Electric Guitar String Gauge: What Should You Use?

Researching string gauges can be a bit mind boggling and quite frustrating. Here’s a super simple guide to what’s ideal for your musical style, so you can cut the faff and get playing.

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

So, you’ve played through your current set of guitar strings. You’ve worn them down over a couple of months (or more) and now they’re dull and dirty. It’s time for a change. What next? You’ll need to pick up another set with a suitable string gauge that works best on your instrument, for your style of music and the way you play.

Choosing a set of guitar strings is simple when you know what you’re looking for, and you probably won’t change much once you’ve settled on the right ones. Until then, all the various string gauge combinations and brands can be a massive headache. Hopefully we can cure it! Here’s everything you need to know in a nutshell:

  • String gauge is the thickness/diameter of a guitar string.
  • It’s measured in 1/1000th of an inch. For example, a 10-gauge string is 0.010 inches.
  • Guitar string packs are usually referred to by their thinnest string, e.g. 10s.
  • Strings are commonly made of stainless steel, nickel, cobalt or copper.
  • Thicker strings create more bass frequencies and give more resistance, thinner strings produce more treble and feel slinkier.

What is String Gauge?

Guitar strings are really thin in diameter. So thin, in fact, that companies need to give us a quantifiable measurement for us regular players to understand. The smaller the number, the thinner the string. The higher the number, the thicker.

For example, a .008mm string is extremely light and would generally be used as the thinnest string on an electric guitar. A .056mm string is very thick and would likely be the chunkiest on a six-string electric guitar.

Lots of companies refer to their packs of strings by the thinnest string. The most common you’ll encounter are 9s, 10s and 11s. Some brands give generic names to their string sets like light, medium, or heavy.

However, different brands will vary the thickness of equivalent strings in a pack. For example, you might see Ernie Ball make a set almost identical to D’Addario, but one set’s third thinnest string is .018mm, while the other is .016mm. That is why it’s important to understand what you’re buying and what’s changing when you string up your new set.

string gauge PRS

Why String Gauge Matters

Guitar strings determine more in your music and how you approach the instrument than you might think. Different gauges provide a variety of sounds and affect both fretting and strumming hands. Let’s compare two sets of strings:

.009        .011        .016        .024        .032        .042

.011        .015        .018        .026        .036        .050

The first set is thinner across every string than the first. That means, in general, they’ll be “easier” to play for many beginner guitarists, because they require less finger strength to fret and bend. They don’t require as much force to move, but do require more accuracy for a delicate vibrato. Thicker strings hold more tension across the fretboard, making them feel taught and deliberate to strum, but tougher to bend. They’ll build up both picking strength and endurance in your fretting hand the more you use them. You’ll also have to adjust your string height if you’re replacing thin strings with thick strings, as you’ll probably experience fret buzz from the larger strings hitting the frets in front of the one you’re playing.

Thick strings are great for rock and metal music, which usually favour bassier tones and incorporate drop tunings; keeping tension higher as you allow slack for the lower notes. Thinner strings are easier to bend, pick without increased resistance, perform legato and arpeggios and add flavour to your playing. The downside is they don’t sound quite as chunky or produce as much power as their thicker equivalents, especially in lower tunings. There are ways to get around this with hybrid packs, which we’ll get into later.

String Gauges by Music Genre

It’s worth stating that string gauge preference is extremely subjective and you could use almost any gauge for any genre. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow if you want to create the type of sounds you hear from your favourite musicians.

Thin Strings

Browse Thin Strings

Thin strings generally refer to sets of 9-gauge strings or thinner.

Let’s start with country and folk music: these genres often involve a lot of finger picking with bright, twangy tones. The thinner strings provide good clarity and speed for the picking hand as you ring out each string. Pop music suits lighter strings, too, as the sound is more focused on higher middle and treble frequencies for pristine, clear chords.

Contemporary jazz guitar usually involves a lot of technical, fast playing and advanced techniques. A thin string gauge is ideal because you don’t have to put as much effort into fretting. Great if you’re playing lots of notes in quick succession. Blues styles favour a lot of string bending, and it’s easiest to achieve using thinner strings. However, famous blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan favoured thick strings to get a warmer tone, and still got those big, characterful bends. Essentially you can go either way here.

Many great guitarists have been known to prefer light gauge strings such as Jimi Hendrix, Brian May, Billy Gibbons, and B.B. King.

Medium & Hybrid Strings

Browse Medium/Hybrid Strings

Medium string gauges (generally referring to 10 or 11-gauge) are a versatile pick for almost any genre. Great for rock and blues, as you can dig in and get chunky sounds out the low tuned strings whilst retaining the flexibility for solos.

Hybrid packs usually comprise of thicker low strings and lighter higher strings. You essentially get the best of both worlds – a meatier tone for riffing with the bonus fretting ease on the thinner, upper strings. Hybrid strings aren’t really specific any genre of music in particular, but are a popular choice for many guitarists who need the versatility.

Thick Strings

Browse Thick Strings

You’ll find thicker strings of 11-gauge or higher help maintain tension when you tune down from the standard EADGBE, or for extended range guitars. Thin gauges get very difficult to play at lower tunings and fluctuate in and out of pitch when plucked. That’s why heavier gauges are pretty much a requirement for metal and more old school warm tones. Very thick gauge strings (with the thickest string being 52 and heavier) tend to suit tunings from drop C and lower.

Acoustic guitarists generally favour thicker strings as they provide more volume, warmth and resonance – key requirements for an acoustic instrument. It’s also less popular to bend strings, therefore sacrifice flexibility for tension. However, that’s not so say you can’t bend on heavier strings – just take Stevie Ray Vaughan or Josh Smith as an example – but it’ll take a lot of practice.

Ernie Ball

Popular Guitar String Brands

The biggest guitar string maker is Ernie Ball. They standardised string gauges with their all-purpose nickel-wound Slinky packs.

Here’s a guide to their popular range:

  • Extra Slinky: 8-38
  • Super Slinky: 9-42
  • Regular Slinky: 10-46
  • Power Slinky: 11-48
  • Beefy Slinky: 11-54
  • Not Even Slinky: 12-56

They also make a variety of hybrid sets to bridge the gaps between the main packs in the range. This is to cater for some players that like the tightness of the low strings but want to relieve the tension on the high strings, and vice versa. These include a 9-46 Hybrid Slinky, 10-48 Ultra Slinky, 10-52 Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom and 11-52 Burly Slinky. If you’re looking for something in between those, you’re in the right place. Ernie Ball also make various 9.5-gauge and 10.5 gauge packs.

Other popular brands include D’Addario, Elixir, Rotosound, Fender, Dunlop and relative newcomers Curt Mangan. Each company has a different take on string gauge combinations. It’s down to you to test them out and work out your favourites. After all, string gauge is 90% preference.

The Best String Gauge For You

One of the best ways to find your ideal string gauge is to learn what your favourite guitarists or the musicians in the genre you like to play tend to use.

From here, it’s time to experiment. Every player has a natural preference in tone and – most important of all – feel. Don’t be afraid to switch brands; one company might have a couple of strings with different gauges in similar packs you prefer. Strings are also made of all sorts of materials like steel, cobalt and titanium, which can determine how long they last, as well as change the tonal complexities of your sound. You can find out more info about string material in our ultimate guide to strings.

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our Learn articles:

Shop All Electric Guitar Strings

Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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