Guitar players all over the world experiment with different parts at some point. Even as beginners, we can’t help but want to modify our instruments. Strings are cheap and easy to change, so it is usually one of the first areas of experimentation.
But there are many things to consider when changing things up. With so many string sizes available today, it’s best to know how they will affect our instrument and the sound they make.
If you change your string gauge, will your guitar be affected? Can it handle a thicker set and still perform optimally? Many players experiment, only to realize their instrument doesn’t perform as good anymore.
We are going to look into the different options and learn about how they affect our equipment in both sound and performance. In this case, knowledge really is power, and our guitar string gauge guide will get you there!
What is Guitar String Gauge?
To truly understand what we are talking about here, it is best to start from ground zero. What does it mean? When we mention the gauge of a guitar string, we are referring to the thickness.
There are many thicknesses available. Some made for specific guitar types and some that are made for different sounds. All of them can be used, and if your instrument can handle the set, it will perform just fine.
But not all guitars can handle the full spectrum of string gauges, and so it is best to know beforehand what will work and what will not. First, we need to take a look at the options available on the market today.
Guitar String Measurements
When you are looking at the different thickness charts, it is best to understand what these numbers mean. With a guitar string, we are using the imperial measurement scale to determine its thickness. You will find numbers like .010″ and .046″ for example.
These numbers are the thickness in thousands of an inch. With a number like .010, we are referring to ten, one-thousands of an inch. This is a very small number and an even thinner guitar string!
How To Measure Guitar String Gauge
In order to accurately measure your guitar strings, you will need a digital caliper tool. These tools are very affordable and easy to get. We recommend the Neiko digital caliper set. If you are going to be experimenting with gauges, it is best to have this tool.
A digital caliper set is the best way to measure your guitar string size. This tool is designed for thin materials and are easy to use.
When using the caliper set, you simply turn on your digital display, make sure it is zero and go ahead and clamp a string in between the jaws. Once the caliper stops and can’t compress any further, you will be provided a measurement on the display.
You can then perform this same process for all strings on your guitar and write them down. You will then know what you have and what you prefer. Every set you buy will have these sizes marked on the packages so that you can select your favorite.
Electric Guitar String Gauge Chart
Electric guitar strings are thinner than acoustic, as they don’t need to project as much volume and need to be flexible for bends and techniques.
Let’s take a look at some different electric guitar string sizes on this chart below.
|String Set||E (High)||B||G||D||A||E (Low)|
|Super Extra Light||.008||.010||.015||.021||.030||.038|
There is also another type that is a mix of heavier strings for broader bass content, and lighter for brightness. They are called Heavy Top, Light Bottom. They are worth mentioning as the mix can be preferred over a full heavy set.
|Heavy Top, Light Bottom||.010||.013||.017||.030||.042||.052|
Another set that you should know about is the baritone. There are rock and metal players who like it for the deep and powerful tone it makes. The strings are made to provide this sound and are quite thick.
Acoustic Guitar String Gauge Chart
Acoustic guitar thicknesses are different from electric. They are designed to project more volume, and so they are thicker as a result. The most common sizes are:
- 10 gauge: Extra light
- 11 gauge: Light
- 12 gauge: Medium
- 13 gauge: Heavy
This chart shows the different string measurements per set available.
|String Set||E (High)||B||G||D||A||E (Low)|
|Extra Light (10 Gauge)||.010||.014||.023||.030||.039||.047|
|Light Strings (11 Gauge)||.011||.015||.023||.032||.042||.052|
|Medium (12 gauge)||.012||.016||.025||.032||.043||.053|
|Heavy (13 gauge)||.013||.017||.026||.035||.045||.056|
Guitar String Color Code Chart
Worth mentioning is the color associated to strings. Not every manufacturer provides colors, but some do. This can help you realize which thickness you have without the need to measure. D’addario has provided a color code for their sets.
Some have the balls on the ends colored to help you with the guitar string size. Others provide the color in other ways, which are normally marked on the packaging. This is a quick, easy way to pick the set you need at the time.
|String||Steel String||Nylon String||Bass String|
|1||E – Silver||E – Yellow||G – Green|
|2||B – Purple||B – Purple||D – Black|
|3||G – Green||G – Green||A – Red|
|4||D – Black||D – Black||E – Brass|
|5||A – Red||A – Red||B – Purple|
|6||E – Brass||E – Silver|
How Does String Gauge Affect A Guitar?
When trying different guitar string gauges, you will notice a difference in your instruments playability. It does primarily depend on how much of a jump in thickness the change is, of course.
But it is wise to expect that if you change the gauge, the instrument will probably require a set-up. And don’t forget to recycle those old strings when you are done with them!
Some adjustments will go out of spec more than others. And so in some cases you will only need to adjust certain parts of the guitar to bring it back into spec. Let’s take a look at some of the adjustments that will more than likely need to be done.
The action is the distance between the strings and the fret board. Depending on your guitar and the bridge installed, the action could require adjustment. The playability of the guitar could become very difficult when a gauge change is done.
The string action will be affected by a change to the thickness. This is because a large jump will also affect the tension.
If you are going to a heavier set, there is a chance that the extra tension will increase the guitar’s action. This means that the strings will be farther away from the fret board. But again, it depends on how much thicker they are.
If you are going from thick to thin, there will be less tension and the strings might be too close to the fret board. So a set-up will be required in either instance, as the guitar might not be playable.
Changing to a different gauge will not necessarily affect the tuning stability. You will be able to tune the guitar just fine and play it. But again, as we touched on above, the action will be the bigger issue due to the increase or decrease in tension.
Some guitars may have tuning issues if the parts are in poor condition or are not high quality. For example, the increase in tension might be more than a tuning head can hold if it is in bad shape. But a high-quality setup with good parts will not have instability issues when it comes to tuning. Each string note and name will be maintained.
Once the guitar is set up, the ability to hold tune should remain intact just fine, granted they have been wound in the right direction. The intonation, however, might be out as a result, which will make the instrument seem out of tune at different fretted notes.
Changing string gauge will affect your guitar in many areas depending on the change. If you are changing from super light to heavy, you will notice an incredible change. Having it setup for the new type is a must if the change is drastic.
The intonation, however, will only slightly be affected once setup. While your neck will need to be adjusted when changing gauges, the intonation will normally level out with an adjustment to the action. Once the tension has been dealt with, the intonation will be quite close to where it was before the change.
Acquiring a perfect intonation is difficult. Normally when having a guitar set up, a slight adjustment will be done to the intonation. And so if you are having it setup by a professional, chances are the intonation was out before the change in gauges. But this is heavily dependent on the model.
Another thing to watch for when changing guitar string gauges is the nut. The nut on your guitar might not be able to efficiently hold the new thickness you have loaded. When players talk about tuning issues, in most cases it is the nut that is binding or sticking.
If the nut is not up to the job, it could also break. So it is very important to make sure the grooves for the strings are the correct size in order to prevent issues.
How Does Guitar String Gauge Affect Tone?
Normally, when a player decides to experiment with different gauges, it is primarily for the tone they make. Yes, the thickness also changes the way a guitar plays and feels, but it’s primarily all about the tone!
Sound is subjective, this much is true. But once we find the tone in our heads, we are more than likely prepared to sacrifice how the instrument plays. Guitarists who use heavy strings know that they are harder to bend and have higher tension. But the sound is right where they want it.
So you can’t have your cake and eat it too. But we can express ourselves and be quite content once we acquire our tone.
Thicker Strings Sound Full
To a rhythm guitarist who seeks a thick sound, yes, it is perfect. But to a player who likes to perform leads, the light strings are where it is at. You can’t bend a thick string like you can a thin slinky one. The projection and substance of sound produced by a thicker set is quite different.
If you have ever heard the sound of a baritone guitar through a high gain amplifier, it is a force to be reckoned with! The sweetness of a warm, thick rhythm is quite the experience. So to one player, this will sound better, but to another, not so much. Again, tone is subjective!
One of the primary benefits of a thicker gauge is volume. On an electric guitar, the heavier string set will provide a small increase to the pickup output, but is negligible at best. But when you are not plugged into an amplifier, the level will be noticeably louder.
This increase in volume from thicker strings is one of the main benefits of a larger gauge. Now, this won’t compete with an amplifier, but you will notice a slight increase in volume. If you are trying to play quieter, however, you may not want to choose a thicker set.
Because of the increase in guitar string gauge, one of the natural benefits is more note sustain. Sustain is the term used to describe the length of time a note will ring out. If you pluck a note and wait until you cannot hear it anymore, this is sustain.
Because of the extra material in a thicker string, it will continue to vibrate for a longer period. This is an increase in sustain. To a lead player this can be a real benefit, but you will need to find a gauge that you can bend well to bring it all together. Experimenting with different gauges is key.
Light Strings are Brighter
We have touched on the benefits of thick strings, but thin ones have their place too. Sometimes a thicker set can be a bit too warm or dark. If you are playing in a band, your guitar tone could get lost in the mix.
Lighter gauge strings are brighter and will help articulate your sound in a mix. This can be a big deal if you are a lead player and are trying to stand out. If you find that you need a brighter treble tone, try thinner strings.
Heavier Strings are More Tense
We mentioned earlier that as a guitar’s string gauge increases, so does the tension. But how much more tense do they really become?
When moving from a super light set to regular, the tension increase is nearly 20%! This extra tension will then change the dynamics of your guitar, ultimately requiring a set-up.
Then moving from a regular set to medium increases the tension by another 14%. That is nearly 39% tenser if moving from a super light set. This is all while tuning the strings to the same pitch.
It is an incredible amount of tension and an increase in strain to your instrument. We want to make this point just so you understand what you may need to do to get your guitar back in a playable condition.
If you are interested in learning more about string tension, D’addario has a great page that you may want to check out.
When beginning to experiment with different guitar string gauges, take it slow. We suggest you move up one at a time and give each a chance. It would be a shame to skip a thickness that could have been the right one for you and your play style. This will also allow you to test your guitar to see how far it can go.
Substantial modifications might be required when changing over, so it is best to do it in stages. This way you will find what you like and still have a guitar with great play ability! Remember, your nut might not accept all thicknesses. Replace or upgrade them if needed to maintain proper tuning.
It is also best to always take your instrument to a professional after each gauge change. Then, once you find your thickness, your guitar will be optimal as well!
Below you will find some commonly asked questions about string sizes.
What Thickness Should My Strings Be?
If you are looking to experiment with different types but are not sure where to start, perhaps we can help you consider a few things. Our guitar string gauge guide is built to help you discover the benefits and pitfalls.
If you are already playing a light set, you may want to consider a few things before moving:
- Do you prefer to play leads?
- Break strings often?
- Prefer rhythm to lead playing?
- Seek a warmer, thicker sound?
- Do you play in a band that requires articulation?
There are many other things to consider, but let’s touch on a few points. If you are a lead player who is fast and often bends, then you need to be careful how thick you go. You may want to only move up one thickness and experiment with it.
If the feel is more important than tone, you need to be careful with the string thickness you choose.
If you are a rhythm player however, and you need a warm sound where your articulation doesn’t matter, then the thicker, the better! As long as your guitar can handle it, of course! Another benefit of thick strings is they break less.
What Gauge Should a Beginner Use?
Anyone who is still just getting started should stick with a lighter gauge string set. We know what it is like to get started, seeking to learn your favorite songs. But when you are just a beginner, it is best not to put heavy gauge strings on your guitar.
They can be very difficult to play for a beginner and may even lead you to lose interest! That is the last thing you want to do. The guitar takes dedication and planning to learn properly, so we suggest you stay focused using what works.
Light or regular sets are where we suggest a beginner starts until they have developed skill. Thicker strings will shred fingers that do not have calluses far worse than thin ones.
And so, if you are serious about improving your skills as a player, grab a set of these D’addario super lights and work on your technique.
Does String Gauge Matter?
Why does it matter? It is another key we can use to unlock our tone. You see, the thickness we select will have pros and cons, just like anything else we do.
If you are a bluesy, loud, fat-tone player, you will benefit from a thicker guitar string set. If you are a lead player seeking a bright sound with feel, you want a light and slinky.
If we can’t find the right set for our needs, how can we ever expect to express ourselves when we play? The guitar is a great instrument and exciting enough that the gauge could be overlooked.
But as a player, we know what we like! And I am quite sure my choice has allowed me to be more creative as a musician. It is perhaps a small detail to some. But it is a detail nonetheless.
If you have not experimented with gauges yet, you will know what I mean when you find your preferred thickness. Playability, bending and vibrato all feel different with each type of string.