Bluegrass music puts a special kind of demand on strings. Not only do you rely on them to give you the right bright twang to your sound, the quick tempos and aggressive picking can destroy a string not built strong enough to stand up to it. A heavier string can also help give you more power, making sure your sound can hold its own against the other instruments in the ensemble.
Most bluegrass players find that medium-gauge strings give them the right balance of snap and strength. Beyond that, you’ve got a lot of options. The material of the strings, how they’re wound, and the way they’re treated after production are all factors that can influence your ultimate tone.
If all of the different options on the market are a bit overwhelming, the four strings listed below are all industry-tested options that will let any guitar feel at home on the bluegrass stage. They’re, in our humble opinion, the best bluegrass guitar strings on the market.
The hard, fast strumming involved in bluegrass music can wreak havoc on your strings, and you need a strong, durable string to keep up. Martin’s medium-gauge phosphor bronze strings are specially coated to make them last longer—no more frustrating string breaks in the middle of your set. They’re ideally suited to flatpicking styles. The tone they give you is bright and responsive, powerful enough through the mid- and bottom end to make sure you can be heard over the twang of your banjo player, and incredibly responsive to dynamic and stylistic changes.
For many people, the Martin brand is synonymous with bluegrass music, and they make a wide variety of bluegrass strings to suit all playing styles and tastes. The MSP3250 are a versatile string, gauged to work for either flatpickers or fingerpickers. They give you even more power than the 4250 model above, with a boost on the 4th and 5th strings to bring out your mid-range. This gives your tone an overall darker and warmer color, and some people find this strings give you the roundest tone of all Martin varieties. They’re responsive, strong, and brilliant in the high end—everything you’re looking for to make sure your sound stands out in the mix. They’re easily among the best bluegrass guitar strings.
John Pearse P650
These medium gauge 80/20 bronze strings are phosphor wound to give them more power and resonance. They give you a bright tone that’s even across the strings and range and always gives you even pressure between the frets. The consistency of these strings is impressive, both between batches and in terms of the balance between the strings. When you buy John Pearse strings, you know exactly what you’re getting every time. With their combination of power and articulation, these strings make any acoustic guitar sound like a bluegrass guitar, adding an extra bite to your sound.
Like the John Pearse strings above, these D’Addario strings are wrapped and made of a phosphor bronze alloy. The EJ19s are a medium light gauge, however—not quite as heavy as most bluegrass strings, and as a consequence more flexible. This makes these strings perfect for pickers and gives you more control. The tone is strong but not as bright as wider-gauge bluegrass strings. This means you get plenty of volume without sacrificing the mid and low frequencies of your sound. The sound is perfect right out of the package, and stays that way through countless gigs and jam sessions. These should be on anyone’s list of the best bluegrass guitar strings.
The gauge of a string is essentially its thickness, measured in thousandths of an inch. Lighter strings are easier to play and more flexible, but also break more quickly and give you less power and sustain. Heavier strings take more pressure and can be harder on your fingers, but they’ll give your playing more volume and resonance.
With a bluegrass string, you’re looking for something that will give you both strength and flexibility. On the one hand, you have to be able to play fast without wearing out your fingers. On the other hand, you need a lot of project to compete with the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle—all other instruments that play in a similar register but with a brighter timber that can easily bury the guitar sound if it’s not strong enough. Medium gauge strings are usually preferred because they give you a balance of both qualities, though medium-light gauge strings will also work for players in smaller ensembles, or those whose guitars naturally have a powerful presence.
Just like the tonewoods that make up the guitar’s body, the metals used in making the strings will lend a certain character and color to your sound. There are a few popular options. Bronze strings tend to have a bright and clear tone, though they aren’t as durable—bronze oxidizes quickly, leading to weak points in the string. Phosphor bronze strings add an alloy that strengthens the bronze and makes them more durable. It also darkens the tone, making it warmer and richer. Brass strings tend to sound more metallic than bronze strings. They’re brighter and twangier, with less sustain.
Most players prefer phosphor bronze strings for bluegrass. The extra durability is nice, considering how much of a beating the strings take. The tone is also better suited to the genre. A lot of the instruments in a bluegrass ensemble tend toward the bright side, especially the mandolin and banjo. By adding a bit of warmth to the guitar tone, you give a bit more strength to the mid-range spectrum, helping to keep the overall sound from coming off as tinny or thin.
You might also find strings that have been coated with polymers after their production. This can be done either to alter the tone or to lengthen the life of the string. Typically a coated string will have a shorter sustain and a darker tone than an uncoated version of the same strength and material. The corrosion resistance also means the string is more consistent, maintaining the same tone for longer as opposed to especially bronze uncoated strings. All of these characteristics can be a benefit for a bluegrass player.
Experimenting with different combinations of strengths and materials can help you fine tune your guitar’s tone to perfection and ultimately lead you to the best bluegrass guitar strings for your own personal needs. Good luck!