic Vapor Process where “propriety compounds are activated in a glow discharge electromagnetic plasma to modify the surface”. The result is a string the company says lasts five times longer than non-treated strings and sound brighter than the coated competition. They are not cheap but many players swear by their dynamics.

Best acoustic guitar strings: Buying advice

Best acoustic guitar strings: Two acoustic guitars on dark background

(Image credit: Future)

All of the sets featured in our best acoustic guitar strings round-up come in a variety of gauges. The string gauge - the thickness or diameter of the string - has an impact on your tone and technique, and on your guitar.

Thicker strings will sound fuller, with a more rounded low end, and on balance they tend to be louder. They’re more durable, too. Fewer string breaks? That’s great. But there are drawbacks. 

For players who are still building strength in their fretting hands, thick gauges can make for a chastening playing experience, especially if you are a finger-picker or like to play fast runs and bend your strings. If you are a folky strummer, heavier might be a better option.

Lighter gauge strings are easier to get a handle on, to fret and bend, and they sound a lot brighter. The trade-off is that you lose some of that bottom end. For some players that is worth it. But not all.

It’s worth taking a look at your guitar, too. For smaller bodied acoustic guitars, lighter gauge strings might complement the sound better, and thicker strings might be a better fit sound-wise for larger bodied jumbo and concert models. That being said, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Some people use heavier strings on smaller bodied guitars to add more depth, and vice versa. Experiment with it!

Best acoustic guitar strings: Man plays chord on acoustic guitar

(Image credit: Future)

Guitar strings are measured in 1/000th of an inch, and packaged in sets that are typically referred to by their thinnest string, the high E. So a “set of 12s” will have a high E string that has a 12 gauge, measuring 0.012-inches across its diameter. 

Here's a generic guide to acoustic guitar string gauges:

Extra light: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
Custom light: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
Light: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
Medium: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

It’s worth noting that if you play an electric guitar too, the names of each gauge will be pretty different. Try not to compare acoustic and electric gauges, as acoustic guitars usually need a heavier gauge of string to sound their best. 

Materials Acoustic guitar strings are commonly made of bronze, phosphor bronze, brass, nickel, silk and steel.

Each material has its own timbre. Bronze sounds bright, with bell-like clarity and a wide treble-forward frequency response. As the name suggests, phosphor bronze sees phosphor added to the alloy to slow oxidation and extend string life. Phosphor bronze strings tend to sound a little darker and warmer than bronze.

Brass strings have plenty of top-end jangle, nickel strings have warmer tone, make an excellent vintage choice, as does monel – a nickel-based alloy that many guitarists swear by for getting the best out of their tonewood.

What about nylon strings?

You’ll need nylon (sometimes known as ‘classical’) strings if you’ve got a classical guitar. In a set of classical strings, the top three strings are made from clear or rectified nylon, with the bottom three typically using bronze or silver plated copper wire wrapped around a multi-filament core. 

Classical guitar strings are referred to as having high or low tension, with high tension strings offering a heavier feel and low tension a more easy to play feel. 

The good news? Strings are not expensive!

Our biggest piece of advice would be to pick up a few options and get restringing and experimenting! What feels light to one player may pose a struggle to others. But guitar strings are cheap enough that you can try a few sets without breaking the bank. The more you experiment, the sooner you find a set that gives you the tone and feel you want. Once you settle on a gauge you like, your guitar can then be set up to make it even more playable and comfortable.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.