String gauge plays a major role in your relationship with your instrument. In that sense, some players find thinner strings are easier to play. Is this true in every scenario?
Are lighter/thinner gauge guitar strings easier to play? Lighter gauge strings are easier to play since they hold less tension, require less pressure to fret, produce less friction against the fingers, and offer less resistance to bending and vibrato. However, seasoned players may find them loose, flimsy and easier to break, making them “harder” to play.
In this article, we'll consider the differences between lighter gauge strings and heavier gauge strings that will make them easier to play in certain situations. We'll discuss how the skill level of the guitarist and even the musical genre may play a role in whether lighter strings are the better/easier option.
The String Gauge Scenario For Beginners
Beginners are often recommended to use thinner guitar strings. They can benefit from them in the following aspects:
Less strength needed: guitar strings are usually made of nickel, bronze, steel, or a combination of them. To press, bend, and make your first bar chords, you need to develop strength and technique. These essential mechanics of playing guitar are made easier with lighter strings—at least until you develop enough strength in your hand.
Easier friction: friction is easier on the fingers if strings are thinner since there is less surface area to rub against your fingers. This is especially true if you are an electric player playing fifths (power chords) across the fretboard. Friction might lead to blisters that can cut your practice time and slow your learning curve. Note that flatwound strings naturally have less friction than roundwound strings.
Fatigue: stressing the muscles in your hand for hours if you are not accustomed to playing guitar will undoubtedly cause fatigue. The stronger you need to press to fret the string and make the sound, the sooner you'll be fatigued. Thus, utilizing thinner strings will delay exhaustion and keep you playing for longer.
As mentioned above, beginners will benefit from lighter strings when starting to play steel-string instruments. As time goes by and, for example, your hands get stronger, you will be able to pick the gauge based on different criteria, such as tone.
Related article: Flatwound Guitar Strings Vs. Roundwound Guitar Strings.
The String Gauge Scenario For Advanced Players
Are thinner strings also recommended for advanced players? The answer to that question is a definite yes. There are many scenarios in which thinner guitar strings help players achieve better performance.
Speed: as I specified in the beginner scenario, when strings are thicker, you need to apply more strength to fret them correctly. Thus, players who like playing very fast might feel that thinner strings allow them to increase speed by lowering the strength needed to fret each note.
Bends: many blues players swear by their .012 strings trying to mimic SRV and his mammoth tone. That being said, bending is much easier when strings are lighter; you can bend them easier and further. If you want those larger-than-life bends with less effort, try thinner strings.
Those are just two of the many possible examples of how playing with lighter strings as an advanced player can make your days better and your playing faster. There are countless examples of world-level players who use super-light strings like Billy Gibbons (.007), BB King (.008), Eddie Van Halen (.009), and many others.
“Easier” Depends On The Style You Play
After what's been stated before, it is time to address a major topic: what does “easier” mean for you. This is of paramount importance because it will become the North in your tone-searching compass. Let's see some common scenarios:
Jazz players: this is a style in which tuning stability and high tension are more than welcome. This is because stringing your guitar with a heavier gauge will allow you to hit those perfect notes easier, whereas a lighter gauge will make it more difficult since you'll feel your instrument is less stable.
My Jazz guitar string recommendation: string your guitar with .012 strings and above
Rock music: there are many approaches to guitar playing in rock music. Thinner strings are the way to go for those going after speed, shredding, bending, and pulling off tricks. On the other hand, heavier strings will provide additional tuning stability for those who are more physical with the instrument and need to stay tuned after every battle. The majority of those who go for a mixed approach might benefit from the one-size-fits-all: .010 strings.
My rock guitar string recommendations:
• Shredders: .007, .008, and .009
• Heavy rockers: .011 or .012
• Hybrid approach: .010
Listing out all the genres and subgenres seems futile for this article. From the above two styles, I'm sure we can infer how string gauge may make our playing easier and tone better.
To learn more about how guitar strings affect tone, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone? (Acoustic, Electric, Bass)
• Should I Use Light, Medium Or Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings?
What About Acoustic Guitar?
Acoustic players benefit largely tone-wise from heavier strings. On the opposite, they are harder to fret, and bar chords can become a problem for beginners. If you are a seasoned player, stringing your acoustic with a heavier gauge will make it easier to play because you can drive the guitar top without much effort. On the other hand, beginners should start with lighter strings.
My acoustic guitar string recommendation:
• Beginners: .010
• Seasoned players: .012 and above
What About Classical Guitar (Nylon Strings)?
We spoke about acoustic and electric, but what about classic/nylon-string guitars? These guitars have their own realm in which guitar strings are measured not by their gauge but by their tension. Therefore, what you are offered when you walk into a store to buy strings for your classical guitar is usually low, normal, high, and extra-high tension strings.
A great approach to the matter is to think about string tension as a path. The word path means that you can go from low or normal to extra-high tension strings as you improve your own playing. This is because the lower the tension, the easier it is to fret every note, but the harder it is to reach the surgeon-like precision professionals look for.
Thus, beginners should always string their classic guitar with low or normal-tension strings. Not only will it be better for their fingers, fatigue, and learning curve, it will also be great to form those calluses before moving on to instruments that are harder on the fingertips.
My classical guitar recommendations:
• Beginners: Low/normal-tension strings
• Advanced: High-tension strings
• Professionals: Extra-high tension strings
• Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
String gauge is not a static choice, just like your playing or musical taste isn't. As you play more and get to know yourself as a player and your instrument better, you might want to taste different flavours. Also, you might find that a certain tone or bend requires a different string gauge. Don't be afraid to experiment.
That being said, thinner, lower-tension guitar strings are always the best choice for beginners because they make the instrument easier to play in the sense that they require less applied strength to make the sounds. Once you become a seasoned player, the choice can be based on tone, but starting it is always based on flattening your learning curve.