best acoustic guitar strings

GUITAR GUIDES

The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings: 
Review & Buyer's Guide

The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings

  • Ernie Ball Earthwood Light 80/20
  • Martin M170 80/20 Extra Light
  • Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze Medium Light
  • D'Addario EJ16-3D Phosphor Bronze Light
  • Fender 60L Coated Ball End
  • Ernie Ball Paradigm Medium Light 80/20 Bronze
  • Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze with Nanoweb Coating
  • DR Sunbeams, Light Phosphor Bronze
  • Martin M540 Phosphor Bronze Light

The best premium strings on our list (quality, performance strings you'd be able to perform with) are undoubtedly Elixir Strings 80/20's (Amazon) with the Nanoweb coating, and the Ernie Ball Paradigm 80/20's (Amazon).

Guitar strings are the lifeblood of your instrument.

Each and every one of your interactions with your guitar involves plucking and fretting them, so it’s no surprise that stringing it up with some new ones after they snap can be one of the most important decisions you can make.

Still, it’s not as simple as walking into a store and grabbing a box.

There’s a huge variety of sizes and styles to suit individual needs, so we’re going to demystify some of the more confusing aspects of guitar strings and give you our personal recommendations for all levels of play. Whether you’re an absolute beginner or more advanced guitar player, we'll get you on the right track.

The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings (Ratings)

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Guitar Strings / Rating

Summary

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Ernie Ball Earthwood Light 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Set

Vetted and proven to perform by millions of guitar players worldwide. 80/20 Bronze Alloy and Hex Shaped Core.

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Martin M170 80/20 Extra Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

Sensitive fingers? Then these strings were built just for you. Their smaller gauge lets you get through longer practice sessions with minimal soreness.

Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze Medium Light Acoustic Set

These strings provide extremely well-balanced tone quality and breathe some extra life into your high notes.

D'Addario EJ16-3D Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

One of the most popular non-coated strings. They last longer and don't have the corrosion concerns typical 80/20 strings are plagued with.

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Fender 60L Coated Ball End Acoustic Guitar Strings

A versatile, affordable entry point into great sounding coated strings. Great strings, great price.

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Ernie Ball Paradigm Medium Light 80/20 Bronze String Set

Incredible strings, great performance. These will blow you away with their great sounding mids and treble, but also with the deepness of the bass. 

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Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze with Nanoweb Coating, 12-String Heavy

The crème de la crème of coated strings - these are for performers. Heavier gauge strings with excellent performance and incredible tone. 

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DR Sunbeams, Light Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings

These strings contain classic, bass-heavy round steel cores. These really drive home your low notes and can give your songs some variety.

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Martin M540 Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

Excellent affordable strings made of phosphor bronze. If you enjoy playing bass heavy music, these are great for lower-end notes.

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Once you have your new strings, its time to break them in!

Enter your email below and I'll send you a list of 50 Super Easy Guitar Songs you can start playing today!

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Why Are High Quality Strings So Important?

It’s not uncommon to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on a guitar (even smaller travel guitars can get pricey), and then spend even more on all the required accessories like amplifiers, foot pedals, and tuners.

The interesting thing is, some of us then gawk at spending 20 or 30 dollars on strings, calling it ridiculous. 

After all, they’re just a piece of fiber, right? Well, no.

Strings are crucially important - after all, they’re what actually produces all the sound you make!

Let's go back to the basics for a quick second:

At its most fundamental level sound is a series of vibrating waves whose frequencies create different notes and different tones. The human ear then "registers" these sound waves and translates them into what we hear and perceive as sound, music, etc.. 

This means that instead of the fancy rosewood body or dual pickups on your Les Paul, it’s actually your strings that are doing most of the heavy lifting.

high quality acoustic guitar strings

Your lighter E strings vibrate much more rapidly creating your higher notes. Likewise, your thicker, heavier strings have longer wavelengths and result in deeper bass-heavy sounds. 

That’s all basic stuff, but the reason it matters is because acoustic guitar strings are always made and coated with different materials that enhance their durability and playability without altering the notes you’re playing.

Cheap strings (as opposed to "budget" strings - there's a distinction here) use inferior materials and coatings that can rub off or pick up dirt and oils from your fingertips. 

These contaminants weigh your strings down and negatively affect their vibration, which in turn destroys your sound quality.

That means you might be playing all the right notes, but you won’t be getting the clarity and tonality you’re looking for resulting in music that just plain sounds bad.

I don't want that, and you don't want that.

So let's avoid it altogether by looking at some high-quality strings that perform for the long-term. 

Everything You Need to Know About Guitar Strings

The most important thing you need to keep in mind when shopping for guitar strings is knowing exactly which kind of string material you need.

How do you find the right material, you might ask? Well, it all starts with the instrument!

Unlike electric guitars which use nickel or steel plated strings, acoustic guitars typically use copper. This is because the primary "driver" of your sound on an electric guitar is your pickup. 

The vibrating strings are registered by a magnet to produce the music you’re playing. This, in turn, allows manufacturers to use lighter materials when making  electric guitar strings. 

Sound Waves

Acoustic guitars on the other hand don’t have electric pickups -- they rely on bridge tension to amplify the vibrations of the strings which are then fine-tuned by the open chamber in the guitar.

This is why acoustic guitar strings need to be substantially thicker and heavier to deliver the force necessary to put tension on the bridge and drive the action that generates your sound. 

It's not necessarily the best idea to be mixing and matching parts if you have multiple styles of guitars lying around.

If a copper-based acoustic string snaps, swapping it out with a nickel-based one might result in the string being too weak to deliver the clear, punchy notes you want from your guitar.

With that being said, when shopping for new strings for your acoustic guitar there are four main things you need to be looking for:

The Gauge of the String:

The gauge of the string refers to a string's thickness and weight.

As you might imagine, lighter strings are easier to fret if you’re a new player whose fingers haven’t yet been numbed yet by years and years of practice. 

Guitar string gauges come in five primary varieties: extra-light, custom light, light, medium, and heavy.

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These gauges are also commonly thrown around in conversation by referring to the thickness of the lightest string, which range from .010 millimetres to .014.

This means that if a player at your local shop is recommending you some 13 or 14s, he’s actually referring to medium and heavy gauge strings respectively.

These are handy dimensions to know, since manufacturers often use their own labeling for the respective gauges.

“Medium” can mean different things to different companies, but 12s are always 12s, so keep that in mind.

The Material of the String:

As opposed to string gauges there are only a few material compositions that you’re going to be looking for when shopping for acoustic strings.

The first type is called “80/20” and that refers to strings made up 80% of copper, and 20% of zinc.

This is the most popular type of wire wrap and offers brighter tones when plucked.

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The second main type you’ll see in every store is called “phosphor bronze.”

The composition here is 92% copper with (roughly) 8% zinc, and these in contrast emphasize the lower end of the frequency spectrum.

That’s essentially the only real difference between the two, with one smaller edge to the phosphor bronze strings being that they tend to better resist both oxygen and your body’s natural oils.

This isn’t as big a deal as most would have you believe though, since you’re much more likely to experience snapping long before you notice any noticeable string corrosion, especially if you’re a newer player just purchasing their first set.

There are also a few newer compositions that are manufacturer specific, and while I won’t go into detail on the endless variety that you can find, one blend that’s been getting a lot of attention lately, and that you’ll probably come across at some point, is called “aluminum bronze.”

These were introduced by Ernie Ball, and are a surprisingly versatile option by combining the high note clarity of an 80/20 with the richer bass of the phosphor bronze strings.

The Core Construction and Shape of the String:

While the strings may all be labelled as bronze right on the box, don’t be fooled because guitar strings aren't made of one solid piece of metal.

Instead, the named alloys we just looked at refer to the “wrap” of the string which is woven around a core made of a different material, typically steel.

These cores come in two different shapes. They’re either round, or hex shaped (like a honeycomb).

Round core strings were the first to hit the market and are considered today to be a more “vintage” technology -- but don’t write them off just yet!

Since round core strings fill up the entirety of the outer weave, each string is denser, which helps your bottom notes really boom.

This comes at the trade-off of being slightly less durable, but if you’re someone who really loves to drive home the bass, these can still be a great option for you.

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Hex core strings are what dominate the string market today, and for good reason!

They’re more durable and serve to keep your high-end notes crisp and clear. For an acoustic guitar I’d typically advise you to stick with hex core construction since you’re not going to want the heavier sound of the round cores that dampen your playing.

As always that decision is yours to make.  

Coatings Applied to the String:

The final consideration you’ll need to make  is the coating of your strings.

This isn’t always applicable, but is becoming increasingly popular among manufacturers who are trying to add some value to your purchase and one-up their competitors by enhancing their durability and aesthetics.

Essentially, manufacturers will coat their alloy weave in a polymer coating of varied colors and sizes.

This coating limits the contact the actual string has with oxygen, one of the leading causes of corrosion (oxidation). It helps keep your strings sounding fresh and clear for a longer period of time, especially if they’ve been sitting there for months on the demo model you just took home from the showroom floor.

Example Video: String Coatings

Polymer coatings aren't a bad thing to have around, but they’re not without their drawbacks. 

Coating strings evenly across the entire length is not an easy process.

Remember how we talked about cheap strings? Well one common problem plaguing lower quality strings is an uneven coating. A low quality coating throws off the balance and weight of the string completely ruining its sound quality in the process. 

To compensate, some strings will have an even thicker coating layer applied to the outside; unfortunately, too thick of a coating can arguably make the sound quality  even worse. 

The thicker the coating applied, the heavier and thicker the string. The thicker the string, the more it dampens the overall sound of your guitar.

Ultimately, if you want to look at investing in a quality coated set there’s nothing wrong with that.

You just want to abide by the “less is more” principle.

Less coating results in less interference with your sound. In practice, however, quality (light) coatings are much harder to achieve in the production process and typically cost more.

Make no mistake, there are still great deals to be had on quality coated strings -- we'll cover some of these below. 

Which Strings are Right for Me?

Much like most things related to guitars, there’s no “best” model.

So instead of flatly recommending things you've heard a thousand times before, we're going to look at guitar strings by skill level.

I’m going to recommend a few options for beginners, several for intermediate players, and a couple for the advanced guitar players here in our midst. 

I'll also show you some potential next steps that you can take if you feel like you’ve progressed far enough and want to jump up into higher category (i.e. you want to go up from a set of beginner strings to a set of intermediate strings). 

Read through each of the following -- you might just find something that catches your eye!

Strings for Beginners

Ernie Ball Earthwood Light 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Set

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If you’re a new player, chances are you’re going to want to use a tried and true string that’s been vetted by millions of guitar players around the world, right?

Well, the Earthwood Lights are exactly that.

Since they use the more popular 80/20 bronze alloy alongside the hex-shaped core construction, you can expect your high notes to come through crisp and clear.

This is huge when you’re just learning to differentiate tones by pitch alone. 

The fact that these Ernie Ball strings hold each note for a decent length of time helps train your ears to recognize the tone of each note.

They help you recognize when things start to sound a bit off -- that's when you can step in and correct it. You're essentially training your "playing by ear" skills whenever you're listening, processing, and differentiating tones. 

The biggest seller of these strings, though, is their low price. This not only means you won’t break a sweat if you snap a few throughout the learning process, but it'll also keep you from feeling bad if you decide that they put too much emphasis on the treble and end up replacing them.

Don’t think you’re compromising on quality just because of the price tag.

If they’re a good match for your guitar and playing style, you can get tons of mileage out of these little guys, as evidenced by the hundreds of professional musicians who still continue to use Ernie Ball's Earthwood Light Strings on their acoustics. 

Check out these Ernie Ball Earthwood Light Strings on Amazon.

Martin M170 80/20 Extra Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Some guitar players have extremely sensitive fingers (especially when just starting out), but the good news is - that's completely okay!

If you find yourself cutting or bruising yourself easily, it might be a good idea to spend a few extra dollars and pick up the Martin M170 Extra-Lights.

They use the same 80/20 materials, so performance in terms of tonal clarity won’t change too much model to model, but the smaller gauge (at .010 mm) means you should be able to get through some long practice sessions with minimal soreness.

It does mean that they’re too light to really flex the bridge of the guitar and give you that impressive, punchy volume, but if you're a beginner, since you’re just practicing and mastering the basics, you probably won’t want too many people hearing you play anyway (not yet, anyways!) 

They’re slightly more expensive than the Ernie Balls, but players tend to get more mileage out of them since they hold up a bit better after extensive use.

Check out these Martin M170 Acoustic Strings on Amazon.

Martin M540 Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Once you’ve mastered some of the basics and have a little bit more experience under your belt , a good next step would be to try a phosphor bronze string.

Not only are they cheap (which makes them ideal to play around with and experiment with your technique), but they also maintain that same light gauge that you’ve been practicing with.

The only real difference is the construction material (phosphor bronze).

If you try out an 80/20 string, then switch over to a phosphor bronze, you'll be able to clearly identify how the different alloys affect the notes that you’re playing. 

Remember, whenever you’re testing new equipment you only want to change one variable at a time to fine-tune your preferences.

Now let's talk about tone.

With these M540s you can expect a duller, flatter tone, but that doesn’t mean they’re "bad". 

Why is that? Well, if you find yourself playing some more bass heavy music, these phosphor bronze strings can add some extra “oomph” to your lower notes (at the cost of a little tone balance; these don't give off as balanced of a tone as the other strings mentioned here). 

The fact that they’re 12s is also a great stepping stone as you move further into the heavier side of acoustic strings. 

Check out these Martin M540 Acoustic Strings on Amazon.

Strings for Intermediate Guitar Players

Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze Medium Light Acoustic Set

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You’ve probably played with the two most common string compositions out there (80/20 and Phosphor Bronze), but now it’s time to take a step into uncharted waters.

Aluminum bronze strings are quickly gaining popularity, and they're a great way to get your feet wet in a “non-traditional” sort of way, since they're right in the middle of 80/20 and Phosphor Bronze when it comes to tone and performance. 

These strings produce an extremely balanced tone that gives some extra life to your high notes, all without brightening up your low end.

The best part? They do this while giving you some extra longevity in your strings as well! Win-win.

Here's where the longevity comes from:

The aluminum alloy Ernie Ball uses is much more resistant to corrosion from contact with oxygen (oxidation), and helps keep your strings sounding newer for a longer period of time.

These strings are still on the lighter side as far as gauges go, so they won’t stand up to a "heavy metal assault" without snapping after a few weeks (all strings have their limits). 

If you’re someone who plays with a lighter hand though, you’ll be happy you gave these a shot. 

They can even reasonably be used on stage, since their higher resonance frequency (when compared to traditional bronze alloys) gives them much greater projection.

Just be sure to use them for a few weeks before your big debut since they can sound unnaturally “tinny” until they fully settle into your guitar.

Check out these Ernie Ball Medium Light Acoustic Strings on Amazon.

D'Addario EJ16-3D Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic Strings

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Yes, we’re taking a mild jump in price here, but bear with me. The EJ16-3Ds are one of the most popular non-coated strings for a good reason.

First off, their phosphor bronze construction helps eliminate most of the corrosion concerns that plague 80/20's. This lets them last longer -- and they better, for that price! 

On top of that, they also have a decidedly more balanced tone that you’ll quickly come to appreciate.

These strings have that traditional warmer feel typical among phosphor bronze, but they do a much better job at keeping your high end clear and distinct.

One potential downside is that they can feel stiffer than most other .012 gauge strings and require more force than you might expect to really drive the action.

This isn't entirely a downside though, because that means these strings will vibrate harder for a longer period of time, giving you some impressive projection.

Combine that projection with the balanced tone they provide and the resulting package is one that you can play both at home and in front of a crowd without any disappointment! 

Check out these D'Addario Phosphor Bronze Light Strings on Amazon.

Fender 60L Coated Ball End Acoustic Guitar Strings

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Since we've looked at a series of aluminum bronze strings in earlier sections, I think it’s a great time to introduce an awesome coated string manufactured by Fender. 

They may not be one of the premier string brands out there, but their quality control standards and manufacturing processes are evolved enough that you don’t have to worry about getting a bad batch of coated strings.

Remember when I differentiated between “cheap” and “budget” strings earlier? These are in the latter "budget" category.

Here's why:

They compromise on some performance features by giving a duller tone than other premier brands, and some of the higher notes can produce an off-putting ringing occasionally.

Looking at the big picture, though, they’re still entirely functional strings.

Their purpose of this list isn’t to displace your favorites, but rather, to provide a versatile and affordable entry point into the world of polymer.

It’s an important step to take if you can deal with the trade-offs between performance and longevity.

But if you truly value longevity, you’ll want to start considering more expensive "premiere" acoustic strings like the Elixir Nanoweb 80/20's (see the advanced section).

Check out these Fender 60L Coated Guitar Strings on Amazon.

Strings for Advanced Guitar Players

Ernie Ball Paradigm Medium Light 80/20 Bronze String Set

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If you were ever unsure about what a dramatic increase in sound quality and tone a good set of strings makes, take your cheapest set and re-string them with these Paradigms!

You’ll be blown away not only by the great sounding mids and trebles, but also with the deepness of the bass.

That’s impressive for 80/20s, but the surprises keep on coming with their corrosion-resistant plating and high tensile strength. There's a reason these strings have one of the best lifespans around.

While they’re all-around great performing strings, the reason I recommend them for more experienced players is that their labelled gauges are less than straightforward. 

They tend to be quite stiff in comparison with similar gauges from other brands, which will confuse and frustrate the hell out you unless you know exactly what string size you’re looking for.

The key to getting maximum enjoyment from these is to take what you usually play, and then order one size down. That should give you the tension and resistance you’re used to, even if they still come out slightly thinner. 

Check out these Ernie Ball 2086 80/20 Medium-Light Strings on Amazon.

Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze with Nanoweb Coating, 12-String Heavy

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The crème de la crème of coated strings is unsurprisingly the most expensive as well.

While it’s hard to argue that the price-tag is worth it for all but the most hardcore, if you've shopped around and exhausted your other options then you'll pleasantly realize this is an extremely compelling set of strings. 

Living up to its name, the Nanoweb coating is so thin that it’s actually hard to feel; that’s the highest complement it can get. Being so light, it doesn’t weigh down any of your notes or alter your tone in any negative way.

These strings take performance one step further by resonating slightly longer than most, giving you some added punch to your notes. 

The heavy gauge helps as well. It increases the tension on the bridge and delivers a powerful, clear sound each time you pluck a note.

The Elixir Nanowebs are also quite silent as you go about fretting different chords.

This should go without saying, but many inferior strings have a subtle “squeak” as you move your hand around that can be mildly distracting at best, and a real nuisance at worst. 

Ultimately, these are performance strings.

If you'll be playing on stage on a regular basis or jamming out with your new band, these Elixirs will give you the truest, brightest sound possible for an extremely long time.

If that sounds like something you’re looking for, then this package is unmatched.

Check out these Nanoweb Coated 80/20 Heavy Elixir Strings on Amazon.

DR Sunbeams, Light Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings

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You’ve tried every popular brand, gauge, and alloy -- but what about core shape?

That’s right, the final thing standing in the way of you being a true string connoisseur is gearing up your guitar strings with classic, bass-heavy round steel cores.

Not only will they give you an appreciation for how far string manufacturing has come compared to the super modern Elixirs we just looked at, but it might actually be a great niche set for your needs.

Remember, these really drive home your low notes.

Not only can they give you some variety while playing different songs, but they can also help tone down that guitar you tucked away in your closet (because its high-pitched and annoying).

At worst, you’re out ten bucks.

But at their best, you just might be able to breathe some new life into your gear with these incredible strings.

Check out these DR Sunbeam Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings on Amazon.

Final Takeaway

If you’ve been following me along for the ride you should have a much clearer idea of what goes into choosing new strings for your acoustic guitar.

We looked at different alloys, core shapes, gauges, and coatings, and more importantly explained why they all matter.​

Whether you just picked up your new acoustic guitar from the local shop and want some higher quality strings, or have been playing for years and just need an upgrade, I’ve provided you with some of the best possible choices that you can make not only to improve the sound quality of your music.

Not only that, but these strings also give you a sense of what type of variety you can find out there.

Remember, if you only ever buy the same brand you might be missing out on an opportunity to take your playing to a whole new level with some great, quality strings.

So let's get adventurous -- feel free to try out a different set of strings for your acoustic, you might just find exactly what you were looking for.

strings on acoustic guitar

Once you have your new strings, its time to break them in!

Enter your email below and I'll send you a list of 50 Super Easy Guitar Songs you can start playing today!

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