Are all guitar strings the same?

Are all strings the same?

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in your guitar playing career, we’ll be the first to admit that choosing a set of guitar strings can be quite baffling at times.  There are so many brands out there… and a lot of the time, many sets look the exact same as one another. You’d be forgiven for asking the question “what’s the difference between all these sets?… surely they’re all the same!?!”  Well, whilst many sets’ main attributes are the same, there’s plenty more that goes into making strings and it’s often what you don’t see (or aren’t told about!) that can make all the difference.

In this blog post, we’ll look at some areas where string brands can put their “own stamp” on their products and how, despite all things appearing equal, things aren’t always necessarily the same!!

If you take a look at some of the most popular sets on the market, many brands share the same specifications as one another… Same gauge, same core shape, same wrap material… the list goes on.  So, if they all share the same attributes, why does one brand of strings feel different to another?

It’s certainly a good question. Let’s take the most popular electric guitar string set as an example…. the humble old 10-46. There are tonnes of brands out there whose 10-46 electric set will look like this;

Gauge – 10-46 (specifically 10, 13, 17p, 26, 36, 46)
Wrap Material – Nickel Plated Steel
Core Wire – Hex Core
Ball Ended
Uncoated

In fact, many of the most popular brands share these exact same specifications… Ernie Ball, D’Addario, Rotosound, Jim Dunlop… we could go on! And the same goes for strings for all other instruments too.

So if a lot of strings are seemingly the same as one another, how do brands ensure their strings feel and sound unique.  One of the biggest ways of achieving this is their choice of core-to-wrap wire ratio…..

Core-to-wrap wire ratio

Core to wrap wire ratio plays a massive role in determining the feel and tonality of a string.  But what exactly is it!?

The gauge of each wound string in a set is made up of two constituent parts… it’s core wire and it’s outer wrap wire. It’s the combination of these two elements that when added together make up the overall gauge of the string.  With this in mind, we can see that the same gauge string can be created in several ways simply by using different combinations of the size of the core and the size of the wrap wire… this is what meant when we refer to a strings core-to-wrap wire ratio.

For example, a .046 gauge string can be created using;

.016” core wire combined with a .015” wrap wire* or…..
.014 core wire combined with a bigger .016 wrap wire*

*Bear in mind that when you are calculating the overall gauge (diameter) of the string, you need to account for the wrap wire twice as you are measuring across the entire cross action of the string.

Core-to-wire ratio

So even though both strings are exactly the same thickness overall, the differing core-to-wrap wire ratios will have a bearing on how the string performs in these key areas;

Playability – how flexible the string feels under your fingers
Durability – how long the string will last
Tone – How bright or dark the string sounds

This can be quite a “nerdy” topic and it’s for this reason that very few brands make reference to this stuff in their string marketing. After all, many of us just want a set of strings that do the job admirably without all the geeky spiel…. and we totally get that!

However, that being said, there are some manufacturers who certainly make light of this element in some of their strings. GHS are a great example of this. Their Big Core Nickel Rockers, Thin Core and Thick Core ranges all make a point of bringing this particular facet of their strings to the fore. The thicker core strings are said to give a “beefier” tone and more sustain, whereas the thinner core sets help to aid those players looking to focus on “speed and dexterity” in their playing.

GHS Thin Core and Thick Core Lineup

Pyramid are also another brand that have a range of sets in their lineup that make light of a different core size. Their Maximum Performance sets are constructed on a thinner core wire with a thicker wrap. Much like GHS, Pyramid say that these strings have a lower tension which can appeal to those players looking to focus on the “feel” of their strings more than those striving for that bigger sound.

For acoustic players interested in exploring different core-to-wrap wire ratios, the Heritage range from British manufacturer Newtone are also well worth checking out. These strings are aimed at players looking for a lower tension set through the use of carefully selected core-to-wrap wire ratios. The smaller core wire means they’re more flexible with an aim towards players who suffer from hand and arm fatigue and tendonitis.

Martin’s Authentic Acoustic Flexible Core Range is also another acoustic option. Martin say that these strings are constructed on “a lighter gauge version of their Superior Performance core wire.” The gauges in the range are still very much the same as you’d see in a lot of their other sets, so on the face of it you’d be forgiven for thinking that they play and feel the same as ‘standard’ set of the same gauge. However, it’s the combination of the thinner core and heavier wrap wire that helps to give these strings the “increased flex and playability”.

Martin MA545FX Flexible Core Acoustic Guitar Strings

Quality of the raw materials used

The quality of the raw materials that go into making the strings is another very important part of what can make a set of strings play, feel and sound different from one another. This may be a fairly obvious point to make, but like most products there are always options available made from higher and lower quality raw materials.

String manufacturers are continually looking to source the very best quality wire as they know that this plays a vital role in the quality of their final product. It goes without saying that if a string manufacturer is using sub-par materials, no amount of manufacturing magic will help to create a great string.

D’Addario are one particular manufacturer that have gone one step further and taken this matter into their own hands by making their own wire themselves. They don’t need to source the wire from anywhere else and are therefore in charge of the quality of their strings every step of the way. In this sense, you could argue that D’Addario have an advantage over other brands who are heavily reliant on sourcing quality wire from elsewhere and ultimately putting a big part of the quality of the strings in the hands of another company.

Manufacturing Process

I was recently listening to an episode of the ToneMob podcast featuring Scott Marquart from Stringjoy, a string manufacturer based out of Nashville in the USA.
As a retailer of strings, we like to think we know a lot about strings, but when it comes to the manufacturing processes, brands like to keep certain things under wraps. As a result, we found the podcast really insightful as it revealed some nerdy nuggets of information on how changing specific elements in the winding process can really alter the outcome of the strings.

Here’s a few things that Scott pinpointed;

1) Tension on the wrap wire as it is wound around the core
There’s more science and precision to making strings than just wrapping one piece of wire around another. The amount of tension the wrap wire is under as it travels around the core wire has an effect on how tightly the outer wrap shrinks and grips the central core and ultimately determines the final tension of the string.

2) Tension of the core wire during winding
Likewise, changing the tension of the core wire as the wrap wire is applied to it is also another element string manufacturers can change. Scott from Stringjoy said that there is “an infinite amount of tensions you could use”… each having a bearing on the outcome of how the string feels and plays.

3) The angle at which the wrap wire hits the core wire as it is wound
This aspect of the winding process affects the spacing between the windings, no doubt determining the overall “feel” of the string under the fingers.

And this is just scratching the surface… there are so many other possible areas for change that can make a world of difference to how they feel and sound.

guitar string manufacturing

So what tension does Ernie Ball hold it’s core wire as the string is being wound? And at what angle do D’Addario wind their wound strings?
To be honest, these are questions that many guitar players couldn’t give a hoot about and brands are likely to never divulge such information.  After all, it’s these unique production secrets that are able to set string brands apart from each other in a very crowded market.

We appreciate this information can all sound quite nerdy, but all the same, it’s interesting to hear this information from a manufacturer and it really helps to give a broader picture of why strings feel different between brands… even when they could easily appear to be exactly the same.

We hope that we’ve enlightened you with some new information here. When you dig a little deeper and realise that there’s more than meets the eye, you can start to understand why there are so many string brands out there and how they can all be different to one another (even if it’s just a little bit!).

We found the ToneMob podcast particularly fascinating and it helped to shed some new light on the manufacturing process and how it can really influence the playability, durability and tone of the string before it’s even made it’s way onto your guitar.

We also hope it’s given you some inspiration to start to explore some different brands. Now, when you scour our site, you may just look at those numerous pages of 10-46 electric sets and think a little differently!

See you next time!

29 Comments

  • Why no discussion of round core versus hex core!!! the difference is mega, I’ve been using round core for years now, Newtone in particular, and wouldn’t go back to hex ever.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Paddy, thanks for your comment.
      In this blog we were mainly concentrating on how strings that appear exactly the same, with the exact same specifications can be different from one another.
      We have discussed the difference between hex core and round core strings in a previous blog. You can check that out here.
      Thanks again

  • Andrew Upton

    I’ve just found that blog really interesting and has given me an appreciation for some of the differences. As a beginner, my last order was for a few different brands to try out, so I am still learning and trying to appreciate the difference in sound, but this has helped me greatly, thanks.

    • Drew Bonnington

      Very interesting and informative article. There were several “oh yeh, I suppose so” moments and as I’ve been playing guitar on and off for 50 yrs it proved you’re never to old to learn something new. At the end of the day I guess most of us have just plodded along using the same brand because that’s what we always use. This is either brand loyalty…..or simple laziness! You may have stimulated me, for one, to be more experimental and find something better, or at worst confirm what I thought all along but didn’t know why. Keep up your blogs, always a good read. Thanks.

      • stringsdirect

        Thanks Drew 🙂

    • stringsdirect

      You’re welcome Andrew 🙂

  • Thanks for the interesting article with lots of useful information, especially for us nerds! I tried a couple of sets of the GHS Thin-core (10–46) on one of my electric guitars (with a 24.75″ scale length) a while back and I enjoyed the slightly looser feel, which corresponds with what you have explained. However for that guitar I’ve actually started using Ernie Ball Mega Slinky (10.5–48), the two reasons being: 1. it makes it feel pretty much the same as using 10–46 on my other electric guitars, which are all 25.5″ scale length and 2. the sound (tone) is definitely just that bit bigger, which helps to cut through when playing with a live drummer. I have tried out pretty much everything (10–46 gauge) on the market and I currently have Fender Super 250’s on a couple of my electric guitars and they’re fine strings. I occasionally use Super Bullet 3250R on my S-type guitars and they are also fine strings with a good feel and sound. I’ve tried pure nickel strings – and I get the “consistency of tone from new to used” comments – but I prefer nickel covered steel and I always have. I don’t like the dry feel of stainless steel strings (they quickly stick as you slide due to the increased friction, but that may be something to do with body chemistry, so you should try them out and judge for yourself); and they sound a bit grindy – which would be cool for metal styles no doubt. I’ve tried several sets of D’Addario XTs and I’d say they’re the best of the coated strings (they feel the most like uncoated) – although all of my pro guitar playing friends don’t use coated strings! Still, for the teaching part of my activities, it does make sense to install coated strings because they definitely last a lot longer (I can keep them on for a 12-week semester and they retain their tone). I’ve tried about half a dozen sets of D’Addario NYXL – as highly recommended by my friend Guthrie Govan – and, having seen the official promo video, I like the fact that they are evidently tougher than the rest – although Ernie Ball Paradigm claim to be among the best if breakage worries you – and they get in tune and settle down quicker than other brands, which Guthrie told me is one of the main reasons he uses NYXL (9’s I think). Finally, after much experimentation over the past 40 years – I was a long time Picato endorsee – I’ve settled on Ernie Ball Cobalt (10–46) mainly because they sound great! And they feel nice; there’s something just slightly different about them: I’m sure they’re just slightly more flexible, yet not at the expense of pitch stability – the main deciding factor for me when it comes to choice of strings is having relatively stable pitch when applying gentle sideways vibrato, and yes, I understand perfectly what vibrato is by definition, but some strings sound horribly wobbly and out of tune when you apply moderate vibrato, while the EB Cobalt sound very different: the moderate vibrato sounds harmonious with the music; perhaps it something to do with core-wrap ratio? Probably.

    • stringsdirect

      Thank for all this Lee. Some really good insights here. Thank you 🙂

  • Hugh Ross

    Hi strings direct. Please don’t forget classic guitar. I own a very nice classic guitar with cedar top. With this combination I am suffering with the dreaded dull G string. Overcome this with a wire wound replacement of a very different tension, this only throws the dull life onto the B. Is there any one out their who produces a full set of 6 wire wound.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Hugh, We don’t think anybody does a whole 6-string wound set of classical strings. However, D’Addario do offer single wound strings as low as a .019 gauge. Perhaps this may help suit your needs if you wanted to make up a whole set from singles. If so, feel free to get in touch.
      Thanks

  • Vinny

    Hi, noticed you mentioned Heritage strings that might help us aged pickers but dont see them on your website. Are you planning to include them at anytime.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Vinny, we do stock the Newtone Heritage but unfortunately we are out of stock of all the gauges currently. Keep checking back for stock as they are very popular
      You can view the whole range here on our site;
      https://www.stringsdirect.co.uk/search/newtone-strings-m29/newtone-heritage
      Thanks

    • Gail Cairney

      I would like to get back to playing my guitar which has nickel strings on which kill my fingers now. I bought nylon to get me back to it but they don’t have the grip at the end is there another string that’s kinder to my fingers

  • Kris

    Bought Ernie Balls from you a while ago and restrung my guitar, high E snapped as I was stretching and tuning. Don’t think I’ll ever use them Earnie’s again, very disappointing

    • Terry Relph-Knight

      I had the same problem with Ernie Ball plain strings falling apart during installation. EB use an insecure twist at the ball end on their basic strings sets, at least that appeared to be the problem on the sets that failed for me. They even seem to acknowledge that the twist is a problem because they make a more expensive product (the RPS sets) that has a short over winding of wrap wire over the twist on the plain strings.

    • Tony

      Kris, you should give Ernie Ball’s RPS sets a go. I’ve been using their 9-46 sets for more than 10yrs on my Kahler trem equipped guitars and never snapped one. Their plain strings have a reinforced extra wrap around the ‘ball end’, hence the name.

    • stringsdirect

      Kris, sorry to hear you had some strings that snapped on you.
      If you had an issue with a set from us, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to help with a replacement for you. lee@stringsdirect.co.uk
      Thank you

  • Alan Garratt

    Very interesting article, I learnt a lot from it, thank you guys. Maybe you can help a little further, which string has the smaller core, D’addario or Rotosound? I don’t wish to be favouring one over the other but I would like to compare them, given this extra little bit of knowledge.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Alan,
      Thanks for the question. Honestly, we don’t know the answer to this I’m afraid. To our knowledge, no brand publishes this exact core to wrap wire information. The only time we know if a smaller or larger core is used is when one of the manufacturers makes light of it in their product description. There may also be an instance of D’Addario using a smaller core than Rotosound on one particular gauge, and a larger on another so it may not be consistent across the whole range of gauges :-/
      Sorry we couldn’t be more conclusive on this for you.
      Thanks again

  • Alex

    Good article, gets you thinking. It took me years to find the right string set for my specific guitar/tuning. For some reason the D string always sounded wrong or out of tune until I switched to using a set with a nickel-wound 3rd and filed the string gap on the top-nut so it was wide enough to fit it. Sometimes you just have to do a little custom fitting to get the sound you want.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Alex, thanks for the comment.
      Yep a wound 3rd is something that’s definitely worth a try, can really make a difference and help round out the sound. If you’re interested we wrote a blog a few years ago on this very subject. Check it out if you fancy a read.
      https://www.stringsdirect.co.uk/blog/wound-3rd/
      Thanks 🙂

  • Anonymous

    PETER CLIFTON
    Hi, following you original blog re hex v round cores, (I’d been using Newtones acoustic Heritage for some time,) I was moved to try DR Blues on my main archtop which was custom built for me to work with lighter strings due to arthritis. I find the pure nickel strings work well and currently have their Zebras on. Not quite as flexible a feel as the Blues, but comfortable, stay in tune very well, and work acousically and electrically well. I have some Pyramids and others to try, but I am totally converted to round cored strings. On teles I’ve used EB 9s for years – is there a round wound 9 set you’d suggest I try?

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. Sounds like you’ve tried a good selection of round core strings. Fender have recently started doing round core sets so they could certainly be worth a try. They also come in nickel plated steel and pure nickel too. Here’s a link to the list of 9 gauge round core sets we currently offer
      Hope this helps

  • chris langton

    Over 20 years ago,I started using Newtone strings for finger-style on the recommendation of Malcom !
    he explained to me the theory used on the round core If your a finger-style player,playing 12 to the body
    they can’t be beaten . I am old enough to remember that the only strings you could get (at that time )were
    Cathedral and they were brutal compared with today’s offerings !
    We are so lucky the string makers of today put in the effort to improve our main contact with the fingerboard !
    Chris

    • stringsdirect

      Thanks for the info Chris 🙂

  • Colin

    So do all plain strings from different makers have the same tension for the same gauge please ?

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Colin,

      Great question. Because plain steel strings only comprise of one single piece of steel, in theory it would be the same across different brands. However, I have just checked the data that a few brands provide this information for (D’Addario, GHS, Strinjoy) and whilst the tensions are similar, there are variances, albeit fairly small. This will be down to the makeup of the wire used.
      Hope this helps
      Thanks for the question

  • Enid Nicholson

    Hi, I have a 12 string acoustic guitar, the nut has been replaced with a lower string position. My current strings have been in use (not constantly!) for approx. five years. They sound dull! I also suffer from a little arthritis in my hands and fingers ,hence the lowered strings. I have used D’Addario strings but are they the best for a nice bright but good tonal quality and do they have some flexibility for my old hands? I would love to hear your recommendations. Thanks!

  • Adrian Halfyard

    Is being based OUT OF Nashville different from being based IN Nashville?

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