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’s usually one of the first areas of experimentation.
But if you change your string gauge, will your guitar be affected? Can it handle a thicker set of strings and still perform well? Many players experiment with this. But only to realize their instrument doesn’t work as well anymore.
We are going to look into the different options and learn about how they affect our equipment. In terms of both sound and performance.
What is Guitar String Gauge?
To truly understand what we are talking about here, it’s best to start with the basics. What does it string gauge mean?
The term gauge refers to the thickness or size using a standard measurement. In our case, we are looking at the gauge of guitar strings, which tells us how thick the diameter of the wire is. This is important because the string gauge has a large effect on the guitar and how it performs.
For example, if you have a 6-string guitar, there are six different thicknesses. Each string is different because we expect them to make unique sounds when we play the guitar. If you change the thickness, you will get a different sound that can better suit your needs.
There are many thicknesses available. Some are made for specific guitar types and others for certain sounds. And if your guitar can handle the thickness, it will perform well. Most guitars come with regular-sized strings, which for an electric is:
- Low E: .046
- A: .036
- D: .026
- G: .017
- B: .013
- High E: .010
This is also considered a 10-gauge guitar string set, or 10-46, and is measured in inches. Not all guitars can handle the full spectrum of string gauges. So it’s best to know beforehand what will work and what won’t. First, we need to take a look at the options available on the market today.
Average Guitar String Sizes
Ernie ball claims that they make well over 200 different varieties of strings. All are made of different materials and sizes. Yet, there are only certain sizes that work with guitars without needing modifications.
If considering changing guitar string thickness, you must understand what these numbers mean. With guitar strings, the imperial scale is used to determine thickness. You will find numbers like .010 and .046″ as we have seen.
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! Tools like a caliper are needed to measure them, as we will see later in the article.
Electric guitar strings are thinner than other types. They don’t need to project as much volume and need more flexibility for bends and certain techniques. There are many thicknesses available, including hybrid sets for specific styles of playing.
It’s important to remember that as the string gets thicker, it also gets tighter. This means that bending will become more difficult. For a lead guitar player, this is detrimental. So finding the right string thickness is important. You need to retain a certain sound but still be able to perform bends.
Let’s take a look at some different electric guitar string gauges in the chart below.
|String Set||E (High)||B||G||D||A||E (Low)|
|Super Extra Light||.008||.010||.015||.021||.030||.038|
Super light string sets are popular and come on most guitars from the factory. This is because they provide a good balance of sound and performance. Fender uses them on their guitars because their customers are well-rounded players.
There is also a set that is a mix of heavier strings for a deeper bass tone, and lighter ones for brightness. They are called Heavy Top, and Light Bottom. They are worth mentioning as the mix can be preferred over a full heavy set and are a bit of a hybrid set.
These are great if you like to bend the brighter strings but want a good deep rhythm tone as well. They are not for everyone, but are worth trying if you just can’t find what you’re looking for. You can see the thickness of each string in the set in this chart below:
|Heavy Top, Light Bottom||.010||.013||.017||.030||.042||.052|
Acoustic guitar string thicknesses are different from electric ones. They are designed to project more volume, and so they are thicker as a result. The most common sizes can be seen in this chart:
|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|
How To Measure Guitar String Thickness
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’s best to have this tool.
A digital caliper set is the best way to measure your guitar string gauge. This tool is designed for thin materials and is easy to use.
When using the caliper set, you first turn on your digital display. Then make sure it’s 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 given a measurement on the display.
In my case, I went and measured the fifth string in my set. It has a red ball, which also helps me to realize what diameter it is. In the pictures below, you can see I used my calipers to measure the string. And I was able to get the same measurement that the package tells me.
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.
Ever wondered how often you should change your guitar strings? Click here!
String Thickness and Tension
We mentioned earlier that as a guitar’s string gauge increases, so does the tension. But how much more tense do they become?
When moving from super light to a regular set, the tension increase is nearly 20%! This extra tension will change the dynamics of your guitar. So much that it will require a set-up.
Then moving from regular to a medium set 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’s 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 page that you may want to check out.
How Does String Gauge Affect a Guitar?
When trying different guitar string gauges, you will notice a difference in playability. It does depend on how much of a jump in thickness the change is.
But it’s wise to expect that if you change the gauge, the instrument will probably need 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.
Want to learn more about the different guitar string types? Click here!
The action is the distance between the strings and the frets. Depending on your guitar and the bridge installed, the action could need adjustment. The playability of the guitar could become very difficult. Especially when a different string gauge is used.
The guitar action will be affected by a change to the string 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 fretboard. 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 fretboard. So a set-up will be required in either instance, as the guitar might not be playable.
We have a great article about guitar action, click here!
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 their 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’s 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, staying in tune should be no problem. Granted, they have been wound in the right direction. The intonation might be out as a result. Which will make the instrument seem out of tune at different notes.
Changing the 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 set up for the new type is a must if the change is drastic.
The intonation will only be lightly affected. Once the tension has been dealt with, the intonation will be quite close to where it was before the change. The neck, however, will need to be looked at when changing gauges. So the intonation will normally level out once the action is set.
Acquiring a perfect intonation is difficult. When having a guitar set up, a slight adjustment will be done to the intonation if needed. But it depends on how bad it has become with the change in string gauge.
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’s the nut that is binding or sticking.
If the nut is not up to the job, it could also break. So it’s very important to make sure the grooves for the strings are the correct size in order to prevent issues.
When a player decides to experiment with different gauges, it’s usually for the tone they make. Yes, the thickness also changes the way a guitar plays and feels, but it’s primarily all about the sound!
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 find our tone. Let’s take a look at some of the ways string gauge affects the sound.
Thicker Strings Sound Full
To a rhythm guitarist who seeks a thick sound, heavier is better. But to a player who likes to perform leads, the light gauge strings are where it’s 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 are quite different.
If you have ever heard the sound of a baritone guitar through a high-gain amplifier, it’s 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, the 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 it’s 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.
What String Thickness Should You Use?
If you are looking to experiment with different types, 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 the tone, you need to be careful with the string thickness you choose.
If you are a rhythm player, and you need a warm sound, then the thicker, the better! As long as your guitar can handle it, of course! Another benefit of thick strings is they break less.
When beginning to experiment with different guitar string gauges, take it slow. I 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’s best to do it in stages. This way you will find what you like and still have a guitar with great playability! Remember, your nut might not accept all thicknesses. Replace or upgrade them if needed to maintain proper tuning.
It’s 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!
What Gauge Should a Beginner Use?
Anyone who is just getting started should stick with a lighter gauge string set. We know what it’s like to get started, seeking to learn your favorite songs. But when you are a beginner, it’s 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. We suggest you stay focused using what works.
Light or regular sets are where a beginner should start until they have developed skill. Thicker strings will shred fingers that do not have calluses far worse than thin ones.
Are serious about improving your skills as a player? Then grab a set of these D’addario super lights and work on your technique. Stick with strings made by popular brands like D’addario and Ernie Ball for the best results.
Does String Gauge Matter?
Why does it matter? It’s 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 a certain feel, you want a light and slinky.
When 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’s a detail nonetheless. And when you find your favorite gauge, you will know what I mean. Playability, bending, and vibrato all feel different with each type of string.