Classical Guitar Strings: 5-Step Guide to Find what’s Right for You


Whether you’re a beginner or an intermediate player, knowing how to choose your own strings for your classical guitar is a skill worth having. Just picking one set from a Top Ten blog list will NOT teach you that skill. 

Once you learn it you will find choosing your strings starts with becoming well informed. The more you know, the better your choices.

Learning the skill: tensions and materials

Before we get to exact brand names and model numbers – believe us, there are plenty of those we will be covering – you should know that classical guitar strings come with different string tensions:

  • Low Tension (Light)
  • Normal Tension (Moderate/Medium)
  • High Tension (Hard)

Some companies like Hannabach also have Super High Tension and Super Low Tension. What’s more, none of these terms are standardized. One brand’s Moderate can be another’s Light-Medium.

Manufacturers also offer a choice of materials for bass strings (strings 4, 5 and 6) as well as treble strings (strings 1,2 and 3). The choices are plenty and each of these materials often comes in the 3 Tensions discussed above. This gets dirty before we clean it up for you.

Bass string materials: Traditionally, most bass strings are made of a core of fine nylon filaments and wound with silver-plated bronze or copper wire. Sometimes they are gold-plated instead of silver. You may come across a term like 80-20 for the basses which mean bronze in the ratio of 80% copper and 20% zinc. 

Treble string materials: Treble strings are made of nylon, either clear nylon or rectified nylon. It can sometimes be ‘black nylon’. An alternative material commonly called ‘carbon’ is made of fluorocarbon polymers and is gaining popularity for its brightness and projection.

Experimental materials like Aquila’s Nylgut, a synthetic material that resembles ancient gut strings in its sound, and D’Addario’s Zyex, a similar synthetic option, are some out-there experimental options. Titanium is another alternative material that some brands offer.

The trick to choosing your perfect set of strings lies in going about the process in a systematic way. There is no other way. I’m suggesting an easy to follow 4-Step Method to find your classical guitar strings (with an optional Step 5.)

Step 1: Start with a standard base

Step 1 is to start with a specific brand: D’Addario Pro-Arte EJ45. It may seem odd to start a process with a definite suggestion like that. Hopefully, you will see the sense in it shortly.

Buy it and fix it. This is to establish a clear-cut base standard. It is a famous, popular model of classical guitar strings. For a very good reason. On most guitars, this set of strings sounds fantastic! The formal way to say it is the EJ45 provides one of the most neutral color palettes allowing your guitar to shine with its natural character.

No less a personality than David Russell, the biggest name in the concert circuit today and one of the finest guitarists ever, reportedly uses the EJ45 and recommends it heartily. Praise indeed.

So let’s consider the EJ45 our starting point. You will enjoy playing with this set. But who can tell for sure if there’s nothing better out there, right? Let’s take a quick look at what type of strings – tension and material – the EJ45 is.

Normal tension. Clear nylon trebles, silver-plated wound basses. That’s what the EJ45 is. The reviews run into thousands, the praise is sky high and the price is next to nothing. All making for a solid starting point.

Play your guitar with the EJ45 and listen. Get used to the sound over the next couple of weeks. This will be your guitar sound for now. Step 1 is done.

Step 2: Understand different tensions

Starting with Step 2, we try and see if something else sounds better at every stage. If something else sounds weaker or unimpressive, we obviously reject it. If it feels more or less equal or we are unclear or indifferent about any change it is making, we reject it too. We are going for better. Not worse, not equal, not indifferent. If it’s not better we stay with our starting point which in our case is the excellent EJ45.

Something has to come along and beat our EJ45 convincingly. Else we stay with it.

To carry out this Step, we look at the same brand but different tensions while keeping the material component the same. So it’s going to be the same clear nylon trebles with silver-plated wound basses as in the EJ45. But we will try out the Light Tension and Hard Tension variants.

This Step is a crucial one. Settling on a choice of string tension that sounds good both on your guitar and to your ears is something you must take a little time about deciding. Buy these two sets and change them frequently in a space of about two weeks to see if you can catch the differences.

What exactly are you looking for? One is obviously the sounds you are getting. High tension strings have a nice attack to the sound but with less body or sustain on some guitars. That may or may not matter to you as long as it somehow feels better. And two is playability. Some hard tension strings feel a little difficult to play on some guitars, especially on the higher action at higher frets. Sound and touch. Keep interchanging strings, keep evaluating. 

At the end of Step 2 you must be clear about the string tension you prefer. You can then explore the exciting world of materials that can lend magic to your guitar. Remember, most treble string materials like clear nylon, rectified nylon, black nylon, etc. as well as basses come in all different tensions. So you are not going to be restricted in any way by your choice of tension. (Carbon trebles, as we will see later, do not generally have a low tension variant though.)

Note: Some manufacturers of even factory-made guitars, let alone luthier-made guitars, recommend NOT using heavy tension strings on their models. Heed that advice. High tension strings do put extra pressure on the construction, so pay attention to any specific restrictions.

Step 3: Check out the various trebles

You can take a lot of time over Step 3, even months. You really should. Among other things, it will prevent you from making hasty decisions. It will also familiarize you with your current preferred tension (Light/Normal/Hard) strings. Its sound will sink in and become ‘your sound’.

For now at least. For any kind of experimentation, a solid base is essential. Take your time to build that base. The EJ43/45/46 (one of them) is your current base.

Wait for the next time you change strings. Try something new from the following options. Incidentally, if you need help and clarity on when exactly you should change your strings, read our review on what’s a good time to change your strings.

Option 1: If your current base is Normal Tension

If D’Addario Pro-Arte EJ45 is your starting point, try any of the following rough equivalent ‘tension’ from leading manufacturers. Remember, these are all great strings, quality wise, really top class. We are looking for something that sounds better on your guitar (and to your ears.)

Hannabach 815MT: These Silver Special 815 Series from Hannabach are the most popular of all Hannabach strings. It has a very balanced, brilliant tone with good intonation. Hannabach 815 consists of clear, precision round nylon trebles with silver-plated basses.

Hannabach 825 Pure Gold Medium: The basses of these sets are plated with pure 24K gold!

It is aimed at resisting the effects of acid perspiration. Ideal for guitar players with sweaty hands, these are quite impervious to acid corrosion according to the makers. The trebles are the same as in their famous 815 series.

Hannabach 728 Custom Made Medium Tension: This set has a tougher bass core for longer life. The Hannabach 728 sets have clear nylon trebles with silver-plated basses.

La Bella 2001 Medium: These 2001 La Bella Classical Guitar Strings are very popular due to their clear, sustaining trebles and their excellent intonation while the basses are warm and have a good solid timbre and tune up quickly. All in the LaBella 2001 series have silver-plated wound basses and clear, high-density trebles.

La Bella 427 Pacesetter Elite (Strings by Mail link): Medium Tension. Clear nylon trebles are paired with silver-plated basses. The LaBella 427 Pacesetter Elite set is one of the largest selling string sets in the world for over 50 years.

Savarez 500CR Normal: Savarez strings are made in France and some of the finest in the world. They have a wide range of products with combinations of their own New Cristal trebles (nylon) or Alliance trebles (carbon) with their Cantiga, Corum, or Classic bass strings. The 500CR is a great combination of New Cristal nylon treble strings with Corum bass strings.

Savarez 510CR: New Cristal nylon trebles in normal tension allied with their Cantiga basses.

Savarez 540CR: Normal Tension set featuring silver-plated copper-wound basses and New Cristal nylon trebles.

Galli Strings GR65 (Strings By Mail link): Normal Tension. The treble strings are crystal nylon, while the basses are also nylon, but coated with silver-plated copper. They offer both a quick response and rich sound.

Over a period of months, you can try out a few of the above every time you change strings. Choose whichever catches your fancy for now. We all have to start somewhere. You can check the prices using the links.

Option 2: If your current base is Low Tension

If D’Addario Pro-Arte EJ43 is your starting point, try any of the following rough equivalent ‘tension’ from leading manufacturers. Remember, these are all great strings, quality-wise, really top class. We are only looking for something that sounds better on your guitar (and to your ears.)

Hannabach 815LT: These Silver Special 815 Series Hannabach Classical Guitar Strings are the most popular of all Hannabach strings. They have a very balanced, brilliant tone with good intonation. Hannabach 815 Sets consist of clear, precision round nylon trebles with silver-plated basses.

Hannabach 825 Pure Gold Low Tension (Strings by Mail link): The basses of these sets are plated with pure 24K gold to resist the effects of acid perspiration. Ideal for guitar players with sweaty hands, they are quite impervious to acid corrosion according to the makers. In keeping with their premium nature, the ends of the bass strings have a softening wrap designed to buffer the string where it attaches to the bridge.

Hannabach 728 Custom Made Low Tension: This set has a tougher bass core for longer life (silver-plated) and clear nylon trebles.

La Bella 2001 Light: The 2001 La Bella series are very popular due to their clear and sustaining trebles with excellent intonation while the basses are warm and tune up quickly. All have silver-plated wound basses and clear, high-density trebles.

Galli Strings GR55 Low (Strings by Mail link): The treble strings are crystal nylon, while the basses are also nylon, but coated with silver-plated copper. They offer “a quick response and rich sound.”

Over a period of months, you can try out a few of the above every time you change strings. Choose whichever catches your fancy for now. We all have to start somewhere. You can check the prices using the links.

Option 3: If your current base is High Tension

If D’Addario Pro-Arte EJ46 is your starting point, try any of the following rough equivalent ‘tension’ from leading manufacturers. Remember, these are all great strings, quality-wise, really top class. We are only looking for something that sounds better on your guitar (and to your ears.)

Augustine Imperial Blue: Cristal nylon (clear) trebles are Augustine’s high tension strings for a modern guitar sound. Blue is for high tension basses, all silver-plated. Trebles are a more modern nylon formula with a brighter tone and more volume.

Hannabach 815HT These Silver Special 815 Series Hannabach Classical Guitar Strings are the most popular of all Hannabach strings. The Hannabach 815 Silver Special series have a very balanced, brilliant tone, always perfect in intonation. Hannabach 815 Sets consist of clear, precision round nylon trebles with silver-plated basses.

Hannabach 825 Pure Gold High (Strings by Mail link): The basses of these sets are plated with pure 24K gold to resist the effects of acid perspiration. Ideal for guitar players with sweaty hands, they are quite impervious to acid corrosion according to the makers. In keeping with their premium nature, the ends of the bass strings have a softening wrap designed to buffer the string where it attaches to the bridge.

Hannabach 728 Custom Made High Tension: Tougher bass core for longer life. The Hannabach 728 sets have clear nylon trebles with silver-plated basses.

La Bella 2001 Hard: These 2001 La Bella Classical Guitar Strings are very popular due to their bright and sustaining trebles while the basses are warm and have a good solid timbre and tune up quickly. All have silver-plated wound basses and clear, high-density trebles.

Savarez 500CJ: Savarez’s New Cristal nylon treble strings are paired with their popular Corum basses.

Savarez 510CJ: Savarez’s New Cristal nylon high tension strings are paired with their popular Cantiga basses.

Savarez 540CJ: High Tension set featuring silver-plated copper-wound Classic basses and New Cristal nylon trebles.

Galli Strings GR60 (Strings by Mail link): The treble strings are crystal nylon, while the basses are also nylon, but coated with silver-plated copper. They offer both a quick response and rich sound. High tension.

Over a period of months, you can try out a few of the above every time you change strings. Choose whichever catches your fancy for now. We all have to start somewhere. You can check the prices using the links.

Guidelines for Step 3

So what did you accomplish in Step 3? You increased your knowledge and experience to include clear nylon trebles from some of the finest manufacturers along with some bass variations for some excellent overall options while keeping to your preferred string tension.

It may be a good idea now to record 16 bars of a piece you play well as you change different sets of strings. A phone recording (taking care to maintain the same recording distance) will do fine. There’s nothing like spending a few minutes at the workplace during a break listening to the various strings. You’ll be surprised at the variations in sounds you can pick up when you’re away from your guitar.

As mentioned earlier, there is no need to hurry this Step. Take your time. Listen patiently. You are choosing a favorite set of strings (or two, more likely) that will represent your sound, if not your art, for a long, long time.

Step 4: How about some carbon trebles?

So far so good. Fluorocarbon polymers have recently become an exciting alternative to nylon treble strings. The sound is preferred by some luthiers and players, especially for the smooth transition provided by the G string from treble to bass. In theory at least.

Not everyone is convinced about carbon strings on their guitars. Some say they have a quick attack but die out soon. Some have found that intonation isn’t all that accurate. (Play the open E string, the first string, and then fret it at the 12th fret and play it again. The note, one octave higher, should be accurate for intonation to be considered perfect.)

It appears the various brands of carbon string don’t always get along with various brands of guitar on which they are affixed. So go slow, be cautious. Listen to the carbon trebles very carefully and decide if what you’re hearing is an improvement at all.

Like many, you may fall in love with the sound of carbon strings after all. So brave on. Here are some great options in carbon strings.

EJ45FF Normal Tension

EJ46FF High Tension

D’Addario Pro Arte Carbon Dynacore pair Pro-Arte Carbon trebles with Dynacore basses. These sets have a very warm tone compared to other carbon strings. According to the company, they avoid intonation problems that plague other carbons. A quick attack rounds out these great strings. Pro-Arte Carbon strings are available in normal and hard tensions.

Augustine Paragon Series Fluorocarbon treble strings deliver a bright, crisp, sound with brilliant projection. Paired with Augustine Classic basses, Paragon represents “a modern fusion that rings out with both timelessness and authenticity.”

Hannabach 725 Goldin (Amazon link): Medium-Hard tension. Features Hannabach’s Super Carbon Trebles and Gold Plated Basses. The gold plated basses give a darker tone and the new super carbon trebles have good projection and clarity. The trebles have a yellowish tint. This set is available in Medium-Hard tension only.

La Bella Vivace Carbon: These are the first carbon strings from La Bella. They offer the brightness of carbon trebles with an “unprecedented beauty of sound.”

  • Vivace Carbon HT
  • Vivace Carbon MT

Savarez 500 Corum Series pairs the brand’s own Corum Basses with trebles from their Traditional line or their Alliance line or their New Cristal line. The following variants in the 500 series have carbon trebles and are well worth a closer look.

Savarez 510 Cantiga Series The 510 series from Savarez combine their Cantiga basses with their different treble lines. The following in the 510 series have carbon trebles (Amazon links).

Galli Strings Genius Carbon Slightly opaque colored trebles with “a bold projection and quick response” are paired with bass strings featuring Galli’s unique Pro-Coated polymer process. Galli Genius Carbon Classical Guitar Strings sets have the basses in normal and high tension, but the carbon trebles come in one medium-high tension only.

Step 4, when done diligently over a time period, can be a fruitful time of discovery (and also some disappointments.) Approached like an adventure, this Step can truly lead you to a brand or two of strings that sing so well on your guitar. Your ears will truly be opened.

Step 5: Some left of field options

Once you get to your bread-and-butter option (or two) from the Steps above, this is a useful Step to indulge in occasionally. New stuff is constantly happening, your ears can get used to your current sound, and a creative spirit is always restless.

Treat this as an introduction to some pretty wild stuff going on out there. One day, you may want to house one of these options in your guitar.

The Nylgut option

Up to the end of the Second World War, guitar strings (trebles) were made from sheep or cow intestine, known as plain gut. The three bass strings were made of a silk thread core wound with gut. The acoustical properties of gut were totally different from the artificial nylon that was introduced by the Augustine company at the end of the War.

In an effort to get back to the glory days, Aquila Strings makes the majority of its strings from Nylgut, its own high-tech synthetic material with acoustic properties close to those of gut strings.

Alabastro Normal Tension

Alabastro Superior Tension

There are many variations. Aquila Alabastro, for instance, comes with Nylgut trebles and silver-plated copper strings in Light Tension, Normal Tension and Superior Tension.

Another popular variant is Aquila Zaffiro with Nyloplant trebles (another Aquila nylon innovation made from sugarcane!) and silver-plated copper bass strings. Are these new materials better than regular nylon trebles?

For what it’s worth, Zaffiro strings did not work well with my guitar at all, even though I so much wanted them to. They sounded so exotic. I’m not dissing the variant, for I know a few in my own circle of friends who are extremely happy with Zaffiro strings. Just saying that it’s all about what sounds better on your guitar and to your ears. Have I said that before?

D’Addario has its own gut-comparable synthetic option with a material it calls Zyex. D’Addario Pro Arte Lightly Polished have wound bass strings featuring Zyex multi-filament stranded core material, delivering gut-like tone with extremely long life & consistency. The trebles come with two 3rd strings, one from the regular Pro Arte line (clear nylon) and one made from composite polymer (coffee-colored) which has a brighter tone (the 1st and 2nd are also from the regular Pro Arte line). This line comes in 3 tension variants (Amazon links).

The rectified nylon option

We have taken care all this while keeping the trebles clear nylon. That is a standard, tried and trusted material for treble strings and as we have seen there are enough brands and models offering a wide and exciting range of choices. Clear nylon trebles are good!

With rectified nylon, you get a distinctive tone (warmer) and a textured feel to the string. If you run a finger along a rectified nylon string, expect the feel to be not as smooth as it would normally be. Their ‘roundness’ or diameter throughout their length tends to be uniform and the intonation is better.

You may not notice the textured feel so much but you will notice the change in sound. Rectified trebles are becoming popular with many guitarists for their sound.

D’Addario Pro Arte Rectified Nylon is an excellent option to explore this material. Each rectified treble string is “precision-ground utilizing proprietary center-less grinding technique. Roundness and dimension control are unsurpassed, thus ensuring absolutely perfect intonation.” The basses are silver-plated copper wound on nylon cores. The variants here are for different tensions (Amazon links):

Savarez has an entire series: 520 Traditional Series with rectified nylon trebles. The trebles are rectified “for consistent diameter end to end for good intonation.” Vibrato and overall control are better with rectified nylon trebles. Here are the tension variants to choose from (Amazon links):

As part of their popular Corum range of strings, the Savarez 500PR set has rectified nylon trebles with silver-plated copper-wound Corum Bass Strings. This set comes as a Normal Tension variant only.

Aquila has the Ambra 800 Romantic Guitar Strings 82C set (Strings by Mail link). In this case what is rectified are their proprietary Nylgut trebles instead of regular nylon treble. The basses are silk core wound with copper. It is an interesting and novel combination. There is only a Normal Tension variant.

The titanium option

Titanium based trebles are winning a name for their brightness and projection. As usual, your mileage will vary depending on your guitar (and need I say it, your ears).

D’Addario Pro-Arté Titanium Dynacore is a serious contender in this category where “each treble string is laser sorted for unsurpassed intonation consistency.” They are available in 3 tension variants (Amazon links).

In each case, the titanium trebles are paired with flexible composite core basses. The basses are well regarded for their rich tones and projection.

Hannabach 950 Titanyl Series have basses with a “high strength flexible core that are wound with a silver alloyed wire, producing a sonorous tone with beautiful clear overtones.” The trebles are titanium plus nylon for a “clear brilliant sound with quick response.” They come in two tension variants (Amazon links).

Galli Strings have the Genius Titanium line which pairs titanium nylon trebles with basses of silver-plated copper wire wound on a multifilament core. The sound is said to be powerful and bright with an extended dynamic range. Incidentally, this one is among the few string options I haven’t tried yet. But, rest assured, I will 😉

The ‘mixed’ option

Savarez has introduced a unique configuration with its Creation Series. The first two treble strings in the set are plain nylon, the 3rd string is carbon, and the basses are silver-plated copper wound. That’s brilliant! The best of all possible worlds.

The combination provides a great tone with the 3rd string providing a smooth transition from the silver-wound basses to the clear trebles. Projection is strong and they’re comfortable to play on. This is part of their best-selling 510 Cantiga Series and comes in various tensions (Amazon links).

  • 510MJ High Tension with 2 trebles of Cristal nylon, 3rd string Alliance carbon and high tension Cantiga basses
  • 510MR Normal Tension with 2 trebles of Cristal nylon, 3rd string Alliance carbon and high tension Cantiga basses
  • 510MRJ with an added twist of normal-tension trebles with high tension basses.

There is one variation of the popular Hannabach 815 Series that bears mention. The Hannabach 850 PSP uses smooth polished basses for reducing squeaks without loss in sustain. The trebles are the same as the ones in the 815 Series and together come in 2 tension variants (Amazon links).

_________________

If pressed for recommendations based on my own experience, I would not hesitate to name the following:

Normal Tension Recommendations

The Savarez Cantiga 510CR happens to be my favorite of all. For my guitar and to my ears.

High Tension Recommendations

Left field Recommendations

___________________

On a related aspect of why strings go out of tune on a classical guitar so frequently, read my article on Why Classical Guitars Go Out of Tune and How to Stop Them. You will breathe easy.

How often should you change your strings? Is there a rule? Glad you asked. Check out the solution in my article How Frequently Should You Change Your Strings.

Happy stringing!

Narayan Kumar

Narayan Kumar is a passionate classical guitarist and an online research buff. He is also one half of the online classical guitar duo DuJu who put out guitar duets regularly on their YouTube channel. Read more about Narayan.

2 thoughts on “Classical Guitar Strings: 5-Step Guide to Find what’s Right for You

  1. Very complete article, thanks for writing this. I have a few more options to try out now. 🙂

    One thing I’ve been doing is to take a few notes on the strings as I use them. I usually save the front cover of the packaging and just jot down a few likes and dislikes. That way, I can refer back to these notes and develop a favorite set.

  2. Thanks Jeffrey, that’s a great tip. My own reason for not doing it is the lazy person’s excuse: wherever is a pen or pencil to be found when I’m done with stringing? 😉

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