What string gauge should you use? A short guide.

The string gauge refers to the size of the string in diameter, or we can simply say “gauge” is just a fancy term for thickness. The thickness of an electric guitar string has a large influence on the playability and sound in addition to other factors like the string material. It’s hard to believe, but even a thousandth of an inch can make a huge difference in your guitar’s sound and feel. 

This characteristic is measured in 1/1000th of an inch. When you look at a pack of guitar strings, the heaviest and lightest gauges will be displayed on the packaging. For example, ‘10-46’ – which means the pack’s lightest string is a 10-gauge string that is 0.010 inches or 0.254mm in diameter,  and the thickest string is 46-gauge that is 0.046 inches or 1.17 mm in diameter. String gauges are usually referred to by the gauge of their lightest string: so you might hear 0.010 strings being called “tens”, 0.009 “nines” and so on.

The best string gauge for your guitar will depend on a number of factors: the length of your guitar, the genres you love to play, as well as your experience level, the pickups that you use and the picking style that you employ. Let’s look at the most important questions you need to ask yourself one by one.

How far are you on your guitar journey?

If you’re just starting out, your fingers will have to toughen up and lighter gauge strings will be more forgiving on your fingers as you’re learning. String gauges on the lighter side are easier to fret and bend and have a better resonance under a lighter touch, which is usually the case when first starting out. 

If you choose a heavier gauge you will benefit from a bigger sound, because the thicker string provides more volume and resonance. Thicker strings can also help build up both picking strength and endurance in your fretting hand.

Another thing is the heavier the strings the better the tuning stability – you would have to tune your guitar less often with a higher gauge than if you choose a lighter one.

What is the body size of your guitar?

While string gauge can be a matter of personal preference based on tone and feel, it is highly recommended to consider the body size of your guitar when choosing a gauge for your acoustic. This is primarily due to the amount of tension exerted on the guitar top by the strings. In general, the larger the body, the more tension it can withstand.

Lighter strings exert less tension and are typically recommended for smaller-bodied guitars. The decreased tension on your guitar’s neck generally leads to a “slinkier” feel, in contrast with the stiffer, heavier feel of larger string gauges. 

On the electric guitar, consider the scale of your neck. Typically a Fender-style neck is longer, so when you get your guitar in tune it feels stiffer. Therefore a lighter gauge strings (like 9s) might be better to maintain playability. A Gibson-style neck is usually shorter and lighter strings may feel a little bit too loose, so try opting for a slightly heavier gauge (like 10s).

If you bend strings a lot in your playing, lighter sets will feel much easier underneath your fingers and they make it easier to play fast, difficult passages at tempos that might not otherwise be possible.

Heavier strings exert more tension and are typically recommended for larger body sizes.  The heavier your strings are, the louder a sound they can produce, and the more full, balanced tone you can get out of your guitar. With that being said, though, heavier strings are more difficult to play with, and particularly to bend. And if you find a heavier gauge harder to play, then you won’t be able to play your best, thus rendering the better sound quality from the strings useless. It is worth mentioning that BB King, Toni Iommy and Billy Gibbons are famously known for playing 8s and we don’t think that their tone suffers from it at all!

What style of music are you going to play with this guitar?

Certain techniques and styles of playing will demand different attributes from your strings and can impact which gauge you should choose. As a rule of thumb:

Lighter stings
  • Good for rock, folk, country, and blues style playing with a lighter attack (plucking)
  • Allow for easier bending of notes
  • May break more easily when playing more aggressive styles
Heavier strings
  • Suitable for bluegrass and genres that require tuning down
  • Suitable choice for rock, country, and blues style playing with a harder attack
  • Suitable if you plan on downtuning your guitar. e.g. if you typically play 9s and want to keep one of your guitars in Eb (tuned down ½ a step), then you may want to try 10s.

Typical hybrid strings

There are also custom string sets, however hybrid sets are very popular. They will usually combine 3 strings from a lighter gauge with 3 strings from a heavier gauge – e.g. 10-52 might be perfect for playing in Drop D on a Gibson scale-length. These sets are suitable for playing drop tunings in general, and therefore heavier genres.

Final thoughts 

With all that being said, to get a good idea of which string gauge will work well for your guitar, you should try and compare the advantages and disadvantages of different sets of strings. However, the sudden decrease and increase of tension can shock the neck of your guitar so be careful and if it is your first time engaging is such an adjustment consider getting the help of a professional technician to set your guitar up.

In case you don’t feel comfortable with any of the standard sets of strings offered by most manufacturers, don’t get discouraged either. Such a thing as “hybrid string sets” also exists! Hybrid string sets combine different individual gauges from various traditional string sets to create sets that are completely unique in both sounds and feel, so you are bound to find your perfect sting match sooner or later.

If you want some further reading materials on the topic, check out also these articles here and here. For more guides, tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of guitar (or ukulele) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!

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