The best acoustic guitar strings for a warm sound emphasize bass and mid-range frequencies, and accentuate second order harmonics without sounding muddy. Medium gauge, phosphor bronze, flat wound, round core strings will accentuate the bass and mid-range frequencies most effectively. Keep in mind, there’s often a compromise between heavier gauge strings (which tend to sound warmer) and playability which has an indirect influence on tone.
While tone is subjective, when it comes to the acoustic guitar, guitars described as having a ‘warm tone’ tend to be held in pretty high regard. But what really is a “warm tone” and is it possible to warm up the tone of your existing guitar?
There’s actually a lot you can do, from changing picks to adjusting picking hand position, but perhaps the simplest thing you can do is experiment with a new set of strings. In today’s article we’re going to take a closer look at acoustic guitar strings, and how they contribute to tone taking into account string gauge, winding materials, winding type, core shape, and coated strings.
So, while this article focuses on tone, it’s also a fairly detailed guide to acoustic steel guitar strings in general so if you are interested in learning more about either stay tuned!
What is a warm tone?
Before we discuss your choice of strings we need to define what ‘warm’ means in the context of guitar tone as most of us probably know it when we hear it but like describing the concept of color to someone who can’t see, it’s difficult to define.
Many consider analogue (e.g. vinyl LP’s) as warmer sounding than digital (CD and DVD), and in a sense this is a good starting point (more on this shortly). But, often, this type of debate tends to get bogged down quickly with useless terminology to descibe tone such as ‘character’ which just isn’t all that helpful to someone wanting to understand tone.
So rather than get bogged down using similar terms to describe a warm tone, let’s take a more scientific approach.
You probably are already aware that there’s a huge amount of terminology used to describe tone. I’ve listed some of the more common ones here but if we had to break it down to just three, the most commonly used are:
|In simple terms, a warm tone indicates an emphasis on the bass to lower mid-range. If emphasizing the next highest frequency range e.g. the lower mid-range the tone may begin to sound ‘muddy’ e.g. lacking note separation.|
|Balanced, as the name implies does not favor any particular set of frequencies over another and sounds…well…balanced.|
|Bright (perhaps the second most common term used to describe tone) refers to an emphasis on the upper mid to high-range frequencies, that if taken too far starts to sound abrasive and harsh.|
What are low, mid-range and high-range frequencies?
If you are unaware of frequency with respect to pitch, I’ve written a bunch of information here and here, but in very simple terms sound is created when something vibrates. The faster the vibration the higher the pitch.
This is easy to observe by playing an open string and then fretting the string higher up the neck. By shortening the string we reduce the length, and mass of the string causing the string to vibrate faster. This results in a higher pitch being produced.
The number of vibrations is measured in terms of complete vibrations of the surrounding air particles per second, expressed as Hz (hertz), or kHz (kilohertz). Humans can generally hear frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz (20 kHz).
There are 7 standard frequency bands (as listed below).
Just to provide a quick example the table indicates bass frequencies to be between 60 and 250 Hz. This frequency range is considered ‘warm’ which essentially means the mid to upper bass frequencies are accentuated without a noticeable loss in clarity. As we can see, in the next highest frequency band, emphasizing frequencies in the low mid-range will begin to sound muddy e.g. lose clarity.
|Sub-Bass||20 – 60Hz||Lowest detectable frequencies by the human ear|
|Bass||60 – 250Hz||Frequencies around 250Hz are often considered ‘warm’ sounding|
|Low Mid-Range||250 – 500Hz||Boosting frequencies in this range can begin to sound muddy|
|Mid-Range||500 – 2,000Hz (2kHz)||The ear is most sensitive in this range|
|Upper Mid-Range||2kHz – 4kHz||Vocals are highly prominent in this range|
|Presence||4kHz – 6kHz||Defines clarity and articulation.|
|Brilliance||6kHz – 20kHz||The highest detectable range for the human ear.|
Second order harmonics
When you hit a note on your guitar the string vibrates and the most prominent sound you hear is referred to as the fundamental tone. However, the string vibrates in different ways resulting in additional frequencies also being heard, these are referred to as overtones and add complexity to the sound, which you may hear referred to as ‘richness’ in common tone terminology.
This series of overtones and how they are emphasized and decay is what gives instruments their own unique sound, referred to as timbre. This is why a guitar for example sounds different to another instrument despite playing the same note.
Harmonics are simply overtones that are multiples of the fundamental tone. In this sense second order harmonics are overtones that are double the fundamental frequency (e.g. they vibrate at twice the frequency of the fundamental and are also known as ‘even harmonics’ due to being an even multiple of the fundamental tone).
Second order harmonics are often referred to as thick and warm sounding and are thought to decay less rapidly than higher order harmonics. If interested in learning more, the video below is worth checking out.
Tone is more nuanced than the explanations above however, and the terminology used can be hard to define because like tone, the terms we use to describe tone are also highly subjective (e.g. one guitarist’s warm tone is another’s ‘muddy’), and contextual.
In any case guitars aren’t strictly warm, balanced or bright. They are combinations of all three and more. In this sense a definition of ‘warm tone’ might be something like the following:
A warm guitar tone emphasizes bass and mid-range frequencies in the 60 – 250hz range, and accentuates second order harmonics without sacrificing clarity and becoming muddy sounding.
OK, enough about the specifics of a warm guitar tone. Based on the above, we now know our strings need to emphasize the bass (60Hz) to lower mid-range (250Hz) frequencies without sacrificing clarity, and accentuate second order harmonics.
Why your acoustic guitar strings contribute to tone
People often say it is better to have a bad guitar with good strings than a good guitar with bad strings. This is clearly true, but could be taken ta step further to say it is better to have a bad guitar with the ‘right’ strings.
As an example of this, when I first got into guitar, one of my absolute favorite guitarists was Stevie Ray Vaughan (#RIPSRV). My brother and I would sit around our family stereo in the living room for hours listening to the posthumous ‘the sky is crying’ over and over, particularly ‘life by the drop’ one of the few acoustic guitar songs SRV recorded.
Later on, upon hearing SRV’s unplugged session for MTV I began to really appreciate his approach to the acoustic, he attacked it like he did his electric guitar, and that stuck with me, as someone who loved bands that featured electric guitar but preferred playing the acoustic guitar.
In any case, I was young and pa little naive, because when I realized that SRV played with heavy gauge GHS strings I did the same and stuck solid, on both electric and acoustic, despite the fact that this was probably just referring to his electric guitar (number one) and not the 12 string Guild I’d seen him playing.
I did this for many years, and while I changed guitars I kept playing those thick GHS strings, after all who had better tone than SRV? No-one.
The thing was, while the GHS did sound great to my albeit untrained ears when I eventually tried a set of medium gauge Elixirs on that same beat up old dreadnought I realized they actually made the guitar sound a lot more resonant and seemed to add a lot of complexity to the tone (e.g. brought out more of the overtones, as described above).
I’d imagine it was something like the difference between going from a cheap red to an expensive red wine with a more sophisticated palette, suddenly there was just a lot more going on.
Being the slow learner that I am I naturally assumed Elixirs were just better sounding strings. But, when I put a set on my next acoustic guitar (a smaller body Guild) I didn’t like the tone near as much, in fact it sounded choked, and lacked sustain compared to the original strings.
After playing around with a few different sets of strings I finally settled on D’Addario Phosphor Bronze which again seemed to bring this smaller bodied guitar to life.
What does all this mean? I’ll let Tommy Emmanuel, one of the very best acoustic guitarists ever, explain:
Guitar string specs to consider with regard to warmth
So what specifications are most important with regard to tone on a typical acoustic guitar string? All of them, including:
- String gauge
- Winding materials
- Core shape
- Winding type
Guitar string gauges for a warm tone
String gauge refers to the thickness or diameter of the string, measured in thousands of an inch. String thickness includes the core wire along with the thickness of the winding wire, times two, to account for it wrapping around the central core wire.
Generally speaking the heavier gauge of the string the more emphasis is placed on the mid to low range frequencies. The lighter the string the higher frequencies are emphasised more, and the brighter the tone, all things being equal.
Guitar strings – light vs medium
The most common acoustic guitar string gauges are light and medium, and to a lesser extent heavy. Extra light (aka super light) and super extra light are less commonly used but you generally won’t have any trouble picking up a set from your local music store all the same.
A set of extra light gauge strings for acoustic guitar ranges from .010“ on the high E to 0.47“ on the low E while a set of heavy gauge strings will typically range from .014” to .59”. Most acoustic guitarists use extra light, light, or medium gauge with far fewer using heavy gauge strings.
Electric guitar strings are lighter than acoustic guitar strings in general e.g. light gauge on the electric guitar is lighter than light gauge on an acoustic guitar. The reason for this is explained in detail here.
But for the most part, ignore where it says light, medium or heavy on the packaging and instead refer to string gauge. Light and heavy are not a strict standard, so there may be differences between brands. It’s also true that the markers appear to be shifting e.g. what was once considered light when I was first learning guitar, in some cases is now referred to as medium.
When referring to strings by gauge we tend to name them by their high E strings, so a set of .010” to 0.47” are referred to as 10’s and a set of .014” to 0.59” are referred to as 14’s.
How string gauge affects tone and playability
When it comes to string gauge there’s more to consider than purely tone. Different string gauges exert different amounts of tension on the guitar neck, which has an obvious effect on playability, which indirectly affects tone.
For example, a heavier gauge string will generally emphasize the lower frequencies along with greater volume and sustain. But, the lighter the gauge of string the more easily the guitarist can fret and bend notes.
The heavier the string, the more tension, with the string being more difficult to fret. But, if you are predominantly a slide guitarist, or mostly strum chords this additional tension will be far less of a concern from the perspective of playability, and not worth compromising the additional warmth, volume and sustain.
So, while one gauge of string might be considered ’warmer’ and fuller, it also comes down to the guitar, the style of music or technique e.g. fingerstyle or strumming, and the guitarist themselves as to how they utilize the string gauge being played with e.g. they may use a thicker gauge pick, which also affects tone, because they play a heavier gauge of string.
Speaking of heavy gauge strings. Remember when I mentioned SRV earlier?
He used a .013“ high E string, a very thick gauge for the electric guitar. For comparison, most guitarists of that era were using 9’s (Billy Gibbons even used 7’s) hence the gauge and not just the brand were probably one of the biggest factors in the great man’s tone.
But not many people could have played the way he did with that much string tension. Fortunately by all accounts SRV was a considerate guy, otherwise he may have crushed a few hands greeting fans.
Problems associated with using heavier gauge strings
While it’s a good idea to experiment with different gauges in pursuit of tone also keep in mind any major departure from the gauge you usually use or that your guitar has been set up for will alter the amount of tension on the neck.
Increased or reduced tension can reduce or increase the relief of the neck e.g. the outward or inward bow of the neck, which in turn affects the height of your strings in relation to the fretboard (action). It can also exert additional tension on the bridge, which in some extreme cases requires the bridge to be repaired due to lifting away from the soundboard due to the increased tension.
In the case of going from light to heavy strings, or vice versa a truss rod adjustment may be required but it is best to let the guitar settle for a few hours after installing new strings before doing so.
Which gauge string is best for a warm tone?
The heavier the gauge the more contribution to a warm tone, but, the more effort required to play which indirectly affects tone. E.g. there’s no point having strings that sound great if they hinder your playing.
Another option is to try hybrid strings which combine the warmth of heavier gauge bass strings with the lower tension of lighter gauge treble strings.
If you look at a cross section of a wound string (acoustic guitars usually have four wound and two unwound strings) you will see the outer windings are wrapped around a hexagonal steel core.
While hexagonal cores are more common nowadays at one point round core strings were the only available option.
Hexagonal core wires were developed mostly for greater efficiency in manufacturing, as it allowed machine winding to be more reliable. Round core wires were also more susceptible to unraveling as the round core surface didn’t provide as much grip as the harder edges of the hexagonal shape.
But, while debatable, many claim round core wires advantages over hexagonal cores (more flexible, longer lasting, better clarity, more sustain, and a warmer tone) for the actual guitarist.
Because of this, and as a result of manufacturing technologies becoming more sophisticated over time, there are more round core guitar strings being developed again.
Does core shape contribute to a warm tone?
It’s not so much that round core wires have a natural tendency to sound warmer, it’s more the case that hexagonal cores are said to increase brightness. This is due to the lower density of the string.
For example, the entire surface of a round core wire is in direct contact with the winding material. However, a hexagonal core is only in contact with the windings on the edges of the hexagon shape. This creates small pockets between the windings and the core along the surfaces of the core wire, reducing the density of the string and accentuating brightness.
The majority of acoustic guitar strings consist of a core of steel, the same as electric guitar strings. The main difference between the two with regard to materials is the materials used for the windings on the G,D,A, and E strings.
As mentioned in my article on the difference between acoustic and electric guitar strings, due to relying on electromagnetism to generate sound, electric guitars require strings to have windings with magnetic properties, e.g. nickel or chromium.
Alternatively, acoustic guitars can use different materials, and different combinations of materials, chosen mostly for their resonant or tonal properties. The two most common options are 80/20 Bronze and Phosphor Bronze, along with the addition of less common materials including silk.
Winding type refers to the profile of the wires used on the wound strings. They come in three options:
Roundwound strings have, as the name implies, a round profile as shown in the example on the left above.
They are less expensive to manufacture and as a result are also more affordable than flatwound strings. Because of this they tend to be a lot more common i.e. most strings are roundwound. But, they also tend to wear out faster than flatwound strings.
Due to the round profile (which separates more easily when bending a string for example) they are also more flexible. And, due to the round profile offering a gap between the individual wires offers a more textured feel against the fingers, which also results in more string noise when compared to flatwound strings.
They are also credited with a brighter sound than flat wound strings, and offer more volume and sustain.
Flat wound strings offer a flatter, smoother surface due to the square profile of the surrounding wires. They cost a little more to make and as a result cost more to buy, however are known to last significantly longer than round wound strings.
The flat surface allows the fingers to glide over the strings with less friction, reducing string noise between the strings and the fingers. However, they also require more effort to perform bends as the profile of the surrounding wires does not separate in the same way as roundwound strings.
They tend to offer a warmer sound, with more of a focus on the fundamental tone and less on harmonics.
Halfwound, are a compromise between both methods, with the individual wires made partially square. They are far less common however.
Which contributes most to a warm tone?
There’s no question flat wound strings offer a warmer tone than roundwound strings, all things being equal. This is why they are associated with the jazz guitar community who tend to favor warmth over brightness, generally don’t perform a great deal of bends and favor clarity over sustain.
The real question is how much do they contribute? And is the tonal benefits a fair compromise between the lack of string flexibility and additional cost?
Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at coated strings. Coated strings come with a polymer coating of plastic and resin. Elixir strings are a brand well-known for their coated strings, however most major string manufacturers now offer a coated string.
The coating serves as a barrier between the strings that are normally subject to corrosion from sweat, and added mass from dead skin cells and grime. The coating prevents the strings being clogged up and enables them to last longer and retain their tonal qualities.
However, some claim coated strings are less articulate to begin with. Personally I think it depends on the application. I prefer coated strings on a ‘strummer’ e.g. a dreadnought or larger bodied guitar, but prefer uncoated if playing with just the fingers.
Generally, coated strings are more expensive, with some being twice the cost of uncoated strings. However, thanks to the coating, the strings tend to last considerably longer.
Are they worth it? It depends, are you fastidious about washing your hands before playing? Do your hands sweat a lot when you’re playing. If so, coated strings are probably worth a shot. While costing more up front, if you run through strings fairly quickly you will probably save money over the long-term.
Do Coated Strings Affect Warmth?
Much like string core shape, it’s not so much that the coating contributes warmth to your overall sound. It is more the case that coated strings reduce brightness, in fact that is the most common complaint in terms of coated strings, they lack brightness.
As we discussed in the first section on tone, warmth is not the polar opposite of bright, so an absence of brightness doesn’t necessarily mean the strings offer a warm tone, but Elixir Polywebs (a coated string from Elixir credited with a warm tone) have a thicker coating than the other two coated string offerings from Elixir (nanoweb and optiweb).
Strings and Tone
Changing your strings?
Nick Drake is renowned for his acoustic guitar tone. The video here is a great breakdown of his tone and includes ideas on how to replicate it. One of the ideas mentioned is using older strings.
Do old strings help create a warm tone? If you consider new strings are known for their brightness, then it makes sense to assume older strings sound warmer. This is why some jazz players don’t change strings as regularly as guitarists in other genres.
Guitar strings wear out over time mostly due to a loss of elasticity and additional mass added to the strings over time.
One way to keep that old strings feeling but reduce the accrued grime and to remove salt from deposited sweat that would otherwise cause corrosion is to boil your strings. Although this is more common among bass players, due to the cost of bass strings compared to guitar strings it’s worth trying if you prefer the sound, and feel of old strings.
Now that we have established what a warm tone essentially is and how the different aspects of string manufacturing (string gauge, winding materials, winding type, core shape, and coated strings) affect tone, what recommendations are we left with?
While many different aspects of the guitar itself can affect tone e.g. body shape, tonewoods, a good starting point would be to try a flatwound, medium to heavy gauge, bronze phosphor string. But also experiment with coated strings and round core wires, along with numerous other combinations of materials before settling on the right strings for yourguitar, your style of playing and most importantly your musical tastes.