As I run a Custom Guitar Shop (Morton Guitars - on Facebook) I have been working with guitars for many years and now know a thing or two about electric guitars and strings.
I've been playing electric and acoustic guitars for over 35 years and I play a variety of Rock, Blues and Ballads. I play riffs, solos, chords, finger picking and slide. I am proficient but don't play as well as I'd like to but I doubt I'll ever be as good as I want to be, though I think of myself as competent enough and confident enough to be the guitarist in my band. Over the years I have tried just about every make of strings on the market. I also made a point of studying and examining guitar strings to find the best overall tone, long life, playability and value for my guitars and have formed some considered opinions about electric guitar strings along the way.
Electric guitar string prices vary from around £4 per set to around £10 per set here in the UK. However I have found that a high price doesn't necessarily mean that the strings are better quality or that they will last longer or even have the tone I am looking for. In fact price seems to have (almost) nothing to do with it.
So which strings are right for you?
There are a lot of factors to take into account: First of all let's look at some popular brands: Ernie Ball (Slinky), D'Addario, Rotosound, Dean Markley (Blue Steel), Elixir, Fender (Super Bullets), Gibson (Brite Wires) though there are many other makes/brands out there. Some cheap brands from the Far East are truly awful and should be avoided. The ball ends often unwind easily, they snap in the middle of your solo and the strings are sometimes tarnished even when new out the pack. Often they are factory fitted to cheap guitars from China. Do yourself a favour and change them as soon as you are able.
First a brief history lesson: Back in the 50's, vintage electric guitar strings were made of nickel alloy however nickel strings don't have the same level of magnetic flux effect on guitar pickups as steel strings do, so nickel will produce a weaker (some would say vintage) 'signal'. So steel strings were developed which often sound stronger ... however they can wear your frets down much more quickly and a guitar refret is pretty costly.
So many popular electric guitar strings are now Nickel Plated Steel which most players agree is the best overall compromise however some metal players just go for "balls out" steel and to hell with the frets. (This IS Rock & Roll after all!!) Nickel plated steel strings are kinder on your frets but have that steel core to give superior signal and tone. I have standardised on nickel coated steel as the best for me.
Ernie Ball (Slinkys) and D'Addarios come from the USA and sell in the UK for around £1 more than British made strings however this is mainly due to shipping costs and import tax. Both these brands sell well and are widely used by many players. They are easily available in the shops just about everywhere. If you go to the USA you'll find that British strings are more expensive over there: eg Rotosound are considered the premium brand over Ernie Ball and D'Addario- but that is due to shipping costs to the USA and USA Import tax over there! ie it is natural to assume the higher cost of strings is a better string. But UK made strings don't have the same shipping and tax costs. For this reason I chose to standardise on UK made Rotosound strings.
Dean Markley's Blue Steels are made of steel and they make a big play of saying that their strings go through a cryogenic freezing process which "aligns the molecules" Does it make a difference? Or is it marketing hype? No-one else I know does cryogenic freezing though some other brands tried it in the 80s but dropped the idea. They are popular strings made in the USA though and seem to have a good reputation overall. Some players favour them.
Elixers and other coated strings are an enigma to me to be honest, though I know some players use them and like them. They are coated with a polymer coating which 'doubles their life'. The plus side is that it seems to work! But the down side is that they are twice the price of non-coated strings. Around £10 per set. So why bother? What you win in long life you lose with a high price. Hmmmm - I remain unconvinced. On the surface the attraction is that you need to change your strings half as often, but WAIT!....The enigma for ME is that only the 3 wound bass strings are coated. The 3 plain treble strings aren't!......so the 3 wound bass strings last twice as long as the 3 unwound ones. Huh!? - I just don't see the point of that.... Especially as the top E is usually the one that breaks first. One plus is that you also get less string squeak but then some say they sound duller than non-coated strings, even when new. I tried them for a while but went back to buying two sets of regular Rotosound strings at £5 each than one set of Elixirs for £10, for the above reasons. I just like the bright shiny unadulterated tone of new (uncoated) nickel coated steel strings, I guess. However, it is down to personal choice, as always.
Fender Super Bullets have bullet shaped ball ends that fit into Strat bridges - but they don't fit ALL Strat type guitars so be CAREFUL as it is a real nuisance if you get one stuck in your Tremolo block. Gibson Brite Wires are good too, however both these brands carry a price premium, which means you are likely paying more for the brand name. Both are popular and widely available and worth your consideration.
My own personal favourite electric guitar strings are Rotosound, which tick all the boxes for me: They are made here in the UK. They are well priced in the UK, so you don't pay extra for shipping and import tax. They are Nickel Coated Steel strings so are kind to my beloved guitar frets. They are packed with corrosion protected paper (tick) and packaging is biodegradable (another tick). Ball ends are brass (tick) and they give an extra free top E String (tick). Rotosound has an endorsee list is to die for too (Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Velvet Revolver, The Who etc) However Rotosound are not always easy to get in the shops. But I buy my strings on eBay ....of course! I've noticed that Bake Knuckle Pickups include a free set of Rotosounds with their fabulous pickups too. They are the best pickups on the market IMHO. Hand made and very high attention to detail. Quality all the way.
What I have found is that guitar strings are a very personal choice so try various brands out and you will find a set that suits your style, usage and pocket. Don't just buy your regular brand, try others, you will likely find stings that suit you better than the ones you are using right now.
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