When searching for guitar or bass strings, the two most common brands you’re likely to come across is Ernie Ball and D’Addario. Both manufacturers produce premium quality strings, so deciding which are better for you can be tricky, to say the least.
For countless decades, both Ernie Ball and D’Addario have been the leading producers of bass strings for guitar and bass. Although they share similar amount of popularity, their methods of construction and string quality have many differences.
After reading this detailed guide, you’ll have all of the necessary information at your disposal to decide whether Ernie Ball or D’Addario is the best choice for your instrument’s strings.
Ernie Ball Strings
Formed in the early 1960s, Ernie Ball was the brainchild of a keen musician and entrepreneur of the same name. After Ball noticed that many guitarists were struggling to play the then bestselling medium gauge string by Fender, he contacted them to suggest a lighter gauge might be better suited.
Like many success stories, Ernie Ball faced initial rejection. Fender wasn’t interested in his suggested improvements, and therefore, he sought out another string manufacturer to bring his idea to fruition.
The manufacturer made Ball a custom string set that contained a 24-gauge third string. He began to sell the newly designed strings in his store, located near Hollywood. Professional musicians soon caught wind of his innovative, highly playable strings, and the Ernie Ball brand was established.
Ernie Ball’s success grew exponentially with the introduction of the Slinky strings. After once again offering his idea to established brands like Fender and Gibson but being rebuffed, he took matters into his own hands and produced the first set of Ernie Ball Slinky strings.
The Slinky set has gone on the become one of the most popular guitars and bass strings in the world. Popularized by the likes of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards, they have been used across all genres and styles.
Following the success of the Slinky’s, Ernie Ball relocated his string business to Newport Beach in California in 1967. In the decades that have followed, the brand has continued to be a leading force for innovative string designs, and the Slinky’s have enjoyed consistent popularity amongst musicians.
Recommended D’Addario Strings
The D’Addario brand has historical roots in the small Italian town of Salle, dating way back to the late 1600s. They were a family of string makers who eventually emigrated to New York after an earthquake wreaked havoc on their hometown in 1915.
When the guitar enjoyed a sudden spike in popularity in the 1930s, D’Addario took advantage by experimenting with a range of materials, like nylon, to produce their strings.
After producing strings under the brand name “Darco” for a few decades, the family formed the D’Addario brand once again in the 1970s. They partnered with legendary acoustic guitar makers, Martin, and huge popularity followed.
In the modern era, D’Addario has emerged as a competitor to Ernie Ball. Their strings are known for the innovative design and construction processes they use, and for being highly playable and resistant to decay.
Such a large company with a far-stretching history rarely retains the family-owned ethos, but D’Addario is still owned by members of the original family.
This intimacy ensures that their strings are produced to the high standard that guitarists and bassists have come to expect from the brand over the years. I personally use D'Addario NYXL strings on my Les Paul.
Now that we’ve analyzed the history and heritage of Ernie Ball and D’Addario, let’s take a look at the qualities their strings share. The first thing to analyze is the cost – which is pretty consistent from both companies.
The average cost of Ernie Ball’s Slinky strings is around $6 for the basic sets, and $12 for custom, high-end sets. D’Addario, on the other hand, offers their basic strings for around $5 and their premium sets for around $10.
As you can see, the cost of D’Addario and Ernie Ball strings are quite similar. Indeed, both brands offer limited edition strings that can far exceed the prices I just outlined, but these are special cases that deviate from the norm.
Another shared quality between these two string-producing heavyweights is the construction of their ball-ends. These mechanisms stop the string from sliding straight through the bridge holders.
The only thing that is different about the ball ends on Ernie Ball and D’Addario strings are their colors. Both manufacturers have their color combinations that differentiate the strings from each other for quick identification.
The Main Differences – Feel & Playability
When comparing the strings produced by Ernie Ball and D’Addario, some key differences become apparent. Both strings are subjected to different construction techniques which give them their signature feel and tone.
Ernie Ball strings tend to feel smoother and slicker than D’Addario’s especially on the unwound strings, which are commonly the G, B, and high E. D’Addario’s unwound strings do have a slightly better grip, though.
The feel of D’Addario strings is slightly more textured than Ernie Ball’s. This quality is preferred by guitarists who like to feel the friction of the string on their fingers, which can help with grip and stability in the fretting hand.
Another area where Ernie Ball and D’Addario strings differ is in their winding. D’Addario strings tend to feel slightly taller and flatter. Despite this, they are still very different from flat-wound strings in terms of feel.
The winding of Ernie Ball strings feel like they are more spaced out, and rounder in shape. This causes them to feel completely different from their D’Addario counterparts.
Tone & Sonic Qualities
In terms of the sounds and tones they produce, there are some clear differences between the two manufacturers. Firstly, Ernie Ball strings have an overall brighter tone, which makes the treble end sound clearer.
D'Addario's strings on the other hand are slightly louder. This is true across the frequency range, with their strings producing stronger acoustics and dynamics compared to Ernie Ball’s.
When both strings are used with single-coil pickups, the superior brightness of Ernie Ball’s becomes even more apparent. This explains why many guitarists who use high-output, single-coil pickups choose this brand as their string supplier.
When humbucker pickups are used, D’Addario strings seem to produce a noticeably stronger and faster attack. This means there are more definition and clarity at the point of the string being strummed, plucked, or finger-picked.
Ernie Ball strings have a cleaner sound than D’Addario’s. This results in more definitions between notes. They also produce less buzz and saturation when played aggressively, or when using techniques such as slide guitar.
After around half an hour of playing a set of new Ernie Ball strings, they seem to stop vibrating so aggressively. This is a good thing, as when they are fresh out of the packet they can sound a little wild due to their frantic vibrations.
D’Addario strings retain their “new string sound” for approximately 5-10 hours. After that, their tone dulls slightly. Many guitarists prefer the tone of a slightly worn-in D’Addario string compared to a fresh set that hasn’t been played much.
Likewise, Ernie Ball strings lose their “new string sound” after around 4 hours. At first, they sound overly bright and resonant, but after the string has been worn in, they start to mellow out a little.
Other Noteworthy Differences
A key aspect of guitar strings is how well, and for how long they can hold tuning. The last thing you need onstage or in the recording studio is to constantly be tuning your strings due to a lack of tension or quality.
Holding Tuning & Durability
As you’d expect from two premium string manufacturers, both Ernie Ball and D’Addario ensure that their strings hold tuning very capably. However, when comparing the two, there is one clear winner in this area.
Ernie Ball strings are notoriously brilliant at staying in tune. The technique used to wind the strings means that after only a couple of tuning corrections they tend to stay very close to the desired note.
Additionally, their strings also break in faster than D’Addario’s. After a few seconds of pulling the individual strings and playing for a few minutes, they will hold tuning reliably afterward.
Styles & Preferences
It amazes me how many guitarists and bassists stick with a specific type of string simply because that’s the one they’ve always used.
The key to figuring out whether Ernie Ball or D’Addario strings are right for you is to make it your goal to try as many of their different varieties as possible. That way, you can see which gauge and materials suit your style.
D’Addario and Ernie Ball strings are both brilliant in their own right. They don’t sound alike, and they feel very different. If you’re looking for a brighter, more defined, and smoother string, then Ernie Ball is a great choice.
For more textured strings that are louder and with good attack, I would recommend that you try D’Addario’s. Thankfully, both manufacturers offer their strings at reasonable prices, so you can experiment to find the perfect strings for your needs.