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I've always found even the lightest acoustic (bronze) guitar strings to be a bit too heavy to play comfortably. Electric (nickel) guitar strings tend to be lighter. But nobody uses electric strings on their acoustic guitar - why not?

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Do you feel that e.g. 009-045s are too light too? –  Meaningful Username Apr 26 at 16:38

14 Answers 14

up vote 31 down vote accepted

The answer is that electric strings are generally too light a gauge to properly "drive" the guitar. You need a heavy gauge string to provide the force needed from the vibrations to get the proper action out of the top to produce good volume and resonance.

Unlike an electric, where the vibration is picked up directly from the string passing over a magnet, an acoustic relies on the vibration of the string causing rapid changes in the tension placed on the bridge by the strings. This pulls on and then relaxes the top of the guitar, moving the top up and down to amplify the string's vibration, and then those vibrations are transferred to the air in the resonating chamber, which "fine-tunes" the waveforms to produce the final sound at full volume. In this regard, you can think of an acoustic guitar top as a speaker cone, only powered by a string instead of a magnetic transducer.

Given the above, the guitar will get its best resonance and dynamic range using a set of strings that are "balanced" with the tension inherent in the structure of the top. This allows the instrument at rest to be in a "balanced" state of tension between the strings and suspension. That allows the top its full range of motion, and additionally a string that can "balance" the top will also be thick enough to have a very high range of force that the changing tension of the string's vibration will place on the top. Think of the string as a spring, just not coiled; the thicker the metal, the greater the force needed to stretch it from its resting state. Using the proper gauge of string will provide the large changes in the force of the vibrating string needed to move the top of the guitar and produce its full sound. Using a string that is too thin will provide insufficient force from the vibration to properly "drive" the top of the guitar, and the sound of the guitar will suffer.

This is why "light" acoustic strings are roughly equal in gauge to "medium" or even "medium-heavy" electric strings. The electric strings, because they're used in a design where the primary sound is produced by directly detecting the string's vibration electrically, don't have to be as thick. So, they aren't, allowing rock gods to shred with greater speed because they don't need to press as hard.

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Because of the nature of the sound production in acoustic guitar. Of course you can put any string on acoustic guitar and still a sound would be produced. But to hear the original, natural timbre of the guitar, you have to use the original, natural strings.

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2  
It's not the timbre; it's the gauge and tension of the strings. There's no problem with putting nickel-steel on an acoustic instead of 80/20 or phosphor bronze if that's the sound you want. –  KeithS Jul 29 '11 at 14:13
    
I'm not a physicist @KeithS, but I did changed the strings and got a different sound with different quality. Thus I think I'm right saying that, changing any part of an instrument, would change the quality of the output sound, i.e. timbre. –  Saeed Neamati Jul 29 '11 at 14:37
    
The metal in the strings does affect the timbre of the guitar. That wasn't the problem with your answer; the problem is that that's not why you don't put electric strings on a guitar. It's perfectly fine to do so if that's the sound you want, AS LONG AS you realize that "light" acoustic strings equate to "medium" electric strings. Taking off light or medium-light acoustic strings and replacing them with light electric strings will cause a dramatic change in the amount of tension the guitar is under. –  KeithS Jul 29 '11 at 14:41
    
Not only does that large change in tension affect your ability to get a big, full sound out of the guitar, but such rapid changes in tension can throw the instrument out of shape, requiring other adjustments to the neck and other areas of the instrument, and can actually make the guitar unplayable. –  KeithS Jul 29 '11 at 14:43
    
If you were to take off the light acoustic strings and replace them with electric strings of a comparable gauge (if the acoustic strings were a 12-56 "light-medium", you'd need a 12-56 "medium" or "medium-heavy" electric set), that doesn't cause a large change in tension; the instrument stays set up properly, you just get the tone of the nickel-steel or all-stainless instead of the 80/20 or phosphor bronze. That is 100% acceptable. –  KeithS Jul 29 '11 at 14:46

In my experience there is no rule that says you "shouldn't" put electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar.

I mainly perform with an acoustic guitar and there have been plenty of times when I've put D, G, B, E strings from an Ernie Ball Slinky set onto my Tanglewood acoustic.

The discussion about tension is absolutely spot on - the electric guitar's strings tend to be lighter in gauge than an acoustic. If anything, the resulting sound may be weaker or tinnier acoustically. But overall, that doesn't affect the guitar sound too much as I am able to equalise it via the mixer.

The one factor it does affect is playability. Electrics are easier to bend and stretch and therefore will go out of tune alot faster... and it takes a longer time for it to get used to a particular tuning.

I only put electrics when I've run out of acoustic strings and I'm left with orphan electric strings. Sometimes this can lead to wild experiments and caution being thrown to the wind - for example, I've used a D electric as an acoustic G string. I've used a B electric as an E acoustic. It can lead to wild nuances of string behaviour and feel - but it makes performing fun!

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I've used Ernie Ball Slinkys on an acoustic several times over the years. I had an ovation celeb a few years back and I wanted to see if using them would make it more comfortable on my fingers. I put a set on it and let her rip. It played great, it sounded good amplified. It did change the sound a bit. Playing unplugged there was not much volume. If you're new to the guitar world and want to ease the pain a little until you get your fingers toughened up go for it!

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Welcome to Music SE! I've removed your signature per the FAQ. Since your posts are always presigned, no use resigning them. Again, welcome to Music SE! –  American Luke Aug 27 '12 at 19:15
    
How did it change the sound? –  naught101 Oct 16 '12 at 14:06

for example, I've used a D electric as an acoustic G string. I've used a B electric as an E acoustic

But this doesn't really say much, does it. The point is the gauge, not what it's tuned to. So "D electric" vs. "G electric" or "G acoustic" isn't saying much without an indication of what the gauges in the in the rest of the set are.

Is it not the case that for un-wound (high) stings that acoustic and electric stings of the same gauge are actually the same. It's just that when you get into the wound strings that there's a difference? E.g., D'Addario electrics and acoustics have the same cores. It's the windings that make the difference.

Bending properties are not going to be affected as much on wound stings by the winding as by the core are they? The windings basically just "ride" on the core?

Get out the chart that D'Addario makes that shows the tension for different frequencies tuned on strings vs. the gauge and the scale-length. Can't I pull together whatever combination I want as long as I keep a pretty balanced tension? That is, given that there will be some differences in timbre of different windings.

Also, there may be changes you can make in timbre on low stings by different winding metals but there's not really a lot that can be done about such on high stings.

(The low string timbre affected by such due to over-tones, but once we get up to the high strings, the over-tones are more out of the spectrum of hearing and we're mainly just dealing with the fundamental and first couple over-tones.)

How much of this makes sense and how much is just "crazy talk"?

Also, a lot of the timbre comes from pick/finger on string effects, which is affected by the winding -- round, flat, semi-round, etc.

Solid info on this would allow for some "educated guesses" as opposed to SWAGs (Stupid Wild Assed Guesses...) when experimenting with stings. :)

I'm keeping it to the arena of acoustic guitars since we don't want to get into Magnetic Effects on PUPs on Electrics.


My original issue that brought me here was the difference of different sting gauge and winding on the sound of various Acoustic designs -- Jumbo vs. Dreadnought vs. OO, etc.

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Hi Mark, welcome to music.SE! I think your answer is quite good, but you rely a lot on apparently rhetorical questions, for which the answer is not necessarily clear. A lot of the things you write would be much clearer if you rephrased them as statements. –  naught101 Oct 16 '12 at 14:27

I have played for many, many years. I have never been comfortable with heavy gauge strings and, a couple decades ago, put some light electrics on an old acoustic I had. Was there a noticeable difference? Only to my ear because I was familiar with the guitar. The volume lessened a little and tone was more trebly. That's it. The guitar was more playable and the tone was more my OWN tone. Is it better? Is it worse? In all honesty, it's all in the ears. I have gone on to use electric strings exclusively on my acoustics and electric/acoustics and have had experienced players compliment the excellent tone I get. Believe me, it's not my playing they are talking about. I think we tend to get too snobbish or try too hard to sound like somebody else instead of going someplace that is our own comfort and style level. Look, if it makes you play more, why not? And, if you play more, you get better. If you get better, you compensate for any lack of effect the "normal" strings would give. Most importantly, if you get better, you tend to develop your own style with your own subtleties and nuances in tone and playing. Do what is right for you, enjoy making music, and forget about most of what you will read or hear from "experts" who invest thousands in funny little pedals and stompboxes and guitars with people's names on them instead of just playing what is in their heart and soul. Gimme a so-so player who puts emotion into it any day over a shredder who can fly up and down the neck, but projects little or no soul. Give EC or EVH or Carlos a student guitar and 10-watt practice amp and they will outplay 99.9 percent of the guys with $10,000 rigs, guaranteed.

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Another difference between electric and acoustic guitar strings is the 3rd - G - on electrics it's plain, but most acoustics have wound. I've used electric strings on acoustic guitars for 40+ years - as above the sound is a little thinner, obviously, but generally the guitar is easier to play,using 10s instead of the 11s or 12s that are on a new acoustic.Most of my pupils find it's far better to learn on a guitar thus strung as well. So, in answer, go for it - purists are just that ! If it feels good to you , and encourages you to play more, go for it , change to electric strings, BUT don't go more than about 15% lighter in guage.

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What I like about electric strings on acoustic guitar is that I can bend strings like playing on an electric guitar, you can't really do that with acoustic strings (or get the same effect, anyway).

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If you want a great acoustic tone from an acoustic guitar you're just not gonna get it with electric strings, particularly light-gauge electrics. The overall sound is more tinny, the G string has a particularly tinnier quality due to being plain rather than wound, and the bass response of the entire instrument goes way down due to the significantly thinner bass strings. If you want the punch that your guitar was designed to deliver, use the strings it was designed for.

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Are you stating that an 011 acoustic string will be better than a 011 electric string for top string on an acoustic guitar ? How will it be better ? –  Tim May 17 '13 at 14:13

Alternative string choices for Acoustic Guitars… Hmmm…

Acoustic Guitar Types?

Steel String Acoustic Guitars?

Go for it! Nashville tuning rocks! That's how Alex Lifeson gets that super cool shimmery layered chorus effect on so many of the Rush albums (and many other players too, Pink Floyd, The Stones, Kansas etc… there’s many different specific combinations to use, but they all involve replacing all the lower wound strings with plain (I think the thickest plain 3rd I've seen advertised is a .024). The easiest way of thinking about it is taking a 12-String and remove the lower set of six and leave just the regular high strings with E, A, D, and G tuned an octave higher than usual. This is of course not quite what the original poster was asking about, but it wasn't brought up yet. Personally I like .013 sets, after awhile, it really isn’ that hard to pull off convincing blues bends… about the only thing I can't manage that I can on an electric with .010 or .011 sets is a major 3rd bend on the B string where my 1st finger is on the root and 3rd finger is bending the minor 3rd up a major 3rd to the natural 5th of the key… Sorry, I just did it, (not below the 5th fret in the key of E probably, maybe the 4th in Eb, and the G string gets in the way really easy… but it was a true 5th above the root… the b5th is easy with a few months of regular practice); but really, I think a better solution to tough bending on a heavily strung acoustic is to tune it down a ½ step, I'm fairly certain there are no laws on the books prohibiting such a thing, and you’ll get a much gutsier old dude sittin’ on the front porch type of feel than neutering your acoustic tone with too light of strings (my opinion anyways…).

Nylon String Acoustic Guitars (i.e. Classical, Flamenco, etc…) with Electric/Steel Strings?

This is EVIL and should NEVER be done (I really don’t care how fast you can play… Apparently you can RUIN a good Nylon string even faster! (Not that anyone has suggested anything so stupid, and the original question clearly inferred that he was referring to a Steel String (Bronze… metal of some sort…); It just needs to be stated that nylon stringed acoustic guitar bridges/bracings can not take that kind of abuse, you’ll see them in pawn shops all the time with the top wood bubbled up (raised) behind the bridge, it ruins the action, not to mention the whole top piece of wood, and will eventually tear the bridge clean off most likely. If you have a nylon string guitar and want a steel string… buy, sell, trade… whatever… get a 2nd guitar built for steel (metal) strings; you’re just putting too much tension on the instrument otherwise. If you’ve got one of these poor mistreated instruments… and insist on not changing the strings… it will probably still sound cool for slide guitar (the crappy action will probably be a bonus!); it would probably be wise to detune it though when not playing as a sort of “life support” for it…

p.s. If you think I’m being silly by bringing this up because everyone knows “acoustic” guitars are steel string guitars, and “classical” guitars are nylon stringed… I’ve seen too many ruined guitars to agree with you…

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I looked this up to get some back up to my idea because I want to play more difficult and complicated songs, but honestly if you've played long enough and know enough about your instrument and your personal preference and are willing to sacrifice some volume and natural drive for finger ease then by all means there is nothing wrong with it.

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I don't know how but I must have got mixed up at some point and I've been using 11 _ 47 nickel wounds on my acoustics for some time. I only found out when I reordered. They sound good on a solid tonewood guitar but might be a bit trebbly on a laminate. I'm sticking with them.

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Might be worth re-wording your answer a little bit to answer the question. You've not broken the rules, but you've phrased it more as an opinion than an answer. :) –  Alexander Troup Feb 17 at 20:25

It is sacrilege to put electric strings on an acoustic. You don't get the same sound at all. You lose the unmistakable acoustic guitar sound. You lose the bassyness, warmth and texture of the acoustic guitar and get a tinny empty hollow sound in its place. My advice... strengthen up your hand and then you'll be able to hold acoustic strings down. 11-52's are dead light anyway.

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I have just recently thrown a set of electric strings on an acoustic. I have noticed all the above differences as been told by others. I have had issues mainly only in bending, whilst its much easier I have found my typical bend style does not work the Key gets lost a bit. It is an adjustment that I as a player need to master. Personally I was happier with my sound and playability before the change over but I enjoy playing it alot more now. I suppose only time will tell if they will stay or go

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