Understand Your Guitar String Gauge

What gauge of guitar string sets do you use? Are your strings; 9's, 10's or 8's? Do you even know what gauge you have? Many players don't! 

Stop experimenting with changing string gauge and start realizing that your gauge has all kinds of consequences on your guitars action and your tuning. 

This week's discussion breaks down the world of guitar string gauge and will help you determine where you are now, and where you may want to go...

In this episode of the “Guitar Blog Insider” we’re going to discuss string gauge and what you’ll need to consider 'if and when' you decide to change out the strings that you have on your guitar now to a new gauge of guitar string in the future…


Changing Gauge is a Choice
As guitar players learn to develop higher levels of playing technique, and as we’d get better at soloing, chord strumming and playing all kinds of different riffs, we may want a different guitar tone. And, changing string gauge can achieve that.

Once we go on to learn more about playing in different music styles our choice of string gauge will very likely change to achieve new tones from our guitar as our playing evolves. But, obviously there’s a lot more to it than that.

Until 2009 world famous rock guitarist "Joe Satriani" played gauge "9 - 42." However, Once he started playing with Chickenfoot, (they performed their songs dropped down a half step), Joe said that the 9-gauge strings just got too floppy so he decided to move up to 10s.

After making the switch he stayed at gauge "10 - 42" with the lowered Eb tuning.

Satriani said, "at the time it was mainly for the convenience, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking, 'Hendrix was in Eb, lots of great bands stay at Eb.' So I just kind of stayed there, I kinda liked the sound of it."

Different Gauge for Different Styles and Guitars
You might want to have different guitars that you own to be strung up with different gauge strings, for playing different styles and for doing different techniques, such as; playing with a slide or, perhaps for when you're playing more legato style, or for sweep picking or speed picking. It all depends upon what type of guitar playing that you're doing.

Is there a “Standard” String Gauge?
Guitar strings come in several different gauges. We name them by their thinnest to the thickest. For example a set with an “11” thousandth of an inch first string, to a “49 thousandth” of an inch 6th string, would be called a set of 11 to 49’s.

You can have strings in gauges that are very thin and there’s also very heavy /thick gauge guitar strings. But, there really isn’t a standard gauge, or what you might say is a, “One Size Fits All.” Basically, the gauge of string that you would choose to have on your guitar depends on whether you’re playing an acoustic guitar, a nylon-stringed classical guitar, or an electric guitar.

After that, it more or less depends upon your preferred style of playing. However, if you’re a beginner player, you’ll likely want to consider 'ease of playing' in your string gauge decision (above all else).

Basically, the thinner the guitar strings are, and the lower the string height is to the frets, (also known of as the guitar’s action), will allow for an easier time when playing the instrument. As string gauge increases to the thicker /heavier gauges, the ease involved with fretting chords and playing single scale tones will become more challenging.

The Best string Gauge for You
The string gauge that you decide to have on your guitar is going to be a fairly personal thing. The way that you play, how long you’ve played, the type of guitar you own, all of that forms a direction in helping you decide on what string gauge to settle on.

Keep in mind that as you move forward in your guitar playing, the string gauge that you use will quite likely change over the years. For example, new players often stick with the string gauge that came with the guitar they purchased. And, if that’s you, keep in mind that your guitar came from the store with a particular gauge of string on it, and the guitar was set up at the factory for that set.

Playing with a factory set-up means that you should know exactly what gauge of strings that the guitar came with; because that will be the starting point from which you would decide whether or not you’d want to continue to use that gauge. Or, whether you would like to switch to a heavier or a lighter gauge.

If you don't know what gauge that you have on your guitar, then you’ll have to ask a guitar technician to measure the thickness of the strings that are strung-up on your guitar right now and have them tell you what gauge you're using.

IMPORTANT: The only way to properly measure the string gauge is by using a micrometer that measures a 0 to 1 in. range with at minimum of a 0.001 inch graduations. 

Why Heavy / Why Light Gauge?
If you’re curious as to why certain guitar players might want heavier or lighter gauge strings, you’d almost have to ask them specifically why they’ve chosen the strings that they use.

Every serious guitar player with several years experience behind them has their own preferences. For example; take, “Eric Clapton.” He uses, string gauge 10 to 46 with his action set low on all his electrics. But, he likes heavier gauge strings on his acoustics, opting for gauge 12 – 54 on his Martin acoustic guitars.

Now, contrast that with Stevie Ray Vaughn, and you’ll find that Stevie Ray had a heavy gauge of 13 – 56, but due to that thickness, he tuned his guitars down to “Eb.”

Looking at guitarist; Eddie Van Halen he’s well known for his unique set of 9 to 40. Which is an odd gauge down on that low 6th string, but again, it works for him.

Now, on the other hand, if we look at guitarist Jimmy Page, he likes to use a thinner gauge, on some of his guitars, (so he uses 8 – 38 on certain ones). But, on other guitars he actually likes the strings to be a little thicker, so he has some guitars with gauge 9 – 42.

Finally there's guitarist, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. He likes really thin strings, and so he uses gauge 7 – 38. That’s a really thin gauge up at the 1st string, but for Billy Gibbons, they work the best. So, be sure to know the gauge that you decide upon is really the correct gauge you. It might take awhile, but once you learn what works the best, you'll be a happy guitar player for the knowledge.

String Gauge and Guitar Set-up
If you change your string gauge you’ll need to think about 5 areas with respect to your guitars set-up.

The first is Relief, which is the amount of ‘bow’ in the neck. Truss rods counter-act tension and keep the neck more or less straight. So, increasing or decreasing string gauge may mean addressing the truss rod…

Then, there’s the nut. If you go up a gauge of strings, you’ll need to be sure that larger strings are not binding and, if you go down a gauge, make sure that the string doesn’t have side-to-side movement.

There’s also intonation, because intonation is affected by the size /gauge of the guitar string, you'll need to keep a close eye on this one. Changing gauges may mean adjusting intonation to keep things sounding as in-tune as possible.

A change of string gauge can also affect a tremolo arm. The springs on your tremolo need to be in balance against the string’s tension. If you go up or down a gauge, re-set your tremolo.

Finally, there’s your guitars action. Lighter strings means less tension and your strings will feel more ‘floppily’. And, a thicker gauge means more tension, possibly, making your guitar feel harder to play. So, by making an action adjustment it may help your guitar feel better compensated.

Well, I'd like to end the discussion by saying, thanks for joining me... If you want to learn more about what I do as an online guitar teacher, then head over to my website at creativeguitarstudio.com and sign up your FREE lifetime membership.

Later on you can always upgrade to either a Basic, or a Premium lesson package and start studying all of the professionally organized guitar courses that I've organized for the members of my website.

Also, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on all of this in the comment section below... if you enjoyed this video, give it a thumbs up and subscribe for more. Thanks again and we'll catch up next week, for another episode of the, "Guitar Blog Insider."



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