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Pure Nickel vs. Nickel wound strings: What is the difference?

When it comes to choosing guitar strings, most players tend to focus on string gauge. And this is not so surprising. Altering or experimenting with different gauge strings has an instant impact on how your guitar feels to play. And this in turn affects the tone that you create.

If you are still experimenting with different gauge strings - or if you don’t know where to start when it comes to string gauge - then I cover the topic in greater detail in these two articles:

Are Light Gauge Strings Better For The Blues?
String Gauge Of The Blues Greats

Despite its importance though, string gauge is just one of a number of factors that you need to consider in your quest for the perfect set of guitar strings. And so if you feel comfortable with your current string gauge, it might be worth turning your attention to some of the other elements of your guitar strings.

That is exactly what I will be covering today. In this article I will look at the material from which strings are made. Specifically, I will look at the difference between pure nickel strings and nickel plated strings. These are some of the most common materials used to manufacture strings. They are also the string sets most relevant to guitarists playing blues and blues rock music.

So if you are looking for blues or blues rock tones, and you haven’t yet paid much attention to the material from which your guitar strings are made, I hope this helps to equip you with the knowledge you need to choose the right set of strings for your setup.

Without further ado then, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know about pure nickel and nickel wound strings and the impact these different materials have on tone and playability:

The basics of guitar string construction

Before we look at the different materials from which guitar strings are made, it is important to have a basic knowledge of how guitar strings are manufactured. This will help you to appreciate the differences between strings of different materials, and in this way you will be able to understand exactly what is meant by the terms ‘pure nickel’ and ‘nickel plated’.

The construction of guitar strings itself is a lengthy topic, and one that goes beyond the scope of this article. The good news though is that you only need to know the key points to appreciate the differences between the terms used here. Almost all electric guitar strings (at least of which I am aware), are made from a type of high-carbon steel wire.

The composition and manufacture of this wire - often referred to as core wire, or music wire - varies between different string manufacturers. And this is one of the key factors which makes strings from different brands feel and sound different.

After all, if you take two sets of guitar strings from different brands - and those strings are identical in their gauge, construction and material - they will still sound and feel a little bit different to one another. It is partly for this reason that guitarists usually feel more comfortable playing a particular brand of strings.

Hexagonal core and wrap wire illustration from D'Addario.com

In a normal set of electric guitar strings, the core wire of the low E, A and D strings is then wrapped in a different material. Conversely, the G, B and high E strings are normally left 'plain'. They are not wrapped in any other material, and are constructed just using steel.

It is important to appreciate this point. For even though guitar strings might be advertised as ‘pure nickel’ or ‘cobalt’ etc, the core of all of your guitar strings is made from steel. And in most cases, your three treble strings remain plain. They aren't wrapped in any further material.

So when string manufacturers talk about 'pure nickel' strings, they are actually just referring to the material used to wrap the bass strings. And the same is true of nickel plated and steel strings etc.

With that in mind then, let’s have a look at the differences between pure nickel and nickel plated strings.

Pure Nickel vs Nickel-plated guitar strings

In terms of construction, the only difference between pure nickel and nickel plated strings is the material used to wrap the bass strings.

In the case of nickel-plated strings, the bass strings are wrapped in nickel plated wire. The exact composition of this wire varies between different brands. But the string wrap is typically composed of around 8% nickel and 92% steel.

As you might expect, in the case of pure nickel strings - the wire used to wrap the bass strings is made of pure nickel.

Pure nickel strings were used in the wrapping of vintage guitar strings. As such, they tend to be the strings of choice amongst guitarists looking to recreate the setup of their blues and rock guitar heroes.

Yet despite the popularity of pure nickel strings amongst early blues and blues rock guitarists, nickel plated strings have now become much more popular. These are by far the most commonly available strings on the market. And so if you go and buy a 'standard' set of guitar strings, the likelihood is that they will be nickel plated. As such, if string material is a new topic for you, the chances are you have been playing nickel plated strings up to this point.

Now that we have covered the actual compositional differences between pure nickel and nickel plated strings, we can look at the impact these differences have on tone, playability, durability and cost.


Nickel-plated strings contain a lot more steel than their pure nickel counterparts. And this affects their tone in two significant ways. Firstly, it makes them sound brighter and crisper. They have a snappier top end and a more pronounced mid-range than pure nickel strings.

The extra steel also increases the output of these strings - making them higher output than pure nickel guitar strings.

Pure nickel strings have a more vintage sound and a naturally warm and rich tone. They have a lower output than nickel plated guitar strings and a rounder and darker tone. 


Pure nickel guitar strings tend to feel a little stiffer to play than those which are nickel plated. This means that if you take two sets of strings of the same gauge - one nickel plated and one pure nickel, the latter might feel a little tougher to play.

This is arguably one of the downsides of pure nickel strings. And It is perhaps for this reason that many of the early blues and rock guitarists opted for mixed gauge string sets. The bass strings in these sets were a comparatively light gauge, and the treble strings were standard or even heavy gauge.

Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Duane Allman were just three notable players to take this approach. They all played Fender Rock N’ Roll 150 Strings which were made from pure nickel and which ran in gauge from .010-038.


Of the two string types, pure nickel strings are arguably more durable.

If you have played nickel plated strings, you are likely to have noticed that their tone alters over time. When you first put them on your guitar, they sound bright and snappy. Over time though, they lose this brightness.

This is not necessarily to say that their tone becomes worse. However if you buy a set of strings because you are looking for a bright tone, then this tonal change is likely to be a negative.

Conversely, pure nickel strings tend to hold their tone for longer. This is largely because they have a darker and more mellow tone to start. You don’t have that same snappiness and brightness on the first day you change strings. And so there is less of a noticeable change in tone over time with pure nickel strings.


You might perceive the added durability of pure nickel strings as a bonus. And this is particularly likely to be the case if you either don’t like changing guitar strings, or you are looking to minimize the cost of your guitar strings.

It is worth noting however that pure nickel strings tend to be more expensive than their nickel plated counterparts. At the time of writing for example, Ernie Ball pure nickel strings are £1.50 more than their nickel plated sets. And with other brands this difference is more dramatic.

D’Addario pure nickel strings are £4.00 more per set than their nickel plated sets. And Curt Mangan’s pure nickel strings are £5.00 more per set than those which are nickel plated.

We aren’t talking about huge sums of money. But if you are either changing your guitar strings a lot or you are conscious of your guitar playing costs, it is worth taking this into account.

The Verdict

As is typically the case when it comes to guitar gear, there is no obvious ‘winner’ or right choice when it comes to deciding between pure nickel and nickel plated strings.

Pure nickel strings have a warmer and more vintage tone with a lower output. They also hold this tone for longer. So if you are looking for a mellow and rounded tone, and you are less interested in brightness and the clarity of each individual note, then pure nickel strings could be the better choice for you.

Conversely, if you are looking for strings that have a little more snap and brightness, and you are also looking for a set of strings which are not so stiff, then nickel plated strings might be a better option.

Some practical recommendations

The best way to figure out if you prefer the tone and feel of either pure nickel or nickel plated strings is to try out a variety of different sets. As noted above, if you are relatively new to this topic, then it is highly likely that you have been playing nickel plated strings up to this point.

As such, here I have compiled a list of pure nickel string sets which could be worth trying. Some of my top recommendations are as follows:

These are just suggestions, and of course you will have your own preferences when it comes to string gauge. Luckily though most string manufacturers offer pure nickel strings in a variety of string gauges. These are not quite as extensive as their nickel plated range, but they will typically cover most of the common string gauges.

My one piece of advice - at least initially - is to try pure nickel strings in the same gauge that you use currently. So if you play .010s, try pure nickel strings in .010s too. This will help you to understand the impact that string material has on tone and playability. And it will allow you to do so in an isolated way. You will be able to directly assess the impact of string material on tone and playability, which is important.

If you then discover that you like the tone of pure nickel strings, but for whatever reason they don’t feel quite right, you can start to experiment with other factors.

You can alter the gauge of the strings you are using and then also look at strings that are wound in different ways. This latter point is a separate topic and one that I will discuss in more detail in future articles.

With regards to gauge, if you like the tone of the pure nickel strings but you find them too stiff, I would recommend trying out the Fender Voodoo Child Pure Nickel Strings (.010-.038). As noted earlier, Jimi Hendrix used pure nickel strings in this gauge, as did Rory Gallagher, Duane Allman, Roy Buchanan and Eric Clapton in the early years of his career.

The gauge on the treble strings is medium but on the bass strings it is quite light. In this way you can potentially benefit from the warm, vintage sound of the pure nickel strings without fighting against them when you are playing.

Closing thoughts…

In the quest for the perfect set of guitar strings, there is no magic bullet. Finding the balance between tone and playability is a challenge. In fact, identifying the impact that your strings have on your tone can be a challenge in and of itself. Your guitar strings are just one element in a setup which potentially includes various different types of guitars, amps and pedals.

Yet that is not to say that the more nuanced elements of your setup are not important. In fact I would argue that experimenting with and making small tweaks of the kind discussed here are important for three reasons:

Firstly and significantly, changes like this can impact how your guitar feels to play. If the playability of your guitar improves, so will your playing. This will do a lot to improve your tone, and also make your playing more enjoyable.

Secondly, these small changes can all add up and make a significant difference to your tone. And so whilst individual factors like string material alone might not transform your tone, when you add a variety of small factors together, they can do just that.

Lastly, experimenting in this way can help to validate your current setup. I think a lot of guitarists suffer from perennially thinking that the ‘grass is greener on the other side’. They are always slightly dissatisfied with their tone, because they can’t escape the nagging feeling that there are better options out there.

Testing your strings out and experimenting can help you to get rid of this nagging feeling. If you experiment with a new type of strings and you love them, great! Equally though, understanding what you don’t like is just as empowering.

So if you haven’t done so before, experiment with string material and try out strings made of pure nickel. They might just help you to get that bit closer to the tone and setup for which you are searching. Either that, or experimenting with them will validate your current setup. In which case you can cross them off the list and focus your attention on other elements of your rig or playing!

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Aidan Bricker
The Happy Bluesman
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