So you’ve finally worn your strings down to the metaphorical bone?
It’s time to cut ‘em loose and wind up a new pair. The question is…
What set of string gauges should you use?
When you know what you’re after, picking out the right set of guitar strings is relatively easy. However, if you don’t understand the different string gauge characteristics, you may find yourself with a case of choice paralysis when the guy at the guitar shop asks you which box you want.
String gauge has a massive impact on the way that you play and the way your instrument sounds, which is why I want to take you through our small guide to string gauges so that you can make the optimal choice for your axe.
What Are String Gauges?
Though guitar strings are fairly thin, generally speaking, string manufacturers had to come up with a way to provide players with an understanding of what they were purchasing. The measurement they arrived at was “gauge.” Essentially, the thicker the string, the higher the number. The thinner the string, the lower the number.
A string with a .046 measurement would be pretty thick and would likely be used as the sixth string, while a string with a .010 measurement would be very thin and would probably be used as the thinnest first string. Most often, companies will name their string packs relative to the thinnest string in the package. For example, a string pack with a .010 string would be referred to as a pack of 10s while a string pack with a .008 string would be referred to as a pack of 8s.
How Does String Gauge Affect Playability?
Seasoned guitars know how impactful string gauges can be. Different string gauges deliver different tones. They also affect the way guitarists fret and strum.
Let’s look at a set of thin strings (.009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042). Thin strings are excellent for beginners, as they don’t require much effort to produce sound. However, they require far more accuracy and caution when playing, as they don’t have the same surface area as thicker strings.
Thinner strings are best described as sounding “jangly.” They’re great for funk, folk, and country, as they have a brighter tone and fluid feel. If you want to bend easily, perform fluid arpeggios, or fast pick, thinner strings are supreme.
On the other hand, a set of thicker strings (.012, .016, .020, .032, .042, .054) might feel a bit harder to play, as they require greater finger strength and endurance. While you have to put more effort into your playing, you get a much thicker and fatter sound, perfect for rock and metal genres. They are much chunkier than their thin brothers and sisters, providing a bit more power for the player.
Preferred String Gauges for Different Styles of Music
Before I dive in, I must mention how subjective string gauges are. In reality, any string gauge can be used in any genre. However, to narrow your choices and provide you with an excellent foundation to achieve the particular tone you’re looking for, I figured I’d point you in the right direction for your chosen musical style.
If you’re playing in drop tunings, there’s no reason to get any other strings besides some thick boys. Thick strings provide tension and sustain, perfect for rock, metal, and genres of the like. They’re great for guitars with extended ranges as well.
Compared to thin strings, which can feel quite floppy with heavier playing styles, thick strings deliver power and punch. Tuning to drop D or drop C? Make sure that your string pack has a thick string of .048 or higher.
Thick strings are a popular choice for acoustic guitarists as well. They provide more warmth, resonance, and volume, allowing the wood to vibrate and the instrument’s natural characteristics to be heard. Plus, acoustic guitarists don’t bend as often, meaning the flexibility that comes with thin strings isn’t nearly as important.
Finally, jazz guitarists often take to thicker string gauges for their smoother, fuller, and rounder tones. One of my all-time favorite jazz guitarists, Julian Lage, prefers to use 12s to achieve a fuller tone.
For true versatility, medium strings are a great place to start. You can achieve the chunkier tones of hard rock and blues while maintaining the necessary flexibility for lead playing. I recommend looking for a hybrid pack to get the best of both worlds. Hybrid string packs typically come with thin-gauge high strings and thick-gauge low strings. Essentially, you get the meaty goodness necessary for heavy power chords and metallic riffing while retaining the smooth, effortless playing style that only comes from thin gauges on the top strings.
If you dabble in all genres, I recommend going with hybrid strings.
If you’re a country-style guitarist, thin-gauge strings are your world. They provide that treble-y clarity that we all know and love, as well as speed for fast fingerstyle playing. Having that high and high-mid focus is perfect for separation and clarity in pop or indie music as well.
One significant benefit with thin strings is the ability to bend with ease, which is why so many blues guitarists favor light strings. Jimi Hendrix was known to use a custom set of 10s.
Thin strings are prevalent in modern jazz fusion music as well, as it requires faster and more technical playing,
Finding YOUR Ideal String Gauge
Though there are other elements to consider when purchasing strings, such as winding type or construction materials, the gauge you choose can have the most significant impact on your tone. Finding the right gauge takes experimentation. Find out what some of your favorite guitarists use and start there. Don’t be afraid to mix and match different strings from different sets or try out other brands
I prefer to use Ernie Ball .009s on my Tele and Strat, for example, though I like adding a wound G string on my Tele to give it a beefier tone and better tuning stability.
Once you’ve found your favorite gauges, you can further explore your tonal options with various string materials and coatings. As with many elements of guitar tone, string gauge is all preference!