Expensive guitar strings make some rather huge claims about tone and durability, but do they actually wok? Today we take a look at the top 3, test them, and talk about the results.
Expensive Guitar Strings: Fact Or Fiction?
Every hobby or art form seems to have myths and legends. There are always a set of pre-made rules that you are supposed to follow, and people repeat them and we end up with an echo chamber. We have talked about this before when it comes to guitar gear.
If you browse through forums, you will find all kinds of advice. The tone wood debate has started dying down, thankfully. But there are still plenty of other myths and opinions. We took a look at expensive cables one time and even did a full audio analysis just to prove that there was very minimal difference between the cable brands.
These myths come from a lot of places. There is one where people say that Eric Johnson can tell what brand of battery is in his pedals. There are other ones like Stevie Ray playing super heavy string gauges. Myths usually start with a bit of truth, that gets blown out of proportion. Expensive guitar strings definitely fits on this list.
I think that a lot of these myths come from buyers that want to feel like they have invested wisely. People like to know that they spent their money well. in general. Guitarists especially want to know that their purchases were justified, since so much of our gear is expensive anyway. Guitar is not a cheap hobby by any means!
Expensive guitar strings are not a new idea, but the idea has definitely taken off over the last decade or so. Even back in the day we had gimmicky strings, but most guitarists knew to avoid them. These were usually made by some off brand that no one had ever heard of, and were fly-by-night operations.
But the more expensive guitar strings these days are made by major brands like Ernie Ball, D’Addario, and Elixir. These are brands that have a long heritage, and are trusted by guitarists. Elixir Strings have been in the expensive guitar strings game for a LONG time, and were one of the first.
All three of these brands claim different things when it comes to the features, durability, and function of the more expensive strings. These are also usually priced double what a normal set of strings costs. So are they worth the extra money?
The whole idea of expensive guitar strings is that each brand offers something different. These usually include claims of longer string life, better tone, better tuning stability, or better intonation. There are different ways to go about this: Coatings, construction, tension, and materials.
Some of these claims make perfect sense, while some of the brands I checked out seemed utterly ridiculous (One brand was made of 24 karat gold). So I picked the top three brands that had been selling well. Obviously these big name companies are doing something right if the product is selling, right?
Over the last two months I have tried out all three brands, and I have logged all of my experiences. I have also tried these off and on over the years, but I wanted this to be a little more…scientific. I replaced my normal strings on three different guitars and tried the expensive guitar strings out while recording.
So let’s take a look at the features that each company claims, versus the real life experience I have had with each brand. You might be surprised with the results!
Setting Up The Test: Before We Begin
I started testing of expensive guitar strings 6 months ago! I knew that I wanted to write this article eventually. So all of these expensive guitar strings that are featured were tried out during the last 6 months before our big studio move. I wrote everything down in a journal to keep up with my findings.
This whole subject is pretty near and dear to my heart as a guitarist. I have always had very acidic sweat that destroys most strings. When on tour, I would change strings after every single show. I have changed my diet and what I drink, all to no avail. The whole condition is just genetics, cheap or expensive guitar strings be damned.
I have asked my doctor over the years, and had my levels checked. There is nothing wrong with me, just some people’s sweat is more corrosive than others. Even without a condition, you should always play guitar with freshly washed hands, and wipe it down when you are done playing. Just regular sweat can wreak havoc on your guitar and it’s metallic parts.
Making Your Strings Sound The Best:
- Always wash your hands before you play. This removes dirt or grease from your fingers.
- Stretch your strings when you are putting them on, they will hold tune better.
- Always wipe down your strings when you are finished playing. An old t-shirt is perfect.
- Keep your fretboard clean between string changes.
- Keep your frets polished between string changes.
- Change your strings on a monthly basis if you play daily.
I usually replace guitar parts like screws, and bridge pieces with stainless steel parts to combat my sweat. Even still, I have to constantly wipe down my guitars after playing them. So if I can find a set of strings that can keep up with my issues, it will be a miracle!
My usual strings of choice are Ernie Ball 10-46 and they cost $7. I have used these for 25 years at this point, and while I have tried other brands, these are my “go-to” brand. These are normal, run-of-the-mill nickel wound strings that have been made the same way for decades.
With moderate practice, these will last me 3 weeks on average. So this is the bar that the strings being tested needs to beat, for me. Every guitarist is different but I think you should change strings at least every month or so on your main guitars that get the most play. If you only have one guitar, this may be even more often.
Old strings will not only feel bad on your fingers, but they will have a hard time holding tune as the string material breaks down. You see people asking why their guitar sounds so bad on forums all the time, only to find out they haven’t changed strings in a year. Avoid being that person!
Guitar maintenance is just as important as your technique. Changing strings and keeping your guitar neck in shape, along with basic setups is part of being a guitarist. No matter what level you are at, knowing the basics of taking care of your guitar is essential.
With all of that out of the way, let’s check out my $50 worth of strings!
#3 Elixir Nano-Web 10-46
So Elixir have been around for quite a while, and they were the first big brand to offer a “coated” guitar string. In fact, coated guitar strings is the entire schtick when it comes to Elixir. I had tried these maybe 20 years ago, when Elixir only offered one type of coating. Elixir were the pioneers of expensive guitar strings, and have always been at least double the price of a “normal” set.
Now the idea of making expensive guitar strings revolves around the strings lasting longer, so a coating seems like a great idea. The problem I ran into with the original Elixir strings was the coating often flaked off of the strings. This not only felt weird, but it made my guitar look like it had dandruff!
The other problem I ran into with the older Elixir strings was the sound. They did not sound like a new set of strings at all. They had a dull tone from the first day. I can only guess, but I think the thick coating is what caused the tone to be off.
But that was 20 years ago, and the new Nano-Web string coating is supposed to be minimal, with no flaking. These are also supposed to be bright in tone, with none of the problems that the older strings might have had.
The Elixir Claims:
- Only coated string brand to protect the entire string with an ultra-thin coating, keeping gunk out of the gaps between the windings
- Extended Tone Life – players report their tone lasts longer than any other string, uncoated or coated
- Consistent performance and tone – ready to play whenever you are
- Smooth feel that is easy on your fingers and enhances playability
- Reduced finger squeak – good for both performance and recording
- Anti-Rust Plated Plain Steel Strings resist tone-deadening corrosion, ensuring a longer life for entire set
- With less hassle and expense of frequent string changes, spend more time making music
Elixir Nano-Web 10-46: Testing And Experience
The Elixir Nano-Web set lasted me 6 weeks total. I used these on my Schecter NJ Traditional, which is one of my most often used guitars! So for me, this would be worth the price, since this is double the time I usually get from my regular brand.
The Nano coating did not flake on me, but the strings definitely had some gunk build-up. I noticed that the wound strings did not have as much build-up as the plain strings. Nonetheless, build up did occur. However, I never had any tuning issues even with heavy trem use. The strings all hold tune well, and there are no issues with bends.
The reason I changed them was mainly the tone, which was not quite bright enough for me from the get-go. About three weeks into using the Elixir set, the tone definitely started to lose some of its already minimal brightness. There is a certain snappiness that you expect from fresh strings, and I didn’t quite get that from Elixir.
The other claims about having a smooth feel is definitely true. These feel incredibly smooth under your fingers, and they do reduce string noise when changing chords quickly. Playing solos on the plain strings felt great, even after they experienced a tiny bit of corrosion.
Would I buy Elixir Again? Yes, but not for either of my “main” guitars. I would absolutely use Elixir on some of my guitars that get used less frequently. The corrosion that did occur was from my sweat and finger oils, not from just sitting around. Elixir was the original “expensive guitar strings” but the price has dropped to around $13, making it worth it in my opinion.
I definitely want to try these out on my acoustic guitar, since it probably gets the most infrequent amount of use. My acoustic either gets played for hours, or not at all. I think Elixir is the best for guitars that are not used as frequently, since the coating protects from environmental factors like humidity. For infrequent use, Elixir is great!
#2 D’Addario NYXL 10-46
D’Addario has always been my second choice for strings if the store was out of Ernie Ball. They have always been reliable strings, and for 7 string sets I found that they worked really well with my Ibanez guitars. I used them for 7 string guitars because D’Addario was the only brand that made 7 string sets in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
NYXL were some of the first expensive guitar strings I saw coming from a major brand, around 2012. Elixir had always been around, but this was something totally new. Was the price tag worth it?
The NYXL sets have some pretty bold claims, but are not coated like Elixir. NYXL is all about the materials that make up the string during construction. Out of the expensive guitar strings list, they actually cost the least, at about $13 (less in bulk). So what is going on with the NYXL sets if they are not coated?
The NYXL Claims:
- High-carbon steel alloy for unrivaled strength and elasticity
- Improved tuning stability compared to traditional nickel wound strings
- Wound strings with enhanced midrange frequency response in the 1kHz-3.5kHz range
- NYXL’s are manufactured in D’Addario’s New York factory
- Holds tuning 133% better after trem usage than regular strings
- 20% less likely to hit the breaking point
- 40% stronger than plain nickel strings
D’Addario NYXL 10-46: Testing And Experience
The D’Addario NYXL set lasted me 3 weeks, the same as my regular strings. This was due to the normal problems I have with corrosion, which is not a feature that NYXL claims to combat. Out of all of the expensive guitar strings that I have tried, the NYXL sets were the ones that held up to the claims verbatim.
I put the NYXL set on my Schecter Hellraiser since it has a Floyd Rose bridge. The whole NYXL claim is being tough, and I wanted to see if the claims held up. The NYXL set definitely held up its end of the bargain and since we are 2 for 3, it might be hard to make fun of expensive guitar strings from now on!
When I first put the strings on the guitar, I had to adjust the Floyd. This means that even though the NYXL strings were the same gauge, they were causing more tension since my bridge was pulling forward. I believe the claims about NYXL strings being made from different metals, since going back to Ernie Ball I had to readjust the bridge slightly!
The next thing I noticed, is the NYXL strings did not have to be stretched as much as a normal set. Once they were tuned and stretched, the strings settled and kept their tuning. I rarely had to retune after a big dive, or a long session of trem abuse. Intonation was spot-on as well, just as claimed.
The NYXL set definitely sounded different as well. Since I knew this was one of the claims going in, I made a recording of my guitar with a fresh set of my usual strings, playing an open A chord with heavy distortion. I saved that WAV file for later comparison.
I then recorded with the same amp sim settings and same guitar with the NYXL set. Looking at the EQ graphic in my DAW, the NYXL set absolutely had more midrange and treble. But I didn’t even need the spectrograph to tell, since my ears could hear it as well. The midrange is slightly higher for sure, with more “punch” under high gain.
The reason I changed them is the same as my regular strings. After being played on a consistent basis, they eventually gave in to corrosion. They lasted the same amount of time as my regular Ernie Ball set. They still held tune all the way to the end. Does that justify the price for these expensive guitar strings? Yes, and I will tell you why.
Would I buy NYXL again? I absolutely would buy NYXL again, and use these strings for recording sessions. They hold tune better, have a beautiful midrange tone, and they feel just like regular strings. D’Addario made some bold claims with the NYXL sets, and delivered! Whatever metals are being used enhance midrange, and are very noticeable.
This is especially true when dealing with crunchy tones and high gain. My EVH Iconic amp sounded absolutely amazing on the crunch channel. The string separation when playing big chords under high gain was overwhelmingly clearer. I had to turn down the treble on the amp at high volumes, something I almost never do.
These are great for recording, and I will definitely give NYXL another shot. These expensive guitar strings deliver on every claim, and were a total surprise for me. The sound difference is subtle, but if you know your guitar and rig, the added clarity will be noticeable immediately. Great job, D’Addario!
#1 Ernie Ball Paradigm 10-46
Ernie Ball Paradigm strings are the top of the list for expensive guitar strings, and they are the best for a good reason. They are not coated (per se), nor do they have any kind of wild gimmicks. However, when you dig into the making of these strings, it does sound a little unbelievable.
Ernie Ball uses “Plasma Enhanced Wire” to make the Paradigm strings, and I realize this already sounds like a silly sales pitch. But after watching the video (below), it made sense as to why these strings do not break, and they resist corrosion.
The Paradigm Claim:
- Developed at Princeton University, Everlast is a groundbreaking nanotechnology just nanometers thin that coats the entirety of the wound string, allowing it to repel moisture and oils that would lead to tone-killing buildup.
- The high heat of the plasma removes contaminants and smooths out defects for a consistent finish. Ensuring that the wire has a more stable microstructure before it is wrapped means the string will last longer.
- 41% more moisture repellant than normal strings
- Dramatically increases tensile strength by up to 35% and provides up to 70% more fatigue strength than traditional strings
Ernie Ball Paradigm 10-46: Testing And Experience
The Paradigm set is still on my guitar, after 6 weeks. Actually, the Paradigm set is on TWO of my guitars now. I think I have found my favorite set of expensive guitars strings. Ernie Ball is #1 on the list of expensive guitar strings for a reason, and I have had a great experience with these strings.
The advertisement says that the strings are uncoated, but there is obviously a thin coat of something on these. There is no corrosion or build-up on the plain strings. Again, I used my Hellraiser for this test, because it is my most played guitar. I cannot believe it has been 6 weeks, and still kicking!
Ernie Ball also claims that these are stronger than other strings. I have not put that to the test personally, but there are videos of artists like Metallica trying to make these strings break, and they can’t get them to break. They push down and pull up on the Floyd Rose, and the strings never break.
The RPS Technology means that the string is slightly reinforced in the ball end. There are extra winds at the end of the strings, so even though you cut the ball ends for a Floyd Rose, the reinforced sections remain. This is a smart idea, and on a more traditional bridge, like a Les Paul, you should never worry about breakage. Ernie Ball even back this up with a warranty.
I have used this guitar for lessons, practicing, and even a few recordings over the last 6 weeks. I have yet to have any gunk build-up and all I do is wipe the strings down when I am done. Ernie Ball really knocked it out of the park with these strings.
The Paradigm set still holds tune, and the strings still sound bright after 6 weeks. They don’t sound as good as the first few days, of course. But the tone and tuning is still very stable for how long these have been on my guitars. These are exactly the strings I have been looking for, and I wish I had tried them sooner.
A note of caution: If you use any Music Nomad stuff or Fast-Fret on your strings, I would not use it with the Paradigm sets (Or Elixir for that matter). I used some Fast-Fret out of habit on my first set, and it immediately attracted gunk. The “Everlast” coating that is used in the manufacturing process makes these a coated string, whether Ernie Ball want to admit it or not.
Expensive Guitar Strings: Are They Worth it?
At the end of the day, this is your money and you can spend it however you want. To me, paying for expensive guitar strings is totally worth it for all three of the choices we looked at today. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but should appeal to just about any type of guitarist.
Ernie Ball Paradigm lasts longer than NYXL, but the NYXL sets sounded better to me. The Elixir strings might not be great for everyday guitars, but perfect for backup guitars and acoustics. You have to find out which set might be right for you, by trying them out.
Expensive guitar strings used to just be a gimmick, but these days it seems like you get what you pay for. I found value in all 3, and I will definitely use them all in the future. Overall, Ernie Ball makes the top of my list. But the NYXL, or Elixir sets also have their advantages and may be exactly what you are looking for.
There is often a lot of hype around guitar products that claim to do mazing things, yet rarely deliver. I always say that we are living in the “Golden Age” of guitar because you mostly get what you pay for these days. Even budget instruments have something to offer.
So next time you buy some new strings, treat yourself! These expensive guitar strings are well worth the extra cash, and you may find that these suit you much better than the brand you were using. Guitar is all about experimentation, even with strings sometimes!
Are expensive guitar strings worth it?
I think you definitely get what you pay for. brand like Ernie Ball paradigm, NYXL, and Elixir have perfected the string-making process. You may pay a little more for a set, but they last longer and hold tune better in my experience.
Are coated guitar strings better?
Some expensive guitar strings have a coating on them, like Elixir for example. These help combat the gunk that your fingers leave behind from natural skin oils and sweat. So if you have a problem with corrosion, then yes, they are definitely better for you.
Are expensive guitar strings just a gimmick?
Not at all, if you stick to the major brands. Ernie Ball, D’Addario, and Elixir have been making more expensive sets for years, and they all sell very well. These usually last longer, hold tune better, and resist corrosion from playing.