Strings are the unsung heroes of guitar playing. They make all the great guitar lines and riffs possible. When I started playing, there was only a few brands and limited gauges - we mixed and matched whatever we could find. Now, there are dozens of brands, multiple gauges and exotic compounds. This highlights what a difficult (and important) job strings have to perform.
Some of the basics haven’t changed though. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up:
String Gauges: Strings are sold in sets for a good reason. To tune each string it must be at a specific tension to reach the correct pitch. And, ideally the tension on all strings from low E to high E should be the same (otherwise it feels weird). String makers have figured out what diameter each string in the set should be (when tuned to its normal pitch) to get approximately the same tension. This explains why string sets have predictable diameters across most brands e.g. ‘Light’ gauge strings usually have a high E diameter of 0.010 (inches), ‘Extra Light’ 0.009 and ‘Super Light’ 0.008. N.b. String size is usually described in thousandths of an inch, even in countries that use the metric system.
String Sets: So how do you pick the right set? It’s a very personal choice depending on how and what you play. If you’re bending and shredding a lot you’ll probably prefer Extra or Super Light. For chunky rhythm playing, Light or Medium gauges. Acoustics often use Light or Medium with a wound ‘G’ string.
The guitar you play also influences the ‘feel’ of the strings e.g. Fender guitars usually have a longer scale length than Gibsons (i.e. the neck is longer: standard Fender necks = 25.5” and standard Gibson necks = 24.75”). With a longer neck, the strings have to be at a higher tension to reach the same pitch. This is partly why Fenders sound more ‘twangy’ than Gibsons (the pickups also affect the sound too).
What’s important – especially when you’re a beginner – is to use strings that you can play comfortably. This usually means lighter gauge strings as they’re easier to press onto the frets. As your finger strength increases you can move up to heavier gauges, which have some advantages.
Differences between Gauges: Obviously, heavier gauges are more difficult to play – so why bother? Here’s a few reasons:
- Heavier strings usually stay in tune better. There are other factors (which I’ll talk about in another blog) but super light strings are difficult to get into tune and even more difficult to keep in tune.
- Heavier strings usually have better ‘tone’ and more volume. Tone is a very personal subject but simple physics rules: heavier strings have more metal so produce more volume from the pickups. They also are less likely to vibrate erratically when picked hard. This means they have a more consistent tone as you play from soft to loud. Very light strings often sound ‘thin’, which is no surprise.
- Very light strings are difficult to pick properly. The strings are so floppy they vibrate around their ‘normal’ position… so you’re chasing them with the pick if you’re trying to play fast runs. One solution is to pick lightly – which is ok for high-gain playing (e.g. with a fuzz box). The downside is when you need to play with dynamics; if you always pick lightly there’s a limit to the dynamics you can achieve.
Like all the ‘golden rules’, these comments are generalisations that don’t apply to every style or every player. Many famous players use gauges that would be a surprise to many – waaaay lighter or heavier than you think from listening to their style or sound.
What’s important is to experiment with strings. The gauge, the brand, the material… they all affect your playing more than you might expect. That magic tone or silky feel might just be one string change away!
A final point: Although we usually buy strings in sets, most good stores will sell ‘singles’ – individual strings, not as part of a set. Using a standard set but substituting a single from a different gauge set can often solve a problem with a guitar neck, a tuning issue, fret buzz or a tone imbalance on that problem string. Many pro players have sets made up from ‘singles’ to give them the feel and tone they prefer. You can too!