When playing blues on an acoustic guitar, it is a little more difficult to refine your sound than when playing blues on an electric guitar. With an acoustic guitar, you don’t have the option of lacing effects into your sound because you don’t have electronics. When playing an electric, if you want to make your sound more aggressive, you simply dial up your gain or crank up your tone knob. In the case of an electric guitar, you can still get some serious twang even with a wimpy set of strings by just playing with effects.
Because you lack the advantage of electronics, smart string choice is far more important on an acoustic guitar. While it’s true that tone is in the hands of the player to some degree, you can certainly shift the tonal profile of your guitar to suit your taste and make it so that your hands have to work less hard to get the kinds of sounds you want.
The Blues Sound
So let’s discuss the types of sounds commonly found in blues as there are some certain characteristics that are ubiquitous in the genre. A great example of a musician who nicely characterizes the typical (if you will) old school acoustic blues sound is John Lee Hooker when he plays his acoustic. When listening, you’ll hear very abrupt, staccato notes that cut through the silence sharply. His guitar has a lot of volume with heavy bass and midrange. You can really hear the attack the string. Below is a nice video that shows off the sound:
So now that you know the sound, we can talk about what makes for good blues guitar strings. To get that robust low end, a thicker set of strings with a higher gauge is going to work well. My preferred gauge size for blues is 12, which corresponds to light or medium depending on the manufacturer. You can see a few examples by clicking here. 13’s or 14’s will give you an even stronger bass, but I don’t like to get too thick because I like to bend strings. 13’s are tensioned too high to bend easily for me, although I prefer the sound, so I compromise at 12. In addition to thicker gauge, I like warmer strings for blues as well. Coated strings are nice for achieving this tone. Coated strings have the added benefit of being slippery, so if you slide into notes a lot they make life easy for your fingers.
For some specific examples, I enjoy playing blues on Elixir Nanowebs. As mentioned above, I use the 12’s, but pick the gauge that suits your taste best. Rather than go into great detail about these strings here, you can read our Elixir Nanoweb review here. Another set that I like for blues is the D’Addario EXP for similar reasons to the Nanowebs. They are also a coated string, and I also prefer this set in 12 gauge.
So now you should be armed with the knowledge to go and select a nice set of blues guitar strings. If I didn’t describe the exact blues sound you are looking for, find a video of your favorite blues artist and try to break down their sound. Identify what makes them sound like they do. Once you know the sound your are looking for, you can read descriptions of guitar string characteristics to find the set that matches the sound you are aiming for.