Each year the CMT honors country music stars at their Artists of the Year celebration – 2011′s honorees included Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney. Before they were stars, however, they had to work up their guitar skills from the very beginning.
Of course, if you’d like to be the next musician in line for country stardom, you’ll need to keep your guitar at your side. Ideally, you should have already found the perfect guitar (or even better, maybe one of these.) Perhaps you’ve made a list of your all-time favorite songs that you want to learn, and you’ve written down your goals. But there’s one more thing you need to consider: what type of guitar strings are best for you? The quality of your strings can affect your guitar’s resonance and tone, impact your speed as a player, as well as make a different in your ability to finger pick – especially as a beginner.
We recommend speaking to your guitar teacher, who can give you recommendations specifically for your skill level and guitar type, and who will know the best place in town to purchase them. In the meantime, here’s a great article from Gibson about choosing guitar strings to check out:
If you’re an acoustic player…
- Fade to Bleak: Since there are no pickups or amps involved in acoustic guitar playing, string composition – which affects how a string responds to being struck and the retention of tonal qualities – is particularly important for acoustic guitars. Bronze, phosphor bronze and coated strings tends to be the preferred varieties, ascending in price. Bronze strings start out the brightest, but lose their high voices relatively quickly. Phosphor bronze offers a darker tone, but still with a clear, ringing top and the phosphor allows the strings to produce their optimum sound longer. On acoustic guitars, coated strings trade a longer life for less brightness, but good warmth and presence.
- Lighten Up: Typically, heavier strings project more natural sound when struck, but for most live performers it’s practical to have an acoustic guitar with a pick-up for plug-and-play situations. Having a pickup in an acoustic guitar allows for the use of lighter gauge strings. Some acoustic guitars even respond well to slinky electric sets, like .10s, providing electric-guitar-like playability without sacrificing the chime of acoustic tones.
- Them Changes: Since the strings on acoustic guitars play a much more important role in projecting volume and clarity than strings on an amplified electric guitar, consider changing acoustic guitar strings often to keep the instrument sounding its best. Remember to wipe down the strings after playing and check for string damaging fret wear. Both can prematurely end a guitar string’s life.
And if you’re plugged in…
- Fast Fingers: If speed’s the goal, most shred-heads prefer light gauge strings. They’re easy to bend and promote fast playing by offering less resistance to the fretting and picking hands. Since guitar strings are measured in thousandths of an inch, the typical recommended gauge for players planning to burn in standard tuning are .009s, available in every guitar shop.
- Sound Judgment: Consider the sonic characteristics of the various materials used in making electric strings. Stainless steel strings are the least glamorous, but offer plenty of bright bite and sustain. Pure nickel has a warm old-school sound, for vintage tones. And nickel-plated steel is a bit brighter than classic nickel and responds more adroitly to picking attack. Chrome guitar strings are typically the province of jazz players or blues artists who are looking for the kind of warm retro tones chiseled into history by the likes of Charlie Christian or swinging bluesman Aaron “T-Bone” Walker. And then there are coated strings – the most expensive and theoretically the longest lasting. They are, however, not really the best, sonically speaking. Coated strings tend to have less sustain. Also, their Teflon exterior surfaces are slippery, which might take some getting used to for particularly aggressive electric guitar players. And when the coatings wear off, they rust like any other string.
- Heavy is as Heavy Does: For low hanging alternate tunings like open D or dropped D, consider a heavy string gauge – at least .11s, although Stevie Ray Vaughan, who kept his instrument turned down just a half-step, employed a set gauged .13 to .58. Thicker strings will maintain their tension better when they’re low-tuned, which makes for less fret noise and other undesirable distortion. Many players feel thicker strings make for better slide playing, too, since the strings resist going slack under the pressure of the slide. But that’s really a matter of feel and learning to control a slide more than a string thing.
Ultimately what feels the best under your fingers and sounds right should determine your strings – so play around and figure out what your preference is.