Best Guitar Strings for the Blues

Gibson BB King Signature strings

Playing Blues guitar is all about feel and tone... so what are the best strings for the Blues? Not an easy question to answer (along with "what is the best guitar for the Blues?"), but we'll try to give some tips and look at what strings the best blues guitarists use...

Do you need Heavy Strings for Blues?

Conventional wisdom is that you need heavy gauge strings for a great Blues tone. Certainly early Blues players would use heavy strings,

as there wasn't much alternative - it's only since the sixties and seventies that custom gauge strings have been widely available. People often quote the fact that Stevie Ray Vaughan played with very heavy strings, sometimes taking this to extremes and playing with .018 to .074 sets. But remember he did tune down half a tone to Eb (and sometimes used superglue on his fingertips!). There's little doubt that heavy gauge strings can help you achieve a great tone, but be careful not to sacrifice playability. If you're not used to heavy gauge strings they can inhibit you from plying well and you might be better off with, say, 10's and a natural style than 12s with a great tone but weak bends.

Why use Heavy Strings?

Tone is a combination of many things - your guitar, strings, pick-ups, amp you use, your amp set-up and, of course, your skill and playing style. But it is true that, all other things being equal, thicker (heavier gauge) strings generally give a better tone. 9 gauge strings will sound much weaker than 11's, giving a thinner sound and less sustain; with heavier strings you get more mid and low frequencies. The problem with heavy gauge strings is that they're really tough on the fingers and difficult to bend notes - something that's essential for playin' the Blues. The best way around this is to either just build up your strength with hours of practice or to tune down a semitone - an instant fix to the bending problem but a challenge in playing everything in strange keys...

But I can't handle Heavy Strings

It's worth remembering that the feeling you get playing with different gauge strings will also differ depending on what kind of guitar you use. You can bend strings much easier on guitars with a longer scale length, such as Gibson, whereas Fender guitars have shorter scale length and will be more diffilcult to bend thicker strigs as the tension will be greater. If you're used to playing 9s, you obviously don't want to go straight to 13s! Work your way up and remember that it is possible to get "half gauge" strings, so you can try 9s, 9.5s, 10s, 10.5s, 11s...

What about Pure Nickel or Stainless Steel Strings?

Most modern electric guitar strings are Nickel-plated steel and these offer a good compromise between cost, longevity and tone. However, there are two other common options - Stainless Steel and Pure Nickel. Stainless Steel strings are generally too bright for a classic Blues sound, but Pure Nickel can be a great choice for the Blues guitar player. You'll pay a little more, but Pure Nickel give a warmth and depth of sound that is ideal for a Blues tone.

What do/did the great Blues Guitarists play?

John Lee Hooker used both open A and standard tuning and Endorsed Dean Markley Strings

Stevie Ray Vaughan always used heavy strings, bt often changed gauges, depending on the condition of his fingers - a typical choice would be .013, .015, .019, .028, .038, .058. Sometimes he used a slightly lighter high E string (.012 or .011), but with there other strings the same. He always tuned down one half step, to reduce the string tension and make tehm more playable.

Buddy Guy uses 10's

B.B. King uses 10's or 11's and endorses a special Gibson Signature gauge set - .010 - 0.54, with Pure Nickel wraps. (see below)

Scott McKeon is recognised as one of the best blues modern guitar players and has sharing stages with Buddy Guy, Sonny Landreth, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Scott uses Dean Markley Jimi Hendrix NPS strings, Regular gauge .010 - .046

Best Strings for Blues?

Here's a small selection of some great guitar strings for the Blues. Which are the best? Only you can decide...

DR Pure Blues
Pure Nickel Electric Guitar Strings wound on Round Cores. The totally real Vintage string.
In the DR tradition of using old style construction to improve modern performance, Pure Blues electric guitar strings are designed with pure nickel wrap wire, round wound upon round cores. While this is a slow, expensive method of string making, it does produce a string acclaimed for increased sustain, vintage tone, and great low tones for playing rhythm to lead. The extra step of winding pure nickel around a round core gives the Pure Blues a punch that players say they are surprised to get in a vintage style string.

Lite PHR-9 9 11 16 24 32 42
Lite-n-Heavy PHR-9/46 9 11 16 26 36 46
Medium PHR-10 10 13 17 26 36 46
Big-n-Heavy PHR-10/52 10 13 17 30 44 52
Heavy PHR-11 11 14 18 28 38 50
Extra Heavy PHR-12 12 15 24 32 42 52

Gibson B.B. King Signature Strings
B. B. plays with a style that matches his intensity, and every note he plays has something vitally important to say. This unique string set is B.B.'s own special gauge, meant to give your guitar a firm, yet extremely playable feel. The pure nickel wrap yields exceptional tone, from the lows all the way to the highs. The premium Swedish steel "hex" core means your guitar tunes up fast and stays in tune longer.
Model No.: SEG-BBS
Gauge: Signature Gauge
.010, .013, .017p, .032, .045, .054

Dean Markley Jimi Hendrix NPS strings
The legacy of famed guitar deity Jimi Hendrix is not to be taken lightly. And when it comes to getting involved in a Hendrix guitar-related project, one better know what one is doing. After extensive research, company president Dean Markley and his staff were able to determine with some certainty that Hendrix played different types of strings at different points in his career. Using the knowledge gained from their research, the engineers at Dean Markley Strings have developed two types of Jimi Hendrix strings, both of which deliver the string qualities the guitarist would look for were he playing today.

These Jimi Hendrix Nickel Plated Steel strings reflect the type of string used by Hendrix later in his career. Also available, Jimi Hendrix Pure Nickel strings are based on the type of string Hendrix played in his earlier days.
8860 RR .009 .011 .017 .026 .032 .038
8861 LT .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
8862 REG .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
8863 MED .011 .013 .020w/18p .030 .042 .052

D'Addario EPN115 Blues/Jazz Rock 11-48
D'Addario XL Pure Nickel strings look back to the '50s, when nickel was the primary alloy found in electric guitar strings. Into the '60s, these pure nickel strings would be supplanted when guitarists required brighter tone and enhanced magnetic properties/characteristic of the D'Addario XL nickelplated steel string line, Pure Nickel delivers classic, warmer timbres that define many genres including blues, classic rock, rockabilly, and more.
.011, .014, .018, .027, .037, .048

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