Going Heavy! What to expect when you go up a gauge

Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky
So you’re thinking of going up a gauge in string, eh!? You cheeky monkey!!

Going for a heavier gauge string is a common desire for many players. As we know, heavier strings can help deliver a “bigger and better” tone! However, before you run off, unwrap that heavier set and stick them on your guitar it’s worth being aware of the trade-offs that can come as result of your journey on the quest for heavenly tone!!

Heavier gauge strings naturally have more tension in them when they are tuned to pitch. This means greater effort is required to play them in the form of fretting and bending, but it’s not just the player that feels the extra strain, the guitar is affected by the heavier gauge too.

For example, if you’re changing from a 9-42 gauge to a 10-46 gauge set of strings, it may not sound like a big change, but the heavier 10-46 set carries over 20% more tension across the entire set. That’s a huge jump in tension! Your guitar will inevitably react to this extra tension and as a result you may notice changes in its playability.

Here’s a rundown of some of the various tensions from some of the most popular electric and acoustic gauges;

Electric

09-42 – Total Tension 84.44 lbs
10-46 – Total Tension 102.52 lbs (over 20% more tension)
11-49 – Total Tension 117.11 lbs (over 14% more tension than 10-46, 38.69% more tension than 09-42…wowzers!!)

Acoustic

10-47 – Total Tension 130.2 lbs
11-52 – Total Tension 144.63 lbs (11% more tension)
12-53 – Total Tension 156.42 lbs (8% more tension than the 11-52 set)

(Data has been collected from the D’Addario Tension Chart. This can be downloaded here.)

As you can see there’s a significant difference between the tension in the sets so you can start to get an idea of the level of extra strain placed on the guitar.

Below we’ve compiled a list of some of the effects that may occur. We say “may” occur as not all guitars are the same. For instance, some older guitars are more delicate so could have a bigger reaction to even a small change in gauge whilst other guitars made from harder woods may show no signs of movement at all.

The important thing to bear in mind is that it’s not until you put the new strings on that you will get to see just how much or how little adjustment the guitar needs as a result of the extra tension. With this in mind, this blog is simply meant as a primer on what you “might” see or “feel” happen. Also it’s worth pointing out that it’s not meant as an exhaustive guide on DIY repair so if you don’t feel comfortable carrying out any changes to your guitar yourself, we’d always recommend seeking the help of a qualified guitar technician or luthier…some shoddy work can often prove costly to repair afterwards.

So let’s get started…

Neck

As you go up in string gauge, the extra tension will pull the neck up (forward). It is worth mentioning that if you are going down a gauge, you will often find that the effects will be reversed, so in this instance, the neck will move back.

From a playability perspective, typical symptoms of a raised neck include a raised action (greater distance between the strings and the fretboard) meaning fretting the strings could prove more difficult. A raised neck can also affect the intonation, particularly if there has been a more drastic gauge change or more importantly if you are changing from a plain 3rd to a wound 3rd.

Raised Neck - Book Example

The image above is a rather crude example of how your neck can react to the extra tension. If you can imagine the book is our guitar; the left half of the book is the neck and the right half is the body. An increase in gauge and tension will pull the neck up i.e. the left half of our book raises. As a result you can see that the action would increase and also some intonation issues can occur.

In order to alleviate this issue, the truss rod will need to be adjusted. A tightening of the truss rod screw will pull the neck back down towards its original position (i.e. our book flattens out) and as a result it will help restore the neck relief to a pleasing level.

Truss rod adjustments are one of those things that should be adjusted incrementally and can prove a little bit daunting. If done incorrectly it can prove costly so we’d always recommend consulting a qualified guitar technician or luthier to help give you some guidance or carry out the work for you.

Bridge

If your guitar is equipped with a tremolo bridge such as a Strat or if you have a Floyd Rose setup, you may find that there are some changes needed at that end too. The extra tension found in heavier gauge strings can cause a floating bridge to pull up/forward and tilt up away from the body.

Raised Stratocaster Tremolo Bridge

In order to counteract this effect, the screws that control the tension of the springs in the back cavity of the guitar will need to be tightened. This tightening causes the springs to pull the bridge back down towards the body which helps restore any string height and/or intonation issues that may have arisen.

Rear cavity of Stratocaster

Nut

Depending on the extent of your jump in gauge, you may have to adjust the slots in your nut to accommodate the bigger string gauge. If your change in gauge is a drastic one, you may even find that a complete new nut is needed to be fitted. We’ve had instances of older nuts breaking as a result of drastic gauge changes, particularly on the thicker, low strings.
Changing a guitar’s nut is not a drastic mod and pretty standard stuff and will help ensure the string slots are cut to the right depth but also maintain a decent string spacing too. It’s particularly important to ensure the nut is checked if you have a tremolo equipped guitar as a “sticky” or ill fitting nut is a big culprit for tuning issues when it comes to these types of bridges.

Electric Guitar Nut

Q) Does the same go for acoustic guitars?

More or less, yes! If you are going heavier on your acoustic guitar you can pretty much anticipate similar happenings with regards to your neck lifting up and an alteration or change of nut may prove necessary.

Q) And what about Classical guitars?

Classical guitar necks aren’t usually fitted with truss rods so making any adjustments through that means is not possible. Classical sets made with nylon typically carry less tension than steel strings so even if you are changing to a higher tension set, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice any drastic changes to the way your guitar plays.

Q) What if I’m not sure if a heavier gauge is for me?

If you’re unsure about “going up” a gauge but wanted to tentatively explore this path without going bananas, there are a few options open to you;

Half gauged sets

For some years now, some string manufacturers have been manufacturing what are known as half gauged strings. These are sets where the manufacturer has carefully chosen ‘in-between’ gauges to help make the step up in gauge less of a drastic one both for the player and their guitar, with little to no adjustments necessary.

For instance, if you are making a change from a 10-46 to 11-49 gauged set, you may wish to select a gauge of 10.5’s. This smaller step-up in gauge will not only help the player but your guitar will be thankful too! These sets are readily available nowadays with many big name manufacturers such as D’Addario, DR, GHS, PRS and Pyramid Strings all making their own version of a half gauged set.

Custom gauged sets

The second option is to take your current set of strings and to tweak some of the gauges here and there to your taste. You can do this on an adhoc basis by purchasing some additional single string(s) and changing whichever gauge you want to.

Alternatively, if you would prefer to create your own custom gauged set from scratch, you can definitely do this by making a set up from our large selection of single strings from brands such as D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Elixir, Rotosound and Martin to name a few. If you would like us to create you a custom gauge set, just drop our custom department. an e-mail and they’ll be happy to help you out. Also keep your eyes peeled for something exciting surrounding custom gauges in the coming weeks 🙂 You guys will be the first to know.

We hope this has given you a better understanding of how your guitar can react to a change in string gauge. It’s often difficult to give a definitive answer and say “this will definitely happen” but it’s not as easy as that as all instruments are different and the jump in gauge will be different from player to player.

If you would like any further guidance, please feel free to get in touch and we’d be happy to offer any advice we can. Happy stringing, and we’ll see you all next time!

 

22 Comments

  • Marcus Dobbs

    Really helpful – I have just moved from 10’s to a top E at 10.5, bottom E at 48 – works a treat with great tone,
    no adjustments needed. Have 6 more guitars to restring!

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Marcus, thanks very much.
      Glad to hear that just by making that incremental jump in gauge, it didn’t have any real affect on your set up.

    • Adrian nunez

      I recently changed my strings on my stratocaster from 9s to 10s. I like it much better because I play with my fingers and not a pick, and I’m a pretty heavy handed player so lighter gauge strings kind of just bend with my fingers and dont let me pluck the string so easily. But when I changed the strings, my trem started floating and now when I bend down or up, it makes the guitar go totally out of tune. If I push down on the trem, the strings go down and dont return to pitch, and then the opposite thing happens when I pull up , the strings go up in pitch and dont come back down. Does anyone know what the problem could be?

      • stringsdirect

        Hi Adrian, we have just run this issue past our tech who has suggested tightening the anchor screws slightly (these are the claw screws in the back of the body). Then retune the guitar a few times until the bridge is flat to the body. Do this gradually then you should be ok. Hope that helps

      • Bob

        Probably binding at the nut. Make sure the nut slots are big enough and lubricated with nut lube.

      • Andres Arevalo

        Adrian Nunez, the tension of the heavier gage strings is pulling it up and floating it, you will have to tighten the screws in the back, do it in increments of quarter turns. Hope that helps!

  • Hendrix got GREAT tones out of 8-38. Neither Jimmy Page or Frank Zappa or Steve Vai have had their “tone” criticized. The heavier string is fine if you are going for a specific or “that” tone that SRV had. He had enormously powerful hands and frets like railroad rails. I returned to 9’s from trying 10’s on my LP Standard, and the rewards were immense but principally it gave me back the ease and range of huge bends which just increases my musicality. I recorded before and after and there’s hardly any discernible difference.
    A lot of the heavy gauge thing us just ridiculous macho posturing. Stay light and keep access to wider and easier bends – and with them, greater ease of expression.

    • Zach

      A lot of the heavy gauge thing us just ridiculous macho posturing.

      Bro do you even bend 13 gauge in e standard??

      Kidding aside, heavy strings are the only way to get a decent sound in lower tunings.

  • steven gittins

    Custom guage 11s on my blueridge dread.Perfect for fingerpicking/claw hammer style. Can bend them too!! Thanks for advice.

  • Derek Hall

    As a luthier I concur with this helpful advice – but add that, in the case of acoustic guitars, the potential impact of heavier string gauge is not limited to neck lift and nut adjustment/replacement. The most common impact of heavy string gauges on the acoustic guitars that I renovate and repair is belly bulge! The soundboard becomes distorted (lifts) in the area just behind the bridge – raising the rear of the bridge, reducing the string break angle over the saddle, and resulting in unplayable high string action over the fretboard.

  • Geoff Carminke

    Do different scale lengths prefer heavier or lighter strings?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, most definitely. A shorter scale will make a heavier guage string feel rather slinky (ex.) Les Paul vs. a strat
      Also the inline design of the tuners on most fenders, is also better to withstand the stress a heavy guage string is going to put on your instrument.

      • John

        HI IV Git a alvarez ap66eshb 12 fret parlour acoustic it has got deario exp16 12 guage I find hard to play I am thinking of going down to 11 guage would I have to ajust guitar thanks

        • stringsdirect

          Hello, if you use 12-53 and find these hard to play we would certainly recommend going down a gauge. The 11 gauge would be 11-52 so not a huge jump. It would seem unlikely that any major adjustments would be needed, however, it’s difficult to say until you put the new strings on and see how your guitar reacts. Just as a side note, the EXP strings have now been discontinued, and replaced by the D’Addario XT range so keep an eye out for those as you may not be able to source the EXPs.

  • neil farrow

    Good info
    I find that heavier guage strings are brighter sounding maybe due to their higher tension
    I use lighter sets to get what I think is a more balanced tone
    Although heavier strings are louder

  • Stefan

    Thanks for a comprehensive view of this interesting and important topic. One aspect that I’d like to understand better is the effect of different tunings though, in particular tuning down. I normally play 10-46, standard tuning, but I’m planning on tuning of my guitar down to D and/or C. How much should I increase the gauge to get the same tension? If I’d go down to B I can of course look at string 2-7 of a seven string set to get an idea. But generally, what does a half step or whole step down mean for tension?

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Stefan, thanks for the comment. If you’re looking at dropping the 6th string down in pitch then the tension of your standard .046 string will in turn drop too and feel a bit ‘looser’. If you drop the tuning too far on the .046, it will become too floppy and won’t sound great at all. If you’re looking to maintain a similar tension to your .046 in standard tension these gauges may help as a guideline. Of course, there’s lots of singles on the market in between these gauges so feel free to tweak them to see what suits you best.
      E – .046
      Eb – .049
      D – 0.52
      Db – .054
      C – .056
      Hope this helps, as always, feel free to message us if you wanted any further guidance.
      Thanks
      Lee, SD

  • Josh

    Yes, most definitely. A shorter scale will make a heavier guage string feel rather slinky (ex.) Les Paul vs. a strat
    Also the inline design of the tuners on most fenders, is also better to withstand the stress a heavy guage string is going to put on your instrument.

  • Eugene

    Hello, great article. Thank you. Just one question, the truss rod adjusment as the screws in the back adjustments, should be done before instaling the new havier strings, or after?

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Eugene, apologies for the delay in replying. I have spoken to our guitar tech here who has said you can do either, but, his advice would be to put the new heavier gauge strings on first and then see how your guitar reacts to the heavier gauge. From there you can then make your adjustments to the neck angle and springs in the back as necessary. If you are not using the bridge as a floating bridge and just want it to be flush to the body, by all means, you can tighten your screws beforehand on your strat (assuming that’s what you have when you mention screws in the back). Hope this helps, if you need some more advice, by all means just give us a call on 01702 540068. Thanks

  • Logan

    So I have a couple of questions.
    I changed the strings on one of my guitars from 10-42 to 12-62.
    I didn’t do this to get higher tension for a better tone. I did this so that I could get down to lower tunings like drop C B and A, so the tension should be roughly the same right? So then should I have to set up my guitar again?
    Also, I’ve had a huge problem with the wound strings getting caught in the nut. Is this because the nut isn’t wide enough? Do I need to widen my nut slot?

    • Skillet

      Yes Logan, if you don’t have nut files you could take the cut-offs from your new heavier strings and, after moving your new strings out of the way, use them like a file to ‘wallow” out the slots. Note you’d want to angle your slot widening down towards the tuners at the same angle as the string.

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