Strings are one of the most important tools for classical guitarists. Choosing the right classical guitar strings and maintaining them properly can be the difference between achieving the sound you've always dreamed of or struggling to play a single beautiful note.
There is so much conflicting information online about guitar strings, so we’re here to make things simple once again. In this comprehensive guide, you'll find everything you need to know about strings – from their origins, composition and personalities, to how to change them, how to maintain them and how to choose the right string for you!
I. The Basics
II. Buying Strings
III. String Types & Reviews
IV. Changing Strings
V. More Resources
I. The Basics
What are classical guitar strings made of?
Most modern classical guitar strings are made of nylon, with the trebles (strings 1, 2, and 3) made of a single transparent nylon string and the basses (strings 4, 5, and 6) made of hundreds of individual strands of nylon that have been wrapped with silver or bronze plated copper thread.
The specific blends of nylon used in a string’s creation are what gives each string set and each string manufacturer their identity. Therefore, these blends are mostly kept secret by almost all manufacturers.
Classical guitar strings have not always been made out of nylon however. For centuries instrument strings have been made of whatever natural resource was available to the region – horse hair in Scandinavia, plant-fibers in South America, silk in south-east Asia and famously catgut (animal intestines) in Western Europe.
The push towards nylon came, as do many innovations, with the Second World War, in which catgut resources were depleted through their use as medical sutures and the innovation of nylon as a synthetic replacement was developed by DuPont.
It was Albert Augustine, founder of Augustine Strings, who first experimented with nylon as a material for guitar strings and it is through his collaboration with the infamous Andres Segovia, who was famously a huge fan of the gut string sound, that we have the modern nylon string as we know it today.
Are all classical guitar strings nylon?
With words like Titanium, Dynacore, and Crystal entering the string scene in the last twenty years you would be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed by the choice of materials used in the string manufacturing process... We are here to make it simple.
While it might seem fancy to say you play titanium strings, the reality is that most of these words refer to either the sound or the color of the string and in fact all of these strings are made of different blends of nylon.
Aside from this, gut strings, silk strings and even some plant fiber strings are still available for purchase and some players do still prefer these more organic alternatives. They are, however, increasingly tricky to get one's hands on and price points vary massively.
What are carbon strings?
The only modern alternative to nylon strings are carbon strings. Carbon strings are made of a polymer called polyvinylidine fluoride (PVFD) which is also known as fluorocarbon.
Carbon strings were designed with modern concert spaces in mind and aim to give the player more projection and clarity from the instrument. They also provide a brighter sound that more closely matches the sound of the gut string while avoiding the shortcomings of the gut string's temperamental nature.
II. Buying Strings
What classical guitar strings to buy?
The classical guitar strings you should buy depends on what you are hoping to get out of the instrument. The catch is each instrument is different and will react differently to different strings.
The best way to find the best match for you is to try out different sets over time and to record and document your impressions.
How to test classical guitar strings
Documentation is key in this process, as testing even just five different sets will, if done properly, take a couple of months. It is important also to try to keep conditions as similar as possible, many factors will be altered if, for instance, you move from a cold and dry environment to a warm humid one.
Upon restringing the instrument:
Take a short video of you playing some notes on the fresh strings. Save this video along with the description of the strings played – manufacturer, string set name, tension. (You don’t want to forget which strings these are two weeks in!) Record the time and date of string changing.
In the first few days:
The first thing to pay attention to with a new string set is how long it takes for the intonation to settle. This may not seem important during long periods of practice, but you will want to have an idea of this time frame for future performance preparation.
Record how long it takes for the strings to stay at the desired pitch:
- Record this in “passing time” e.g. If you change your strings on January 1st at 1pm and you notice they started to remain in tune on January 3rd at 1pm the “passing time” it took was 48 hours.
- Record this in “played time” e.g. If you spend 2 hours practicing a day on January 1st, 2nd and 3rd then “played time” is 6 hours.
- Record this in “played times”. If those 6 hours were divided over 6 different hours, then “played times” = 6. If however, you played once a day for 2 hours, “played times” = 3.
Whilst it seems regimented, understanding how long (in time, playing and frequency) it takes for each different set of strings to settle may be a deciding factor in the future and help you to decide which set of strings is for you.
In the next few weeks:
Understanding what exactly to document about each string set can be tricky, especially when we are so tied up in criticizing our own playing, so here are some parameters to start off your documentation process:
- Projection: do these strings sound clearly or do you feel you need to push in order to let them be heard.
- Tone: do the strings produce a warm or tangy sound?
- Ease: probably most important of all 3 (remember there is little chance of you getting tone or projection that satisfies you if everything feels difficult). Do the strings feel easy to play? Easy means being able to press the string with the left-hand fingers without over-exerting yourself.
- Longevity: as soon as you find yourself thinking that the set of strings sounds optimal, how long do they stay sounding and feeling great? If you have multiple engagements this will be a really useful parameter to take note of!
How to document:
As there is no fixed way to judge these parameters and trying string sets take time (in which we will probably forget the experience of the previous sets), it is important to document the life of each string and our impressions not only on paper, but in video or audio file. This helps to compare each string set more closely, not only on the feeling of each set, but also on what they help the instrument produce.
At the end of this process, you may find that there are a few front runners - that is ok!
In the case where you have three or four string sets that you like at the end of your exploration, you can start to look in the direction of what is the most affordable or accessible to you. Which company’s ethos you like the most or the aesthetics of the string.
Remember! Your string preferences can change over time and that is ok!
Where to buy classical guitar strings?
Most music shops will have at least some range of classical guitar string available. However, your safest bet for a wide selection is online. A quick Google search for "classical guitar strings" should reveal many solid dealers!
III. String Types & Reviews
Learn more about Augustine Strings by visiting augustinestrings.com
Learn more about D'Addario Strings by visiting daddario.com
Learn more about Hannabach Strings by visiting hannabach.com
Learn more about Savarez Strings by visiting savarez.com
La Bella Strings
Learn more about La Bella Strings by visiting labella.com
IV. Changing Strings
When to restring a classical guitar?
You should restring your guitar when the strings sound dull or muffled, when the trebles are damaged by your nails or when they start to feel dirty.
Of course, if you are performing often there is no need to wait until the strings are dead. You will want them to sound at their peak for the performance which hopefully you can predict through the decision process that got you to this pair! (see "How to test classical guitar strings" above)
Some sources mention a time frame (100 playing hours) but the reality is that each set of strings has a different life span.
How to change classical guitar strings
In the video below, tonebase "Head of Guitar" Mircea Gogoncea discusses in detail the topic of changing classical guitar strings.
How do you tie the knots at the bridge? Is there a best way to do it? Mircea presents his method that is both time-efficient as well as great at avoiding string slips!
Why do classical guitar strings break?
Classical guitar strings do not break all that often unless they get to be really worn - something you will definitely hear.
However, if they do break, it is most often the D string that goes. This is because the core of the D string is very thin and the tension of the string is very high!
That being said, this really does not happen often and will most likely be due to some kind of significant outside factor such as a sharp piece on the nut or saddle of your instrument, the nut slot being too wide and not leaving room for movement and friction from the string or some sort of damage on your machine head posts that is wearing the strings down.
Why classical guitar strings detune?
Classical guitar strings are in a constant flux of pitch, so you should not be worried if your strings need a little adjustment each time you pick up the instrument.
Strings are constantly stretching throughout their life on the instrument and you can expect some extra intonation fluctuation if you are using a capo, pressing very hard on the strings or if the humidity or temperature of your climate is volatile.
You should however worry if your strings are detuning more than a full tone over a playing session as this may mean that the string is slipping either from the machine head barrel or at the bridge of the instrument which can eventually slip out and smack either your guitar on it’s delicate top, or you in your delicate face!
If this is the case, completely detune the string and readjust each end so that you are sure the string is reinforcing it’s own hold at both of these points.
V. More Resources
As with most things, the honest answer for what strings to use is it's really up to your personal preferences and what you discover through the process of trial and error.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how comfortable somebody else finds a set of strings if to you they sound sub-par, nor how clear they sound to your teacher if they feel sticky under your fingers.
The best way to find the perfect string for you is simply to test your way through a number of packs and find some that work for you. Luckily the price points of classical strings are still relatively low, so make the most of it while it lasts.
To that end, here is a short list of resources on the topic of strings that we have found very insightful and highly recommend:
How To Change Classical Guitar Strings by Bradford Werner from "This is Classical Guitar"
New ClassicalGuitar Strings: Settle Them In Faster by Nylon Plucks