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 combinations of string gauges and brands can be a headache – but 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 put up more resistance to your fingers, thinner strings produce more treble and feel slinkier.

What is String Gauge?

Guitar strings are really thin in diameter. So thin in fact, that string manufacturers 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 it is.

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 largest 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, the thickness of equivalent strings will vary from brand to brand. For example, you might see Ernie Ball make a set almost identical to D’Addario, but one has a third string measuring in at .018mm, while the other is .016mm. That is why it’s important to understand what you’re buying and what’s changing when you buy a new set of strings.

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. On the other hand, they do require more precision to really add flavour to your playing and master techniques like a delicate vibrato, legato or arpeggios.

Thicker strings hold more tension across the fretboard, making them feel taught and deliberate to strum, but tougher to bend. They’ll build up picking endurance in your fretting hand the more you use them, but you may have to work up to a certain level before you try them out. You will also have to learn a little about guitar setup to adjust your string height – especially if you’re replacing thin strings, as you’ll likely get fret buzz from the larger strings hitting the frets in front of the one you play.

Thick strings are great for rock and metal music, which usually favour bassy tones and drop tunings; they’ll retain tension as you allow some string slack when tuning down to lower notes. This is a major point in opting for thick strings over thin strings, which don’t sound quite as chunky or produce the power to accompany 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. But there are a few general guidelines to follow if you want to reproduce the types of sounds heard from your favourite musicians.

Thin Guitar Strings

“Thin strings” generally refer to a pack of 9-44 gauge or thinner.

Let’s start with country and folk music: these genres often incorporate a lot of finger picking with bright, twangy tones. The thinner strings provide good clarity and speed for the picking hand as you let each string ring out true. Pop music suits lighter strings, too, as the guitar player’s focus in this role leans towards the higher middle and treble frequencies for pristine, clear chords.

Contemporary jazz guitar usually involves a lot of technical fast playing and advanced techniques, so you may want to opt for a thin string gauge to keep fretting light and nimble; ideal if you’re hitting lots of notes in quick succession.

Blues guitarists love a big string bend, and it’s easiest to achieve them using thinner strings. The likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan did however prefer thick strings for their warmer tone, in spite of the extra effort needed for those characterful bends. But essentially you can go either way here. Thin strings will make things a lot easier.

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

Medium string gauges (generally referring to 10 or 11-gauge) are a versatile pick for almost any genre. They are great for rock and blues, as you can dig in and get chunky sounds out the low tuned strings, all the while 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 specific to any genre of music in particular, but are a popular choice for many guitarists who perform both rhythm and lead duties.

Thick Strings

You’ll find thicker strings of 11-gauge or higher are great at maintaining tension when you tune down from the standard EADGBE tuning to drop D, D standard, drop C and lower, 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 old school warm tones. Very thick gauge strings (with the thickest string being 52 and heavier) tend to suit tunings of drop B or lower.

Acoustic guitarists generally use thicker strings, as they provide more volume, warmth and resonance, which are key requirements for an acoustic instrument. It’s also not quite as common to bend acoustic strings, so it’s okay to sacrifice elasticity for tension. 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 to get that level of finger strength.

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

Ernie Ball 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 cover various middling 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 research what your favourite guitarists use, or what other musicians who play the same genre of music gravitate towards.

From here, it’s time to experiment. Every player has a natural preference for the tone and feel of guitar strings. Don’t be afraid to switch between brands, as you might prefer the size of a couple of strings in similar packs to the ones you currently use. Strings are also made of all sorts of materials like steel, cobalt and titanium, which determine how long they last, as well as change the tonal complexities of your sound. 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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