Guitar-strings gauge has been a discussion topic for guitar players since they were invented. They indeed change the instrument's sound drastically, but do they make you sound better?
Do heavier/thicker gauge guitar strings sound better? Heavier gauge strings produce darker, more sustained tones. More vibrating metal in front of the pickup's magnetic field generates more volume. Thicker strings are also more capable of driving the top of an acoustic. If a big, sustained tone is better for you, then thicker strings sound better.
Of course, the sound of a set of guitar strings is highly subjective. In this article, we'll learn how gauge plays a role in string tonality and take part in this discussion that has been going strong for decades among guitar players.
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Defining What's “Better” For You
Better in terms of sound is subjective. For some, having a huge sound with a big bottom end is the best choice. Others might prefer a tone with more edge, twang, and attack. Furthermore, entire music styles have been created around this choice. For example, while blues and rock gravitate towards the first definition, other styles, such as funk and country, tend to go for a more edgy, bright sound that thinner strings can provide.
So, once you've made clear in your mind what is “better” for you, let's go through some basics.
Heavy String Tone & The SRV School
Heavier strings have more mass, which means they will cause the guitar to sound louder. This is true of electric guitars, where there's a greater mass of oscillating metal in the pickup's magnetic field. It's also true of acoustic guitars, where more vibrating mass is driving the soundboard through the bridge.
As for sustain, the heavier mass of heavier strings will technically be more difficult to get in motion and will stay in motion a bit longer, thereby improving sustain at the expense of dulled attack.
However, these factors do not necessarily translate to “better tone.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the most prominent blues players of his generation. He was very well-known for using 0.13 strings on his Stratocaster, producing a huge tone.
His playing style and sound created more than a legion of fans; it created a school of guitar playing that can go for hours, backing up their choice of guitar strings. While it is true that, according to physics, heavier strings create a bigger sound, there are some caveats to consider.
Pros & Cons Of Heavier Gauge Strings
Let's start with the positive side by looking at the pros of heavier guitar strings.
- Bigger tone with more low end. The guitar occupies more sonic space (ideal for rock trios).
- More sustain and better tuning stability.
- Less string breakage.
Let's take a look at some of the cons of this approach.
- Heavy strings are harder to play and can damage your hands’ muscles.
- Heavier strings are harder to fret, thus, guitar players who play fast (shredding) will lose speed.
Light String Tone & The Billy Gibbons School
Lighter strings have less mass, which means they will cause the guitar to sound quieter. This is true of electric guitars, where there's less mass of oscillating metal in the pickup's magnetic field. It's also true of acoustic guitars, where less vibrating mass is driving the soundboard through the bridge.
As for sustain, the lighter mass of thinner-gauge strings will technically be easier to get in motion but will return to resting position more easily as well, thereby being more dynamic (improved attack) but less sustaining.
Again, these factors do not necessarily translate to “better tone.”
Billy Gibbons is another blues and rock legend that played opening tour dates for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and is still releasing albums as a solo artist and with his band, ZZ Top. BB King advised Billy Gibbons to go lighter on his strings because he was “working too hard”. Soon after, Billy came up with a signature string set that goes as light as 0.07.
If you come across ZZ Top's live performances as a rock trio, it is hard to think of a bigger guitar tone than the one Billy exudes on stage. This contradiction legitimizes the opposing school of thought: thin strings can create a big sound in the right hands.
Let's see some pros and cons for this approach too.
Pros & Cons Of Lighter Gauge Strings
Starting again with the positive side, these are the pros of this approach.
- Lighter tone with more top end and attack. The guitar occupies less sonic space but will cut through denser mixes (ideal for larger groups).
- Light strings are easier to fret resulting in effortless playing.
- Music styles that require bending or fast playing are easier to play with thinner strings.
On the not-so-good side of things:
- Light strings require a soft touch, if you play too hard you might fret them out of tune.
- More string breakage.
What Else Changes Your Tone?
While heavier guitar strings do physically produce fuller, more sustained tone, they are certainly not the only factor. By the paragraphs above, we can infer that great tone (including the huge, heavy tones we technically associated with heavy strings) can be achieved with any set of strings.
The truth is that while guitar strings do affect tone, they are a relatively small piece of the puzzle.
Now that matters are clear regarding the pros and cons of the heavy and light string gauge approaches, it is time to address other aspects of your gear that might impact your tone.
Guitar woods/tonewoods: As you might know, the wood that your guitar is made of impacts its tone. For example, instruments made of mahogany will retain a bigger bottom end than those made of pine, ash, alder, or maple. In the same vein, rosewood fretboards gravitate towards the lower registers, while maple fretboards tend to be edgier and mid-range oriented.
Guitar setup: Guitars set up with a very low action might sound small and “dead” because strings are too close to the pickups and cannot oscillate as far from their resting position (relative to higher action). On the other hand, guitars with a high action might sound smaller and thinner because strings are too far from the pickups. This will also impact your resulting tone.
Guitar pickups: Single-coil pickups produce much more twang and midrange than humbuckers. In this sense, if you are after a thicker tone, moving towards P90s or humbuckers might be more meaningful than changing string gauge.
Signal chain: Everything in your signal chain affects your tone. For example, if you are using an overdrive pedal, a compressor, or an equalizer, they will add or take certain frequencies from your tone. This could be beneficial or detrimental to the bottom-end of the resulting sound.
Amplifier: Finally, speaking about the signal chain, amplifiers also make a big difference in the bottom-end, definition, and overall quality of your tone. For example, tube-driven amplifiers tend to have a bigger bottom-end. Likewise, bigger speakers (12″, 15″) will also generate that kind of tone. On the contrary, if you move towards solid-state or digital amps and smaller speakers (8″, 10″), you'll get a more mid-range oriented kind of tone.
Strings Are The Cheapest Tone Experiment
Finally, experimenting with different guitar string gauges is the cheapest tone experiment. While guitar pedals, pickups, amplifiers, speakers, and guitars themselves will cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, guitar strings are usually less than $10 a pack.
Also, if you look at the kind of guitar strings that are the best-sellers on sites like Amazon (in the US) and Stringdirect (in the UK), rankings are governed by 0.009 and 0.010 gauges, which are not so influential on the final tone.
Heavier/thicker guitar strings, according to the laws of physics, change your tone to make it bigger. If that is the definition of “better” for you and the style of music you play, test some out and see how you feel. On the other hand, there are pros and cons to that approach, and while they might fatten your tone, they will also make you work harder.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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