The Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings

Sometimes we delve just outside the world of mixing, but seeing as this affects the tone of your guitar and as such how you mix your guitar, it’s something worth covering here. It’s the common question regarding guitar strings: what’s the difference between acoustic and electric guitar strings? In the same vein, can you put acoustic strings on an electric guitar and vice versa? Let’s answer this question and talk about the differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings.

Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings

Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings

First let’s acknowledge the obvious: there are a number of differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings. They aren’t interchangeable and each have qualities which make them better suited for their respective guitars.

Acoustic and electric guitar strings differ in the materials which make them up as well as the average size and durability, all of which affect the tone.

Let’s get into the difference between acoustic and electric guitar strings, beginning with what they’re made out of.

Materials

While the vast majority of guitar strings both acoustic and electric consist of a steel core, the wrapping around the core typically consists of different materials.

Acoustic guitar string wrappings are typically bronze based with the two most common and popular varieties being 80/20 bronze and phosphor bronze.

The 80/20, which is a combination of copper and zinc, features a brighter tone than the phosphor bronze. This makes 80/20 based strings pair better with larger guitars and those made with wood which lends itself to darker, fuller sounds.

The combination of the brighter strings and fuller, darker toned based guitars produces a more balanced tone overall for the guitar. 80/20 strings are also more likely to rust over time.

The phosphor bronze are a blend of copper with roughly 10% tin and traces of phosphorus which elongates the string’s life but produces a slightly darker, warmer tone.

When it comes to electric guitar strings, these are mostly made of nickel plated steel.

Generally speaking, nickel which electric guitars use produces a warmer tone than bronze. Nickel is also more subtle and quieter on balance than bronze.

While we use the an amplifier as well as the inherent electronics of an electric guitar to amplify the tone of an electric guitar, the bronze/brass strings on the acoustic guitar provide a louder tone which allows an acoustic to fill out a room better than an electric guitar (but sure, the hollow body and sound hole helps, too).

Size/Gauge

The size or gauge of acoustic guitar strings are larger than electric guitar, as well.

Larger or thicker gauge strings tend to be louder, provide more tension, and are more rigid.

Because acoustic guitar playing requires less bending and is more about strumming or getting more volume out of picking, acoustic guitars feature thicker gauge strings.

Conversely, small or thinner gauge strings are quieter, have less tension, and as such are more bendable.

This makes them ideal for electric guitar where there’s much more bending of strings and notes than you typically do on acoustic guitar. Guitarists who do a lot of soloing and bending in particular will typically go with a lighter gauge in general with their electric guitar strings.

Guitar string gauges are measured in thousandths of an inch and are represented in a minimum-maximum figure.

For instance, my typical go-to gauge for electric guitar strings, Ernie Balls “Regular Slinky” variety, is a .10-.46 gauge.

ernie ball regular slinky

This means the lightest string for the high E is 10/1000 of an inch, or .01 inches, thick.

The heaviest string, the low E, is 46/1000 of an inch, or .046 inches, thick.

That’s considered to be a relatively average thickness for electric guitar strings.

Conversely, a relatively average thickness for acoustic guitar strings is .13-.56, an entire 1/100 of an inch thicker on that low E string than its electric counterpart.

martin medium strings

In fact, the .10-.46 gauge if applied to acoustic guitar strings would be considered beyond extra light!

Can You Put Electric Guitar Strings on an Acoustic Guitar (or vice versa)

You CAN put electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar, but it wouldn’t be very successful or effective.

Odds are the tension from the acoustic guitar would snap some of the strings soon after you began playing, assuming they didn’t already snap while you were tuning it up the first time.

The acoustic guitar would also be a lot quieter and the tone wouldn’t be nearly as sharp and (likely) as satisfying to you.

You could put thicker bronze strings on an electric guitar, but it’s the same issues in reverse. The strings would be less malleable and the tone would very likely sound off in the context of an electric guitar.

So to sum up, there are a number of differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings. Each vary in the minerals or alloys which make them up, the tone the produce, their size, durability, bendability, and the amount of tension they can withstand.

And while you CAN string one type of string on a different type of guitar, it’s likely a waste of the strings, not to mention time.

You’re much better using strings intended for acoustic guitars on acoustic guitars, and likewise with electric guitar strings.

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