Half-rounds, flatwound, gauges, jazz, phosphor-bronze, nickel-plated and it seems like a couple dozen other marketing terms for guitar strings–How do you know which type of string is easiest on your fingers?
The metal guitar strings that are easiest on the fingers are flat-rounds with extremely light gauges (such as from 8/1000-10/1000 of an inch to 38/1000-50/1000 of an inch). The softest metals are 80/20 bronze wrapping, although the metal hardness will have less to do with the feel of the strings than the string diameter.
That’s for metal guitar strings, but if you’re talking about guitars and guitar strings in general, then nylon guitar strings used on classical guitars are the easiest on your fingers.
There’s a surprising a lot to know about guitar strings–I’ll try and keep just the useful information for you. The goal here is to find the strings that hurt the least when played.
The Easiest to Play Guitar Strings
Often, one of the biggest complains for new guitarists is the pain in their fingertips from playing the guitar early on in their guitar career.
And it’s a fact–the first month of playing guitar is rough. Many, many beginners never make it further than this month but give up.
So, what’s a way to make this transition easier? Well, choosing guitar strings that are easier to play can make it less intimidating.
One important thing to know is that the type of strings that you can play with is in large part determined by the type of guitar you’re playing with.
In other words, in terms of difficulty of pushing down the strings, from the easiest guitar type to the most difficult guitar type:
Now–interestingly enough, even though the classical guitar strings are easier to push down, this doesn’t mean that the instrument is overall easier to play. In fact, by some, the classical guitar is considered more difficult to play than the other guitar types. It’s kind of surprising, but you can learn more about why here in my post where I dive into which guitar type is hardest to play.
Which Guitar String Material Is Easiest To Play
Classical guitars are traditionally played with nylon strings, which are by far the easiest type of string material on your fingers. Even still, nylon strings come in different gauges (a fancy term for thickness). The higher the gauge, the thicker the guitar string.
Thicker guitar strings require more force to push down and are subsequently more difficult to play.
Because nylon itself is a softer material than metal, it is more flexible and therefore gives easier–making the string easier to fret.
Electrical guitars are fundamentally different in the way they create sound from an acoustic or electric guitar. For an electric guitar, the sound is created by disturbances in magnetic fields (check out this solid article here from GuitarWorld if you want to see the details), while an acoustic guitar makes sound from the actual vibration of the string with the body of the guitar as a resonance chamber.
Because of this, electric guitar strings can be much thinner than their acoustic guitar string counterparts.
Therefore, all that to say, electric guitar strings are easier to play simply because the guitar string doesn’t need to have the same amount of mass to make the sound for the guitar.
On top of that, because of the design of the electric guitar, the “action” or distance from the strings to the fretboard is much lower than the other guitar types, which means less distance for your fingers to push, making them easier to play.
Acoustic Steel String Guitar
Finally, the acoustic steel string guitar! It turns out that these strings are the most difficult to play than the rest.
Because the vibration of the strings are solely responsible for the sound of the guitar, they are often thicker than their electric guitar counterparts.
I say often, because you can buy light or extra light guitar strings that are much thinner. Even at this level, though, in general, electric guitar strings will be thinner.
An example of extra-light strings are these by Elixer (Amazon). I use the light strings and I love them. Their tone lasts forever and I feel like they are fairly gentle on the hands.
String Winding And Difficulty To Play: Half-Round vs. Roundwound vs. Flatwound
One thing I never really thought about while I was researching for this article is how guitar strings are wound.
First off, I didn’t even know what that meant. But it’s relatively straightforward: Metal guitar strings are composed of a solid metal core that’s wrapped with another metal, often an alloy–you’ll commonly see nickel-plated, or 80/20 bronze and such.
The low strings of the guitar are wound in this manner, while the higher strings are just the metal wire.
Why are they wound like this? Well, to make sound! A flat surface is not as acoustically interesting as a bumpy surface. Presumably, the winding of the guitar string provides buzz and color to the sound. You can hear the difference yourself if you pluck the high strings vs. the low strings. The high strings have a purer tone, while the low strings have a distinct buzz.
Now, sound aside, which type of winding is easiest to play?
The easiest winding method on your fingers is flatwound.
Flatwound strings are wound with a flat wire, rather than a round wire, as the name suggests.
I don’t have any flatwound strings to show you, but it will help to show you the spirit opposite of flatwound, which are roundwound strings. These types of strings are the most common for acoustic guitars by the way:
As you can see, the you can clearly see the cylindrical shape of the roundwound wires wrapped around the not-visible metal core. With flatwound, the wires are flush against another as they lie flat against the metal core.
Half-round are simply roundwound wires that have been ground down to be somewhere between roundwound and flatwound strings.
Because of the unevenness of the surface, roundwound is going to feel like more pressure against your fingertips, while the flatwound will feel the most comfortable.
This is likely to be very subtle in any case for you–by far, the diameter of the strings will make a more impressive difference.
Which Metal is Easiest On Your Fingers?
Now, this is embarking on crazy territory.
It is true, that some metals have a different hardness than others. For example, titanium is harder than zinc, which is harder than copper.
It stands to reason, then, that harder metals will have less give than their more flexible metals.
While that’s theoretically possible, it’s not likely that the layperson would be able to tell the difference between 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze, for example.
Further complicating this is that guitar strings are made from many, many different blends of metals, and electric guitar strings will be different than acoustic guitar strings (nickel-plated/silver-plated, etc).
In short, I wouldn’t make a purchasing decision for a particular string based on its metal composition–the thickness of the string will have much more of a part to play than the metals used.
The one exception I’d say is silk and string. Silk and string guitar strings are metal wrapped around silk strands which are wrapped around the metal core. It’s possible those strings would have a difference in feel. Learn more about other types of guitar strings and which types of strings sound duller at my post here.