(look at what I bought?!)
Having bought a load of strings over the weekend, I thought I would put up a series of posts on strings. After all, the strings alone account for many factors affecting tone, volume and playability.
Here’s a big disclaimer, most of the posts will be based on personal experiences.
Vol. 1: What gauge?
String gauge refers to the size or thickness of the strings. So if your acoustic guitar has 11-52 and mine has 12-53, it is obvious mine has thicker strings. What does this all mean?
Quick explanation here, 12-53 means that the thinnest E string is 0.012 inch and the thickest E string is 0.053 inch.
Typically, thicker strings translates to louder volume, deeper tone and greater sustain on the guitar. On the other hand, thinner strings lose these qualities but gain playability and comfort.
Acoustic guitars usually come fitted with 12-53 strings. I find this string gauge having the best balance in terms of playability and tone. 13-56 always feel too tiring to play and 11-52 almost always lead to string breakage. Again, these are personal findings.
Electric guitars usually come fitted with 9-42, 9-46 or 10-46 gauges. Some jazz guitars come fitted with thicker gauge such as 11-52.
Here are some point to note:
- Always try to refer to the spec sheet.
Manufacturers choose the gauges for specific reasons. Again, this is heavily influenced by the golden balance between playability and tone. So if you put in a set of 12-53 on a Martin dreadnought that comes stock with 13-56 strings, be prepared to lose some bass and volume. For some players, this is a big deal. For others (like me), I choose the vastly improved playability over the marginal loss in volume. In fact, I just ditched my 3 week old Elixir mediums for lights on my Dreadnought Junior over the weekend.
On the other hand, if you go up very drastically on the string gauge, you may encounter problems like “bellying” or even bridge lifts on your acoustic guitar. For example, a travel guitar like the Washburn Rover comes fitted with 10-47. By putting in a set of 13-56, you risk giving the top a belly. In worst scenario, the bridge is lifted by the string tension over time.
2. Your playing style
Although there are some guides and rules we can use to select the preferred string gauge, one should always consider his own playing style.
These questions can help:
Are you a heavy or light strummer?
Do you play mostly strumming or fingerstyle?
Do you use a pick or strum with just fingernails?
How thick is your guitar pick? 0.5mm? 0.88mm?
Do you pluck with fingernails or with bare flesh (because you don’t keep nails)?
Do you bend a lot?
Do you use alternate tunings?
Do you change tunings frequently?
By taking into account these factors, you can evaluate which string gauge gives you the best balance of tone, playability and longevity.
3. Dare to experiment
Try out different string gauges and decide which works for you. If your hero is SRV and he used 13-56 on his Strat, don’t rush in to use the same strings, especially if you’re a beginner. Such a heavy gauge isn’t exactly for mere mortals.
Sometimes it is essential to do a mix & match. An example would be 12-56 gauge on acoustics, where EBG are from light (12-53) and DAE (13-56) are from medium.
4. Always read the numbers
Don’t be mislead or confused by the terms used by string manufacturers. Ernie Ball call their 12-54 light medium whereas Martin call their 12-54 light. So if you don’t look at the numbers, you would think that the Ernie Balls are thicker.
Another example would be Ernie Ball’s extra light being 10-50 while Martin’s extra light being 10-47. Pretty confusing, so be sure to read the string gauge.
5. Don’t go by what you read. Go with what you feel.
Don’t always listen to what others tell you. Strummers use heavy strings, lead guitarist use extra lights, blah bah blah.
There is no reason to stick to heavy gauge strings if you feel uncomfortable. There is also no reason to keep breaking strings because your hero is Billy Gibbons and he uses extra light gauge.
Use the strings that make you play better and encourages you to play more.
Use the strings that make the sweetest sound from your guitar.
6. You may need to do some adjustment to the setup if you change your string gauge.
While it is usually quite safe and simple to change up or down one gauge, you may require some adjustment to the neck relief. Thicker strings give more tension to the neck and may cause up bow while thinner strings reduce tension and may cause back bow. Bring in the guitar to a tech if the need arises. Usually a small adjustment will be enough.
Read Vol. 2 here:
*photos from Ernie Ball, Musician’s Friend and Stringjoy.com