Acoustic guitar strings practically refuse to bend. What seems easy on an electric guitar looks almost impossible on an acoustic. So why is it so much easier to bend electric guitar strings?
Electric guitar strings are easier to bend because they are thinner than acoustic strings. A high E on an electric will typically be a 9-gauge but 12-gauge on an acoustic. Stringing electric strings on an acoustic guitar will result in an inferior tone and reduced volume.
Before you head out to buy some new strings, prepare yourself. The many choices available can be overwhelming. Between gauges, materials, and brands, you might decide to buy whatever is cheap or on the counter. This guide will help you pick out the right strings.
What Makes Electric Guitar Strings Easier To Bend?
Electric guitars are easier to bend because of their gauge, which refers to the thickness of the string. And because they are thinner, they have lower tension. Those two features of electric guitar strings combine to make them easier to bend.
String gauge sizes can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. So when you head to the store or order online, here’s what you really need to know:
- A guitar string’s gauge refers to its diameter. The diameter, or thickness, is measured by thousandths of an inch (1/1000 or .0001). A 10-gauge string, for example, is 0.010 inches (0.02 cm) thick.
- String packs are named for their thinnest string. A “10” refers to a 10-gauge, while an “11” means its thinnest string is 0.0110″ inch (0.027 cm) thick.
- The six numbers listed on a pack refer to the size of each string. For example, a 10 will typically have 10/13/17/26/36/46 strings. However, a package might list the lightest and thickest strings (10-46).
- Some brands prefer to use labels such as extra super-light or heavy. But since most guitarists refer to the diameter—the labels are basically meaningless. Also, light might mean 9 for one brand but an 8 for another. Look for the gauge size instead.
Brand new guitars typically come with a 9-42’s pack. If you are tempted to try an even lighter 8-38 pack, keep in mind that the strings might be too light for a beginner to learn how to bend.
A 10s pack is also excellent for beginners—still bendable, with a slightly more resonant tone. Stay away from 11s until you have mastered bending. These are often preferred by players who tune their guitars ½ step down or aren’t interested in bending.
Hint: The best guitar string gauge for you could be the one your favorite guitarist uses. Type “What guitar strings does ____ use?” into the Google search bar, and you will usually get not just the artist’s gauge size but also the guitar.
Can I String Electric Guitar Strings on an Acoustic Guitar?
You can string electric strings on your acoustic. Although you will be better able to bend with them, the electric strings will affect the guitar’s tone and volume.
The vibrations of the strings over the soundhole and body create the sound on an acoustic guitar. These vibrations not only influence the volume but the tone quality as well. Since electric guitar strings are designed to interact with the guitar’s pickups, they don’t create enough vibrations to generate the volume of acoustic strings.
Also, the lighter gauge strings will not supply enough force and tension to achieve an acoustic guitar tone. Most importantly, an acoustic guitar strung with electric strings will be too quiet. So while you might be able to bend on an acoustic guitar with electric strings, it won’t sound as good, and you’ll have a harder time being heard.
If you want to bend on an acoustic guitar, learn how to do so correctly on an electric. Once you can do so, switch over to your acoustic. Also, face the fact that you won’t be able to bend as far as you can on an electric.
How Can I Improve My Bending Technique?
When you first learn to bend, it can seem impossible, but you can improve your technique. If you think of bending as a whole hand process, you will be more successful.
- If your nails are long, trim them and practice bending with the skin of your fingertip.
- Move the thumb up to hook just over the top of the guitar neck, giving you additional control and support.
- Use other fingers to give you added strength. When bending with the third finger, for example, you can generally support the same string with the index and second fingers slightly behind it.
- When making a bend, the fingers don’t move much at first; instead, rotate your wrist.
- Straighten your fingers for full note bends, keeping a slight curl in them.
- When you release the string, don’t just let it go. Instead, use the same movement, control, and pace.
If you want to get better at bending, practice, but don’t overdo it. You want to strengthen the muscles in your hand, not damage them.
What Are the Best Guitar Strings for Bending?
The typical electric string consists of nickel-plated steel wrapped around a hexagonal steel core. Pure nickel and chrome strings are two options, but you might not want their warmer tone.
The various materials provide different characteristics in the tone of your guitar. So let’s take a closer look at each metal and see how it affects your tone:
- Nickel-plated steel strings provide an excellent blend of brightness and warmth. As a result, these strings are the preferred choice among guitarists.
- Stainless steel strings have a bright, sharp tone. They are corrosion resistant and therefore last longer. They are ideal for guitarists who want a lot of sustain.
- Pure nickel strings have a warm tone and are frequently utilized to create an early rock and blues sound.
- Chrome strings are highly warm and less resonant. Many jazz guitarists prefer them.
The nickel-plated strings will bend easier, meaning they won’t break as often. Although stainless steel strings last longer, steel is a harder metal, so it can hurt your fingertips. Also, stainless steel has a reputation for wearing out guitar frets.
It’s easier to change out strings than frets, so nickel-plated or pure nickel is a better option, especially for beginners.
The Dean Markley 7-String NickelSteel Signature Series (available on Amazon.com) are 9-54 gauge highly-rated strings. Seven strings means that the set has an extra 9-gauge E-string because that’s the one most likely to break.
Tip: If your fingertips break out in blisters and rashes, you might have a nickel allergy.
What Else Can I Do To Improve My Bending?
A better technique is not the only way to improve your bending skills. You might need to make some adjustments to your guitar fretboard or neck. These include raising the string height or changing the frets.
Raising the String Height
The string height, or action, plays a role in how well you can bend notes. Strings that are higher off the fretboard make grabbing and catching a string easier.
On the other hand, a guitar with less action is easier to play. Guitarists often aim for the lowest action that avoids the dreaded buzz. The height you select depends on your skill level. Beginners should have low action until they have more hand strength and have moved beyond the basics.
Although raising or lowering the string height is not as complicated as some other guitar adjustments, you should consider having a luthier do it for you. If you want a step-by-step guide to maintaining and repairing both electric and acoustic guitars, the Guitar Player Repair Guide (available on Amazon.com) is an excellent guide.
Use Taller Frets
Taller frets, whether narrow or wide, can make bending easier. Taller frets are easier to bend on (unless they’re worn down). Narrow taller frets also give you a bit more finger room on the fretboard, which is an advantage for guitarists who prefer bending in higher positions.
When you play a guitar with a higher fret, you can press more of the string without contacting the fretboard. Also, you will have a better grip on the string. Finally, there will be less friction against the fretboard. These three factors combined make it easier to bend with higher frets.
It is possible to replace the frets yourself, and it’s not hard to find videos that guide you through the process. After watching a few or looking over this Poor Man’s Fret Job Instructable, you might decide to have your local guitar shop recommend someone to do the work.
The Fretboard Radius
The radius of a fretboard refers to the curve of the board. Generally, chording is easier on a rounder fretboard, but you can more easily bend on a flatter one. Most guitars today have either a 7.25” (184 mm) or a 9.5” (241 mm) radius.
The formula for measuring a fretboard’s radius is complicated. You could do it yourself, but the spec sheet of your guitar will tell you what it is.
If you have difficulty bending even using the proper technique, check your guitar’s specs. Chording will be easier on a 9.5” fretboard, and easier still on a 12” (305 mm) radius. When you check out the specs, you might see a range of numbers.
This means the fingerboard’s curvature gradually flattens toward the body. Guitarists find the rounder radius at the headstock makes chording easier, and the flatter radius improves soloing and bending.
Unfortunately, changing the fretboard radius is a time-consuming and expensive process, and you might be better off buying another neck for your axe if that is possible.
Consider trying some fresh strings if you’re having trouble with bending. The strings on your guitar are where emotion is transformed into sound. Your strings may either work for you or against you when it comes to bending. If you’re a beginner, start with thinner strings. Once you’ve mastered bending, then try heavier gauges until you get the sound you want.