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Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings: What to Expect When You Go Up a Gauge

Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky
Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky heavy guitar strings

What Are The Differences Between Strings Set Gauges?

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 strings from 9-42 to 10-46 gauge, it may not sound like a big deal, but the heavier 10-46 strings 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, pay attention to the difference of electric guitar strings 9-42 vs 10-46:

Electric Guitar Strings Tension:

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 Guitar Strings Tension

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…

Firstly, What Are The Benefits of Heavy Gauge Strings?

OK, here's the big one: TONE! As guitarists we're constantly striving for better tone and one of the quickest ways to get a fuller guitar sound is to increase your strings gauge. Even one step up, for example going from 9-42 (regular 9s) to 10-46 (regular 10s) can massively change your tone. More string means more mass, and more mass means more movement in the magnetic field around your pickups, and thus more tone - and some extra volume too!*

Further, heavier guitar strings have better tuning stability under more aggressive playing styles and/or lower tunings. With the extra tension and stability you'll find yourself playing more boldly and confidently... you'll have to!

How Does String Gauge Affect The 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
An example of how a raised neck can affect string action

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.

How Does String Gauge Affect The 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
An example of the bridge lifting under string tension

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
The rear cavity of a Stratocaster

Do I Need To Change The Top 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 an electric guitar’s nut for heavy gauge strings is not a drastic mod and pretty standard stuff. It 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
The top nut!

Does The Same Apply To Heavy Gauge Acoustic Guitar Strings?

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.

What About Heavy Gauge Classical Guitar Strings?

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.

I'm Not Sure A Heavier Gauge String Set Is For Me: What Else Can I Try?

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;

What Are Half Gauge Strings 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.

What To Expect When Trying Custom Strings 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.

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!

*Yes, you can go too heavy!

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