Strings are one of the most important parts of the guitar, playing a big role in not only the sound produced but also in the guitar’s playability. As such, it is natural to ponder on what would be the best choice for your needs. Some musicians use electric guitar strings on their acoustic guitars. It makes the sound brighter and the guitar easier to play, although at the expense of a decrease in loudness. But what about the reverse — using acoustic guitar strings on an electric guitar? Do acoustic and electric guitars use the same string?
Technically, you can put on acoustic guitar strings on an electric guitar. However, the way these guitars produce the sound means that there may be less than optimal sound output or a below–par tone, or in the worst case, both. We do not recommend putting acoustic guitar strings on your electric guitar and instead look for a higher gauge electric guitar string if that is what you’re looking for.
What Type of Strings Do Electric Guitars Use?
Electric guitars produce sound by picking up the string’s vibration and converting it into an electrical signal. The vibration of the strings is sensed by the electromagnetic pickups and requires that the string be made of a ferromagnetic (having susceptibility to magnetism) material. Thus, when such a string vibrates close to the pickup, a very small amount of electric current is produced, which is then amplified to produce the sound. Of course, this is a very simplified definition. Still, despite the type of electromagnetic pickup the guitar has, be it single–coil or the more expensive humbuckers, they all work in this manner.
Since the technicality dictates that the string material be made of ferromagnetic material, most electric guitar strings have a steel core with a winding of nickel–plated steel or pure nickel wire. Both steel and nickel are ferromagnetic metals and are, therefore, the optimal choice for use in electric guitars. The gauge of the strings ranges from “Extra Super Light,” with the thinnest string (high–E) being 0.008 inches and the thickest (low–E) being 0.038 inches, to “Extra Heavy,” with strings of a thickness of 0.013 inches (High–E) – 0.056 inches (Low–E).
Tone of Electric Guitar Strings
Electric guitar strings are relatively thinner, producing a bright, crisp, and treble–y tone without much natural resonance or reverb. Electric guitars depend a lot on their electronics, such as the pickups, pre–amp, and amp, for their overall tone, which is a feature of the electric guitar as a natural tone is desirable for shaping through effect pedals and the amp. However, strings still do play a part.
Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings
We have already learned that acoustic and electric guitar strings are not interchangeable for the most part. You can put an electric guitar string on an acoustic but not the other way around (at least not without suffering some loss in sound quality). But what are the differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings?
Before looking into it in detail, first, let’s go over the basic construction of strings.
Some (4 in acoustic strings and 3 in electric guitar strings) of the strings, if you look closely, have windings. These strings are composed of two parts — the core and the wound string. The core is a straight and often thicker string around which another thinner string is wound.
The core, for the most part, is made of steel in both electric and acoustic strings. As for the winding material, it may differ in acoustic and electric guitars. Some acoustic guitars, like classical guitars, use nylon strings. Nylon strings sound mellow, while steel–core strings sound much brighter. Since the strings come in constant contact with air, moisture, sweat, and oils secreted from our fingers, not to mention repeated pressing and sliding, they are coated or plated with corrosion–resistant material such as tin, nickel, or even Teflon (or other polymers) to protect them.
Now that we understand a string’s basic construction let’s get back to the differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings.
Acoustic guitar strings can have a steel, nylon, or carbon core. Nylon is common in classical guitars, and sometimes Carbon (Fluoropolymer) strings are also used, though pretty rare. Most common acoustic guitars, however, use steel strings which is also the case with electric guitars. Since the electric guitar pickups need a ferromagnetic material, steel is often used as the core.
The winding material, on the other hand, is usually different in acoustic and electric guitar strings. The common winding material in acoustic guitar strings is phosphor–bronze and 80–20 bronze (80:20 copper and zinc). Both these windings give the string a brighter, fuller tone. The choice of winding material in an acoustic guitar is mostly dictated by its acoustic and resonant properties.
The material used is in contrast to the winding of electric guitar strings, which is required to be ferromagnetic for the best sound output. Most electric guitars have nickel–plated steel for the winding string. Some can also have pure nickel and stainless steel, but nickel–plated steel provides the best balance of corrosion resistance and a good tone.
Finally, acoustic guitars may have a coating of tin, nickel, gold, silver, or Teflon for corrosion resistance. Though pretty rarely used, metals such as gold and silver subtly change the strings’ tone and are liked by some musicians. Teflon coating, among polymer coatings, can make it easier to slide your fingers across and feels much smoother to play. They are also very corrosion resistive, amongst the best in this regard.
As for electric guitars, nickel is commonly used for plating or coating the strings. Though, you can also find electric guitar strings with Teflon or other polymer coatings that provide better playability and longer life.
String gauge, or the thickness of the string, has a big impact on the guitar’s loudness and tone. Thicker strings produce a fuller, warmer sound with more volume. Acoustic guitars need thicker strings as they depend on physical “amplification” of the sound using the soundboard and the hollow body. The thicker the strings are more air they will set into vibration upon strumming, which would make for louder sound output. These strings are, however, harder to press down on the fret and strum.
Electric guitars do not have such needs. The thickness or the gauge depends on the player’s preference and the music style.
The gauge of acoustic strings ranges from 0.010 (high–E) for extra light strings to 0.059 (low–E) for heavy strings. The range of electric strings is from 0.008 (high–E) of extra super light to 0.056 (low–E) of extra heavy. Most electric guitars come with 0.009 or 0.010 (high–E) gauge strings, and most acoustics have either 0.012 or 0.013 (high–E).
Number of the Wound and Unwound Strings
All guitar string sets come with a combination of both wound and plain strings. The biggest tell–tale sign between acoustic and electric guitar strings is the number of wound and unwound strings. Acoustic guitars, without exception, have four wound and two plain or unwound strings. In contrast, electric guitars have three wound and three plain strings for most gauges.
What Happens if I Put Acoustic Guitar Strings on an Electric Guitar?
Many people put electric guitar strings on their acoustic guitars to get a uniquely bright and treble–forward tone. The material difference gives it a distinctive sound compared to similar gauge acoustic strings. But what if we try to put acoustic guitar strings on an electric?
Depending on the material, an acoustic string may produce no sound (in the case of nylon strings) to somewhat decent sound in the best case (in the case of steel–core strings). A lot would depend on the guitar’s pickups and the string in question. But you can expect a muddy sound for most of the strings, especially the wound G–string, which might sound off. If you get a decent sound output, you can expect a somewhat acoustic timbre when played clean without any effects, if that’s what you’re looking for.
In most cases, you’ll not damage the guitar or any components just by putting on an acoustic string as long you don’t go for super heavy gauge strings. Still, you’ll have to be careful not to put too thick strings as the nuts on an electric guitar have smaller slots for their thinner strings. Also, the strings’ tension is different in acoustic and electric guitars due to the thickness of the strings. Acoustic guitar strings are under much more tension, which might be too much for the components like the electric guitar’s bridge to handle. This excessive tension may damage the bridge’s saddles or even snap the bridge off (in case of very thick strings).
Even if you’re using strings with a thickness that your electric guitar can handle, you might get a suboptimal sound from it. Get thicker gauge strings if you want a fuller, heavier tone.
Other Related Questions
Can I Put Nylon Strings on an Electric Guitar?
Electric guitars have pickups that work on the principles of electromagnetism. Nylon strings being neither metallic nor, more specifically, ferromagnetic means that the pickups will not pick up their vibrational movements and hence no or very little sound will be produced.
Nylon strings, used in classical guitars, have a mellow tone and produce a sound less loud than steel strings. They are also under a lot less tension than steel strings and being softer and with less density means they are also relatively easier to press down on the fret and strum. However, as discussed above, they can’t work with magnetic pickups.
Guitars like acoustic–electrics or electro–acoustics usually come fitted with piezo pickups, which may work with nylon strings.
How To Tell The Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings?
The most obvious way to distinguish a set of electric guitar strings is that they would have three wound and three plain strings. Acoustic strings have four wound and two unwound strings.
What Kind Of Strings Do Acoustic–Electric Guitars Use?
The acoustic–electric guitar is an acoustic instrument that typically has a piezoelectric pickup instead of the electromagnetic pickups used by most electric guitars. They may even have a microphone inside the sound hole along with the piezo pickup. These guitars are basically acoustic guitars with pickups. Therefore they are fitted with acoustic guitar steel strings. Acoustic–electric guitars have a distinctive acoustic sound and are used in live performances where the sound of an acoustic guitar needs amplification. Not to be confused with a semi–acoustic guitar which is an electric guitar but with a hollow body and (usually f–shaped) sound holes.
It is possible to put all kinds of strings on these guitars, including electric guitars and nylon strings. The sound quality and timbre would be very subjective depending on the guitar and the strings used.
The world of music is all about experimentation and finding new unique, and personal tones and styles. So, should you put acoustic strings on your electric guitar? Probably not. In most cases, the sound would be worse when using a set of strings not specifically meant for it. Is there a benefit? I don’t see any.
If you have a set of acoustic strings lying around you might want to give it a try but buying a new set of sub–optimal strings seems like a bad deal to me.