String Gauge 101 – FAQs

Hey Guys!  And welcome to our first blog in a small series based around string gauges. The topic of string gauge can be quite vast, especially when you consider how many variations of gauge there are from instrument to instrument.  Throughout these blogs we’ll cover a few popular topics and offer up some thoughts of our own on string gauges.

To kick things off, we’ve compiled a little introduction into gauges and try to answer some of the frequently asked questions we often hear whilst also hopefully debunking some myths along the way.

So what exactly is string gauge?

String gauge is a term that refers to the thickness of a string or set of strings on an instrument.

Each string has a numerical value that represents its thickness.  This number is measured in thousands of an inch.  For example a popular gauge for a High E (or 1st String) on an electric guitar is .010” (Ten thousands of an inch).  When writing or talking about string gauges it’s popular practice to omit the decimal figures and refer to the gauge simply as a ‘10’ gauge string.  So an .011” gauge string (eleven thousands of an inch) will often be referred to just as ‘an 11’ and so on.  The higher the number, the thicker the string will be.

You may have heard people say “I use 9’s” or “I use 10’s.”  In this instance, what they are referring to is a set of strings where the first string (or thinnest string) in the set is a 9 gauge or 10 gauge and so on…  Still following?

What does 10-46 mean?

String sets are made up of a number of strings (depending on your instrument) all with varying thicknesses. Often the “thickness” of the strings will graduate up from the thinnest string upto the thickest string. You’ll see gauges for sets usually written as a range such as 10-46. These two numbers represent the ‘thickness’ of the thinnest and the thickest strings respectively.

So using the above example;
– The 10 (.010”) is the thinnest string (aka 1st String)
– The 46 (.046”) is the thickest string (aka 6th string)

The other 4 gauges in a set are often provided by the manufacturer and can be found on the front or reverse of the packet of strings.  (As a company, we will always endeavour to provide all the gauges within each set and list these on our website).

The more familiar you become with string gauges, you’ll see the same numbers crop up time and time again.  For instance, 9-42 and 10-46 are both very popular electric guitar gauges and you’ll find nearly every brand will offer these exact gauges in their range.  The same can be said for popular acoustic and bass gauges too.

These common gauges have been around for years and will no doubt continue to do so.  That being said, some brands offer variations on these gauges as a way of standing out from the crowded string market and offering players more choice.

You will also see string brands using more generic names such as ‘Light’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Heavy’ as a means of classifying the thickness of their sets.  Whilst these are helpful, the terms are not always consistent across every brand i.e. a ‘Light’ gauge set can be different from one brand to the next.   As a result, we recommend looking at the numerical value of the gauge (e.g. 10-46, 12-53 etc… ) as this gives a more accurate representation of the actual thickness of the set.

What do the terms ‘Lighter’ and ‘Heavier’ mean?

These terms are simply other ways of referring to thinner and thicker strings.  Put simply a ‘lighter’ gauge set of strings is thinner and a ‘heavier’ gauge set is thicker.  Simples!

What’s the point in having all these various gauges?

When you first start to look into gauges and how many there are on offer, it can appear quite overwhelming.  There are a couple of reasons all these string gauge options are available though;

Firstly, your choice of string gauge is (mostly) down to personal preference. We’re all different, weird and wonderful creatures and have a pretty good idea of what strings we like.

Whilst preference is a big part of string gauge choice, other factors such as playing style, the type of music you play, the type of guitar you own and the tunings you use can all have a bearing on which gauge you choose too.

As a result, string manufacturers make every effort to cater for all these variations and the demands of the huge array of players out there whether they play electric, acoustic, bass, classical guitar or any other stringed instrument.

What makes one gauge different to another?

The difference between one gauge and another is simply the thickness of the strings.  So the higher the number, the thicker the gauge will be. For example, a set of 10-47 acoustic strings is lighter (thinner) than a set of 12-53 acoustic strings.

It is worth noting that a heavier string will have more tension in it than a lighter gauge string – when tuned to the same pitch.  In playing terms, the added tension usually means the string will be harder to press down and prove more difficult to bend.

Is one gauge better than another?

This question is a real ‘can of worms’ and can evoke some strong opinions by some players.  We could write a whole blog on this topic.  (In fact we already have… check out “I like light strings and I cannot lie!”).

People argue that the thicker a set of strings are, the better they will sound.  Technically this is true as a thicker string will have more steel present in it.  This greater mass will generate more magnetic pull from the pickups resulting in a higher output and therefore a “better tone”.   Whilst scientifically, this viewpoint is sound, there are also arguments for opting for lighter strings too – you can read all about this in the blog mentioned above.

Our stance is that gauge is a very personal thing so we always encourage people to experiment but ultimately go with what feels right for you and what keeps you happy when playing the guitar.  After all, nobody else is playing your guitar.

Does what gauge I choose determine my ability as a guitar player?

No, but again, this is another popular discussion amongst some guitar players.

There are many guitar greats that favour really heavy strings.  I’m sure many of us are familiar with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s outrageously heavy choice of gauge…13-72… ouch!!  There’s a lot of Chinese Whispers around what gauge SRV preferred; “I heard SRV used telegraph poles on Texas Flood.” etc.

Regardless, whatever strings he used they were far too heavy for most of us mere mortals.

But, for all the players that use heavy gauge strings, there’s plenty of great names that use very light strings too; Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons, Yngwie Malmsteen, BB King to name a few.  So in short, no it doesn’t have any bearing on your ability as a guitar player.  What’s comfortable is what matters here.

That being said, for any beginners out there we would always recommend starting out by using a lighter gauge string as this will make things a little easier on you to begin with.  As your finger strength grows and the calluses on your fingertips build up, you may wish take the step up to a heavier gauge.  Listen to your body though, if the heavier gauge feels like hard work after a few weeks, go back to your old gauge, there’s nothing wrong with that.  After all, that’s why all these gauges are made.  If we were all the same we’d all be using one gauge.

“Did you know??”

There is 25% more tension in a single .010 gauge string compared to a .009 when tuned up to pitch.  This is a very big jump in tension despite the small jump in gauge.  This is why making the ‘step up’ in gauge may not feel as easy as it should “on paper”.
Source: D’Addario Tension Chart

So string gauge is important, right?

In our eyes yes, string gauge is very important.  When you find the right gauge it can make playing the guitar feel great and bring out the best in our playing. However, get it wrong and it can completely change the playability of an instrument making it feel like very tough work at times.

Likewise, if you are trying to achieve a different sound using altered tunings, you may be forced to opt for a different string gauge to help compliment the tuning. For instance, if you are playing in Drop D (DADGBE), your thickest string will need to be slightly thicker to make allowances for the drop in tuning of that low E down to D.

What factors determine what string gauge I should choose?

As we’ve mentioned above, each player is individual and we’d be wrong to make sweeping statements such as “If you play blues, you must use 11 gauge strings” as this might be true for one player, but certainly not everybody.

That being said, there are certain factors that may influence your decision on string gauge.  These include;
– Style of music played
– How easy you like your instrument to play
– Your playing style – Do you hit the strings hard or have a lighter touch?
– Do you use any altered tunings (Drop Tunings, Open tunings)
– Do you use a heavy pick?

Experiment a lot, there are countless permutations out there, don’t be afraid to have a string gauge as individual as you
are.

Can the type of guitar I have determine what gauge of strings I have?

Yes and No.  Let us explain:  No – ultimately you are in charge of what strings you put on your guitar. There is no rulebook you must stick to.  However, certain guitars do ‘lend’ themselves to certain styles of music and and as a result some gauges may sound ‘better’ than others. For instance, jazz players that use big-bodied semi-hollow guitars often favour a heavier gauged flatwound string in a bid to achieve a more smooth and mellow “Jazz-like” tone.

Another factor to consider is the scale length of your guitar.  Scale lengths vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and as a result the same set of strings can ‘feel’ quite different depending on the scale length of the guitar.  We’ll tackle this topic in a bit more depth in future blogs, however, as a rule of thumb, the same set of strings will have less tension in a shorter scale guitar than the same set on a guitar with a slightly longer scale length.

Can I use any gauge on my guitar?

Broadly speaking, yes you can.  However, this does come with a caveat.

As we mentioned earlier, heavier string gauges mean there is more tension in the string.  Besides making the strings feel more tense and harder to press down etc… the added tension will affect the instrument itself.  Different gauge strings alter the neck relief on a guitar and the tension at the bridge can change too.  As a result, string gauge can alter the playability of an instrument quite considerably.  If you are opting for less ‘conventional’ string gauges, we’d always recommend consulting a guitar luthier before doing so, as there are some crucial adjustments that may need to be made to accommodate the change in gauge.

We hope that we have dispelled some common myths around string gauge and provided some clarity here.  As always, if you do have any questions, feel free to contact us and we’ll do our very best to answer them as best as we can.  No question is too silly – we’ve heard most of them before.  Thanks for reading and we’ll catch you in the next blog.

 

11 Comments

  • Jono

    Exellent, very informative. Great job.

    • stringsdirect

      Thank you Jono 🙂

  • Dene Fisher

    Very interesting little blog but you’ve not touched on intonation, if you change strings gauges significantly especially on an electric guitar you’ll almost certainly have to move the bridge saddles to get the guitar to play in tune all over the neck

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Dene, yes you are quite right. We’re going to be doing a follow up blog shortly on what to expect when you change your string gauge, so all this type of information will be included in there. Thanks very much.

  • Bob Jennings

    With reference to string gauge. I have a very old guitar and have used light strings to be kind to it. So far it has lasted 61 years in my care and it is still good. But I have become uneasy lately because the sets of strings I get now are not matched for ‘weight’. I have been used to thinking that the amount of tension on each string ought to be equal. It seems logical. If you have a couple of pounds extra [say] on the sixth string that would be the same as having no strings at all except one and that loaded with two pounds and then the guitar put away for years. Surely you might expect a bit of warping when you eventually re-strung it and used it.
    I can remember that back in the ’60s [when this kind of information was hard to get] I made a test jig with a nut at each end and a way of actually loading the string with weights to bring them up to pitch. A set really WAS a set then – all coming up to pitch with the same weight.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Bob, you’re exactly right there. Not all the common gauges that are on the string market have equal tension across the set. In fact D’Addario have started to produce ‘Balanced Tension’ sets for this exact reason. Here’s a link to their page on this. I’m sure you’ll find it quite interesting;
      http://www.daddario.com/balanced_tension.page
      Thanks

  • Timely piece. Just experimenting with 12s on my Strat, having broken 3 D steungs in 3 weeks using 11s. Went for EB Not even Slinky 12-56.

    Have set up the action and intonation brehearsal for 6 hrs Thursday…

    Will let you know how they go

    • stringsdirect

      Yes let us know how you get on Greg. If you are breaking strings even with the Not Even Slinkys it may be worth having a read of our blog on breaking strings. https://www.stringsdirect.co.uk/blog/why-are-my-strings-breaking/ If you need any further guidance, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Thanks

  • Love the idea and very helpful for new guitarists starting out.
    There are a lot of string manufacturers out there too, so maybe a comparative review of strings vs price vs performance would be an idea, if you haven’t already planned it.
    Looking forward to the next one already!
    Cheers

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Albie, Thanks for the kind comments. We’ll definitely look into doing something along those lines in the future. Thank you 🙂

  • Richard Ellicott

    u should adda louder caveat that adding higher gauge strings especially, can really risk destroying your guitar

    i destroyed a strat like guitar when i wrongly purchased hybrid slinkies (fortunately a 230 quid cort imitation, but i still loved it).

    I kept tuning them not realising that the tremblo was pulling away, it broke this tiny gap of wood where the tremlo is screwed in…..i have a more expensive ibanze made les paul/sg copy now, and it came with 10s :)…. so if you change gauge it’s really worth asking someone at a shop to do it who’ll know to adjust the truss rod and intonation, you don’t need them to fit subsequent strings.

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