Originally, I was going to include this information on guitar strings in my other article on parts of the guitar, but I felt the strings deserved special attention so I decided to devote this article specifically to that topic. After all, the strings are where the notes originate when you play your guitar, so we should give them credit with their own article.
There are six individual guitar strings on a standard guitar. As a beginner, you don’t usually need to worry about how to string a guitar right away because the thoughtful folks at the factory generally take care of that for you. In fact, provided you take care, you’ll not need to worry about changing guitar strings for a couple of months or so. Eventually they’ll corrode, become dull and lose their brightness and sharp sound, but not for a good while yet. Don’t worry about this because changing strings on a guitar might sound tricky, but actually it’s a very simple process provided you follow some basic rules.
There are many different guitar string types and which type is right for you depends partly on the type of guitar that you own and partly on the type of sound you are aiming to achieve. There are two main types of guitar strings – nylon and steel. Electric guitars use exclusively steel strings and this is crucial because of the way sound is generated by the pickups. Acoustic guitars can be strung using either nylon or steel strings and the best acoustic guitar string material is governed by the style of playing you’re interested in. Steel acoustic guitar strings tend to be more popular with folk musicians, whereas nylon is more the preserve of the classical guitarist.
It is very important that you know and understand the names of each of the strings so that you don’t get them confused when learning and discussing how to play guitar. The thickest string is located closest to the ceiling as you hold your guitar and this is referred to as the 6th string, or E string. The E string, being the thickest string, gives the lowest pitched note when it is correctly tuned. The strings below the 6th string are numbered consecutively in order in the direction of the floor, thus: 6th string, 5th string, 4th string, 3rd string, 2nd string and (last but not least) the 1st string. The 1st string is the highest pitched and thinnest gauge string on the guitar and is located closest to the floor as you hold the guitar in the playing position.
The notes of the guitar strings, going from 6th string to 1st string are E, A, D, G, B and e. Try to memorise these notes as they are referred to all the time. It is personal preference whether you refer to the strings by number or by note and they are often used interchangeably.
Each of the strings is stretched over a grooved piece of material called the nut. The nut is commonly made from plastic and is positioned at the junction between the head and the neck of the guitar. There are 6 grooves, which act to keep the strings evenly spaced and at the correct height above the fretboard.
String gauges is a topic that gets referred to a lot. The gauge of a string is simply the thickness (or diameter) of the string.
Heavier gauge strings are harder to play because they are at a higher tension, whereas the opposite is true of lighter gauge strings. I recommend light gauge strings for beginners – at least until you develop better hand strength and callouses. A good gauge for beginners would be super light (0.009, or nines). If you wish, you could progress to thicker gauge 0.010 (or tens), which can give a different character to the sound produced by your guitar and can give more sustain, meaning that a single note will last longer after being plucked before it dies.
An issue that many people are unaware of is that some people have different skin acidity, which can cause corrosion of the strings and shorten their life. Some folks simply have sweaty hands, too which can lead to the same problem. For this reason, if you think you might fall into one of those categories of people, it’s best to get coated strings, otherwise you’ll need to replace your strings much more frequently than is strictly necessary.
I hope this gives you a better appreciation of your guitar strings, their nomenclature and characteristics.