One of the more confusing parts of playing guitar is the strings. There are so many different brands and varieties with these random-looking numbers like .009 and .045.
But why? What do these numbers mean? Surely a string is just a string, right?
Well, these numbers indicate something called the ‘string gauge’. Or to put it simply, the thickness of the strings.
And what does this mean? Well, the gauge affects a number of aspects of the strings. So, it is important to know what string gauge means and how they differ so that you can figure out which gauge is right for you.
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Light Gauge vs Medium Gauge
The different string gauges have their pros and cons. These are the factors that will influence your choice and make certain gauges more appealing than others.
Just like any other piece of gear in your setup, it is important to know the pros and cons. As they say “Knowing is half the battle”, and it is the first step in making your choice.
Light Gauge Strings
Strings in the .007 to .009 gauge make up the light gauge category.
- Lower tension – The tension of a string affects a few things. A lower tension makes the string easier to fret and bend, resulting in a smoother, more comfortable playing experience.A lower tension will also mean that the strings aren’t putting as much stress on the neck. This reduces the risk of the strings pulling on the neck, bending, warping, and damaging it.
- Less harsh on fingers – Because the strings are thinner, they are also less harsh on your fingers. Beginners haven’t developed callouses on their fingers which can cause strings to feel uncomfortable and even hurt your fingers.
- Brighter sound – Their thinner and lighter structure make light gauge strings a much better option if you are looking for a brighter, tinnier sound.
- Breaks easily – The thinner structure does of course make them less strong than a heavier gauge. Imagine two strings, a thin one and a thick one. If you use a knife to try and cut the strings, the thin one will break more easily.
- Tuning issues – Lighter gauge strings don’t hold their tuning as well as heavier gauges. While not the biggest issue, you will have to retune them more frequently.
- Fret noise – Lighter gauges are also a bit more susceptible to buzzing and fret noise, especially on a lower action.
Medium Gauge Strings
The medium range consists of .010 and .011 gauge, although many people consider .012 to be a medium gauge as well.
- Stronger – Heavier gauges are, of course, the opposite of light gauges. Their thicker radius makes them stronger and less likely to break.
- More low-end – If you want more bass and a darker tone, heavier gauges will be better than a light gauge.
- Better for lower tunings – Because of their higher tension and holding their tuning better, heavier gauges are better for lower tunings and drop tunings, meaning that if you play heavier music, a heavier gauge will be a better option.
- Tougher on fingers – Being thicker and having a higher tension means that they are a bit harder on your fingers. You will develop callouses more quickly, but it will be more unpleasant.
- Tougher on necks – Their higher tension will make them pull on guitar necks more. On an older guitar or guitar with a softer neck wood and weaker truss rod, this can cause warping and damage to the neck.
Choosing Between Light and Medium
Now that we know the pros and cons, let us dive a bit deeper to figure out which gauge is the best for you.
These gauges are light enough to aid an easy and comfortable playing experience, but not so thin that they will cut into your fingers. Light gauges are great for beginners, but going too light can also cause discomfort.
If you are a more experienced player, then your string choice will likely be more about personal choice. I mentioned that lighter strings are a bit brighter and thinner sounding. Heavier strings offer a darker, more bottom-heavy sound, on the other hand.
It also depends on the type of music and tunings you play. Things like jazz and funk sound better with a lighter gauge string, while rock and metal work better with a heavier gauge. Heavier strings handle high gain much better and also have much more sustain.
As for lower tunings and drop tuning, the higher string tension of heavier gauges makes them a much better option. Strings at a lower tuning are looser and vibrate much more wildly.
The higher tension not only balances this out but also keeps the strings in tune better.
Strings for Vintage Guitars
As guitars get older, their wood starts to deteriorate. This weakens the wood, making it more fragile and susceptible to damage.
As heavier gauge strings have a higher string tension, they put more strain on a guitar’s neck. This causes the neck to bend and warp over time.
This isn’t an issue on a newer guitar since you can just adjust the truss rod again to straighten the neck. On an older guitar, however, strings will be able to bend the neck much easier and this can lead to the wood cracking or the neck even snapping in half.
You can avoid this by using a lighter gauge string with less tension. They won’t bend the neck as much and thus, will keep your guitar in good shape for much longer.
Strings for Acoustic Guitars
Acoustic guitars are sort of the opposite of electric guitars, especially vintage guitars. You will likely need to go up a gauge compared to your electric.
In other words, if you have .010 gauge on your electric, then go with .011 on your acoustic. Because of their thinner sound and lower volume, lighter gauge strings might not sound as good on your acoustic. A heavier gauge will resonate much better.
However, this higher tension will make an acoustic harder to play. Combined with the larger body and naturally higher tension, a heavier gauge could end up being worse for a lot of guitarists.
I personally prefer .009 gauge on my acoustic and never go above .010s. This is loose enough to still be comfortable to play while still resonating nicely. I also prefer a bit of a brighter acoustic sound.
Of course, if you have an electro-acoustic, you can go with a lighter gauge since you won’t need as much resonance from your strings. Just like vintage electric guitars, older acoustics will also benefit from a lighter gauge as it will minimize the risk of damaging the neck.
Increasing String Gauge over Time
A lot of guitarists, especially beginners, will naturally want to increase string gauges after a while. Not just to change their sound, but because a light gauge might become too easy to play.
I myself started on .008 and slowly moved up to playing .010 and .011. That might not seem like a big jump. And I didn’t think so either. When I first went up a gauge from .008 to.009, I didn’t actually feel like there was much of a difference.
This led me to jump straight to .012 gauge. I quickly realized that this was a mistake as my fingers weren’t yet calloused enough and playing was immediately uncomfortable.
My point is that I underestimated how much of a difference there is between string gauges and jumped to a gauge I wasn’t ready for. It is better to slowly increase your string gauge over time.
This gives your fingers a chance to get used to the ‘roughness’ of the strings and you to get used to the higher tension that comes with a heavier gauge. The best thing to do is to only go up one gauge at a time.
Eventually, you might find that you like light gauge strings for one reason, but medium strings for another. In this case, going with a purely light or medium set of strings might not work well for you.
This was an issue I had many years ago until someone suggested I try out mixed or ‘hybrid’ gauge sets. Hybrid sets are great because they combine the best of both worlds.
If you prefer lighter top strings, but heavier bottom strings, Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky will likely be your choice. Or the Fender Hendrix Voodoo strings if you are looking for medium tops and lighter bottoms.
And that is about all you need to know about light and medium gauge strings. This should help you pick the right gauge for you. No more guessing or just sticking with the stock gauge that came with your guitar.