When we look at the market for guitar strings, we'll often find distinctions between the types of guitars each set is meant for. Since most acoustic and electric guitar strings have steel cores (as opposed to the nylon cores of classical guitar strings), there may be some questions regarding whether acoustic and electric guitar strings are interchangeable.
Can acoustic strings go on an electric guitar and vice versa? Acoustic guitar strings will technically work on electric guitar because their cores are magnetic and will interact with the magnetic pickup, though at a lower output. Electric guitar strings will technically work on acoustic guitar, though their lower vibration will cause lower volume.
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings, how they're designed to suit their respective instruments, and how they could work when strung to the other guitar type.
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Can I Use Acoustic Strings On Electric Guitar & Vice Versa?
However, between an acoustic and an electric guitar, there is a drastic dissimilarity in architecture. Acoustic guitars and any other hollow-bodied guitar rely on the disposition of the soundbox to make the notes audible. On the other hand, electric guitars have a different system, consisting of a magnetic pickup that transforms the vibration from the strings into electric signals that are then transferred to the amplifier.
Having this in mind, you may find yourself in a situation where you may only have electric guitar strings for your acoustic guitar or vice-versa. Being that they're similar in build, many people may be under the impression that they can work distinctively.
Theoretically, electric guitar strings will work on acoustic guitars, and acoustic strings will work on electric guitars. However, the results will vary depending on the specific situation.
In the case of acoustic guitars, electric guitar strings (regardless of whether they're made of cobalt, nickel, nickel-plated, stainless steel, or similar) should be able to work, as in, they should render audible notes.
However, be mindful that acoustic guitar strings are generally heavier in order to compensate for resonance and vibrate at greater volumes. Electric guitars, in contrast, don't demand such gauges, and their strings are normally thinner. With electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar, you may experience a lower volume and some fret buzz while playing.
With regards to electric guitars, there may be some extra handicaps. Electric guitar strings are made with materials that possess high magnetic properties so that the pickup detects their vibration.
The usual bronze wound strings of an acoustic guitar do not have such properties and, therefore, they will have a hard time rendering notes on an electric guitar. While they may still be able to produce audible notes (due to their steel alloy core), you will notice a stark contrast in strength and volume. In short, they will sound much duller.
Also, since acoustic guitar strings are heavier, you may run into difficulties with overlapping. Moreover, this can create further problems with the neck and bridge, which are not built to bear the strings' massive gauge and tension.
In short, you should only opt for acoustic guitar strings in emergency cases and for short periods. Otherwise, it's not worth a try. There are not as many drawbacks if you try attaching electric guitar strings on acoustic guitars, but you'll get much better results with strings designed specifically for the instrument you play.
For better illustration, in the following paragraphs, we'll detail the main differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings.
Differences Between Acoustic & Electric Guitar Strings
Let's discuss the differences between acoustic and electric guitar strings beginning with acoustic strings.
Acoustic Guitar Strings
Acoustic guitars need hard and heavy guitar strings to get better resonance from the soundbox, which is the orifice present in all hollow-bodied guitars. The mechanism for sound delivery is as follows:
- As the string is acted upon, it vibrates and produces a soundwave by pushing the air molecules around it.
- The vibration produced disturbs the bridge and, in turn, also the soundbox.
- The vibration of the soundbox causes more air molecules to be set into motion, producing the sound.
The most common materials used for acoustic guitar strings are:
- 80/20 bronze (or brass): They are a mix of 80% copper and 20% zinc (which technically make it brass; bronze is an allow of copper and tin). Their sound output is very lauded, but they are very susceptible to oxidizing quickly.
- Phosphor bronze: They are the same 80/20 bronze with a small amount of phosphor added to attain corrosion resistance.
- Silk and steel: These are appreciated for their low tension and versatility, rendering a milder tone (similar to nylon) and a smoother feel under the fingers.
Note that the three naturally magnetic elements are iron, cobalt and nickel. Of the elements regularly used in acoustic strings, it's only the steel cores that contain magnetic material. Steel is an alloy made mostly of iron with trace amounts of carbon (typically under a tenth of a percent). Stainless steel adds a minimum of about 11% chromium to the alloy.
The pre-packaged sets have different gauge settings. The lowest and highest values are (from low-E to high-E):
- Extra Light: From .010 to .047.
- Heavy: From .014 to .059.
There is no golden rule on which gauge range to choose, but you may notice variations in sound and playability. Nevertheless, to pick the best choice, you should consider factors such as the body of the guitar and your particular playing style.
In that order, lighter-gauge strings are more adequate for parlour guitars (3/4 size) because heavier strings can potentially affect the neck long-term. Conversely, the dreadnought should have heavier-gauge strings installed to withstand the tension.
The playing style should also be accounted for. If you are more interested in fingerpicking, lighter gauges are perhaps the best choice. If you lean more towards strumming, using heavy gauges may bring more wholesome tones, but you may have to get used to the fretting.
Finally, acoustic guitars work best with roundwound strings. Flatwound strings do not have enough sustain and end up sounding muted on an acoustic guitar.
Electric Guitar Strings
Electric guitars do not need heavy-gauge strings to render audible notes. However, the most important attribute to consider is the material they're made of since it needs to produce enough magnetism to interact sufficiently with the pickup.
Roughly speaking, sounds in electric guitars are produced as follows:
- As the magnetic strings are played, they vibrate.
- This vibration is detected by the pickup, which, as the name suggests, is a magnetic device embedded into the body of the guitar that “picks up” the movement of the strings.
- The pickup transforms this vibration into an electric signal which, depending on the frequency, will render a specific note.
- This note is then amplified by a device called an “amplifier”, which consists of a speaker with various control modules to tweak or equalize the sound.
Electric guitar strings are most commonly made of the following materials:
- Pure nickel: Probably the earliest guitar string type built for electric guitars. They're characterized for their warmer tone, fitting for old genres such as jazz or blues.
- Nickel-plated steel: They mix the brightness of steel and the mellowness of nickel.
- Cobalt: These are known to have a great sound definition when compared to most nickel strings. They're also brighter in sound and more durable.
- Steel: Known for being the brightest-sounding strings. Suited for genres that require more punchy tones, such as pop, rock, or metal music.
Once again, the three naturally magnetic elements are iron, cobalt and nickel. Notice how the cores and windings of electric guitar strings are made of magnetic materials.
These are the most common gauge setting for the pre-packaged sets:
- Extra Light: From .008 to .038.
- Heavy: From .012 to .054.
As you may notice, electric guitar strings are much lighter compared to the gauges found in acoustic guitar sets. This is due to many reasons, but the main reason is that the sound is not conditioned by the string's mass, as explained earlier. Additionally, electric guitars are ordinarily built with narrower necks than acoustic or classical guitars, and, therefore, the strings need to be lighter to avoid overlap.
To choose gauges for electric guitars, the same criteria used for acoustic guitar strings apply. You should consider the overall body type of the guitar, as well as your playing style. For example, a Les Paul or similar Gibson-style scale length guitar can cope with larger gauges since it produces less tension than a higher-scaled Fender or Ibanez guitar while sporting a slightly wider neck (though the difference is negligible).
What About Nylon Strings On Electric Guitar?
Using a special type of pickup called a piezo pickup, you may be able to amplify the sound of nylon strings, regardless of whether they're attached to an electric or acoustic guitar. Surprisingly, provided that you use long nylon strings with ball-ends, you'll be able to try them on electric guitars, although it requires a bit of tweaking.
The main difference between a piezo pickup and a magnetic pickup is that it acts more like a “regular” microphone and picks up the vibration using crystals instead of magnets to create the electric signals necessary to amplify the sounds.
Piezo pickups work with piezoelectric materials (known as crystals) that, when subjected to varying pressure (vibrations within the guitar body), become slightly deformed (compressed and expanded) and produce an AC voltage (audio signal).
The piezo pickup doesn't require any special skill or knowledge on the part of the player to be installed properly. They are mostly attached as an add-on below the bridge.
This should generally be deemed a merely experimental feat, as nylon strings generally do not withstand the tension exerted by an electric guitar's body for long, and you risk damaging the guitar's nut. Moreover, you'll experience a lot of slippage, and the returns in sound quality are usually not very impressive when you compare them with those of a classical guitar.
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