Are light gauge guitar strings better for the Blues?
There has been a long held belief amongst blues guitarists that you need to play heavy gauge guitar strings if you want beautiful blues tones. This idea has existed since the very early days of electric blues guitar, and was later perpetuated in the 1980s by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan has one of the best electric blues tones of all time, and he also favoured very heavy gauge guitar strings.
As such, conversations amongst blues guitarists are often focused on the benefits of heavy gauge guitar strings. Players spend a lot less time looking at medium and light gauge strings, and whether they might work in a blues context. And so that is what I will be focusing on today. In this article I will look at some of the benefits of lighter gauge strings, and help you to decide which gauge of string will work best for you.
So without further ado, let’s get into it:
What are light gauge guitar strings?
Before we start looking at the potential benefits of light gauge guitar strings, I think it is first worth establishing what we mean by the terms ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ gauge guitar strings.
String gauge is a measure of the thickness or diameter of a guitar string. Comparatively speaking, all guitar strings are very thin, and so they are measured in 1/1000ths of an inch. A .009 gauge guitar string is 0.009 inches, and a .010 gauge guitar string is 0.010 inches.
When guitarists talk about string gauge, they generally refer to a string set by its thinnest string. So if someone says that they play ’10s’, they mean they play a set of strings where the high E string is a .010 gauge.
It is worth noting though, that there are a huge variety of .010 gauge string sets, which I will cover in more detail below. As such, there is not really a ‘typical’ set of guitar strings. Every brand of string manufacturer produces sets of guitar strings with slightly different thicknesses.
Having said that, I do think that .009 and .010 gauge guitar strings are generally considered to be ‘normal’ guitar string gauges, with .009s being on the lighter side of the spectrum. .008 gauge guitar strings or anything lighter are considered to be really quite light. .011 gauge guitar strings are heavy, and any guitar string gauges heavier than that are considered to be very heavy.
So keeping those gauges in mind, let’s have a look at the benefits for blues players of using strings on the lighter side of the spectrum:
When looking at which guitar strings to buy, you need to take both tone and playability into account. The tone that you produce is a direct result of your playing style and how you manipulate your strings. And so whilst heavy gauge strings might produce a warmer and more resonant tone (all things being equal), they will only help you to produce a ‘better tone’ if you can play them properly.
This is particularly the case in the blues. String bending and vibrato are essential to expressive blues guitar playing. As such, you want to make sure that your choice in strings doesn’t compromise these areas of your playing.
Lighter gauge strings are easier to fret, bend and play with vibrato. This is because they provide less resistance against your fingers. If you move your fretting hand quickly on light gauge strings, you’ll be able to achieve B.B. King’s trilling style of vibrato.
Do the same thing on a thick string and – unless you have very strong hands – the string won’t move nearly as much. Rather than get a fast trill, you are more likely to get a broader, slower and more sweeping style of vibrato. And if you do decide that you want to play heavy guitar strings and also use a fast style of vibrato, you will have to work harder with your fretting hand.
In short, light gauge guitar strings are fundamentally easier to play than heavy gauge strings. And so if you are looking to hit big, Albert King style string bends and play with a fast B.B. King style trilling vibrato, then lighter string gauges could make a great choice. They will help you to get more out of your playing, and this will make a big difference to your tone.
I would also argue that lighter gauge strings can help to improve your tone indirectly, because they allow you to play and practice for longer. I speak partly from personal experience here.
Like so many blues guitarists, Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of my early influences. His playing style and tone blew me away. So when I discovered that he used .013 gauge guitar strings, I rushed to fit my guitar with strings of the same gauge. I didn’t jump up all the way to .013s. But I did move up to .012s, and I played them in standard tuning. I could just about manage to play them. But they tore my fingers to pieces and vastly reduced the amount of time I was able to play and practice each day. After practicing for any length of time, my wrist and forearm would start to hurt, and I’d have to put the guitar down. This impacted my technique, and actually made my tone worse.
And, this is a factor that is worth considering in the long term too. As modern blues guitarist Philip Sayce stated when asked about string gauge:
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that people don’t talk about injuries in guitar playing very much. But it’s a real thing… Do you want to play for the next 40, 50 years of your life? Or do you want to play for five years and then perhaps have to stop?”
It is for this reason that Sayce alters his string gauge depending on how his hands are feeling and on the intensity of his live shows. He always plays a custom set of D’Addario strings, either in a .0.10-.054 gauge or an .011-.054 gauge.
Long story short, don’t jeopardise your guitar playing in the long run by trying to push through the pain. A long practice session can be tough on the fingers and hands, but if you are really suffering after playing, then you might benefit from choosing lighter gauge guitar strings.
Playing the guitar should be fun. It should be something that enriches your life, not makes it more challenging. And whilst frustration is a necessary part of the learning journey, practice and playing should not feel like a battle.
When I tried to play .012s, I simply did not enjoy playing my guitar as much as when I used lighter strings.
Reaching a level of proficiency on the guitar where you can express your musical ideas and move around the fretboard with freedom is challenging enough. You don’t need to make the challenge greater by adding a further physical element too.
To put it another way, if any new piece of guitar gear is making you less inclined to pick up your guitar, then you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere!
Blues guitarists often cite Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone as the reason they play heavy gauge guitar strings. Vaughan’s soaring guitar tone is unquestionably one of the greatest blues tones of all time. And yet it isn’t the only remarkable blues tone. In fact, many of the greatest blues and blues rock guitar tones were crafted by players using much lighter gauge strings:
● B.B. King played a set of mixed gauge strings, which ran in gauge from .010-.054.
● Albert King reportedly played strings that ran in gauge from .009-.050
● Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Roy Buchanan and Rory Gallagher all played using ‘Fender Rock N’ Roll 150 Strings’. These ran in gauge from .010-038.
● For the vast majority of his career, Eric Clapton has played using ‘Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings‘. These run in gauge from .009-.042
● Following a conversation with B.B. King in the 1970s, during which King told him that he shouldn’t be working so hard with his heavy gauge strings, Billy Gibbons adopted very light guitar strings. His signature set of guitar strings runs from .007-.038!
As you can hopefully see then, many of the most notable blues and blues rock guitarists of all time have played using medium or light gauge guitar strings. And so whilst heavy gauge guitar strings do have a range of tonal benefits, there is also a strong precedent of blues guitarists using lighter gauge strings too.
Will light gauge strings work for you?
As you can hopefully see, there are some significant benefits of using lighter gauge strings. And these are benefits which a lot of blues players often overlook. The most significant of these is that they are easier to play. This makes them great for string bending, applying vibrato and playing fast. For most players, these are significant benefits that make lighter gauge guitar strings a great choice.
If you are struggling to play with your current strings, or if you are suffering with finger or wrist pain, then you should try lighter gauge strings. You should never sacrifice comfort or playability in your quest for tone. And opting for lower gauge strings will almost certainly improve your tone.
Not only this, but if you are struggling with heavy gauge strings, then reducing your string gauge is also likely to make your guitar playing a bit more enjoyable!
I would recommend taking the same approach if you feel even slightly limited by your current strings. There might not be obvious signs that you are playing strings that are too heavy. But can you hit bends, apply vibrato and move around the fretboard with freedom? If the answer to that question is no, then again you might benefit from lowering your string gauge.
How light should you go?
If you are interested in the idea of exploring lighter gauge strings, then the next step is to decide which string gauge will work for you. It is a little difficult to give broad recommendations here. Every guitarist has different sized hands, a different level of playing experience, and different hand and finger strength. And so what feels light for one player might feel very much heavier for another.
There are additional factors to consider too. The scale length of your guitar will impact string tension. And this makes the same set of strings feel quite different on different guitars. Tuning your guitar to Eb – a common choice amongst blues players – will also affect string tension across your neck.
As such, I would recommend assessing your current playing situation and adjusting your string gauge accordingly:
● If you are struggling to play with your current strings then I would recommend dropping down a full gauge. For example, if you are currently battling with .011s, then drop down to .010s and see how your playing feels
● If you feel ok with your current strings, but you wonder if you might benefit from a lower gauge, then try dropping down by half a gauge. For example, if you feel ok playing .011s, but big bends are a bit of a struggle, then drop down to .0105s and see if it improves your playing. There are some excellent half gauge string sets out there (linked below) which can work very well here.
As a final point, it is worth noting that continuing to reduce the gauge of your strings doesn’t mean that your playability and tone will continue to improve. For example, you might find that .009s work better for you than .010s. Yet that doesn’t mean that dropping down to .008s will necessarily work better again. In fact you might find them to be too light. It is all about finding the sweet spot where your string gauge compliments your playing style.
When to avoid light gauge strings
For this same reason, you might in fact find that light gauge strings are not suitable for you. As noted at various points throughout, lighter gauge strings work well because they give you control over your playing. This allows you to play with freedom, and for most blues guitar players, this will result in a better tone.
Yet there will be players whose style is suited to heavier gauge strings. Stevie Ray Vaughan is just one obvious example. He played with a broad and sweeping vibrato style, and used a very heavy pick attack. He also favoured long and sustained string bends and always tuned down to Eb. Vaughan would not have been able to play in the same style had he used light gauge guitar strings.
And whilst SRV is on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to style, there might be elements of your playing which are similar. If that is the case – and provided that you have the hand and finger strength to execute this style of playing – you might find that you in fact benefit from playing slightly heavier gauge strings. Alternatively, after trying a few different sets out, you might decide that the gauge you currently play is the one that works best for you.
Some practical recommendations
At this stage, you might be wondering which string sets you should be considering if you want to dial in a range of vintage blues tones. If you are interested in experimenting with string gauges in the way I have outlined here, then I would recommend starting your search at half gauge and mixed gauge string sets.
The former works very well if you want to adjust your string gauge without making dramatic changes. And so if you find yourself feeling that .010s are too light, but .011s are too heavy (or something similar) I would definitely recommend trying these strings out.
Some great sets of half gauge strings to consider are as follows:
● Ernie Ball Turbo Slinky (.0095-0.46)
● DR Handmade Tite-fit Nickel wound strings (.0095-.044)
● GHS Boomers (.0105-.048)
● D’Addario Super Light Plus (.0085-.039)
● Ernie Ball Mondo Slinky (.0105-0.52)
I also think that mixed gauge strings can provide a ‘best of both worlds’ option for blues guitarists. These sets typically have relatively heavy gauge bass strings and quite light gauge treble strings. This means that you can benefit from improved playability on the treble strings, whilst still having heavy gauge bass strings that produce a full and resonant sound.
Some great sets of mixed gauge strings to consider are as follows:
● Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky (.009-.046)
● D’Addario Light Top, Heavy Bottom (.010-.052)
● Elixir Optiweb Custom Light (.009-0.46)
● Ernie Ball Skinny Top, Beefy Bottom (.010-.054)
● DR Pure Blues (.009-0.46)
If you are looking for a more standard and balanced string set and you don’t want to look at half gauge strings, then there are a whole range of brilliant options, just some of which are as follows:
● Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (.010-.046)
● Curt Mangan Nickel Plated Strings (.010-.046)
● D’Addario Super Light Nickel Wound Strings (.009-.042)
● DR Blues Pure Nickel (.010-.046)
● GHS Boomers (.009-.042)
These of course are just a small cross section of the wide range of guitar strings that can work well for the blues. However I hope they help you to get started experimenting with different gauge strings.
As is so often the case with guitar gear and the quest for tone, there are very few hard and fast rules when it comes to string gauge. Do I think that most blues guitarists would benefit from playing guitar strings on the lighter side of the spectrum? Yes.
A lot of players get caught up in thinking about the inherent tonal quality of their guitar strings. Yet this is only part of the equation. You can have the best sounding guitar strings in the world, but that means very little if you can’t play and express yourself properly.
In the blues, getting great tone comes from striking a balance between tone and playability. It is about finding the sweet spot where you get a great tone and you can play comfortably. That sweet spot is different for all of us, so get experimenting and dialling in those killer blues tones!
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