The difference between electric and acoustic guitar strings

If new to the guitar you might think electric and steel string acoustic guitar strings are much the same. And, for the most part it’s fair to say they are more similar than different. But, there are key differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings including the materials they are made from, the respective gauges, and number of wound strings. And, these differences are purposely designed to bring out the instrument’s best with regard to tone and playability, volume and sustain.

In the following article we’re going to take a closer look at both acoustic and electric guitar strings and explain why, while they can be used interchangeably it’s not such a great idea. So, if you have been wondering what the differences are between acoustic and electric guitar strings, stay tuned!

Wound strings

Electric and Acoustic Guitar String Windings Comparison

The first and most obvious difference between acoustic and electric guitar strings is the number of wound strings.

Acoustic guitars usually feature four wound, and two unwound strings. While electric guitar strings typically come with three wound strings as seen in the image above on the right.

That’s not always the case though. Some string manufacturers offer electric guitar string sets with a 4th wound string, which, while not genre specific, is mostly associated with jazz guitar and some also offer acoustic sets with an unwound 3rd string, mostly in the lighter gauge sets e.g. 9’s.

Why are strings wound?

Anatomy of a wound guitar string
Before we can answer this question it’s helpful to know the basic anatomy of a guitar string. Wound guitar strings consist of a steel core, with metal windings wrapping around the core. As we know, the individual strings of your guitar are of different thicknesses, or gauges. The additional mass of your heavier strings impacts their ability to vibrate, which is why each string is of a different pitch, or more suited to tuning to a specific pitch.

The faster the rate of vibration measured in hertz (Hz) the higher the pitch of the note being played. With all of this in mind, consider for a moment if your low E string was not wound and instead the steel core had to be of the same mass to produce the low E note when played as an open string.

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, and if you did manage to tune to pitch would be very difficult to play, and impossible to bend notes. Because of this, wound strings were developed to add the necessary additional required mass without making the string impossible to tune. The individual windings separate slightly when the string is bent making it easier than trying to bend a solid steel string.

Alternatively, if all string 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 are flatwound and roundwound strings?

Roundwound and Flatwound Strings

Windings can either be roundwound, or flatwound which refers to the shape of the individual windings e.g. a flat wound string offers a flatter string surface due to the shape of the windings. Regular guitar strings are round wound, flatwound are less common but are still used by many guitarists in different genres, although mostly they are associated with jazz guitar as the flatter surface of the strings are smoother and result in less string noise when played. 

Why do electric guitars mostly have one less wound string?

Strings over time became lighter on the electric guitar to facilitate the different playing styles of the electric compared to the acoustic (more on this shortly).

The unwound 3rd string, due to it’s lighter gauge, enacts less tension on the guitar neck, and as a result is faster e.g. easier to push down on the fretboard and due to the lack of surrounding windings, easier to slide.

Because of this the 3rd (G string) on electric guitars is mostly an unwound string 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.


String Gauge

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

In most cases this meant your average electric guitarist played with 9’s or 10’s (Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) even played 7’s) while the average acoustic guitarist tends to play 12’s.

As we’ve already mentioned, acoustic and electric guitars utilize different string gauges.  What this really means is a light gauge set of strings designed for the electric guitar will be of a lighter gauge than a light gauge string for an acoustic guitar.

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

E String B String G String D String A String E 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 String B String G String D String A String E 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

Winding Materials

Another reason electric and acoustic guitar strings differ are the winding materials used on the wound strings.

This is perhaps the most important distinction between acoustic and electric guitar strings, the materials used for winding around the steel core.

Acoustic guitars use different metal winds to the electric guitar strings as electric guitars have different requirements.  In the image above, the difference is easy to spot.

The wound strings on the electric guitar on the right are wound with nickel and are much lighter and brighter in appearance. The G, D, A, and E strings on the acoustic guitar on the left are wound in phosphor bronze and are more of a copper/gold color.

If you don’t know how 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 use nickel plated, pure nickel, stainless steel, or chromium windings due to their respective magnetic properties.

Acoustic guitar strings on the other hand utilize materials chosen more for their resonant abilities e.g. brass or bronze. This allows more experimentation with regard to materials and tone which is a good thing considering we acoustic guitarists don’t often 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, the chromium or nickel string windings being ferromagnetic enhance the strength of the signal further unlike using a non-magnetic winding material which is likely to shield and reduce the strength of the signal on the electric guitar.

Do you need to use different strings if your guitar has a soundhole pickup?
It’s true that the unwound strings on an acoustic can feel like they have a higher output than the wound strings when playing an acoustic with a soundhole pickup. As a result this can result in a less than balanced sound if not taken into account.  The first thing you can do is try to adjust the magnetic pole height, if you are fortunate enough to have adjustable pole pieces (many do not). Otherwise, you could try electric guitar strings, there are also hybrid strings available that utilize a combination of bronze and nickel and are designed for both electric and acoustic. Otherwise, the next best option aside from using electric guitar strings is to dial in a more balanced sound using EQ.

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 being typically a lighter gauge (e.g. light electric guitar strings are comparable to medium gauge on the acoustic guitar) are less resonant than acoustic guitar strings, and 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 as a result and offer less sustain. However, those who can’t stand medium to heavy gauge strings do occasionally do this.


What about Nylon Guitar Strings?

The first obvious difference between nylon and steel strings is the materials the strings are made from, with nylon, unsurprisingly being the major component.

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 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.

You can read more about acoustic guitar pickups here.

Nylon strings, as the name suggests utilize a nylon core. This means 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.

Ball End

Nylon Strings Fixed to BridgeThe second obvious difference is the lack of a ball-end, the anchor that locks the string in place on the bridge. Instead, nylon strings are wrapped around the bridge, as per the image above.

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

String Tension

Low Tension Nylon Guitar StringsThirdly, unlike acoustic and electric guitar strings, nylon strings are measured by degrees of tension, unlike steel guitar strings which are measured by thousands of an inch.

The actual 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 distance and this can also result in fret buzz and produces less 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 are a better option for speed playing.


Summary

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 trying different string gauges, brands and materials, including coatings, just avoid using electric strings on your acoustic guitar.

Marty

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