Last Updated Jan-02-2017. If you live for heavy rock and metal, and love riffing along with the likes of Metallica, Megadeth, Mastodon, and Avenged Sevenfold, this is the strings page for you!
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But finding the right metal guitar is only half the battle – equally important to nailing that huge metal tone is finding the right strings. And that is where this article will help you. We have prepared a quick list of some of the top strings for metal available on the market today, as well as a guide to buying the best strings for you, before looking at four of the most popular string brands for metal playing.
|Dunlop DHCN1254 Heavy Core Nickel Wound Guitar Strings, Heaviest, .012–.054, 6...||Buy on Amazon|
|DR Strings DDT-11 Nickel Plated Electric Guitar Strings, Heavy||Buy on Amazon|
|D'Addario EXL116 Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings, Medium Top/Heavy Bottom,...||Buy on Amazon|
In our mega article, focusing on finding the best guitar strings for you, we talk about how you don’t just want ‘the best strings’, but ‘the best strings for the style of music you play’. And when it comes to metal, there are some key differences when compared to regular electric guitar strings.
Before we get started, it’s worth pointing out that if you are using a bass guitar you will want to check out our page on the best bass strings, which includes recommendations for bass strings made specifically for heavy rock and metal.
Back to guitar strings, and the gauge is perhaps the most important thing when it comes to strings for metal. The reason is simple – Drop C, Drop D, and generally low-tuned instruments tend to be standard in this genre, and in the majority of cases you will want to tune your guitar low to achieve those deep, bass-rich, ominous tones associated with metal. If this is the case, standard regular or light gauge electric guitar strings just won’t cut it. A detuned light string will end up too loose and flimsy, affecting your tone and the playability. No, for metal you need a heavier gauge if you want to make an impact.
This is why many metal guitarists will go for dedicated metal strings, or general sets with a medium or heavy gauge. While not all brands are the same, you’ll typically find the gauge .011-.050 in a medium set and around .012-.054 in a heavy set. These heavy strings exert more pressure on the neck of a guitar, so aren’t suitable for vintage models, however their thickness will produce excellent volume and sustain, and are more steadfast and durable – handling aggressive playing with ease.
The downside of heavy strings is that they are generally harder to play with – it takes more pressure to fret the note, while string bending and fast lead playing is also more difficult. So deciding how thick to go can be a headache. This is where some string brands really shine, developing innovative hybrid sets that pair heavier gauge bass strings with lighter trebles, giving metal guitarists the best of both worlds. Again, these gauges vary, but you may find something like a .010-.052 that will make for easy soloing and rock-steady low riffs.
The material used to construct the string also plays an important part in the tone and feel. Metalheads usually prefer playing with pure nickel, nickel-plated steel, or stainless-steel strings as they offer the right mix of warmth and brightness, with the response needed for a high output.
Coatings are also an important aspect of string construction to consider, for both durability, playability, and aesthetics. Some brands – such as Elixir, or D’Addario’s EXP series – offer a micro-fine coating that protects the strings from dirt, rust and moisture, to give the string a life that can last up to five times as long. While not a dedicated heavy metal set, Elixir’s NANOWEB Coated Heavy strings offer a substantial .012-.052 gauge that’s perfect for metal.
As for the aesthetic side, you can find brands offer a myriad of colored strings that can give you a visual edge on stage. DR Strings (as we look at further below) offer everything from extroverted Neon Pink strings to super patriotic Neon American Flag strings (two red, two white, and two blue) all in metal-friendly heavy gauges. Well worth considering for metal guitarists taking to the stage.
Finally, if you play metal, you may have – or hope to move on to – a 7-string guitar. While it’s not the easiest instrument for a complete beginner to get to grips with, 7-string guitars are awesome for metal playing. If this is the case, it goes without saying that you need a specific string set catering for all seven strings – something like Dunlop’s DHCN1060 Heavy Core, with a gauge of .010-.060 should do the trick.
Scottish engineer Jim Dunlop founded his company in California in 1965, and it has since gone on to become one of the leading accessories brands – offering everything from effects pedals to plectrums. Their strings are also hugely popular with heavy rockers and metalheads, thanks to their innovation and affordable prices. So it’s no surprise to learn that hundreds of top-selling professional artists use Dunlop strings, including some of metal’s best known guitarists: Bill Kelliher (Mastodon), Jeff Loomis (Nevermore), Zacky Vengeance (Avenged Sevenfold), and Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman to name a few. Dunlop have a good choice of strings for metal, including their classic Heavy Core range, which are crafted specifically for dropped tunings, using nickel-wound steel. These come in ‘Heavy’, ‘Heavier’, and ‘Heaviest’ gauges, with the latter coming in at .012-.054, which is perfect for super aggressive playing. Dunlop also offer signature strings for several metal artists, including the Kerry King Icon Series – a set with a gauge of .010-.046, that also provides an additional extra-thick E string (.052) to give guitarists a platform on which to tune down low.
DR Strings are a popular New Jersey-based brand that have been in business since 1989. They have a huge range of string sets; many specifically tailored to the heaviest rock and metal players. An impressive roster of big-name metal guitarists and bands use DR Strings, including Meshuggah, Reaping Asmodeia, Fozzy, and Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Gus G. One of their most popular and effective string sets for the heavier player is the Drop-Down Tuning series – boasting awesome tuning stability at a range of super heavy gauges, ranging from the relatively standard ‘Big Heavy’ (.010-.052) to their ‘Mega Heavy’ (.013-.065). For fans of the late, great Dimebag Darrell – who used DR Strings until his untimely death in 2004 – it’s worth checking out DR’s Dimebag Darrell Signature series, which come in a range of metal gauges, and are treated with DR’s StringLife polymer coating for added durability. Earlier we mentioned DR’s commitment to producing visually memorable strings; whether that’s insane neon colors, or their black coated strings, Black Beauties, that can certainly help give your guitar a sinister visual edge.
While they aren’t an all-out metal brand, D’Addario are one of the oldest and best-known string manufacturers in the world, and have many string series that are impressive for heavy rock and metal playing. With such a great track-record, D’Addario unsurprisingly have a long list of professional metal guitarists and bands using their strings – most notably Mark Tremoni of Alter Bridge and Creed, and Brent Hinds of Mastodon, who both use EXL116 Nickel Wound hybrid strings, featuring a medium top/heavy bottom (gauged .011-.052) for a bright, powerful tone that’s optimized for down tuning. Another metal-friendly D’Addario set well worth looking at is their nickel-wound NYXL1052 strings, with a hybrid (light top/heavy bottom) gauge of .010-.052. The NYXL series features technology-packed strings offering several benefits, such as increased tuning stability and more strength, which is essential for huge strings bends and aggressive rhythmic playing. If you are looking for something heavier in the same series, their NYXL1356W strings come in an ultra heavy .013-.056 gauge, with a wound third string.
Founded in 1962 by Ernie Ball, the Californian brand have many excellent metal performance strings in their catalog, at very affordable prices. An impressive list of iconic heavy rock artists and bands – both classic and modern – are keen endorsers of Ernie Ball strings: Iron Maiden, Metallica, Judas Priest, System of a Down, and John Petrucci to name a few! In Ernie Ball’s famous Slinky series, their nickel-wound Power Slinkys, with a heavy gauge of .011-.048, are favored by guitarists (including James Hetfield) looking for that chunky rhythmic sound and feel, with a powerful tone that’s essential for heavy rock. For the lead player, the classic Slinky range also includes a very popular Skinny Top Heavy Bottom hybrid string series, which gives you the tone and security of heavy bass strings (.030, .042, .052), with the lightness and playability of .010, .013, and .017 on the trebles. If long-life strings are the question, Ernie Ball’s ‘Not Even Slinky’ strings, with a huge .012-.056 gauge, could be the answer, as they feature both titanium-reinforced technology and advanced RPS micro-coating.
While the four in this section are all highly recommended, they are by no means the only brands that produce metal-worthy strings. Be sure to check out the offerings from manufacturers such as GHS, Rotosound, Elixir, Cleartone, Dean Markley, and Stringjoy, among others.
We’ve covered what makes a good metal guitar string and some of the string brands that can fix you up with something impressive. However it’s now up to you to experiment with some different sets, gauges, materials and coatings, to see what fits your playing style. Keep trying, and eventually you’ll find the perfect string for you and your metal guitar.
Finally, buying new guitar strings naturally leads to changing your strings – they won’t do any good sitting in the packet! If you’re a beginner, you may want a little help with changing your strings for the first time. Check out this useful in-depth video on how to change your electric guitar strings, which will guide you through the process step-by-step – you’ll be up and playing in no time.
Good luck, and happy string shopping!