The debate on whether heavier gauge strings hold tune better is still in session on internet forums and jam spaces worldwide.
Do heavier/thicker gauge guitar strings stay in tune better? Heavier gauge strings may hold tune better than thinner strings due to increased tension, but the difference is minimal compared to the other factors that affect a guitar's tuning: string stretching, how the strings sit or lock in the bridge saddles and nut grooves, and stability of the tuning pegs.
Heavier gauge strings are certainly an option forward, whether we're after a bigger tone, a different feel, or improved tuning. In this article, we'll discuss how thicker/heavier gauge strings may or may not stay in tune better and touch on how we can help our instruments stay in tune as we go up in gauge.
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How Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings May Stay In Tune Better
To understand how string gauge could affect a guitar's ability to stay in tune, we should consider a few factors:
- String tension
- String stretching/break-in
- Tuning pegs
- How the strings fit/sit/lock at the bridge and nut
Let's see if and how these factors may be affected by string gauge with a focus on guitar tuning stability.
The real argument for heavier gauge strings comes from their increased tension. So long as the guitar has been set up/adjusted to handle such tension, there is a case to be made for improved tuning stability.
String tension plays a major role in how an instrument plays and, most importantly, how it “feels”. For example, if you've ever played a classical guitar, you'll know that those strings are not sold by the gauge but by the tension.
Tension is often noted as the stiffness of a string when being played. For example, it is easier to bend .009 than .010 strings in an electric guitar. A heavier wire stretched to a certain distance at a certain pitch will create a higher tension than a lighter wire in the same conditions.
Thus, when you tune your instrument to standard tuning and use a heavier gauge, you'll feel your instrument becomes stiffer. This stiffness you feel when the instrument is properly set up will grant you more tuning stability.
Strings with greater tension will vibrate at lower amplitude given the same initial moving force. In other words, higher tension strings (which is a byproduct of heavier gauge strings) have smaller maximum displacement from equilibrium, given the same plucking strength.
As a string is attacked (by picking, fingerpicking, strumming, slapping, etc.), it is displaced. The more it is displaced, the more it will venture out of tune. This can be seen (on tuners) and heard on the initial transients of guitar and bass notes.
So then, a looser string will sound slightly more out of tune as it is struck. This makes heavier gauge (higher tension) strings sound as if they hold tune better.
But does this mean the guitar will stay in relative tune for longer if it has heavier strings? It could be argued that since lighter gauge strings vibrate with greater displacement, they'll stretch more or displace the string about the nut or bridge. However, this is another case where its effects in the real world are negligible even though it may be true.
With that, let's consider how string tension changes with gauge, all else being equal.
Electric Guitar String Tension
Let's take a look at what happens with tension in electric guitars. For this example, the data comes from D'Addario's tension chart (source). You'll find the name of Ernie Ball packs in the examples because those are among the best-selling electric guitar strings in the world, and you're probably familiar with them.
- Ernie Ball Super Slinky (.009-.042) – Total string tension: 84.44lbs
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (.010-.046) – Total string tension: 102.52lbs (20% tension increase)
- Ernie Ball Power Slinky (.011-.049) – Total string tension: 117.11lbs (almost a 40% tension increase from the .009-.042)
What is this an example of? Well, for starters, you'll need stronger hands to move those strings in bends, hammer-ons, and other similar techniques. Secondly, just like you need to be stronger to bend them, more strength is needed to move a tuning peg; thus, your guitar will stay in tune better.
Acoustic Guitar String Tension
Now that we've spoken about classical and electric guitar strings, it is time to address acoustic guitar strings. Let's look at what happens when you change the material, and instead of nickel, go for bronze. This time, we'll use D'Addario strings for the example, and the data comes from the same D'Addario chart.
- D’Addario EJ10 (.010-.047) – Total string tension: 130.2lbs
- D’Addario EJ13 (.011-.052) – Total string tension: 144.63lbs (11% tension increase)
- D’Addario EJ11 (.012-.053) – Total string tension: 156.42lbs (8% tension increase)
In the case of acoustics, it makes a ton of difference since the heavier the strings, the more resonance they can generate and the better they can “drive” the top of an acoustic guitar.
In other words, the strings' vibration makes the guitar resonate further, and thus, you get a thicker, fuller sound with more volume and sound projection. In this vein, you can experiment with your guitar and string gauge; it will sing like never before when you find the correct tension.
Also, in the field of acoustic guitars, in which much of what happens has to do with chords, tuning stability is paramount. The higher tension will create more stability in each string, and hence, you can play chords more confidently without a sharp or flat note on any of the strings.
Finally, since bending is not as common in acoustics, most guitars are shipped from the factory with 12s or 13s to drive the top and make a more stable instrument.
To learn more about string gauge, check out my article Should I Use Light, Medium Or Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings?
Ever wonder why new strings tend to fall out of tune quickly? This is because there's a “stretching period” whereby the strings must adjust and stretch according to their proper tension.
Though there are physical differences between light and heavy gauge strings, they are both at the mercy of this stretching period. Therefore, the string gauge plays a minimal effect on this factor.
To learn more about string stretching, check out my article Why New Guitar Strings Go Out Of Tune Faster Than Old Strings.
The guitar's tuning pegs each have a string threaded through them and hold the string tight at one end. Tightening or loosening the string is possible by turning the tuning knob.
Quality and stability vary between tuning pegs sets and types. However, all guitar tuning pegs should work fine with standard string gauges, just like all bass tuning pegs should work fine with standard bass string gauges.
The issues that may arise are with how we string our guitar and thread/wrap the string around the tuning posts.
For example, if we're used to stringing our guitar with .009s and we jump up to .011s, we may wrap the string more times than is necessary around the tuning post. A thicker set of strings will take up more space, and wrapping these strings with the same number of winds may cause the wrapped strings to bunch up and slip during a performance, thereby putting the guitar out of tune.
However, if we follow instructions and string our guitars properly, the string gauge should not matter when it comes to tuning pegs and keeping the guitar in tune.
Strings Sitting In The Neck And Bridge
How each string fits into its own cutaway in the guitar's neck and bridge will affect how stable the string is and how well it will hold its tune.
This is another factor that, in more cases, won't be an issue.
However, we may have a problem if a guitar is designed for light gauge strings and the bridge and neck slots are too small for thicker strings. The heavier strings won't sit quite right, and as they move, even by minute amounts, they'll change in tune.
Again, this typically isn't an issue, though it can be with certain guitars and heavier string gauges.
Further Instrument Preparation
Now, once you decide to go up a notch in terms of string gauge, you need to get your instrument ready for it. This is because it is set up for the tension the strings it currently has can generate. To increase tension without disrupting the proper setup (intonation, calibration, and action), you need to do some further preparation.
Neck: Modern guitars (excluding classical in most cases) have a truss rod that can be adjusted. This is because of string tension. Greater string tension pulls the neck forward, and the truss rod counteracts this force by pulling the neck back. If these forces are not even, the guitar's neck can curve, causing problems with action, intonation and tuning.
Bridge: If your guitar features a tremolo bridge (like a Stratocaster), it might lift and move away from the body due to increased tension. To counteract this side effect, tighten the screws in the cavity where the springs are.
Nut: The nut in a guitar is the guide at the top of the fretboard, between the neck and the tuning pegs. If you drastically change the string gauge, you might need to make those holes bigger to avoid a poor fit.
A professional technician can carry out all these steps. Be sure to do your due diligence if you plan on making adjustments yourself in preparation for heavier strings, especially truss rod adjustments.