A guitar relies on the strumming or plucking of the strings to create a vibration that resonates through its body, producing the sounds you hear. These strings come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, all serving their particular purpose.
Light guitar strings are easier to play because the gauge of the string is thinner. Thinner lines are not as stiff as thicker strings, which makes fretting much easier on the fingers. Lighter guitar strings also make it easier for you to pick and perform other guitar playing techniques.
The strings on your guitar are a vital component, so let’s look at them in a little bit more detail to see why the lighter choice is the more natural choice.
Different Strings, Different Sounds
Guitar strings are not all made of the same material. To fully understand the reasons for this would require a history lesson, so instead of going back through time, let’s look at this array of string materials and see why we have this variety to choose from today.
The setup for a classical or Spanish guitar is usually based on nylon strings. Nylon strings are softer than steel strings, so they are gentler on fingertips when fingerpicking.
Because nylon is basically plastic, the tension of the string will also be less stiff, making it easier to play. These strings are also more durable than steel strings because nylon is more elastic and longer-lasting.
The sounds that you can expect from your nylon strings are warm, mellow tones played at a slower pace. Because the strings are softer, with lower tension, you will lose out on volume, though.
On the other hand, you do get those deep rich tones that are characteristic of folk and classical music. You can also strum up some great jazz and flamenco tunes with these plastic strings.
Brass and Bronze Strings
Even though we call them steel-string acoustic guitars, the strings used on these guitars are bronze or brass — well, they’re bronze or brass plated, and the wires are actually steel.
These strings are considerably harder on the fingertips and, with higher tension, you need more power to fret those notes. They are still softer than the steel or nickel-plated strings, though, and a little easier to play.
Your brass strings will give you the bright, clear sounds that you hear in country and rock music, with sharp, bold tones and considerably more output than you get from nylon strings.
Bronze strings have a different sound to brass and are known for a warmer tone that is smoother but still clear and resonant.
Steel and Nickel Strings
The steel strings that you find on electric guitars are usually steel or nickel-plated.
The vibration from these strings not only resonates through the guitar body, but they run through an amplifier, where the notes project through speakers for the world to hear.
Electric guitar strings are very tight and not made for finger playing. Because the sounds are electronic, they can also be modified in various ways (source).
Steel strings produce by far the brightest and most vibrant sounds compared to other string types, but because they are hard and cold, they can take the life out of your frets and your fingers.
These strings last an exceptionally long time but can be hard to play because of the high tension and unyielding metal. Nickel strings are a bit softer, but not by much. They do produce a cozier sound than the cold, hard steel and are easier on the frets.
Yamaha has an NTX series of electro-acoustic guitars that take the soft, rich sounds of the nylon strings and combine it with modern technology to bring sounds from slow and steady folk music to the loud, fast-paced world of contemporary rock and pop.
Thicker Gauge, Deeper Tone
Now that we understand the materials that guitar strings are made of, let’s look at the gauges or the thickness of the strings. All guitar strings are manufactured with different gauges, whether steel, nylon, or brass-plated.
Even though the actual sizes for the different types of strings are not always the same, you will be able to find light, medium, and heavy or thick strings for all classes.
All the strings for one guitar, be it a 6-string or a 14-string, do not have the same gauge. You can identify the gauge set that you want by referring to the size of the first string (or string pair).
The gauge for your guitar strings is a personal preference, but lighter strings are more comfortable to play and have brighter sounds.
Unfortunately, with a softer touch, you are sacrificing on volume because the resonance is not as deep with thin strings.
These thinner strings can also break with much less effort than thicker strings because they are not as robust.
Thicker strings last longer, as they have more girth. But tension also gets higher the thicker the strings get, which makes playing on the frets more challenging.
Still, you do get more robust sounds with heavy strings and a lot more resonance and volume.
Even though these strings are not as easy to play on, they do pack a lot more punch than the thinner cords (source).
Higher Tension, Higher Pitch
The thickness of your guitar strings will dictate the string tension, but why do you need this tension in your strings?
Firstly, if the strings on your guitar do not have some tension on them, you would not be able to strum them, and there would be no vibration to create the resonating sound that you need.
You must tighten each string to a specific tension, across the body and neck of the guitar, to create a particular sound or note.
To get the exact note that you want, we need to look not only at the string gauge but also at the scale length and the pitch.
We already know what the string gauge is; it refers to the thickness of the strings, and we have already figured out that the thicker the string, the tighter it needs to be strung to create a high tension.
The frequency of sound gives us the pitch, by which we can identify notes in melodies or tunes that are higher or lower.
We can only identify pitch in “clear and stable” sounds that are free from noise, and these sounds are our notes, which are named and used in sheet music to write songs and melodies (source).
When tension is high, the frequency or pitch of the notes is also high. This change in tension means that, for a lower or deeper sound, you would want less stress on your strings. For higher and brighter tones, increase the tension.
This variance in tone is why thicker strings are tighter than thin strings — the more robust strings already have a low, dense sound, so tightening it helps it with the higher notes.
Finally, the scale length refers to the space that the strings are strung across and will influence how to calculate the tension for your specific instrument. We measure a guitar’s scale length from the saddle at the bottom to the nut at the top of the fretboard.
To calculate the right tension, you would have to measure your scale length, do some serious math and, voila, you’ve got your tension setting.
There are charts and formulas out there to guide you, but you can damage your guitar and break your strings if you don’t set the tension correctly. It is an exact science and better left up to professionals (source).
The difficulty in playing thicker strings are evident here because when a string is tighter, with higher tension, it will be more challenging to push the string down on the frets. That’s why you need to build up the strength in your fingers and hands.
As you can see, light guitar strings are easier to play, but there are other factors to consider besides how easy it is. The thinner guitar strings break sooner, and they do not produce the volume or depth of sound that thicker lines do.
The type of music you’re going to play, as well as the reasons for playing the guitar, will also influence the strings that you are going to use.
Light strings are great for beginners, but you might want to re-think your choice if you want to make more impact with your strumming.
As you build up the strength in your fret hand with a light string, you can start dreaming of the robust sounds you are going to chime out as soon as you are ready for a thicker gauge. Ultimately, it is up to the guitarists what they prefer and the way they wish to sound.