How to Choose Guitar Strings That Are Easy to Play

How to Choose Guitar Strings That Are Easy to Play

As a general rule of thumb, lighter gauge guitar strings are easier to play. This is because they are less painful on your fingertips and every new guitarist knows all about painful fingertips. However, lighter gauge strings will affect the tonal quality of your guitar.

Lighter gauge strings require less tension which means your fingers require less effort to press the string down to create a clear sounding note. Given the choice, new guitarists would be better off choosing a nylon strung classical guitar or even better, an electric guitar. Nylon strings require even less tension and are softer on the fingertips and electric guitars tend to have a lower action which again means less effort is required to press the string down far enough to create a decent sounding note.

WIth that said, many acoustic guitarists prefer the sound of steel strings due to the tonal quality. But that doesn’t mean there are no options for easier to play strings, because steel guitar strings are available in a number of gauge thicknesses.

What Are The Easiest Guitar Strings For The New Guitarist?

The easiest guitar strings for the new guitarist are strings of a lighter gauge. When you bought your guitar it was already strung, probably with medium gauge strings. To make it easier to play, you can change the strings to a lighter gauge string. 

What Gauge Strings Are Available For Acoustic Steel String Guitars?

Strings for acoustic guitars come in a number of different gauges ranging from Extra light to Heavy. The gauge of the string refers to the thickness of the string and the thicker the string, the more tension it is under and the harder it will be on your fingers.

As a rough guide, the string sets run as follows;

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

You will often hear guitarists say they use 10s on their acoustic; this refers to the set of strings that starts with a .010 gauge string (which would be Extra Light Gauge). 11s refer to a set that starts with a .011 gauge string and so on.

What Gauge Strings Are Available For Electric Guitars?

Electric guitar strings follow a similar pattern but with some differences. As a rough guide the string sets run;

  • Extra Light Gauge – .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
  • Light Gauge – .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
  • Medium Gauge – .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
  • Heavy Gauge – .011 .015 .022 .030 .042 .054
  • Extra Heavy Gauge – .012 .016 .020 .034 .046 .060
Playing The Guitar

Does Changing The String Gauge Affect Anything Other Than Playability?

Changing the gauge of the strings on your guitar will affect the tension of the strings which can affect the setup of the guitar. Thicker strings will increase the tension which will not only be harder to play. Extra tension can affect the neck of the guitar, and will probably need setting up professionally by a luthier. The luthier will almost certainly need to adjust the truss rod that supports the neck against the tension of the strings.

The tone will also be affected by different gauge strings, lighter gauge strings produce a softer tone with less depth. They will also have less volume, and less sustain too. Heavier gauge strings will have more volume, a heavier tone and more sustain. Light gauge strings are far more likely to break during bends but this shouldn’t be an issue for the new guitarist.

Lighter gauge strings are more likely to develop fret buzz which is where the strings vibrate against frets further up the fretboard. Although this can be annoying it can be prevented or lessened by using a lighter technique when strumming or plucking the strings. So to ease the pain in the fingertips of the fretting hand you’ll need to adjust the techniques used by the strumming hand to accommodate those lighter strings.

However, as your playing ability improves and your finger strength increases it might be worth going up a string gauge or two to experience all of the benefits mentioned above.

What About Types Of Guitar Strings?

Now we’ve looked at the gauge of the strings, let’s take a look at other factors concerning the strings. For instance the materials used, which although doesn’t affect the ease of playability, does affect the tonal quality of the guitar.

Types Of Guitar Strings For Acoustic Guitars

Other than the nylon strings used on classical acoustic guitars, there are 3 main types of strings for steel string acoustic guitars which are;

  1. Phosphor Bronze
    Phosphor Bronze strings have a warm, well balanced tone.
  2. 80/20 Bronze
    80/20 Bronze strings have a brighter sound with more zing.
  3. Silk & Steel
    Silk & Steel strings have a silk core wrapped in steel which creates a softer, mellower tone. These strings are easier on the fingers as they have less tension, however, they are far more expensive than the other types of strings available for acoustic guitars.

Types Of Guitar Strings For Electric Guitars

Electric guitar strings need to be metal to allow the magnetic pick-ups to work properly. These tend to be made from a combination of steel and nickel although all steel and all nickel strings are available and are becoming more popular. 

  • Steel
    Steel strings sound brighter with more treble qualities.
  • Nickel
    Nickel strings have a richer, warmer sound.
  • Steel & Nickel
    Steel & Nickel strings are a happy mix between the two. They tend to have a great low end response that sounds rich and warm while still maintaining a sharp treble tone.

What Are The Type Of String Windings?

There are 3 types of windings used on guitar strings which are;

  1. Roundwound
    These are the most common type of strings and probably the type your guitar was fitted with when you purchased it because they are the easiest strings to play. They are constructed with a central core of metal with another metal wound around the outside. They look round with a textured surface and they create a bright sounding tone.
  2. Flatwound
    Flatwound strings have a flat surface and a flat tone as well. They are harder to play due to their stiffness and only really suit the jazz guitarist or the bass guitarist.
  3. Half Round
    Half Round strings are really a combination of the other two types but are still more difficult to play and still have a flat tone. Many bassists use half round strings due to that slight extra warmth available with half round strings.
guitar strings

String Coatings

Many of the better string manufacturers are producing strings that are coated with a plastic polymer coating. These coated strings last far longer than uncoated strings but they cost more and detract from the tonal quality to some degree. Also the coating does eventually break down leaving flakes of plastic on your fingers. They last twice as long as uncoated strings and cost around twice as much so there’s no real benefit in using coated strings except that some guitarists claim they are easier to play.

What Else Can Make Playing The Guitar Easier On The Fingers?

There are a few things that can also help to ease the pressure on your fingers when first learning to play the guitar these include;

Down Tuning The Guitar

It is possible to tune your guitar down by a half step or even a whole step. This will reduce the string tension and make it easier to play. If you then want to play at full pitch use a capo to increase the pitch whilst still benefiting from a less tensioned string.

There have been many professional guitarists that always play a whole step or a half step down including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Slash to name just a few.

Using A Shorter Scale Length Guitar

The scale length of the guitar is the length of the guitar from the bridge to the nut or more accurately the length of the guitar from the nut to the 12th fret doubled. Any guitar with a scale length greater than 25 inches is considered to be long. The shorter the scale length of the guitar the less tension on the strings and the easier it will be on your fingers.

Scale lengths tend to vary from brand to brand and even model to model so you’ll need to do some homework to find the guitar best suited for you. 

Lower The String Action

The string action is basically the distance between the strings and the frets. The higher the action, the harder it is to produce a clear sound when pressing the strings down. Lowering the action isn’t something we’d advise a novice guitarist to do on their own. 

If you feel you would benefit from lowering the action on your guitar we would recommend you take it to a guitar shop and have it done professionally.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are some guitar strings easier to play?

The easiest guitar strings to play tend to be the  thinner guitar strings (lower gauge). Although thicker strings have a better sound quality overall, they tend to be the most difficult to play.

Should guitar strings be hard to press?

Guitar strings are relatively hard to press down especially if you have never played a stringed instrument before. But they shouldn’t be excessively hard to press down.

Which guitar strings are easiest on your fingers?

Nylon guitar strings are the easiest on your fingers but you’ll need a guitar that’s setup for nylon strings. You can’t just change the string material on the guitar you own. Putting nylon strings on an electric guitar for instance would result in you not being able to hear them.

Are Extra Light acoustic strings good for beginners?

While extra light acoustic strings will be easier for a beginner guitarist to press, the lighter the strings are, the more likely they are to break when played incorrectly.

Can you get softer guitar strings?

Strings don’t get softer as much as your fingers get stronger.

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