Best Electric Guitar Strings: What's The Difference Really?

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I used to think having a favorite set of guitar strings was like having a favorite brand of toilet paper. It’s the materials and thickness that make the real difference; not the brand. Yet, many players use the same brand of guitar strings over and over again… why?

To test the myth, I tried out 3 different sets of guitar strings. I also read through hundreds of forum conversations to see how other players’ experiences compared to my own. As it turns out, there are some key differences between string brands, especially in terms feel and durability. However, string gauge and material are ultimately much bigger factors.

In this guide, I’ll share my research on guitar string brands, then provide an overview string gauge (thickness) and materials (e.g. nickel vs steel) to help you find the perfect set of strings.

Most Popular Electric Guitar Strings

Ernie Ball Slinky
D’Addario XL
GHS Boomers
Price (approx) $4.50
$13 (3-pack)
$5.50
$15 (3-pack)
$7.25
$26 (6-pack)
How do they feel? Looser Feel Tighter Feel Tighter Feel
Tone Bright Tone Moderately Bright Tone Duller/Average Tone
Longevity Snaps & rusts easily for many players Stronger; Doesn’t snap or rust as easily Doesn’t snap as easily. Holds tone for a long time
Where to Buy Amazon Amazon Amazon

To keep things simple, I choose to compare 3 of the top guitar string makers: Ernie Ball, D’Addario and GHS. They all make a huge variety of strings, so I kept it focused on the most standard model, 10 gauge nickel-plated strings.

Ernie Ball vs D’Addario vs GHS Boomers: What’s the Difference?

Sure enough, the differences between brands were subtle, and at times, confusing. Guitar players had passionate and conflicting opinions about which sounded the best, and which snapped too easily. Ultimately, however, there were some pretty clear differences:

For one, most everyone agrees that Ernie Balls feel easiest on the fingers, which makes them great for beginners and noodlers who want a lot of room to bend. D’Addario XLs and GHS Boomers are a bit stiffer, making them better for chord-heavy players who don’t want to bend out of pitch. Although bear in mind, changing your string gauge will have a much bigger impact.

A more significant difference was how the strings held up over time. Users overwhelmingly found that Ernie Ball’s snap and rust more easily than the others. This was echoed with my own experience. During several months of using Ernie Balls, my higher strings would routinely snap. As soon as I switched to D'Addario's, this problem went away. Boomers, in particular, are praised for lasting a long time, and maintaining their quality of tone.

That said, a few players found the opposite to be true: Ernie Balls last a long time, while D'Addario's or Boomer's snap easily. This is likely because some guitars simply react to strings in different ways, due to the way strings are capped. It may take some trial and error to figure out exactly which set performs the best on your guitar.

Choosing String Gauge

String gauge is the thickness of strings, measured in thousandths of an inch. It is one of the most important factors in how a guitar plays. Lighter gauges (thinner strings) are easier to bend, and more forgiving on the fingers, but also harder to grip. If you're playing bar chords, for example, you might have trouble holding down a pitch with too light of strings.

Heavier gauges (thicker strings) are more rigid, but allow you to strum the guitar more aggressively. You can usually get a much bigger sound out of heavier gauge strings, but you'll need to build up those calluses first.

Here’s a simple overview of where string gauges fall on the spectrum:

  • 8-9: Light, easier to play.
  • 10: Medium
  • 11-12: Heavy, harder to play, but stronger tone.

Note: When comparing gauges between packages, the highest string is used. So “11 gauge” would refer to the thickness of the highest E string (0.011 inches).

Electric Guitar String Materials

Another huge factor is the material used to create the strings. Nickel-plated steel is today's standard, but you can explore many other options if you're feeling adventurous:

Nickel-Plated Most common material; a balanced, middle-of-the-road tone suitable for all genres and playing styles.
Pure Nickel The original guitar string material. Pure nickel produces a warmer tone with mild gain; beloved by blues players.
Stainless Steel Adds brightness and sustain; embraced by some rock and metal guitarists. Steel is anti-corrosive, but also feels coarse against the fingers
Cobalt Also adds brightness, but feels smoother to the touch. Cobalt has a very high gain output.
Coated Strings Coated with a thin layer of poly. These strings feel slick to the touch, and help improve their lifespan.

Conclusion

While there's a lot of different materials out there to try, most players end up with nickel-plated strings. Being the standard string material for over 5 decades, many amps, pedals, and guitars themselves have been designed with these types of strings in mind. In other words, you can't go wrong by sticking with a standard 10-gauge nickel plated strings. I personally opt for D'Addario since they've held up better on my guitars than any other brand. However, it often takes some trial and error to find what works best for your specific setup and playing style.