When it comes to guitar strings, electric guitars have the widest array of choices available. While alloys center around stainless steel and nickel, gauge and winding figure prominently. Gauge refers to the diameter of the string and winding to the way the string’s surface is finished. All of these factors combine to critically affect tone and playability.
Stainless steel strings are very popular for their brilliant tone, sustain, and great volume. Anti-corrosive and highly magnetic, they provide exceptional properties for electric and bass guitars alike. They generally last longer than their nickel-plated cousins, but have the drawback of producing finger noise from the rough, round-wound surface. This rough surface also makes stainless steel strings “slower strings.”
Nickel-plated strings have nickel-plated surface, which subdues the tone but provides a softer, smoother surface that’s faster and easier on the fingers. The nickel surface virtually eliminates finger noise and improves playability, leading some to characterize nickel-plated strings as the “hot” strings of choice for many guitarists.
Pure nickel guitar strings, sometimes used on acoustic guitars, produce a bright, round sound, though less vibrant than stainless steel. Jazz musicians and rhythm guitarists sometimes prefer these strings which are softer and more flexible than stainless steel.
The way electric guitar strings are wound affects their playability and tone. Standard strings are round-wound, meaning a round wire is wrapped around the string’s core. Round-wound strings provide the most volume and tone, but also produce finger noise and are “grabby.” These strings might not be the best choice for fast runs, lead, or jazz work.
Strings that are flat-wound or ribbon-wound (also flatwound) use a ribbon-like wrapping to create a very smooth surface that nearly feels oiled. These strings are very fast and produce no finger noise, but brilliance is sacrificed. This makes them an unpopular choice for rock or rhythm guitar, for example, but a good choice for jazz.
Electric bass guitars have two other choices: ground-wound and nylon-taped strings. Ground-wound strings are standard round-wound strings that undergo a machining process to polish the surface. Though not as smooth as flat wound strings, their brilliance is preserved. Nylon-taped strings use a nylon or Teflon® coating to smooth the string's surface while changing the tone to something more akin to an acoustic bass. This can be a nice effect for jazz or bluegrass.
Electric guitar strings come in various gauges or diameters. Many lead guitarists and jazz musicians tend to prefer thinner (lighter) gauge strings that are faster and easier to bend, while bluegrass guitarists tend towards medium gauge strings for more volume and greater tone for picking/strumming. Rhythm guitarists might prefer medium or heavy gauge strings for the “wow factor” they provide in sheer volume and full sound.
Gauge classifications differ among manufacturers, but they are generally divided into extra super light, super light, light, medium, medium heavy, heavy, and super heavy. Once a guitarist find strings that suit him, he should note the dimensions of each string on the packaging. Someone who wants to experiment with sets from other manufacturers should refer to actual gauge rather than classification. The “medium” set the guitarist has come to like might be classified differently from another string maker, or might include different gauges than the reference set.
The only way to find the perfect electric guitar strings is to experiment. Guitarists should try different manufacturers and sets to see how they sound, play, and hold up. Professional guitarists commonly change strings with every gig, while non-professionals that play several hours a week might expect two to four weeks from strings. Over time, strings lose tone, and they should be replaced every six months regardless of how little they are used.
When changing the strings on an electric guitar, it is best to switch them out one at a time. This keeps even tension on the guitar neck, helping it to maintain its current adjustment. When switching string gauges, particularly in whole steps, the guitarist might want to test the relief or bow in his guitar neck, and make a truss rod adjustment if necessary.