What guitar string gauge should I use?

Ollie Mason

Ollie Mason

What will I learn?

  • The numbering system for string gauges
  • Differences between heavy and light strings
  • What materials guitar strings are made from
  • A guide to bass strings

Without any prior experience, you would be forgiven for thinking that buying a new set of strings for your guitar is a relatively straightforward thing to do. I remember the first time I bought new strings for my first acoustic guitar.  I thought I would just ask for some guitar strings and hand over the cash.  Quickly did I learn that I wasn’t going to be that lucky, as it developed into a baffling experience that ended with me just buying any string gauge that was offered.

I genuinely didn’t have a clue how to involve myself in a conversation that included words like gauge, phosphor bronze, ‘12s’, nanoweb, custom lights and nickel-plated steel.  It’s one of those topics where many guitarists will pretend to know what they’re talking about when secretly they’re just sticking to whatever came standard with the guitar originally.

Basics:

  1. Light string gauges are easy on the fingers, easier to play and provide less resistance against bends. However, may yield more fret buzz.
  2. Heavier strings sustain well, have a thicker low-end tone and sound chunky. But most people consider them more difficult to play.

It’s time for us to brush up on our knowledge of guitar strings!

Essentially, when we refer to the gauge of strings, we mean their thickness/diameter.  They are measured in thousands of an inch, so a .010 string is ten thousands of an inch thick. We don’t tend to ask for a string that is ‘ten thousands of an inch thick, please’, though!  Instead, it is common practice to just refer to the number, so in this case, we would just ask for a ‘10’.  A simple principle of physics is that a thicker string is going to be heavier than a lighter one.  i.e. a ‘12’ is going to be thicker and therefore heavier than an ‘8’.  So, what does this mean for guitarists? Are there any advantages or disadvantages to thicker and heavier as opposed to thinner and lighter strings?

Picking the right string gauge

There is a balance to be struck between playability, tone and volume. Heavier strings require more tension than lighter strings to generate the same pitch.  A direct result of this is that heavier strings are harder to press down on a fretboard than lighter strings, because they aren’t as loose and willing to be moved around.  They don’t have as much give in them. They also require more energy to pluck or strum than lighter options, because there is more density of string to get vibrating.

So, the playability of heavy strings can be a little problematic for beginners with finger muscles that haven’t yet developed the strength to show the strings who’s boss.  Why would we consider heavy strings, then?  Simple. They sound different than lighter alternatives.  The main consideration is that of volume.  Simply put, heavier strings generate more volume than lighter ones.   They also tend to provide more sustain because the greater mass of the string takes longer to stop vibrating.  These are obviously factors that are worth considering in certain circumstances. Another advantage of heavier strings is that although they vibrate for longer, they don’t vibrate as far up and down due to the tension placed on them, and this results in less fret buzz than typically accompanies lighter string gauges.

Lighter strings, on the other hand, tend to be the strings of choice for beginners because they are easier to press down and to bend on the fretboard.  They are also very useful when we are playing styles of music that benefit from very quick fretting in soloing or string bends.  However, where they score positively in playability terms, their benefits aren’t so plentiful in tone and volume.  They don’t sustain as long, they are relatively quiet, and they can cause more fret buzz than heavier alternatives. It isn’t possible to say that one type of gauge is better than another. It all depends on personal preference, and on what we want out of our strings.

String gauge

Typical gauges

Although we don’t have to, we tend to buy our strings in full sets of 6 because it’s often more convenient and cost-effective to do so.  There are obviously plenty of different makes and types and measurements to choose from, but here are the typical measurements that most manufacturers tend to stick with.  It’s important to note that different measurements are commonly found for acoustic as opposed to electric guitar.

Popular Acoustic Guitar String Measurement

  • Extra Light: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
  • Custom Light: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
  • Light: 012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .053
  • Medium: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
  • Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059

Popular Electric Guitar String Measurements

  • Extra Super Light: .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
  • Super Light: .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
  • Light: .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
  • Medium: .011 .014 .018 .028 .038 .049
  • Heavy: .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .054

These are a general guide, but they aren’t set in stone. Not all manufacturers have the same measurements right through the sets.  For example, at the time of writing, Andertons stock Elixir 10 – 47 Acoustic Strings (Extra Light) at .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047, and Ernie Ball Slinky Acoustic Coated 10 – 50 at .010 .014 .020 .028 .040 .050.  They are both sets of ‘10s’ in that they both include the lightest and thinnest E string at 10 thousands of an inch thick, but the thickness of other strings in the sets varies from .047 to .050.  So, choosing a set of strings involves more than picking a brand. Some ‘heavy’ sets actually get heavier than others, for example.  Granted, it may just be by something like three thousands of an inch, but that can make a significant difference once we get used to one set of measurements.

When we refer to a set of strings, we tend to use the measurement of the lightest string in the set to identify what we want.  So, if I were to order a set of strings that includes .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054, I would more than likely just ask for ‘a set of 12s, please’, and let the manufacturer and coating etc dictate which set of measurements that actually relates to across all 6 strings. Some will ask for ’12 to 53s, please’, but the manufacturer type and thickness of the thinnest string tends to do the job.

Getting a feel for it

Even with all this theory in place, it’s still a good idea to experiment a bit to get the right feel and sound, and to make sure that we do this for each of the guitars that we own (assuming that we are lucky enough to own more than one!).  Just because I prefer 12’s on one of my guitars doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t prefer 10’s on the other.  Different guitar designs, shapes and tonewoods have different sonic characteristics, and it’s important that we get the string gauge right for each guitar we work with. There’s a lot more to it than simply grabbing the cheapest set that is peaking out the top of the bargain bucket on the way into the shop.  I’ve done that, and believe me, it’s rarely a good idea!

A guide to bass strings

I could talk for days about the difference that bass strings make on your bass guitar. It can be a contentious topic as some bassists love to let their strings get old so that they can get that thumpy, dubby bass tone but in reality, this isn’t a good idea because old strings don’t hold their tuning and it’s not hygienic! I’m not saying that you can’t get that sound. Why not use the tone control to bring down the top end? Or if you have an active preamp you probably have an active EQ which means you can dial in your tone to match the sound in your head.

The same principles apply to Bass strings regarding gauge. heavier = harder to play but offers more spank and tone but lighter gauge will give you more control and ‘pop’. Bass players don’t tend to pay too much attention to gauge as long as it matches the gauge their guitar is set up for. This is important because if you put heavier strings than are currently on your bass, you’ll put more tension on the neck which will raise the action. The opposite applies if you use lighter strings.

Scale length for bass strings

  • Short Scale = 30-31 inches
  • Medium Scale = 32-33 inches
  • Long Scale = 34-35 inches (most basses are long scale)
  • Extra Long Scale = 35-36+ inches

Materials

The next most important thing is which material you use. Most strings have got a nickel/steel core and the winding is what will differentiate it. Again, this is down to preference but there is a rough guideline you can follow.

  • Steels strings offer very bright tones.
  • Pure nickel will give you much warmer tones. perfect for those ‘dub’ sounds.
  • Nickel and Steel Alloy is by far the most popular and most commonly used.

Bass String Windings

This is where bass strings will differ the most from guitar strings. The windings on your bass strings will make the biggest difference to how the bass sounds going through the amp. Roundwound strings are pretty much the industry standard and will provide you with enough warmth and brightness to play any style of music but other types might offer you that special something.

  • Roundwound Bass Strings – Ridged winding and by far the most common bass strings around
  • Half-Round Bass Strings – These have been ground down to offer smooth, warm tones with a touch more clarity and top-end than flatwounds.
  • Flatwound Bass Strings – Flatwound strings are particularly good for jazz and swing and have a particularly dubby response.

Conclusion

Whilst it’s usually a safe bet to keep using the standard gauge strings of your guitar, changing the strings for a new set could radically improve the feel and sound of your guitar when suited to your playing style, and the instrument itself.

Browse our entire guitar strings selection here!

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Ollie Mason
Ollie Mason
Ollie started off as a classical musician, learning the intricate wonders of the French Horn at an early age and is an established Classical Pianist. He also knows everything there is to know about recording mics and expensive studio outboard gear.

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