Stainless steel has been around for well over a century and is cherished as a building material for its strength and resistance to corrosion. Since guitar strings are often made of steel, and their performance suffers as they begin to rust, it would make perfect sense that stainless steel should be a viable material in their designs. But is this the case?
Are stainless steel guitar strings good? Stainless steel strings for electric and acoustic guitar/bass have windings that are much more resistant to corrosion than their alloy counterparts, affording them greater durability and magnetism. Their tone is often considered bright, and they’re generally harder to play due to increased hardness.
In this article, we’ll discuss what stainless steel strings actually are, their pros and cons, and whether they have any utility or if they’re merely a gimmick.
A Short Primer On Guitar Strings
Ever since the advent of “steel-string guitars” (acoustic and electric), string makers have supplied musicians with a wide variety of string builds to cater to all budgets, playing styles, and preferences. The invention of the electric guitar also brought about new demands when it came to strings, introducing other properties such as magnetism as prevalent talking points among guitar experts.
Acoustic, electric and bass guitarists alike must frequently cope with damaged, worn, or rusty strings. Normally speaking, metal strings are meant to be changed often, especially acoustic and electric guitar strings. Experts claim that restringing should be done every 3 months or 100 playing hours, as the strings lose their original punch and tonality.
Some manufacturers have tried to find ways to craft corrosion-resistant strings. For example, Elixir is touted as the pioneer of coated strings, consisting of mostly wound strings that have a layer of polymer applied to them. Others offer stainless steel strings which are supposed to provide much more durability than normal steel alloys used to wrap electric or acoustic guitar strings, such as bronze, nickel, or nickel-plated.
Elixir is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best Electric Guitar String Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Best Bass Guitar String Brands On The Market
Are Stainless Steel Guitar Strings Good?
The answer to this question depends on what is meant by “good”. Stainless steel has many aspects to boast about, such as endurance. Also, the sound that stems from stainless steel strings is much brighter, and they have higher magnetism in contrast to most other electric guitar strings.
In general, we may say that stainless steel strings are good but could perhaps not offer the right tone for your instrument.
Depending on your playing style and musical approach, you may enjoy or disdain stainless steel strings. If you crave hard rock or metal, stainless steel strings can be a fantastic choice. However, nickel strings have a more encompassing and defined tone, perfect for jazz or classic rock lovers.
Nevertheless, you may not find stainless steel strings as comfortable to fret compared to the other electric guitar string offerings due to their increased hardness. Nickel, on the other hand, has a much softer feel under the fingertips. In the end, you’ll have to decide if you are ready to sacrifice brightness in tone over playability.
Speaking of hardness, some guitarists attest to the fact that stainless steel strings are more taxing on the frets, which can be a deciding factor for many guitar owners.
What Are Stainless Steel Strings?
The answer to this question might be obvious to most experienced guitarists. However, there are often misconceptions regarding how strings are built.
In a broad sense, a guitar string consists of three parts:
- Core: Basically the thin piece of cylindrical steel wire that runs across the length of the string. There are two types of core construction: round core and hex-core. Round cores are the traditional way cores are built, but, in recent years, hex-core has proven to be more successful in holding a tune and resisting breakage.
- Winding: Comprises the material that is woven around the wire core of the string. There are 3 winding styles: round wound, flat wound, and ground (half) wound. Flatwound strings carry a clearer sound than roundwound strings, but they suffer in the sustain department.
- Coating: A layer of polymer or other material that is evenly applied to the entire string, usually to protect it from corrosion or degradation.
Acoustic and electric guitar strings are ordinarily made with a steel alloy (mostly iron with a bit of carbon) wire core running across the length of the string. Ideas for stainless steel cores (mostly iron with at least 10.5% chromium, less than 1.2% carbon and other alloying elements) have been brought forward before.
However, as of today, there has been no further development in this regard. Plain carbon steel is still favoured among string makers due to its higher tensile strength and hardness.
With that said, when string sets are advertised as “stainless steel strings”, this generally only refers to the bass notes’ outer windings. The treble notes or plain wire cores are still typically made of plain steel. This means that you may still have to watch out for the treble notes because they’re more subjected to the action of the elements.
To reiterate why stainless steel guitar strings are harder than “regular strings” is to restate that the stainless steel in stainless steel strings makes up the outer winding on the bass notes. This stainless steel winding is harder than the typical nickel-plated steel, pure nickel, cobalt or zinc-plated steel windings of electric guitar strings or the typical 80/20 copper/zinc, phosphor bronze, aluminum bronze or nickel windings of acoustic strings. Stainless steel tends to be harder than these alloys/metals in the outer winding.
Before stainless steel became the corrosion-resistant string material of choice by the late 1960s, steel and pure nickel strings were crafted with a zinc coating to act as a barrier from corrosive agents.
Famous blues guitarists such as Eric Clapton are credited with inspiring the transition from zinc-coated steel strings to stainless steel strings. They were demanding long-lasting strings that could be more maneuverable and allowed for wider bends, all the while providing greater returns in sound output.
Note that stainless steel strings can also be coated for improved corrosion resistance (remember that the core is still typically prone to corrosion). Coating will have the effect of dulling the tone somewhat and making the strings feel a bit softer, which could be of great benefit with the relatively bright and hard stainless steel winding.
Furthermore, stainless steel strings can be wound flat or round, just like “normal” strings.
Pros & Cons Of Stainless Steel Strings
We will be taking nickel and nickel-plated strings as the primary reference points for comparison when speaking of pros and cons, as stainless steel strings are frequently pitted against the former two, particularly when delving into the subject of electric guitar strings.
We can summarize the pros and cons of stainless steel strings as follows:
Pros Of Stainless Steel Strings
- Stainless steel strings tend to last a lot longer than ordinary nickel or nickel-plated steel strings due to corrosion resistance.
- Stainless steel strings deliver a much punchier tone and greater sustain due to their hardness and their high magnetic properties, allowing for more interplay with the guitar’s pickup or soundbox.
- Stainless steel strings a perfect alternative to guitarists who are allergic to nickel.
• Top 6 Tips To Prevent Guitar & Bass Strings From Rusting
Cons Of Stainless Steel Strings
- The hard, bright sound of stainless steel strings may be distasteful for guitarists who prefer a mellower tone.
- Stainless steel strings are far harder to fret and not as flexible to bend.
- The hardness of stainless steel strings can cause frets and nuts to quickly wear out.
- Stainless steel strings are not as easy to play with a regular plastic pick/plectrum.
• Which Guitar Strings Are Easiest On The Fingers?
When comparing stainless steel with other offerings such as cobalt, the differences may be harder to discern when it comes to tone, but stainless steel would still take the upper hand in terms of resistance.
If we speak in the context of acoustic guitar strings, stainless steel strings will not deliver the best performance when compared to their usual bronze or phosphor bronze equivalents. Reasons for this include the increased hardness (acoustic guitars can already be difficult to play) and increased brightness (which may or may not be necessary).
Furthermore, the increased magnetism of stainless steel strings often isn’t necessary for electric-acoustic guitars, which rely on piezoelectric pickups rather than magnetic pickups.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.