String Tension 101

String Tension Image

In our previous blog, we gave a brief introduction to the world of string gauges. We discussed how gauge can affect the playability of a guitar and we also touched on the concept of string tension too. In this blog we’re going to delve a little deeper into tension, talk about its close link with string gauge and why it’s something you should also be conscious of.

Tension is something that is more commonly referred to when we talk about classical guitar strings. However, when we discuss other types of guitar strings such as electric, acoustic and bass strings, string gauge is more prevalent; and in most instances the technical information on each individual string’s tension isn’t something that all manufacturers freely provide. D’Addario are one of the few manufacturers that list both and for this reason we will make reference to their string tensions throughout this blog. If you wished to take a look at their tension chart for yourself, you can do so by following the link at the bottom of the blog.

Right, so let’s get started….

In essence, every string will exert a certain amount of tension on a guitar when it is strung up. How much tension exactly will depend on three main factors;

Tension Triangle

The Tension Triangle above has a factor at each corner. Changing one of these factors will directly affect the amount of tension in the string. Below we’ll take a look at each factor in turn.

String Gauge

So first up is our old friend string gauge. As we learnt previously, the higher the gauge, the thicker the string. This is generally true for tension too. Typically you’ll find that the thicker the gauge of the string, the more tension it has when tuned to pitch.

For example, if we were to take a Telecaster strung with 10-46 gauge strings, we’d find that if the strings were changed to a heavier gauge (let’s say 11-49 gauge), the tension exerted by each string will increase. As a result of this increased tension, the new set will “feel” stiffer, the top strings will require more effort to bend and some players who prefer a lighter gauge may say the set feels “harder” to play.

This works the other way too. If we were to string the same Telecaster up with 9-42 gauge strings, we’d find the tension will be lighter than that of the 10-46 set.

This is all pretty self explanatory stuff, but apart from string gauge, how much tension a string exerts will depend on the other two factors.

Pitch

Pitch basically refers to whichever note we are tuning the string to.

So if we take our Telecaster example again, this time we’ll reference the low E-string. The .046” gauge string will exert 17.5lbs of tension when tuned to a standard E note. However, if we decided to tune our Telecaster down to drop D, we would need to lower the pitch of the ‘Low E’ a whole step down to ‘D’ and in turn we would be reducing the tension too. So our .046” string when tuned to D will now have just 13.9lbs (as opposed to our 17.5lbs when tuned to E). In real terms this will make the string feel ‘looser’.

Likewise if we were to go the other way and tune the E up to F, the tension would increase too. A .046” tuned to F would raise the tension to 19.6lbs (instead of 17.5lbs when tuned to E).

If you’ve ever decided to get your ‘Jimi’ on and tune your guitar down to Eb (where all 6 strings have been tuned-down by half a step to Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb) you will have noticed that your strings felt a bit looser and somewhat easier and more ‘buttery’ to play. If you haven’t tried it before, give it a go, it feels good!! Some players will tune their guitars down half a step on a regular basis and it’s a common thing to do in certain styles of music such as blues-rock.

So from what we’ve learnt so far, if we wanted to detune our guitar and have it in Eb the whole time, but didn’t really like the “looser” feel of our strings when tuned this way, what we could do is go up a gauge (heavier gauge) to compensate for the drop in tension. With this in mind we could opt for an 11-49 set. The 11-49 set will usually have more tension when in standard tuning. However, because we’ve tuned down to Eb, this will lower the tension of this heavier gauge set. Hope that makes sense!

Scale Length

Scale Length is the final part of our tension triangle. So far we have seen how the tension of our strings change depending on the gauges that we use and also what pitch our strings are tuned to. We’ve been using the Telecaster strung with 10-46 gauge strings as our example, but what if we put these strings on a different guitar? And what if this new guitar had a different scale length?

What’s a scale length we hear you ask?

 

This is the distance (usually measured in inches) from the fretboard edge of the nut down to where the string makes contact with the saddle. You may also find people refer to this as the “speaking length” of the string too.

You may or may not be aware that different guitars can have different scale lengths. For example, Fender guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster have a scale length of 25.5”, whereas PRS guitars have a shorter scale length of 25” and Gibson guitars have a shorter scale length still of 24.75”. Even shorter is the dinky Fender Mustang coming in with a 22.5” scale length. Cute!!

Bass guitars are a very good example of this too. They come in a variety of scale lengths; short, medium, long (standard) and extra-long scale. As you will have guessed, the scale length increases as you progress from short scale basses up to extra-long scale. So what exactly does this mean for the tension of our strings?

As a rule of thumb, the same gauge string tuned to the same pitch will increase in tension as the scale length increases.
So using bass guitars as an example, if we take a .105” gauge string tuned as our Low E, the tension in the string will vary according to what scale length bass it’s fitted to. See below;

.105 gauge string tuned to E

Short Scale – .34.0lbs
Medium Scale – 35.7lbs
Long Scale – 40.3lbs
Extra Long Scale – 45.2lbs

As you can see for the exact same string gauge, tuned to the exact same pitch, the tension varies depending on the scale length of the instrument.

Balanced Tension String Sets

If you’re up to date with your string trends you may well have noticed manufacturers have started to make sets with more ‘balanced’ string gauges across the whole set.

Most manufacturers make their sets with tried and tested gauges that appear to have been around since the dawn of time. There has been little deviation from these gauges and limited questioning to whether these gauges are actually in balance with each other?

The problem with the tensions of these strings is that they can be quite varied from one string to the other, even within the same set. Imagine bending your high E string and then bending your B string..the amount of effort required to bend the High E could be wildly different to that of the B-string if the two tensions are not in sync with each other. If you carry this across the whole set, you can find that all the strings in the same set vary quite drastically.

In light of this, some manufacturers have started to produce sets where the tension is more equal across all strings in a bid to help make the set feel more comfortable and consistent in it’s playability.

Lower tension sets

There are also some manufacturers that produce purpose made ‘lower tension’ guitar sets through their use of different core shapes, different wrap materials and also by altering the outer wrap wire:core ratio. Lower tension sets are often more desirable for players who have older, vintage instruments especially on acoustic instruments where the bracing may be quite delicate, or for players who struggle with tendinitis or arthritis issues too where fretting heavier gauged or higher tension sets can prove problematic.

We hope this blog has been informative and helped clear up any hazy information surrounding string gauge and string tension. Sometimes these topics can be daunting, fraught with mind bending numbers and mathematical equations but they really shouldn’t have to be this way. Simply being aware of how different elements can affect the way your guitar feels and plays can be invaluable and really help you navigate the world of strings.

As always, any questions or comments simply e-mail us or leave a comment below.

We look forward to seeing you next time 🙂

To download a copy of D’Addario’s Tension Guide, simply click here

 

11 Comments

  • Katie Holmes

    Hi! I think that your blogs are excellent!! I have played the guitar for over 50 years, and am learning new things from you! Thank you!

    • stringsdirect

      You’re welcome and thanks for the kind words Katie.

      • Barrie Stones

        Another factor to consider is string material. D’addarrio steel strings are noticeably stiffer than certain others due to their higher carbon content. The upside is that they give less, and therefore tuning is more stable. The other result is a brighter sound. Actually too bright for my taste on a Strat, but great for brightening a humbucker equipped guitar. It is worth noting that higher treble always comes with higher tension on strings of the same gauge. This obviously doesn’t apply if the tension is increased as a result of thicker strings. Some string makers are now offering pure nickel strings for a more mellow sound. It is no coincidence that they are easier to bend. Don’t start me on magnetism and output!

        • stringsdirect

          Thanks for the insight Barrie, much appreciated

  • A higher tension, i.e. a tighter string, makes for a louder note, more of a shift to upper harmonics and more electrical output from your pickup if the magnetic properties are of the string are otherwise equal. That is why a classical guitarist would favour high tension when playing in a large hall or with a rock drummer. But then why would he play with a rock drummer?

    Tighter strings are louder strings. The dance band guitarists of the 20’s and 30’s preferred stair-rod gauge on their 17″ and 18″ archtops, but then amplification came along and with it the ability to cause as much damage and more with less finger-busting.

    • stringsdirect

      Thanks for the insight Freddie. Very interesting. You are right in what you say regarding a tighter string being louder. This is particularly true for classical strings. Higher tension classical sets give more projection of tone.

  • Johnny Musto

    I would like to learn more about balanced tension Bass Strings. Brilliant blog too thanks.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Johnny,
      D’Addario make balanced tension sets. These are their gauges;
      EXL160BT – 50, 67, 90, 120
      EXL170BT – 45, 60, 80, 107
      EXL220BT – 40, 55, 70, 95

      What gauge do you normally use? We could see if there are any other similar sets available?
      Thanks

  • Stuart Strong

    I purchased JOHN PEARSE
    550SL Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings 11-50 Slightly Light
    from you at £8.99. They are amazing I can see why James Taylor uses them.

    • stringsdirect

      The John Pearse strings are great Stuart.

  • Win G.

    Hi. I have just learned guitar so I really need above information. It’s necessary to know how gauge can affect the playability of a guitar. Thank you very much for your sharing. Anyway, I have just bought a guitar from here http://alphaconsumermusic.com/. I would ike to keep continue practicing guitar. I think I have to learn more not only playing guitar.

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