The 8 Best Guitar String Sets of 2020

Ready to jam? Let's make sure you have the right strings first

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The Rundown

Best Overall, Acoustic: Elixir 80/20 Bronze Nanoweb

Elixir Strings 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings
Courtesy of Amazon

Perhaps the crown jewel of guitar string brands is Elixir because of its shiny nanoweb coating that gives you (according to the manufacturer) three times the string life of non-coated strings. What Elixir has effectively done to revolutionize guitar strings is developing a soft, nylon-like, plastic coating for their wound strings. They actually dip their strings in this coating, which offers two separate benefits: it’s slightly easier on the fingers, and it protects the metal from environmental effects that eventually degrade the sound quality and lifespan of the strings.

We’ve selected here the light gauge of strings (from .012 to .053) because they offer the right balance of playability and depth of sound, which is important for acoustic guitar strings. We’ve also chosen the 80/20 bronze strings because they offer a brighter, more well-rounded sound than the ultra-mellow Phosphor Bronze string. But, if warm is a sound you want to go for, then consider the Phosphor Bronze.

Best Overall, Electric: D’Addario EXL110 Nickel Wound Strings

There is a huge assortment of electric guitar strings out there, and to a certain extent, a lot of it lies with brand loyalty – what you have used in the past on your guitar will often dictate the brand you stick with. But few would argue that D’Addario is a safe choice for any guitar string. Their EXL nickel-wound strings take the cake for best electric strings by offering sheer meat-and-potatoes reliability. Unto itself, the EXL line is D’Addario’s highest selling string, and that’s probably due in part to its bright, shimmering tone. That tone is a result of the round-wound, nickel-plated steel used to construct these strings.

For this pick, we’ve chosen a light electric gauge, with string thicknesses ranging from .010 to .046, a standard set you’ll find suitable for most electric applications. The strings are manufactured in the USA for a distinctive high quality and they’re packaged, sold and stored in a corrosion-resistant bag to make sure that whenever you do receive the strings, you’ll open up a fresh set.

Best Overall, Bass: Ernie Ball Regular Slinky

Aside from D’Addario, Ernie Ball is probably the best-known string brand for nickel-wound electric guitars, and it’s been that way for a while. And we picked them for our best bass pick because the punch and depth of the flagship Regular Slinkies give you unbelievable tone for a really great price. The gauge runs from .05 to .105, giving you a middle-of-the-road thickness set that isn’t going to add undue thump (and is pretty easy to play) but instead will spread the low end out across the strings pretty evenly.

The nickel-plated round-wound wires are surrounding a really innovative high carbon steel hex core that gives the strings extra resilience. And that resilience is tried and true for Ernie Ball, as they’ve been doing it for upwards of 50 years. They offer a high quality, US-production using top-dollar materials and also have their own protective packaging that shields the strings from the elements.

Best for Metal & Hard Rock: Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt (Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom)

If you ask a metal guitar player what kind of strings they use, a lot of times it’s a tough question for them to answer. That’s because, in the past, a metal player that wants the right gauge of string will actually have to buy two sets and combine different portions of them to make a Frankenstein set that will fit their needs when they’re playing. Ernie Ball strived to answer this concern when they came out with their Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom gauge set. What that means is you’ll get a meaty, low set of strings (.052, .042, .030) and a nice, light top end (.017, .013, .010).

And what that gives you in playing is really the best of both worlds for a metal player. You get the beefy low end that’ll let you lower the tuning to drop D or drop C, allowing for deep, rough chugs on the bottom end. But it’ll free up the high gauge strings to let you shred and bend for soaring guitar solos. Ernie Ball has taken the research a step even further here, too, by building these strings out of Cobalt alloy, a metal composition that has been designed to react with and attract the magnets in your pickup at higher levels than standard nickel-and-steel strings. What that gives you is a much higher output, which leads to higher gains, louder chords and heavier distortion. All of those factors are music to a shredding guitar player’s ears.

Best for Folk Music: Martin SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings

Dollar-for-dollar, you really can’t beat the price and return that the Martin SP Phosphor bronze acoustic strings give you. These strings will work for any genre from bluegrass to singer/songwriter. And, brand-name-for-brand-name, you really can’t beat Martin – the guys who have been giving guitar players amazing, handcrafted instruments since the early 1900s.

This set is a light one, giving you gauges that range from .012 - .054, which is the ideal thickness for acoustic playing because it gives you enough resistance for fast, bluegrass picking and enough tension to give you a full, decidedly not-thin sound. The core of these is, like most, a solid steel wire, but Martin claims they’ve done pointed research with specialty steel producers to give you a solid, long-lasting core. Add that to the soft, warm Phosphor Bronze outer coating, and you have a set of strings that will give you the well-rounded sound sought by all folk-style players, whether in the studio or on a porch somewhere in Kentucky.

Best Innovation: D’Addario NYXL Balanced Tension Strings

Over the past couple of years, D’Addario (already one of the leading innovators in the world of guitar strings) set out to advance the experience of electric guitar strings, and what they came up with was their NYXL series.

There are a couple of tech advances to unpack here, so let’s get into it. For starters, they’ve worked with local NY steel manufacturers to come up with the custom blend of NYXL steel that promises to give you more bang for your buck from a stress-testing standpoint. You can really slam on these things for weeks, according to the manufacturer, without fear of breakage. And that’s great for guitar players who hope to not replace their strings every week.

Then there's the balanced tension that these strings provide. What this means is they’ve designed the gauge set to give you the optimal feel for strumming, plucking or barring chords across the full range of strings. Those gauges are .010, .0135, .017, .025, .034, .046, which means that the low end isn’t too thick and the high end isn’t super thin. It gives you the lower strings normally associated with thinner high strings and vice versa.

One final added innovation is the fact that this set comes in eco-friendly, also-corrosion-resistant packaging, so you can feel confident your strings will be fresh and that you’re doing your part for the environment.

Runner-Up, Best Overall Acoustic: Ernie Ball Earthwood

All things considered, Ernie Ball is sort of a new player in the acoustic string space. But their Earthwound strings are a pretty versatile set to throw on to your dreadnought. We’ve chosen the phosphor bronze set here because, while normally phosphor bronze is too warm and muddy, Ernie Ball’s signature clarity (owed in part to the signature hex steel core) evens out that warm tone with a nice bite. The Medium-Light gauge here gives you that perfect middle ground for acoustic playing, and it shows – Ernie Ball claims that Paul McCartney, John Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong are all regular users of the new string. If it’s good enough for guitar royalty like that, then it’s probably good enough for anyone.

Runner-Up, Best Overall Electric: DR Pure Blues Electric Strings

The DR brand claims a no-frills, no-gimmicks product that gives guitar players an unmistakable feeling of quality. The Pure Blues strings are handmade in the U.S. with only U.S. materials, and there’s a standard of quality control inherent in that. They promise ultra long sustain with their nickel-wound strings and that’s owed in part to their construction. But, they also have the vintage concept going for them, owning the portion of the market that sits at the intersection of vintage classic rock tone and original blues timbre.

But, because of the modern nickel-wound nature, that warm, vintage body is accompanied by a bright bite that you’d normally only find in something like an Ernie Ball string. Again, they aren’t the flashy, cutting-edge name you’ll get with the other brands, but there’s history here. And if there’s one thing guitar players love, it’s guitar history.