Let’s say you want to restring your guitar. You come in the guitar center to get yourself one pack of strings. All of a sudden you notice that there are many types of strings.
Not only there are different brands, but within the same brand there are different string gauges (for same set of strings). If you’re the beginner, you’re confused.
What string gauges are best ones for me? – you may ask. Lighter, medium, heavier, 9s, 10s, 11s, 12s, and so on. There are too many options on the table.
Does it even matter? Does string gauge affects tone? Or intonation? Or fret buzz? And many more.
Here, in this article, we’re going to cover all of those questions, one by one. Stay with me!
Does String Gauge Affect Tone?
Tone is perhaps the most important thing when it comes to guitar playing. So, it’s natural to ask about whether string gauge really affects the tone of your guitar significantly.
The answer is:
Yes, but not so much. In fact, it’s not so much that string gauge affects tone as it affects playing feeling. And playing, consequently, does affect the tone.
Do Heavier Gauge Strings Sound Better?
As it’s already stated, it’s not so much about string itself that’s affecting the sound as it is to the change in playing it makes.
Heavier gauge strings are usually harder to press on a fret. Therefore, it is somehow harder to play with heavier strings. That’s especially noticeable for the beginner player.
Also, heavier guitar strings are harder to bend. Since they are wider and heavier, you naturally have to apply more force to bend the string.
Does all of this affects the sound? Probably, to some extent. When you play with heavier strings, you’ll naturally play harder. You have to be more “tough” to pluck them.
Also, if you play heavier strings on an electric guitar, they will create a bigger disturbance in the pickup’s magnetic field. The bigger a disturbance in the pickup’s magnetic field a string produces, the higher the output level.
Naturally, heavier strings will sound louder when you turn the distortion on your electric guitar.
Taking all of this into account, we can conclude that the tone of your guitar will be a bit fuller and louder (in certain situations). But again, if you’re not paying attention, you probably won’t hear any difference at all.
If you want to know how the electric guitar pickup creates the sound output, check out this interactive page about that subject, here. Link leads to Magnet Academy website.
Are Lighter Guitar Strings Easier To Play?
Yes, lighter gauge strings are easier to play. That’s because they have lighter mass, and therefore it’s much easier to press them on the fretboard. Also, it’s easier to bend them.
Tension lighter strings create is lower than the tension created by heavier strings. Tension is directly proportional to the force needed to press or bend the string itself.
If you want to know more about it, check out this scientific study, String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques, published on National Center For Biotechnology Information.
The conclusion is this. If you’re the beginner guitar player, you’ll experience finger soreness. Therefore, lighter strings may be the better for beginners to start with.
Does String Gauge Affects Intonation?
String gauge does affect intonation, but just a little bit. Having a perfectly intonated instrument is almost impossible to achieve. There are too many factors accounting for the intonation change.
Action height, bridge saddle position, neck radius, nut position and height, and so on. If you experience a significant intonation problems when you change the strings, it’s probably not because of the string gauge.
However, different gauge strings don’t stretch equally. Different strings don’t have the same tension, and therefore they stretch differently when you press them on the fretboard.
Heavier the string is, the more it goes sharp when pressed. Usually, the saddle must be moved slightly back to compensate.
Anyway, if you experience significant intonation problems, you should take your guitar to the professional examination to see what’s the deal.
Does String Gauge Affect Fret Buzz?
Many guitar players experience fret buzz when they play. It’s that sitar sound the string often produce.
Different factors can cause fret buzzing. Action height, nut height, neck curvature, and so on. But does string gauge affect fret buzz significantly?
Yes – in some sense. Heavier strings have bigger tension, and therefore the amplitude of their vibration is lower.
That can certainly account for the fret buzz you experience. But keep in mind this. If you experience fret buzz when you put lighter guitar strings, it’s probably because the action height is not properly adjusted.
In other words, if everything on your guitar is properly setup, string gauge shouldn’t account for fret buzz.
On the other hand, if you DO notice fret buzz with lighter strings, then you probably need to adjust some things on your guitar.
Again, take your guitar to the professional examination. You don’t want to mess it, especially if you’re not a guitar expert.
Does String Gauge Affect Tuning Stability?
Yes, string gauge affects tuning stability. In what way? The heavier string is, the less it will go out of the tune.
This is, in fact, something you can expect. Heavier strings vibrate less. They create higher tension, as well. Mass and tension of the string directly affects the tuning stability.
Tuning stability is very important. It’s not only that the string gauge affects the tuning stability of your guitar. Action height, nut shape, neck and body shape, and so on. All of it affects the tuning stability.
String gauge is, therefore, one of the factors.
A lot of guitar players often experience problems with their G string going out of tune. If you have that problem, I recommend you to check out the article from this page about it, here.
Does String Gauge Affect Action?
Action height is actually the guitar property, not the string property. Therefore, string gauges do not affect action.
However, if you put strings with different gauges on your guitar, you may have to adjust the bridge a little bit. Also, the neck relief is changing with different string gauges.
Lighter strings have lower tension, so they will not put that much pressure on the headstock. That will change the neck relief. In other words, the neck can flatten a little bit with lighter strings on it.
It really depends on a guitar. Some guitars have their preferable string gauges, but it’s not something that relevant.
It is hard to tell what change your guitar will experience with different strings. Probably nothing special.
It is the best for you to try different string gauges to see if there’s a difference.
What String Gauge Is The Best For Specific Tuning?
You can tune your guitar in many different ways. There’s a standard tuning (E,A,D,G,B,E). There’s a dropped D tuning (D,A,D,G,B,E). You can also tune you guitar a half-step down (like Guns ‘n’ Roses did), or a whole step down (like Motley Crue did, for example).
Is certain string gauge better for a certain tuning? Yes.
So, you may ask yourself questions like: What string gauge is ideal for drop C tuning? Or drop D? And so on.
Heavier strings are better for dropped tunings. That’s because they are heavier, have more tension and they vibrate less. You don’t want too light strings when you drop the tuning on your guitar.
Lighter strings will vibrate too much, and they will be too loose.
You can determine the ideal string gauge with this reasoning. If you use 10s, a half step drop in the tuning will be like you’re playing 9s. So, basically, if you want to drop your guitar a half step, it is probably ideal to use one point thicker strings. (For example, if you use 10s on a standard tuning, use an 11s on a half step drop)
Basically, that’s the main difference when it comes to different tunings.
How Is String Gauge Measured?
If you don’t know what’s the gauge of strings on your guitar, here’s how to do it by yourself. It’s simple.
To measure a string diameter, wrap it around some cylindrical object. For example, a glass (make sure the glass diameter is constant).
When you wrap a string around it, measure the length of the coil and count the number of turns.
Divide the length by the number of turns. The number you get is the string gauge. Of course, you have to make sure the string is wounded tightly around a cylinder.
Of course, there are more precise methods to use, but this one is straightforward.
What Guitar String Gauge Should You Use?
You can use whatever you want. There’s no “better” string gauge, nor “the best” string gauge. It depends on what you like.
Do you like to pluck your guitar strings stronger? Do you like to feel the pressure when you bend the string? If that’s the case, then perhaps the best choice you can make is to go with heavier strings.
Do you like to play softly, with less pressure? If that’s the case, then it’s better for you to choose lighter strings.
However, keep this in mind. You won’t make the sound much heavier or much softer with different strings.
For example, Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath uses light strings. Yet, the sound he creates is tough, hard and loud.
In the end, it won’t change the sound significantly. You should focus on what feeling you like the most when you play your guitar.
I hope this article gave you valuable information on everything you wanted to know about string gauges. If that’s the case, I’m more than happy.
Also, check out the article from this page about Coated Vs. Uncoated Strings.
Don’t forget to check out some other interesting articles I wrote on this site!
Cheers, and rock on!