The Difference Between Electric And Acoustic Guitar Strings

The difference between electric and acoustic guitar strings are the winding materials, the number of wound strings, and the gauge of strings used. Acoustic strings have a steel core with the 3rd – 6th strings plated in bronze or brass. Electric guitar strings consist of a steel or nickel core with the 4th – 6th strings plated in steel or nickel. Acoustic guitar strings are also usually a heavier gauge.

For a more in-depth explanation of the differences outlined above continue reading.

Why Do Acoustic and Electric Guitars Utilize Different Winding Materials?

Electric and Acoustic Guitar String Windings Comparison

Perhaps the most important distinction between steel string acoustic and electric guitar strings are the materials used for plating the heavier gauge strings e.g. winding/wrapping around the steel cores.

The wound strings (thicker strings) on the electric guitar (shown in the image above on the right) are plated with nickel and are lighter and brighter in appearance. The 3rd – 6th strings on the acoustic guitar on the left are wound in phosphor bronze and are more of a copper/gold color.

electromagnetism

magnetic pickup (soundhole pickup)

If unaware of how magnetic guitar pickups work, you can read my article here, but in simple terms, electric guitars work on the concept of electromagnetism. This means the strings used on the electric guitar are nickel-plated, pure nickel, stainless steel, or chromium due to their ferromagnetic properties.

Acoustic guitar strings, on the other hand, utilize materials that are selected for their resonant abilities e.g. brass or bronze, or a combination of both e.g. 80/20 bronze/brass alloy. This allows string manufacturers greater experimentation when producing strings for the acoustic guitar with regard to string materials and subsequently tone.

This is a good thing considering we acoustic guitarists (unless playing an acoustic-electric guitar), don’t have the luxury of changing our pickups or tweaking our amplifier settings.

That doesn’t mean acoustic guitar strings won’t be heard on an electric guitar, after all both utilize steel cores. However, chromium or nickel string windings (being ferromagnetic) enhance the strength of the signal on electric guitar unlike using a non-magnetic winding material (such as brass or bronze) which acts as a shield, reducing the strength of the signal on the electric guitar.

Why do Acoustic Guitars Have One More Wound String?

Strings, over time, have become lighter on the electric guitar to facilitate the different playing styles of the electric compared to the acoustic.

On the electric guitar, an unwound 3rd string, due to its lighter gauge, places less tension on the guitar neck, and as a result, allows the guitarist to play faster as there is less resistance on the strings.

Because of this, the 3rd (G string) on electric guitars is mostly unwound unless specifically designed for heavier gauges or for jazz players who are more interested in note articulation, preferring a faster decay of notes at the cost of sustain.

Why Are Guitar Strings Wound?

Anatomy of a wound guitar string

The individual strings of your guitar are of different gauges, increasing in mass from the 1st to the 6th string. The mass (including both the core and windings) of your strings impacts the velocity they are able to vibrate.

The greater the mass of a guitar string the slower it vibrates. The slower a guitar string vibrates the lower the pitch of the string.

The faster the rate of vibration the higher the pitch of the string. With this in mind, consider for a moment if your 6th string (low E) was unwound and consisted of just a steel core.

For one, the amount of tension required would make it incredibly difficult to tune. It would also potentially wreak havoc on your guitar’s neck. This would be even more evident on a lower register instrument such as the bass guitar which utilizes much heavier gauge strings.

And even if you did manage to tune the guitar to the correct pitch the string would be very difficult to fret, and impossible to bend.

Because of this, wound strings were developed to add the required mass without introducing an impossible amount of tension to the guitar’s neck. The individual windings separate slightly when the string is fretted or bent making it easier than trying to play a solid steel string.

Alternatively, if all strings were wound, imagine how thin and therefore ‘breakable’ the high E string would be if the core was reduced in thickness to accommodate the additional windings.

What About Acoustic-Electric Guitars?

Acoustic-electric guitars are usually fitted with acoustic guitar strings as they are predominantly acoustic instruments. Many acoustic-electric guitars utilize a piezo pickup that detects changes in pressure at the bridge of the guitar rather than relying on the magnetic qualities of the guitar string.

Magnetic soundhole pickups

While magnetic pickups on electric guitars would normally detect a weaker signal from the wound strings (as explained above), magnetic soundhole pickups used on acoustic guitars are balanced to address this issue.

Differences in String Gauge Between Acoustic and Electric Guitars

At one point electric and acoustic guitar strings were more or less the same gauges. But, both started to move in different directions and have only continued to do so. At the extreme end, this eventually resulted in lead guitar techniques such as tapping, sweep picking, and whammy bar dives on the electric and folk and percussive fingerstyle on the acoustic guitar.

In most cases, this meant your average electric guitarist played with much lighter gauge strings compared to the acoustic guitar e.g. 9’s or 10′ s (Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) even played 7’s) while the average acoustic guitarist tends to play 12’s.

What this means is a light gauge set of strings designed for the electric guitar will be of a lighter gauge than a light gauge acoustic guitar string set.

This can be confusing if you do not look at the specific gauge of the strings and instead look for light, medium, or heavy.

The table below shows the differences in more detail between a set of acoustic and electric guitar strings from the same manufacturer ( D’addario).

Acoustic Guitar Strings – D’addario Phosphor Bronze Strings

E StringB StringG StringD StringA StringE String
Super Light Gauge.010.014.023.030.039.047
Light Gauge.011.016.024.032.042.053
Medium Gauge.012.017.026.035.045.056
Heavy Gauge.013.018.027.039.049.059

Electric Guitar Strings – D’addario XL Nickel

E StringB StringG StringD StringA StringE String
Super Light Gauge.008.010.015.021.030.038
Light Gauge.010.013.017.026.036.046
Medium Gauge.011.015.019.028.037.050
Heavy Gauge.012.016.020.032.042.054

What Happens If You Put Electric Guitar Strings On An Acoustic Guitar?

The acoustic guitar is a more holistic instrument than the electric guitar. As a result, it relies on resonance created firstly by the strings which are transferred via the bridge to the larger soundboard to produce sound.

Electric guitar strings are typically a lighter gauge (e.g. light electric guitar strings are comparable to medium gauge on the acoustic guitar). They are also less resonant than acoustic guitar strings, as the outer winding material is chosen for its ferromagnetic properties, unlike acoustic guitar strings which are not bound by this requirement.

Much like swapping out acoustic for electric strings on an acoustic guitar, it can be done but the guitar will be lower in volume, have less dynamic range, and offer less sustain.

What About Nylon Guitar Strings?

The first obvious difference between nylon and steel strings are the materials the strings are made from, with nylon, unsurprisingly being the major component. The first, second, and third strings are solely nylon while the remaining three strings are wound in copper or bronze to enhance the guitar’s resonant capabilities.

Nylon strings are not ferromagnetic meaning the core of the string does not consist of steel and therefore is unable to be magnetized. This means nylon strings cannot be detected by magnetic pickups.

This is also the reason classical guitars and flamenco guitars (if utilizing a pickup) require either a microphone pickup or a piezo pickup that detects pressure changes rather than a disturbance to the magnetic field created by the interplay between steel core strings and magnetic pickup pole pieces.

Ball End

Nylon Strings Fixed to Bridge

The second obvious difference is the lack of a ball-end, i.e. the anchor that locks the string in place within the bridge pin holes on the bridge.

Instead, nylon strings are wrapped around the bridge, as per the image to the left.

This isn’t always the case, some nylon strings do come with ball ends, but they are less common.

String Tension

Low Tension Nylon Guitar Strings

Thirdly, unlike acoustic and electric guitar strings, nylon strings are measured by degrees of tension.

The diameter of the string is strongly related to the amount of tension provided by the strings and is usually mentioned on the string set’s packaging as the diameter is important if considering the depth of the slots on your guitar’s nut with regard to fret buzz and playability.

There are three common gauges of tension for nylon strings, these are:

  • Normal
  • Hard
  • Extra Hard

As you can probably guess, the lower the tension the easier the guitar is to play e.g. fret, but due to being a lower tension, the string vibrates over a wider arc and this can also result in fret buzz and reduced volume.

Essentially, the higher the tension, the louder the guitar sounds, but the more difficult it can be to play, especially for beginners. However experienced players often choose high tension strings because in the right hands they are a better option.


Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are key differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings, and these help their respective instruments sound and play their best.

But, aside from these differences, perhaps the larger point to consider is the design considerations that go into guitar strings. This makes your choice of strings more important with regard to your guitar and the types of music you play.

So, consider different brands, string gauges, and materials, including coatings. Just avoid using electric strings on your acoustic guitar.

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.