Best Acoustic and Electric Guitar Strings for Bending

Jazz Guitarist

RangeOfSounds.com is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.

When it comes to music, what exactly is it to be “soulful”? Oof, it’s simple enough to argue over the best mic for this or amp for that. But we don’t listen to music because gear moves us. We listen to music for that elusive feeling, that movement that moves something deep. Expressing things through sound that are too complex to ever put into words. Connecting over shared joy and pain, history and hope.

Some of that raw soul started to go mainstream in the 60s. Big bands of the 40s and the first wave of rock in the 50s begat plenty of jumping and jiving. But in the 60s, that forgotten language of blues returned to the spotlight. Soulful melodies, bluesy playing, that beautiful intersection of drive and poignancy. And one humble technique we can thank for this is bending notes on guitar playing.

I can’t put into words exactly what a flawless guitar bend communicates. Here’s a fabulous example though. Three quick notes from Steve Cropper (who also serves as the Blues Brothers’ guitarist, by the way) is all it takes. That’s soul, baby.

Thankfully, the soul of the 60s didn’t fade into obscurity this time. It’s come and gone with the times, sure, but the blues and soul techniques of singing and playing music are essential now. String-bending is a favorite technique in guitar solos across genres. What better way to punctuate an iconic line like “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” than with some sick bends?

Try New Strings

Eric Clapton Playing Stratocaster
Hendrix was flashier, but Clapton defined the essential blues-influenced rock solo

If you find yourself struggling with bends, think about trying some new strings. Your guitar’s strings are the moment when feeling is translated into sound. This is where the action happens, no pun intended. And guitarists can really do themselves a favor by thinking about their string choice, and asking, does it suit their style? In terms of price, feeling, and tone, your strings can really work for or against you!

Electric Guitar Strings for Bending

I’d venture that most bendy guitar playing happens on electric guitars. After all, bending is usually involved in lead or solo sections, which pair well with some creative amplification. And you may not have noticed, but electric guitars have lower-tension and thinner strings than acoustics, making them much more amenable to bending.

When shopping for electric guitar strings though, you might find the choices dizzying. So many brands, gauges, materials, and special manufacturing processes competing for your attention.

String Gauge

String gauge refers to the diameter of the strings. Typically strings are sold in a pack of “light,” “medium” or “heavy” strings. But hybrid packs exist too, which might include light E B G and heavy D A E strings for instance.

As you may have inferred, lighter strings are easier to bend. They are typically lower tension than heavier strings, and therefore more readily pliable. But if it were as simple as this, why would anyone play on heavier strings? It turns out that this advantage involves trading off tone for bendability. Many players recommend playing on the heaviest strings you can manage for this reason. You’ll gradually build your strength with practice, and be rewarded with richer tone.

But this is far from the only approach. Sure, Stevie Ray is (in)famous for playing expressively on insanely heavy strings. But by the same token, some greats prefer ridiculously light strings. And if you’re nervous about losing tone, you can be mindful about string material and construction.

String Material

The prototypical electric guitar string is nickel-plated steel, wrapped around a hexagonal steel core. But a bendy guitar player might consider some of the less common materials or constructions. Round core, old-school materials like pure nickel or monel strings, or high-tech manufacturing techniques are all on the table.

Best Electric Guitar Strings for Bending

RotoSound Pinks

RotoSound’s packaging leaves little to the imagination; this company is all about its British Invasion roots. RotoSound Pink strings are a favorite for bending. The gauge is light, the tone is praised, and while I can’t find anything technical to back this up, players continuously refer to them as “flexible.” However, one player warns that these strings are not as hardy when it comes to the tremolo bar. Apparently, they detune at different rates.

Dunlop Reverend Willy

Remember when I mentioned great players who favor light strings? Go ahead and include ZZ Top’s Billy “Reverend Willy” Gibbons in that category. He’s collaborated with Dunlop to introduce a signature string line, the literally-named Dunlop Rev. Willy line. The lightest gauge available are sevens for crying out loud, who does that?! Put another way, these strings will bend like cooked spaghetti. Beyond note-bending, this could open all kinds of avenues for soulful expression, like fret vibrato.

DR Pure Blues

Players on the blues and roots end of the spectrum may appreciate DR’s Pure Blues. There’s a lot to love here. The pure nickel strings, which is essentially a vintage design, have a unique tone that’s referred to as “round” and “warm.” Beyond that, these strings have a round core, as opposed to the typical hex cross-section. Again, this is hearsay, but players gush that this combination leads to some great bending. The intersection of nickel material and round core design makes the strings flexible, and deepens the tone to make up for any lost by going thinner.

On the flip side, the tone of these strings is not as bright or saturated. They are more blues than rock in this regard. I saw another recommendation for the company’s Hi-Beams for bendy playing. These strings have the typical nickel-wrapped steel, hex core construction, for a brighter tone.

D’Addario NYXL

String-making pedigree doesn’t get much deeper than D’Addario, who boast a history going back to string-making families in Italy over hundreds of years. They’ve traded in lutes for guitars though, and could even be called the essential guitar string brand at this point. While D’Addarios are often not the sexiest or most exciting option, they are reasonably priced, reliable, and constantly pushing themselves to stay on the cutting edge.

The NYXL line speaks to that last point, with a unique (as far as I can tell) high-carbon steel core. The company’s stated reasoning for this innovation is to reach new heights of strength and tuning stability. But I am also recommending them for their tone boost. As D’Addario puts it, “NYXL nickel plated wound strings feature an enhanced mid-range frequency response in the 1 – 3.5 kHz range which gives you more presence and crunch to cut through the mix.” Again, boosting tone and going lighter in gauge is a killer combination for bending your way through a song.

Ernie Ball

This company seems to be America’s Favorite Strings. While D’Addario dominates, Ernie Ball has managed this charismatic presence that has infected everyone from the greatest touring guitarists to the newest amateurs. And full disclosure, it’s totally my brand too. Don’t ask me why, because when it comes to strings, irrational loyalty is totally a factor. Everyone has their brand. That said, to try to stay objective, Ernie Ball makes great strings. Reasonably priced, with loads of unique lines that encourage musicality.

I’ve recently been enamored with Ernie Ball’s new Cobalt Slinky strings, which I actually discovered in the course of researching another Range of Sounds article. Similarly to the D’Addarios I mentioned above, the idea is to experiment with core materials in order to reach new heights of strength and tone. I personally play with a lot of vintage guitar tones, and damn, these strings make my guitars sing like they never have. Just like with the NYXLs, try going for a light gauge with a punchy tone. I guarantee that soulful playing awaits.

I mentioned hybrid string gauge packs earlier. If you’re looking for a different approach, check out Ernie Ball’s Skinny Top Heavy Bottom. Lighter gauge in the E B G strings for bends, heavier in the D A E strings for tone. Maybe they will complement your playing!

Acoustic Guitar Strings for Bending

The acoustic guitar is no stranger to the blues, or soulful genres for that matter. And while it’s more associated with chugging rhythms than lithe solos, it can certainly be pressed into that role! Consider genres like roots, country and bluegrass.

There are a few factors to keep in mind here. The same basic principles about trading gauge and tone apply, but acoustic strings tend to be heavier-gauge and higher-tension in general. (In fact, one wag suggested practicing bends on the acoustic, so the electric feels like no big deal.) While “twelves” are standard gauge for acoustic guitar, try “tens” or “elevens” for easier bending and vibrato. But don’t go any lower, or the decreased volume and sustain is not worth the trade-off.

The materials used are different too. Phosphor bronze is the default material, but brass, bronze, and silk and steel strings are popular alternatives.

Elixir Polyweb

Elixir is never going to be your most economical option. This relative newcomer has staked their reputation on their proprietary coated strings- successfully, I might add! They have managed to justify the premium of their price point, and gain loads of converts.

The Polyweb-coated strings in the extra light, light, or custom light gauges make great acoustic bend strings. That Polyweb coating plays a dual role of extending life (once again, justifying the price tag with longevity) and boosting tone. And compared to their similar Nanoweb line, these strings are designed to be slick, fast, and flexible.

John Pearse

This relatively obscure band, named after an iconic British folk player, are like bluegrass players’ best-kept secret. Their P500XL Extra Lights are bright, full, and slick. They’re not for everyone; their tone is specific, and complements some guitars (and players) more than others. But if you’ve never given them a whirl, they’re worth a look!

Conclusion

What else is there to say? You shouldn’t be reading, you should be practicing those bends! No magic string is going to take the place of your own perfected soulful expression. And push yourself to use the heaviest strings you can work your way around. Building your strength and flexibility will only help your playing. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!