Various known and respected brands, such as Gibson and Fender, produce strings with a variety of different materials and gauges.
Some guitarists say, “strings are all the same.” But those who say that clearly haven’t tried many different kinds.
Some strings have a brighter, twangier sound. Others are more robust and last longer. Still others are coated with additional materials for longer life.
Talk to any jazz player, and they will likely tell you that they carefully select a specific brand and gauge of strings. Do you still think it doesn’t make a difference?
Here are seven of the best electric guitar strings you can buy.
1. Fender Original Bullets
I’ve known about Fender Super Bullets for a long time, as I’m an avid user of them. But I didn’t know about Original Bullets until I saw them in the store (and bought them) one day.
The main difference is that the Original Bullets are pure nickel, while the Super Bullets are nickel plated steel. As result, they have a bit of a different sound.
But bottom line – both Original Bullets and Super Bullets are great choices.
2. Fender Super Bullets
Having experimented with many different brands and types of strings (something I still do), the Fender Super Bullets continue to come out on top.
They sound great, they preserve their tone fairly well even after a lot of playing, and most of all, they tend not to break. Like any string, their tone will die with time and usage, but they break less than anything else I’ve used.
Fender notes that Super Bullets are best for rock and other genres where you want the guitar to “cut”, while Original Bullets are more suited to blues, jazz, and classic rock.
3. D’Addario XL Pure Nickel Round Wound
No best strings list would be complete without at least one or two entries from D’Addario.
The XL Pure Nickel strings are a callback to the 50s, when guitar tones were deeper, warmer, and richer. This makes them ideal for classic rock, blues, jazz, and rockabilly.
Although I have found that D’Addario strings don’t last as long as Fenders, if you like classic tones, then these are worth a look.
4. D’Addario EXP Coated Nickel Round Wound
Whether you’re a fan of D’Addario, or you’d just like to check out their product, you’ll ultimately want to find a set of strings that are right for you from their broader range of products (XL ProSteel, NYXL, XL Nickel, EXP Nickel, XL Half Rounds, XL Pure Nickel, and XL Chrome).
I wanted to talk about the EXP Coated Nickel strings because they are break-resistant and keep their intonation. Those wanting to be on the cutting edge of innovation should have a look at these.
D’Addario claims their proprietary process adds as much as four times to the lifespan of these strings.
5. GHS Boomers
Who uses GHS strings? Far too many artists to mention. But here are a few – Seymour Duncan (yes, the creator of Seymour Duncan pickups), Styx, and Rancid, among others. Yes, they are popular with the pros.
As a manufacturer, GHS focuses almost entirely on strings and strings alone, which might be one reason to check out their popular Boomers (coated version also available).
Affordable and highly rated, it’s hard to go wrong with the Boomers by GHS.
6. Elixir NANOWEB
When people think coated acoustic guitar strings, they think Elixir. But did you know they produce electric strings too? Well, I will be the first to admit that I didn’t.
The Elixir NANOWEB electric guitar strings have been getting rave reviews, as they sound great and last a long time.
Now, I have tried the acoustic Elixirs, and wasn’t particularly impressed with them, but I would be curious to try out these babies. You will pay a little more for them, but if they’re as good as people say they are, I would think it’s worth it.
7. DR VERITAS
Like GHS and Elixir, DR focuses primarily on the manufacturing of strings. Their users include the likes of Alexi Laiho, Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, Trey Anastasio, and so on.
As with D’Addario, you might want to experiment with DR’s broader range of products (VERITAS, TITE-FIT, PURE BLUES, HI-BEAM, LEGEND, and Drop-Down Tuning ELECTRIC) to find your perfect set.
I thought I would highlight the VERITAS, as per DR, they believe they’ve created “a completely new category of electric guitar strings!”
They claim that their “Quantum Nickel” gives the strings a longer life, better intonation, and stronger tone, due to their increased magnetism. Try it out for yourself!
What Should I Look For In A Set Of Guitar Strings?
Unfortunately, you can’t just walk into a guitar store and try different guitar strings. Even if they did let you do that, the strings might be dead by the time you got around to trying them (because they are no longer fresh in their individual paper sleeves, and because others may have tried them out).
So, there are a few ways to go about this when you have yet to decide on a favorite set:
1. Find Out What Your Guitar Came Equipped With
If you’re happy with the strings that came with the guitar, then see if you can determine what kind they were. This might be on the manufacturer website, on a sticker or instruction manual that came with the guitar, or failing that, you could always ask the staff at the store you bought it at.
2. Ask Others What They Prefer
You may know others that play guitar, and they might have their favorite brands of strings. You can ask for recommendations, test them out for yourself, and see if you like them.
3. Read Online Reviews
You’re going to get different opinions everywhere you go, but you should eventually land on a set of strings that meets your demands.
This is how most of us found our favorite set of strings. Recognize that this may take some time, and strings may not make a big difference for you until you’ve developed a certain level of proficiency on the guitar.
In time, however, you will discover the right set. As for what to look for in a set of guitar strings, you can apply any of the following criteria and prioritize what’s important to you:
For many, tone is the number one consideration. What does your guitar sound like the moment you string it up?
Are you happy with it? There are other factors beyond the strings, such as playing style, the pick you’ve chosen, your amp, and your effects that make up your tone, but strings also make a difference.
If you couldn’t tell already, this is a big one for me. I do want my strings to sound good, but they also must stand up to a lot of abuse. Otherwise, I will find another product.
If the strings make your instrument less playable, or harder to play, you’re probably not going to be happy with them.
And don’t kid yourself – strings do factor into playability.
This refers to how “in tune” your strings sound across the entire fretboard. In addition to your strings, the way your guitar is set up can also affect this, so if in doubt, get a professional tech to set it up properly.
Let’s say, for example, that you finally find your favorite set. But then, you get another pack (same brand, same gauge, same product), string up your guitar, and you get a completely different result.
Oops. Reliability is an important factor when it comes to choosing the right strings, so find a brand that delivers consistent results.
Some players demand strings that sound in tune no matter how they tune their guitar. Others want colored strings that make their instrument look funky.
Flexibility is more of a factor if you’re a recognized artist with an endorsement deal, as you want to work with a company that’s willing to cater to your needs as they change.
How Often Should I Replace My Strings?
This mostly depends on how much you play, how lively you want your strings to sound, and how often you’re performing in front of an audience.
If you’ve never broken a string before, you should know that it happens more often than you think. Wear and tear, usage, grime and dirt accumulation, and even weather can have an impact on the longevity of your strings.
So, if you’ve never replaced your strings before, this is a skill you should acquire. You can bring your guitar to an instrument store and have someone replace strings for you, but ultimately you should become comfortable doing this yourself to save time and money.
Regular gigging and touring musicians may want to replace their strings after every one or two shows, or at least every week. Those who do the occasional gig and practice and jam session will likely want to change their strings every one to two months.
And hobbyists might be able to get away with replacing their strings once per year. This isn’t ideal, as strings can snap at inopportune moments, but it shouldn’t do any harm to your instrument, and strings can last you quite a while.
These are rough guidelines more than anything else.
Your strings will lose that “new string sound” after a point, and their intonation may also be affected. Eddie Van Halen prefers using “dead” strings over newer ones, so he doesn’t replace strings until necessary, and breaks a lot of strings during performances.
If you feel the same way, then no need to swap out strings until they break. Below is a video on how to change your electric guitar strings:
What Gauge Of Strings Should I Use?
This is both a matter of preference and function. I use nine gauge strings (super lights) almost exclusively, because they are easy to bend, and easier on the fingers.
If you’re planning on drop-tuning your guitar, then a heavier gauge (10s or 11s) will serve you well. It may not be necessary for drop D tuning, but if you often find yourself tuning all your strings down a half step or more, you should use heavier strings.
Heavier gauge strings can also affect your tone, either positively or negatively (depending on what you like). If you use heavy strings with magnetic pickups, you would get more output out of your guitar.
The playability of your instrument, however, could suffer. You’d either have to train yourself to play with heavier strings, or get a guitar tech to adjust your action for you.
Playing solos is almost always easier with light strings.
Blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan was known to use “modified” gauge 13 strings (with lighter bass strings), and sometimes even experimented with 17s! Just know that the higher the gauge, the more tension there will be on your instrument.
If your guitar is set up for nines, and you want to change to 12s, for example, then get your guitar tech to do a proper setup. Not only will this help with playability, it will also ensure that you don’t do irreparable harm to your instrument.
Generally, lighter gauge strings will make your instrument more playable, and heavier gauge strings will last longer and bring out more of your guitar’s natural tone. I would suggest trying a few different gauges before you make a final call about what gauge will become your mainstay.
You may have noticed that I never mentioned Ernie Ball strings in this list. This is because I have never found them to be anything special – in terms of tone, playability, or durability.
And I have tried them multiple times. You may disagree, and that’s okay, but I didn’t want to talk about a product I didn’t believe in.
Ernie Ball Music Man guitars, on the other hand, are sublime. There are other manufacturers out there, and they may be worth a look.
But like me, once you’ve found your ideal string, you’re unlikely to deviate from it. It makes things easier when you string up your guitar with the same set every time, because you’ll know exactly what to expect in terms of tone, durability, and playability.