While some will say that you need a certain gauge of string for a certain style, there are a number of variables that are worth considering. In this article, we'll delve into each one in detail, so that you can make the right choice for you!
The gauge is simply the thickness of the string. Although the number comes from the thickness of the strings in inches (e.g 0.009 gauge or 0.052) they are more commonly referred to by the number as a whole (e.g. 9 gauge or 52 gauge). This is an industry standard measurement that you will find on all guitar strings.
It's common to divide string gauges into two broad categories - this provides a pretty good starting point when it comes to choosing:
- Easier to play
- Are quieter
- Have lower tension
- Can cause buzzing
- Break much easier
- Better sustain
- Harder to play
- Require more pressure from your fingers
- Higher tension
- Can be tuned lower without feeling loose
In general, it's recommended that newer players start out with light strings. This will allow you to pick up and play without worrying about the pain from putting extra pressure on the strings. Lighter strings are slightly more susceptible to breakage, so recommend having a few packs available at any given time just in case!
Heavier gauge strings are great to experiment with once you've been playing for a while. They provide a slightly fuller tone with better sustain, and also adapt well to lower tunings. It's worth noting that changing the thickness of the strings on your guitar can affect (or damage) the neck, so we recommend getting it set up every time you change gauge.
What Sets Are Available?
String sets are most commonly referred to by the name of the thinnest string, i.e. if a string set's thinnest string is a .010 gauge, that would be called a set of 10s. Here are some of the most common standard that you will see from most manufacturers:
- 8s: .008 .010 .015 .021 .030 .038
- 9s: .009 .011 .016 .024 .032 .042
- 10s: .010 .013 .017 .026 .036 .046
- 11s: .011 .015 .018 .026 .036 .048
- 12s: .012 .016 .020 .032 .042 .056
These are just common examples; there's a huge variety of string sets available on the market nowadays. Hybrid string packs include strings that are thicker or thinner at one end - this is particularly good if you like to experiment with drop tunings while maintaining easy playability on the higher strings. You can also get extended range strings for 7, 8 and 9-string instruments!
Having said that, the straightforward set of 10s is widely considered to be the most popular string gauge for standard players. Thin enough to be easy to play, but thick enough to provide that little bit of extra sustain and shimmer.
Materials, Winding and Coating
Once you've decided on gauge, you'll choose the brand and type of string. For most players, standard roundwound strings will be the best option. They are the most common type of electric guitar string, with a pronounced higher range and presence.
If you are playing blues, jazz or similar styles you may find that you don't want all of the bite and attack of a roundwound string. In this case we would recommend checking out flatwound or halfround strings. These have been designed with smooth feel and dark tone in mind.
Beyond the design of the strings, it's worth considering the material and coating. Here are a few of the most common materials and coatings to get you started:
- Nickel Plated Steel: One of the most popular options. A fairly balanced tone with a fast attack that really cuts through.
- Pure Nickel: Similar kind of attack to nickel plated steel but with a warmer overall tone
- Stainless Steel: Really bright tones with incredible amounts of sustain. Also quite corrosion resistant so they can last for a long time.
- Chrome: Commonly used on flatwound strings these are dark, warm strings.
- Titanum: Incredibly strong. Bright tonality somewhere between stainless steel and nickel plated steel.
- Polymer Coated: The most common type of coating you will find. This reduces sustain but drastically increases string life.
Most of the strings you will see and play day to day will be either pure nickel or nickel plated steel. These are normally a great place to start; once you're comfortable with them, you can consider alternatives based on your style!
Choosing the right strings
Now that you're more in-the-know about the different gauges and meterials, you need to ask yourself the right questions:
- What do I want to play?
- How often do I play?
- What's my guitar's scale length?
- What sound do I want?
If you want to play chugging metal riffs in drop C with a Fender-style guitar that has a 25.5" scale, you'd be looking at something like a 10-52 set as mentioned above. If you wanted to play the same riffs on a Les Paul style guitar with a 24.75" scale length, something like an 11-54 might be more appropriate to compensate for sustain and string looseness.
Guitars come in a wide range of different scale lengths, but the most common ones are as follows:
- 24.75” – Gibson style
- 25” – PRS style
- 25.5” – Fender style (Note most superstrat or guitars made for metal normally use this scale length or longer)
If you are unsure what scale length your guitar is, just measure from the nut to the 12th fret and double it. This will give you your guitar's scale length.
Consider your preferred playing style(s) and the guitar you're using carefully. If you play particularly often, you'll want to consider coated strings for extra durability. Otherwise, it boils down to the fact that choosing strings is a matter of preference. Test plenty of types to get a feel for them.
Best Guitar Strings for...
The genre of music you play can dictate your optimal string type. Here are some examples of music genres that might require specific guitar strings:
Metal - There's a good chance you'll be downtuning your guitar if you play metal. A lot of musicians play in the likes of drop D, D standard, drop C and even lower tunings. Many players also use seven and eight string guitars, so will need specific packs. Elixir strings are bright and strong to keep your tone from getting sludgy.
Rock - A lot of rock musicians will tune down like their metal counterparts, so will need thicker strings. Maybe not quite as extreme but a heavier tension lends itself to thick, warm power chords. You can't go wrong with Ernie Ball Slinky strings, and their Cobalt and Coated versions provide extra longevity.
Blues - It's all about the bends here. You'll want some lighter strings to make it as easy to pull off vibrato and strings bends as possible. Voicing is important in blues and the D'Addario NYXL strings offer excellent bend and a bit of crunch.
Jazz - It's crucial you get a dynamic response in both sound and feel out of every note you play in jazz. You'll find most strings have slightly various tensions, which forces you to alter your technique. This is the last thing you want to do with complex playing. But the D'Addario XL series has mathematically precise resistance, great for a variety of mixed playing styles.
Acoustic - These strings consist of a copper alloy rather than the standard electric guitar nickel. Copper preserves the tone of an acoustic better than nickel, while the latter works better with pickups. All major brands make acoustic strings but a good pick would be Ernie Ball's Earthwood series. You can't go wrong with these. Not too slick, not too sticky and sound nice and warm.
Beginners - New players will find electric guitar heavy gauge strings are tough on the fingers. Over time you develop calluses on the ends of your fingers so fretting a guitar no longer hurts. For the time being, stick with light strings whether you play electric or acoustic.
How Often Should I Change Strings?
The actual timeframe is going to be different for every person. If you are touring or in the studio some guitarists will say you should change your strings every day. If you are practicing for less than 1 hour a day, once every month or so should be fine on standard nickel plated strings. If you practice for more than 1 hour a day we would recommend changing your strings once every couple of weeks.
Your guitar has ways of telling you that it needs new strings - here are a few common symptoms:
- Can’t stay in tune
- Discoloration of the strings
- ‘Dark’ or ‘dull’ tone
What To Look Out For When Changing Strings
Normally going up by a gauge or so from what comes on the guitar won't cause much of an issue. It will most likely still need to be set up by either yourself or a professional guitar tech, but it won't need any permanent modification. If you want to move up to 12s or above, you may need to adjust the nut of your guitar by carving larger grooves in to it. This should be done by a trained professional as if done incorrectly it can be quite an expensive fix.
Here's a small list of what you need to watch out for when setting your guitar up with new strings.
- Nut is cut for smaller strings
- Neck bowing in either direction
- Tremolo systems floating up
- Buzzing from the action being too low
All of these issues can be avoiding by using a trained professional to set up your guitar when you are changing string gauges. When sticking to the same kind of string or changing to a very similar string set only minor adjustments that can be made at home will be needed.
String gauge is something that you really can have fun with and experiment with to find what you want. Some companies can even create custom sets that give you exactly what you are looking for.
It is the easiest modification you can do on your guitar and it is also one of the things that effects your sound the most. So go and pick up some different sets and find out what ones are right for you and your sound.