Is there a better feeling than winding a fresh set of the best electric guitar strings onto your guitar, tuning up and hitting an open chord to hear those notes ring out clear and true?
Sometimes the fresh tone and feel of new electric guitar strings can even get you out of a creative rut. Strings are such a crucial link in your electric guitar sound chain, that it's not surprising that when they feel and sound right to you, you get the best out of your guitar sound. On the other hand, sub-par strings can inhibit your playing.
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To help you zero in on the right strings for you, we've scoured the market for the very best sets, with great options from Ernie Ball, Elixir, GHS and more that cater for all budgets and playing styles.
What are the best electric guitar strings?
The Slinky feel, much-loved by players in many different genres, has been given a high-tech update with the Paradigm range, courtesy of Ernie Ball’s patented RPS (Reinforced Plain String) technology increasing the strength of its electric guitar strings by up to 37 per cent.
In fact, Ernie Ball were so confident that they shot a video of John Petrucci trying to break them.Sp;oiler alert: he couldn’t! That’s not to say they’ll never break, of course, but rest assured they’re tough in the extreme, while the nanocoating feels natural with that Slinky tone present and correct.
Meanwhile, New York-based string titans D’Addario plump for a high-carbon steel core with their NYXL range, around which they judiciously wrap some nickel and promise another super-tough string that won’t go breaking on you when you go for a hero bend. They won’t go dull for ages either.
As far as uncoated electric guitar strings go, these are impossible to beat, and the second-brightest model D’Addario makes. While a few day’s heavy playing might mellow-out some of that high-end, which a lot of players like, D’Addario promise an enhanced response in the 2-5khz range courtesy of these newly-engineered strings’ magnetic response with your pickups.
How to buy the best electric guitar strings for you
How do I find a good set of electric guitar strings?
Luckily guitar strings are not expensive – this will be one of the cheapest parts of your rig – so experimenting with as many different sets as you can is a good idea. Your ears and fingers do the rest - listen to them, and they'll tell you which strings are right for your particular style and feel.
There are other considerations, however, like tuning stability and durability. No string is fully break-proof, but you should be looking for those with a high tensile strength.
Coated or uncoated electric guitar strings? A word on guitar string materials…
Coated strings such as Elixir’s promise to extend the life of your string, repelling the gunk and sweat that builds up when playing. While some players prefer the natural feel of an uncoated string, not to mention the lower price, string coatings have evolved to feel evermore natural. The only difference you might notice is that they stay brighter longer.
That said, the resurgence in popularity of pure nickel strings suggests that players still value that vintage experience, and in terms of warm tone and smooth playability, they are hard to beat.
The most common spec for the electric guitar string is nickel-wound steel, which offers a little of the warmth of nickel but with a brighter top end. If this doesn’t sound quite your speed, there is, naturally, a 24-carat gold option from Optima.
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What you need to know about guitar string gauges
String gauges are measured in 1/1000th of an inch. By gauge we mean the thickness or diameter of the string. Heavy gauge strings (typically those with a high E gauge of .011 and higher, though some might say .011 is still medium) can feel thick enough to tow a trailer, but they were just the thing for Stevie Ray Vaughan, who appreciated their fat, well pronounced bottom end and authoritative tone.
Lighter gauge strings will sound brighter and will be easier to bend; if you are playing lead guitar, a set of .009 or .010 strings will be a more comfortable feel. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top has a signature set that has a high E of .007, which is really pushing it. It works for him, but then every player is different, and you will only find out what is right for you after trying a variety of gauges and materials. And there is no better time than now to start experimenting.
The best electric guitar strings you can buy today
String sage Ernie Ball reckons it’s made some of the world’s strongest strings with the Paradigm set, which promises longer string life while retaining the company’s iconic Slinky tone and feel. As a result, they top this list of the best electric guitar strings.
Ultra-high strength steel can be found in the wound and plain strings, plus there is some reinforcement at the ball end, enabling them to lock in tune fast and hold up to aggressive styles without popping. Indeed, Ernie Ball claims that their patented RPS (reinforced plain string) technology increases tensile strength by up to 37 per cent, with up to 70 per cent more fatigue strength
There’s also plasma-enhanced wrap wire for increased corrosion resistance, too, and Ernie Ball promises that its Everlast nanocoating won’t flake nor mess with the string’s natural response.
Claimed to be among the strongest electric guitar strings ever made, D’Addario’s technology offers a high-carbon steel core to resist breakage and refined frequency response to enhance presence and crunch. D'Addario reckons they will "bend farther, sing louder, and stay in tune better than any string you’ve played before” and that’s just what you need.
These nickel-wrapped steel strings are the second brightest electric guitar strings D’Addario manufacture and come in a wide variety of gauges.
As a company at the forefront of the longer-life coated strings market when it was developed in the '90s, Elixir has continued to refine the technology.
Optiweb is the company’s latest coating, helping to protect these nickel-plated steel strings from corrosion while offering the same tone as uncoated strings. Elixir coat the whole of the string, too. Belt and braces.
Readily available discounted online, and like many of the more popular string sets as multipacks, the GHS Boomers represent great value. Boomers are uncoated, roundwound nick-plated steel strings with a round core, and offer a smooth ride for all kinds of styles.
Those holding a note and bending it won’t be disappointed. They come shipped in an air-tight fresh pack with each string individually wrapped in GHS’s NitroPack.
A number of brands now have sets catering for drop tunings and extended range guitars, but Dunlop says these Heavy Core nickel-wrapped steel strings have the core-to-wrap ratio to rule them all, one that maintains a comfortable and consistent tension in lower tunings.
That means you can really attack those strings without any of the flab that you might get from tuning down on a regular set. There’s even a seven-string option.
Available in .009, .010 and .011 gauges, these pure nickel strings will partner nicely with your Strat or Tele. They take their name from the bullet-shaped string ends that sit snugly between the bridge block and creates what Fender calls a “sonic coupling”. It enhances stability and sustain, but it could well be a time machine, for the pure nickel experience here – with nickel wrapped around a nickel core – makes for a truly rich, warm tone, perfect for blues, country, and jazz.
Guitar strings are going two ways right now: one is looking forward to using cobalt, coating strings, new tech, the other is looking at offering players an authentic vintage experience. This is the latter.
SIT is an all-American string company that prides itself on the fact that its strings Stay In Tune. That's all down to their carefully considered construction.
A combination of an 8% nickel-plated steel cover wrap over a hexagonal-shaped core - all sourced in the USA, no less - produces a bright treble response with long string life.
That's made Power Wounds the strings of choice for power players such as The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Lamb Of God's Willie Adler and Rammstein's Richard Kruspe.
Gibson’s “bench-tested and builder-approved” nickel strings should on the shortlist for any player looking for that warm nickel tone and smooth feel.
There’s not that much daylight between these and the Fender Bullets, though these have a more conventional wrap and ball-end construction, and as per Les Paul’s preference these have silk-wrapped ends to cut down on ambient noise, making these ideal for recording situations. And, of course, when it comes to restringing your Les Paul.
These long-life strings from German company Optima are the only 24 carat gold strings in the world (don’t fear, they’re priced in the upper-medium end of the spectrum). This roundwound set is used by May exclusively, with a custom light gauge running from .009, .011, .016, .024, 032, 042.
Expect to get a lot of joy from bends, and a great feel. Tone-wise you are looking at a bright, harmonically dynamic voice. Is it too much to string your electric with gold strings? Hell no! And you don’t have to be rock royalty.
The British string stalwart has been making strings since 1959 and now colour-codes according to gauge as Roto Reds, Pinks, Yellows and Purples.
The extra first string is a useful addition to these nickel-on-steel sets, especially to players who are prone to snapping that high E – which, when you think about it, is most of us.
There is a good reason for Ernie Ball’s Slinky series of electric guitar strings’ ubiquitous presence in gig bags and cases the world over. Firstly, they sound great. They really pop with a bright clarity, and nice solid midrange. Secondly, they feel great – great to bend, not overly noisy.
That they come in all kinds of custom gauge options and are cheap as chips just seals the deal. You’ve got Skinny Top Heavy Bottoms, Hybrid Slinky, 7 and 8-string options. Something for everyone!
Traditional sets can sometimes feature vastly different tensions between strings, causing players to compensate with altered techniques. New York string icon D’Addario set out to even the playing field with its Balanced Tension XL sets, which boast mathematically equalised resistance for a similar feel from string to string.
That means even effort when bending, strumming, plucking and slapping, and even improved dynamic control.
The company’s latest step in the Super Slinky catalogue is the first cobalt string – a material said to provide a stronger magnetic relationship with pickups for higher output, clarity and harmonic response.
Extra light indeed! But these come with great provenance; they’re designed in collaboration with Rev Billy F Gibbons himself.
Few players will have experimented with a gauge this light, and intonation alternation may be required, but you’ll be surprised at the doors they’ll open in the world of bending and subtle vibrato.
If you really want your guitar strings to stand out as well as your playing does, then these colourful options from DR are a novel eye-catcher. For even more fun, stick them under a UV light and they’ll glow, too!
They might also serve a practical purpose for beginners, too, as new guitarists can quickly identify specific strings based on their colour.