Deciding which are the best electric guitar strings for your playing is something not all guitarists take a lot of time to consider. For the most part, guitar players tend to stick to what they know or what the staff in the guitar shop tell them and seldom take a chance on a different brand or gauge of strings.
But your guitar strings are one of the most important components of how your guitar plays and can have a huge effect on how it sounds. They are the conduit by which your creativity passes from your hands into your pickups and finally out of your amplifier into the world.
We understand that you may not want to waste money on trying a new brand of string, but that’s where this list comes into play. With decades worth of experience, we have accumulated all of our knowledge to bring you a comprehensive list of the best electric guitar strings. From enduring favorites like Ernie Ball Slinky to slightly more esoteric selections from Curt Mangan, there will be something here to whet your appetite, suit your style and encourage you to try something different.
Best electric guitar strings: Product guide
Best strings overall
Spec: Nickel wound with steel core, uncoated
+ Huge selection of gauges
+ The choice of many pros
- Not as long-lasting as coated strings
Ernie Ball has been making strings since the ’60s and its list of endorsees reads like a who’s who of rock and blues history. Combining a huge range of gauges with outstanding tonal qualities makes these the top dog of electric guitar strings.
There are a whopping 20 different gauges of Ernie Ball Slinkys, and that’s not including baritone and extended range sets. With the recent addition of ‘half-gauge’ sets beefing up the range significantly, Ernie Ball now offers a gauge to suit pretty much any guitar player. Being such stalwarts, you’ll never struggle to find a packet of Slinkys in a guitar store, no matter how provincial the town your gig is in this weekend.
The sound of these strings is the sound of countless hit songs over the decades, combining a bright tonality that delivers consistently, at a price point that’s hard for others to match. When you’ve got Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Slash and Keith Richards on the pack, there’s little reason to look elsewhere.
Best for range of strings
Spec: Nickel wound with hex core, uncoated
+ Different tension options
+ Huge range of materials
- Won’t last as long as coated strings
- Different ranges might confuse new players
D’Addario is Ernie Ball’s only real rival when it comes to electric guitar strings. Offering a similarly massive range of gauges and materials, they have a universal appeal when it comes to tone, suiting a vast array of playing styles.
The XL Range encompasses various types of strings with differing materials. XL Chromes are flat wound for warmth and roundness, while XL Half Rounds sit between Chromes and the XL Nickel Wounds, which are your regular electric guitar strings. XL Pure Nickels deliver vintage tones from the ’50s and ’60s whilst XL ProSteels utilize stainless steel for a brighter tone.
With such a huge range of materials on offer, D’Addario really does have something for everyone, whether you want the vintage blues sound of the XL Pure Nickel, or the round warmth of XL Chromes for your jazz licks.
Best coated strings
Spec: Nickel plated with steel core, Nanoweb coating
+ Long-lasting performance
+ Ultrafine coating
- Coating eventually flakes off
- Coated feeling not for everyone
Elixir’s Nanoweb offers one of the longest-lasting strings on the market today. The coated feel might not be for everyone, but who doesn’t want a string that holds its tune and stays brighter for longer?
Coated strings have a reputation for losing some of the brightness you get with regular guitar strings. But if you’re not a fan of the new string sound and like yours played in a bit, these strings will sound phenomenally good from the moment you put them on. We’ve noticed that the coating can flake off, which can feel a little unusual, but if you reach this point, it’s about time you treated your axe to a fresh set.
Some players have reported these strings lasting up to six months with regular play, a feat not to be sniffed at. Although they’re on the pricier side of the string spectrum, the fact that you’ll be replacing them less often will more than makeup for the initial outlay.
Best premium strings
Spec: Nickel plated with hex core, uncoated
+ Articulate and clear sound
+ Create your own custom gauge
- Quite costly
- Not as widely available as others
Despite being a relative newcomer to the string-making game, Curt Mangan actually worked at Ernie Ball for many years, so he knows more than a thing or two about the electric guitar string manufacturing process.
These strings are handmade in the USA to ensure the utmost quality of sound and reliability. You can even specify a custom gauge when you order directly from the Curt Mangan website, a nice touch that sees the pack arriving with your name on it.
These sets are very well-balanced tonally and offer a smooth playing feel that’s instantly comfortable. There are various constructions available too, so you can get the vintage tone of pure nickel sets or the longer-lasting performance of a coated string if that’s what you prefer. As a result of the stiff competition and their relative youthfulness, Curt Mangan strings aren’t as widely available, comparatively speaking, but don’t let this deter you. If you happen to stumble across them, snap a packet up.
Best for high output
Spec: Cobalt wound with hex core, uncoated
+ Incredible output
+ Excellent dynamic range
- May be too ‘hot’ for some
- On the pricier side
Ernie Ball’s second entry on this list comes in the form of these unusual cobalt-plated strings. Cobalt as an element is around three times more magnetic than nickel, which means that these strings interact differently with your pickups.
Cobalt strings will sound louder than a standard nickel-plated or pure steel string thanks to this unique magnetic relationship. They also have a rougher texture than a regular nickel-plated string, so they're great if you’re the sort of player who really wants to feel their strings.
We also noticed that the cobalt-plated strings feel a lot more pliable than their nickel counterparts, even with similar gauges, so bear that in mind if you utilize string bends often.
The sound is crisp, with great harmonics and increased low-end response. Combine that with the usual Ernie Ball durability, and you’ve got a string with the potential to be a real game-changer.
Best budget strings
Spec: Nickel-plated with steel core, uncoated
+ Consistent from pack to pack
+ Includes a spare high E
- Not the longest-lasting
- Might be too bright for some
Rotosound is a UK-based brand that was making strings for Jimi Hendrix and The Who back in the heyday of rock’n’roll guitar. Despite this classic rock heritage, its forward-thinking manufacturing processes are more than a match for the modern player, with Guthrie Govan being one of many avid users of the brand.
One of the things players regularly praise about Rotosounds is their consistency from pack to pack. Likely because the company's spent so long making strings, you’ll seldom find a difference from string change to string change, which makes them great when you need reliable sound for regular gigging.
These strings have a bright tonality overall which may have some players reaching for the treble knob. But whether you have single coils or humbuckers, they’ll serve you equally well no matter your set-up or play style.
Best for warm tone
Spec: Pure nickel with hex core, uncoated
+ Great for Strat players
+ Brilliant vintage blues tone
- Might not suit non-Fender players
- Not for contemporary styles
Fender’s pure nickel strings are the perfect match for the Strat slingers out there or those who love their low-gain blues guitar playing. Manufactured to match Fender guitars, they’re surprisingly low in cost, making them great value for money.
Pure nickel strings are highly sought after by those with a yearning for vintage guitar tones because they were common in the mid-’50s and ’60s, the golden era of guitar building. Pure nickel strings are slightly softer than wound strings, meaning they wear less on your frets.
In terms of sound, it’s a warm tone with a slightly lower output than that of a regular guitar string. This means they sound more ‘played in’ when you first put them on, as you don’t get that initial zing of new strings.
Best for drop tuning
Spec: Nickel-plated steel with hex core, uncoated
+ Great for heavier styles
+ Very durable
- Not for standard tuning
- Might be too thick for some
Let’s face it, Jim Dunlop is primarily known for its outstanding range of guitar care, picks and other accessories, rather than guitar strings. That said, this particular range offers a unique take on something no other manufacturer is doing: gunning for those who like things heavy.
Made in California, Heavy Core strings are designed to be drop-tuned thanks to their core-to-wrap ratio which results in a higher tension. So when you drop tune, you don’t get the dreaded string flop, and instead, they maintain a solid playing feel.
Tight low end is the name of the game here, and these strings do it extremely well. They’re balanced in the mids and smooth in the highs too, sounding great both clean and distorted. If you’re a hard rocker or metalhead, then you’ll find something to love with these.
Best for allergies
Spec: Steel core with steel roundwound
+ Ideal if you have a nickel or cobalt allergy
+ Incredibly bright attack
+ Proper ‘60s tone
- May be too fierce for some
For those with a nickel or cobalt allergy, the Rotosound British Steels emerge as the best option. Utilizing a stainless steel core and winding, the Rotosounds won’t irritate your fingers like the other options on our list.
Rotosound has been crafting stainless steel strings since the 1960s. In those days, players didn't have the luxury of nickel or cobalt strings; steel was the default choice. Originating during the British Invasion, these strings were used by the likes of Syd Barrett, George Harrison and Pete Townshend and the British Steels perfectly capture the tone of that era. If you’re after the ‘British Sound’ then these are the strings for you.
Distinctly bright, punchy with an increased presence, the Steels aren’t for the faint-hearted. They are also fantastic for country-style finger picking as they have twang in bucket-loads. However, compared to nickel, the steel construction is a bit more sticky on your fingers and we found them to be less smooth.
Best electric guitar strings: Buying advice
Choosing The Best Electric Guitar Strings
You can trust Guitar Player.
When choosing the best electric guitar strings, there are a handful of considerations you will need to make. All of these facets can have a huge impact on the way your guitar plays, sustains, and its overall tonal quality.
What’s the best string material; nickel, cobalt, or steel?
With electric guitar strings, there are various materials used to construct the strings, but when people talk about nickel, cobalt, or steel, they are generally referring to the strings’ winding. So which one is the best? Well, it’s not really a case of being the best, it’s a case of what feels and sounds good to you.
Nickel wound strings are the most common on the market. Ernie Ball’s Slinky range and D’Addario’s XL series both utilize nickel windings. Nickel wound strings usually have a fairly high output, have a crisp attack and are quite prominent in the mid to high-end.
Next up are cobalt strings. Cobalt has a stronger magnetic appeal than nickel, meaning it has a stronger output when plugged in. The low end on a cobalt string is a lot tighter and there is a slightly rougher feel to them. Cobalt also feels a bit more pliable, so they may be a good choice if you appreciate a string bend or two.
Lastly, we have steel strings. Steel strings are incredibly bright, as you’d imagine, and have a lot more presence than cobalt and nickel. They have twang by the bucket load which makes them a popular choice for country and bluegrass guitarists. Steel strings also have more volume, making them an interesting choice for acoustic guitar too.
What string gauge should I choose?
One thing you will have to take into account is the string gauge. Strings' gauges are defined by their lightest string, which is why you’ll hear guitar players refer to a set as ‘9s’ or ‘11s’. For the most part, these will tend to follow a linear curve of increasing thickness, which is usually similar across different brands. A set of 9 gauge Ernie Ball Slinkys should feel pretty comparable to the same gauge of D’Addario XLs, for example.
There is something of a misconception amongst players that lighter gauge strings are for beginners and heavy gauge strings are for ‘proper’ players, which is nonsense, of course. Both Chuck Berry and Frank Zappa were proponents of sets of 8 gauge guitar strings, one of the lightest gauges you can get. Stevie Ray Vaughan, on the other hand, used 13s – and all these players got a great variety of tones out of their guitars. Experimentation is key when selecting a string gauge, so try a different set to your usual and you may find you much prefer them.
Another factor that may influence your string gauge is your preferred music taste. Heavier music, which is often played in detunings, will require a heavier gauge of string. Most likely you will be detuning to a lower octave, meaning you will be slackening the strings, and a heavier gauge will compensate for that.
Are coated or uncoated electric guitar strings better?
Whether your strings are coated or uncoated is another important factor in making your string selection. Both have their pros and cons.
Coated strings will sound fresher for longer and they won’t corrode nearly as quickly. This is because a coated string has a protective barrier around the windings, blocking out sweat and oxygen which speeds up corrosion. This is a big bonus, especially if you think changing guitar strings is a chore – however, it does come with a potential detractor. Coated strings feel different from a standard string, and some players are put off by the slightly slippier texture. They also tend to cost more than an uncoated string.
On the other hand, an uncoated string won’t last quite as long and they will corrode a lot quicker due to the lack of a protective barrier. However, an uncoated string has that traditional feel you’ll be instantly familiar with. They also cost a little less, so if you’re in a pinch, an uncoated pack may be more appealing.
How we choose products
At Guitar Player, our team of writers aren't just music enthusiasts; we're real-life musicians. Our hands-on experience with acoustic guitar amps ensures that our reviews and recommendations are backed by practical knowledge and real-world testing.
When it comes to selecting the best electric guitar strings, we leave no stone unturned. Meticulously evaluating factors like tonal versatility, sonic character, build quality, and value for money, it's only after rigorous testing in a variety of playing scenarios do we choose products for our guides. We stand by our selections, ensuring that every set of strings we recommend is one we'd use ourselves.
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Matt is a Junior Deals Writer at Guitar World and has been playing guitar as his main instrument for well over 20 years. He also plays drums, bass, and keys – producing out of his home studio in Manchester, UK. He has previously worked for Dawsons Music, Northwest Guitars, and freelanced for various magazines and blogs, writing reviews, how-to's, and features. When he's not downloading the latest VSTs or justifying yet another guitar pedal purchase, you'll find him making a racket with Northern noise hounds JACKALS.
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