I saw this question floating around on the internet recently. Will electric guitar strings work on an acoustic guitar?
The short answer is: putting electric strings on an acoustic won’t damage it, but they won’t sound very good and the guitar won’t be setup correctly for the considerable drop in string tension. Additionally, you may experience damage in the long term on the nut and saddle if you end up going back to standard acoustic strings.
Nickel or similar electric guitar string material won’t sound great on an acoustic, and honestly a new set of acoustic strings is pretty cheap. Also, you should be changing strings regularly, so stop skimping on strings and buy these strings below. You can also get them in bulk discounts right there on Amazon. Pick up a handful of sets and you’ll be good for the next year or so.
Difference in String Gauge
If you’re asking this, you probably broke a string on your acoustic and have a standard set of electric guitar strings laying around but not a set of acoustic strings. The first problem is string gauge. A standard electric set will be 10-46 or 9-42. Learn what those numbers mean in my article Choosing the Right Electric Guitar String Gauge: or Why I Love 11s.
On the other hand, a standard set of acoustic strings will typically start at 12 and go to 53 or 54. With guitar strings, the thicker, or heavier the gauge, the more volume or tone that will come out of the instrument. Heavier gauge strings require more tension to be brought up to pitch in turn exacting more pressure on the bridge and top of the guitar.
This increased pressure works like a volume knob on your acoustic. Because of this, the difference between a set of 10s and 12s will become incredibly apparent on an acoustic guitar, and the smaller electric strings will sound wimpy and give you a hollow tone with little volume.
Difference in Materials
Electric guitar strings are made of materials like steel, nickel, and other magnetically conductive elements that are optimized for inducing vibrations in the magnetic fields created by electric guitar pickups.
Acoustic strings on the other hand are made from acoustically resonant materials that create a warm, yet bright and articulate tone that sound great when amplified through natural materials. Acoustic strings are typically made from steel, phosphor bronze, brass, and other alloys that create the warm tone of an acoustic guitar.
Putting electric guitar strings on an acoustic guitar will sound more metallic with less mid-range warmth that you typically get out of an acoustic string.
Material differences and gauge are the two main reasons for sound differences in electric and acoustic guitar strings. Remember that electric strings are made for optimal interaction with the magnetic fields generated by the pickups, while the warmth of an acoustic string is amplified by the wood of the acoustic guitar body.
These strings are fundamentally different because they are amplified in different ways.
There is a great video from Stringjoy that tests this very question. Check it out below. The one downside of this test is that it is done on a Fender FA-135 acoustic. This is a very inexpensive acoustic, the type I suggest staying away from in: The Best Beginner Fender Guitars. A nicer acoustic guitar would highlight the difference between electric strings and acoustic strings on an acoustic guitar much better.
Will Putting Electric Strings on an Acoustic Damage the Guitar?
Putting electric strings on an acoustic isn’t going to sound that great, but will it actually damage the guitar? There are a couple of things to consider here. First let’s look at the overall string tensions.
As we already figured out in Should I Detune My Guitar After I Play It?, a set of D’Addario EJ16 12-53 standard acoustic strings (the set I recommended above) has a total tension of 160.54 lbs while a standard set of EXL110 10-46 electric guitar strings has a total tension of 102.52 lbs.
D’Addario EXL110 Guitar String Tension
|String||lbs of pressure|
An electric guitar string set has 36% less tension than a standard set of acoustic guitar strings. Talk about slinky. There is no possibility of too much pressure on the top of the guitar from the set of electric strings.
String tension however, isn’t the only thing to worry about. I’ve mentioned before the dangers of changing to a larger diameter string from a smaller one. The biggest is that you can break the nut on your guitar by shoving a too large string into a too small nut slot.
However, this is most likely the other way around, electric strings generally always being smaller in gauge than acoustic strings.
Can too small of strings damage a guitar? Not in the short term. However, prolonged use of too small strings will start to create grooves in the nut slots and on the bridge saddle. These new grooves aren’t dangerous in themselves, although you may get some strange buzzing and intonation issues. But when going back to the correct gauge, it’ll be like a too big string in a too small slot and you’ll run the risk of splitting the nut or chipping the saddle.
If it’s a temporary fix in an emergency, there will be no damage done to an acoustic guitar by putting electric strings on it. The most common occurrence of this will be a high e or B string breaking and only having the electric equivalent lying around. It won’t be the best sounding, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Effect on the Acoustic Guitar Setup with Electric Strings
String tension plays a large role in the overall setup of a guitar. Given the 36% decrease between the standard sets of acoustic and electric string tensions listed above, there will be a significant movement of the guitar neck, and a little bit in the top and bridge of the acoustic guitar.
The most likely scenario is that the guitar neck will gain more relief, no longer providing the required fret clearance which will result in very low action, bringing out fret buzz and potential for notes to choke out. Changing string gauge on any guitar requires a setup to remain in good playing condition.
For these reasons, using electric strings on an acoustic should only be done in a pinch when acoustic strings aren’t available.
Intentionally Using Electric Strings on Acoustic
You may be reading this and saying, “but that’s the exact sound I’m going for!” Again, if properly set up, your acoustic guitar will not be damaged by using electric guitar strings on it. If you’re specifically going for a trashy, Oscar the Grouch meets Tom Waits kinda vibe, then go for it. This can work extremely well for some good foot stompin’ blues. Throw in some slide and you’ve got a pretty unique rig.
I wouldn’t go lighter than 11s if I was putting electric strings on an acoustic. These will be a lot closer to the standard acoustic string tension, require less setup changes, and output a little bit more volume. Start with a set of standard nickel plated steel and work your way from there. Because the guitar is amplifying the acoustic properties of the string, you’ll hear more nuance between material makeup, like pure nickel, nickel plated steel, and cobalt.
String up the guitar and bring the strings to pitch watching the nut and bridge saddle closely to make sure there isn’t any binding that will cause trouble later.
Now check the neck relief. You’ll probably have to make a truss rod adjustment in order to correct for less tension. Play every note on the fretboard and make sure that notes aren’t choking out or have excessive fret buzz.
There you go, now get that whisky bottle and make some nasty blues.
Acoustic Guitar Hurts my Hands or Fingers, Will Electric Strings Make My Acoustic Easier to Play?
It’s not uncommon for beginner guitar players to encounter this issue early on. Learning guitar can be quite difficult as you have to train the muscles in your fingers, hands, forearms, upper arms, and shoulders in ways they probably haven’t been used before. On top of this, the tips of the fingers have to develop calluses where the finger meets the string.
Developing these calluses can be very painful and frustrating, causing a new player to put their guitar down and not pick it up again.
Make sure your guitar is set up correctly
First, if you’re having trouble fretting notes on your guitar, take it to either an experienced player, or a repair tech who can tell you if your guitar is setup correctly. Proper string height, especially in the first three frets truly makes all the difference for new players. If the string height is too high, it’ll be incredibly difficult and painful to learn those open chords.
Too high of string height (referred to as action) will also make fretting clean notes difficult, and throw off the intonation of the instrument. If the intonation is off then no matter how hard you try to keep the guitar in tune, your chords will always be a little out. Again, this can be incredibly frustrating for a new player and potentially catastrophic to their learning.
If you’re wondering if your guitar is setup correctly, take it in for a second opinion. A poor setup could mean the difference between someone setting a guitar down and never picking it back up, or gaining a meaningful hobby or career.
Acoustic Strings for Tendonitis or Hand Pain
If you’re experiencing tendonitis, hand pain, or any other lingering pain you don’t think is normal, make sure that the guitar is setup correctly. Setups can be tailored to meet the needs of the guitar player, and I’ve set up many guitars for people with arthritis who need something that takes an extremely light touch.
Strings can also be altered to something with lighter tension or different construction to aid in the ease of playing.
Option 1: Standard Phosphor Bronze Acoustic strings in an extra light gauge. A standard set is most often described as “light gauge” and go from 12 to 53. A custom light set will run from 11-52 and an extra light set from 10-47. See the chart below for the overall string tensions of these different sets.
EJ17 (.013 – .056)
EJ16 (.012 – .053)
EJ26 (.011 – .052)
EJ15 (.010 – .047)
Option 2: Tommy Emmanuel’s string of choice: Martin Acoustic FX. These are another great option, not quite as slinky or soft as nylon core “silk” acoustic strings, but they have great tone and thinner steel cores which make them easy to play.
Go with this option if you don’t need something as soft as a silk string, but you want something that has a bit more give than a standard set of phosphor bronze strings.
Option 3: D’Addario Silk and Steel Folk Strings. These are awesome strings that have a great mellow tone with slightly lower overall volume compared to standard phosphor bronze strings. String tension drops by 21% which will feel great on the fingers, and the construction makes the strings much more manageable to play.
Instead of a steel core with metal windings, these strings use a nylon core which makes them feel much easier on the fingers and are great for folk style playing.
I recommend trying the D’Addario EJ40 Silk & Steel strings for your acoustic if you’re experiencing hand or arm pain.
Can I Put Classical Strings on an Acoustic Guitar?
No, you cannot put classical strings on an acoustic guitar meant for steel strings. Most sets of classical strings are meant to be wound around the bridge and do not have a ball end that fit into a normal acoustic guitar’s bridge.
If you want a classical like string on your acoustic guitar, try the EJ40 Silk and Steel strings described above.
The bigger problem is that nylon classical strings are much thicker. The nut slots of your acoustic guitar won’t be cut wide enough to take a classical string. Even though the classical string has less tension on it than a steel string, you still want to be careful of cracking or splitting a nut if the string is larger than the nut slot.
Finally, you’ll notice that classical guitars have a much higher action than acoustic steel string guitars. Part of the reason for this is that a larger, lower tensioned classical string needs more room to vibrate. If you were to put classical strings on an acoustic (barring the nut problems mentioned above), you’ll be getting all sorts of fret buzz and playability issues. While I haven’t tried this myself, I can pretty well guess it would render your guitar completely useless.
In a pinch, electrics strings will work on an acoustic guitar. They will not damage your guitar, but might not sound the best and probably require some setup work for the guitar to play correctly.