Searching for the best acoustic guitar strings for your instrument doesn’t result in quite as many choices as say, choosing a new overdrive pedal. Guitarists tend to be pretty cemented in the strings they like and once you find a brand you work well with, you’ll generally stick to that for life. There are also not that many companies manufacturing acoustic strings either, so the pool is relatively limited.
Where strings do come into their own, however, is the gauge. String gauge massively determines your instrument's sound and playability so your job isn’t quite finished once you’ve found your favourite brand. You’ll need to select the right gauge for the job too. On top of this, a relatively new form of string has become increasingly popular in the last decade or so, with coated strings offering acoustic players longer-lasting performance, albeit with a slight change in feel and tone.
While we’ve searched out the very best brands available, you’ll need to decide your own gauge and whether or not you want a coated or uncoated string when you checkout. If you’re unsure we’d recommend checking out our buying advice section, which features all the common questions answered by expert guitarists here at MusicRadar. If you already know your stuff, just keep scrolling…
Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture 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.
Best acoustic guitar strings: Product guide
Material: 80/20 bronze
+ Outstanding response
- Not cheap
Elixir is the first name for coated guitar strings, and this coated 80/20 bronze set has been treated with Nanoweb. Elixir coats the entire string to protect the gaps between each winding from collecting dirt, gunk, and other gross things.
This not only keeps the strings fresh for longer but reduces finger squeak. Developed in close association with Taylor Guitars, these strings are designed to provide a warmer bottom-end and bolder top-end.
These strings really do last longer than any other coated string we've come across. When playing acoustic the sound of the strings is so important that having that reliable, long-lasting performance makes these our top choice.
Material: Phosphor Bronze
+ Value for money
+ Loads of gauges
- Not the brightest
Way back in 1974, D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings fast became one of the standards of the acoustic guitar world. Nowadays D’Addario makes an overwhelming variety of acoustic guitar strings, but this is the set that started it all.
They offer a warmer tone with less top end than some of the sets on this list, largely due to the phosphor bronze wind. The ball end of each string is color-coded too, which makes it that much easier to identify which is which.
This set will suit acoustic guitar players who primarily strum, however, we’ve found they do an admirable job with fingerpicking too. They’re really quite versatile, offering great clarity and articulation whatever playing style you prefer.
Material: Phosphor Bronze
+ Versatile response
- Different feel
Martin offers a wide range of acoustic guitar strings, and these Lifespan 2.0's are its treated option of the SP 'Superior Performance' line. With ultra-pure steel SP core wire, the Lifespans are available in 80/20 and phosphor bronze sets.
If you want the extended life of coated strings without the coated feeling, then the Lifespan 2.0 are the strings we'd recommend. We found that even after playing them a few hours a day they still had some of that 'new string' brightness.
These aren't for you if you're only into non-coated strings due to the slightly different feel, but if you're open to trying something different, then give them a go. They sound warmer and more dynamically responsive than some coated strings.
Material: Phosphor bronze
+ Thin coating
A relative newcomer to D’Addario’s expansive range of strings, the XS series looks to give players more of that non-coated feel with its ultra-thin XS coating, all whilst retaining the long-lasting life of a coated string.
They’re manufactured using carbon NY steel, which makes them a tough customer when it comes to string bending and hard strumming. This core strength also means they should hold their tune better too.
They’re quite pricey we’ll admit, but many guitarists are willing to pay that amount to prevent such regular restrings. If you’re a gigging guitarist a coated string is a no-brainer, as you'll more than likely save the difference on buying fresh strings.
Material: Phosphor bronze
+ Custom gauges
- Not the most consistent
A relative newcomer to the acoustic guitar string world, Curt Mangan Acoustic Strings comes with some serious backing. Having worked at Ernie Ball for years, it’s safe to say that Curt Mangan is well-versed in how to manufacture guitar strings.
Handmade in the USA using exacting standards and high-quality machining, these strings are excellent quality. If you're a guitarist who’s very exacting in what you want from a string, the ability to craft your own gauge is a cool feature as well.
We found these strings sounded a little bedded in when we first put them on, with less of that trebly clank you get from a new set. They’re bright sounding and not too warm, making them an excellent all-rounder.
Material: 92/8 Bronze
+ Stable and consistent
+ Bright and clear
- Unusual feel
Dean Markley strings often take a bit of a back seat when pitted against bigger brands, and unfairly, we think. Regardless of what you think about 'cryogenic processing', any set of treated acoustic strings under $10 is worth a closer look.
Cryogenic processing with liquid nitrogen 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 tuning stability can be achieved.
While the frequency response might not be particularly greater than any other set of treated or coated strings, it still delivers a satisfying depth of tone. For roughly half the price of a set of coated strings, these are a great choice on a budget.
Material: 80/20 Bronze
+ Great value
+ Balanced sound
- Not for fingerstyle
Ernie Ball is better known for their ‘Slinky’ electric guitar strings but you can bet they know a thing or two about acoustic strings as well. With decades of experience making strings, they’re a sure bet when fitting your acoustic with a quality string set.
Warmer sounding than your average phosphor bronze string, we liked that they have that already broken-in tonal quality. There’s none of the overly bright sound you sometimes get from new strings when you first put them on here.
This lack of brightness does mean that they may not be as well suited to finger pickers however, but for most acoustic guitarists, the excellent value for money alongside the vast choice of gauges will be very tempting.
Material: Nylon, Silver-Plated Copper
+ Warm sound
+ Balanced tension
- Some prefer high tension
If you’re restringing a classical instrument, we think the D’Addario EJ45 Pro-Arte nylon guitar strings are some of the best in the game. Two of our classical guitars are currently strung with a set of these, and they do an excellent job.
D’Addario uses a multi-filament nylon core, which translates to a consistent response and warm tone. The treble strings are clear but not overbearing either, making it easier to get a balanced sound.
For us, the normal tension in this set is a nice balance between playability and projection. Some players may prefer the volume of a higher tension set, particularly if playing purely acoustically, and D’Addario does offer a set if that’s your preference.
+ Old-school tone
+ Smooth playability
- Dark sounding
A back-to-the-future move from Martin saw these strings launched back in 2014; think of these as vintage acoustic guitar strings. Designed to hark back to the early era of the acoustic guitar, a unique construction gives them a totally unique tone.
Returning to the old nickel-based alloy blend of Monel results in a softer touch and warm sound, to bring out the inherent tone in your acoustic’s wood. Because of this, we found these strings to be thoroughly enjoyable to play and hear.
There’s also a claimed longer life than some other phosphor or 80/20 options, as these strings feel 'worn in' for longer. They definitely bring out the darkness and extra warmth from your guitar - which may suit some acoustics better than others.
Best acoustic guitar strings: Buying advice
What is the best string gauge for acoustic guitars?
The gauge of a string refers to its thickness or diameter - the bigger the gauge, the thicker the string. This has an impact on the playability and tone of your guitar, as well as how you play it.
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.
Thicker strings will generally sound fuller. They tend to be louder than thinner strings and will have a rounded, bassy low end. They’re more durable than thinner strings, which is a major pro - but there are drawbacks.
If you’re still building up strength in your fretting hand, then thick gauges can make for a pretty challenging playing experience - especially if you like to bend strings and play fast runs. If you’re a heavy-handed strummer or like to tune down though, thicker string gauges are your friend.
Lighter gauge strings are a bit easier to fret and bend, and they sound a lot brighter. The trade-off is that you lose some of that deep bottom end. For some players, it’s worth it. But not all.
Take a look at your guitar. If you’ve got a smaller-bodied acoustic guitar, then lighter gauge strings might complement the sound better. Likewise, if you’re the proud owner of a dreadnought or jumbo-sized acoustic, then thick strings might do the job. There’s no hard and fast rule though. Some people use heavier strings on smaller-bodied guitars to add more depth and vice versa. Experiment with it!
Which acoustic strings are best for beginners?
If you’re a beginner acoustic guitar player, it’s important to make sure that you’re using the most appropriate strings for you. You’ll want to find strings that toe the line between playability and tone, so it’s important to understand string gauges and the difference they make to your sound and playing experience.
These are some of the most common generic acoustic guitar string gauges. There will likely be some variation between brands, and some brands produce hybrid sets, but follow this as a general guide and you’ll never be far off the money.
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
If you’re playing in standard tuning, we’d recommend you use Extra Light or Custom Light strings. These may be referred to as ‘a set of 10s’ or ‘a set of 11s’ - and will offer a bright, punchy tone with a fairly low amount of string tension - meaning they’re easier to play. As you become more comfortable on your acoustic guitar, we’d suggest you try out some heavier strings - but there’s no need to go super heavy unless your style of playing calls for it.
It’s worth noting that if you play an electric guitar too, the names of each gauge will be pretty different. We’d avoid comparing acoustic and electric guitar gauges, as acoustic guitars generally need heavier strings to sound their best.
When should I change my acoustic guitar strings?
Knowing when to restring your acoustic guitar largely depends on how much you play your acoustic guitar, but as a rule, we recommend you restring your acoustic guitar every couple of months at the very least. This will keep your instrument feeling and sounding it's very best. If you use coated strings, you might get some extra life out of them - but once your strings start to sound and look dull, it’s time for a change.
What are acoustic guitar strings made of?
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, and nickel strings have a warmer tone making them an excellent vintage choice, as does monel – a nickel-based alloy that many guitarists swear by for getting the best out of their tonewood.
Are nylon guitar strings easier to play?
Long story short, yes they are. Nylon guitar strings are referred to as having high or low tension, with high-tension strings offering a heavier feel and low tension an easier-to-play feel. Even ‘high’ tension strings have less tension than a steel or bronze set - and it’s one of the main reasons why so many people start on a nylon string 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. You’ll only need nylon (sometimes known as ‘classical’) strings if you’ve got a classical guitar - and it’s important that you don’t get mixed up between nylon and steel strings. The difference in string tension means that if you put steel strings on a classical guitar, you run the risk of seriously damaging your instrument.
How we choose the best acoustic guitar strings
When testing acoustic guitar strings, it's important that we put them through their paces over a fair amount of time to make sure they are right for your beloved acoustic guitar.
We start by stringing up our guitar with a fresh set of strings and seeing how long they take to wear or 'bed' in. The purpose of this test is to see how long it takes for a set of strings to become fully stretched and stable in their tuning. The best sets of guitar strings will do this in minutes.
We want to also test how the strings feel under our fingers. We're looking for smooth strings that don't have any imperfections that will impede our playing. In the case of coated strings, we'd rather not feel the coating - but being able to notice the anti-corrosion qualities is important. Corrosion is the main reason anyone should need to change their strings, so to test the usable life of the strings we'll keep the strings on our guitar for as long as possible and take note of when they start to discolor, tarnish and lose their spark.
We finally test how the strings sound. It's an obviously important task, so we make sure to play many different styles. This will show us how the strings handle the different musical genres.
Read more about how we test music-making gear and services at MusicRadar.
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