Guitar string gauge has long been a topic for guitar players. Each guitarist's quest for tone and playability will involve trying different strings, and each gauge will have pros and cons. Knowing the characteristics of every gauge will help tremendously in our understanding of the optimal string gauge for our guitars.
Should I use light, medium or heavy gauge guitar strings? Light strings are easy to bend with good treble and suit short-scale guitars but are quiet and fragile. Heavy strings sustain longer with more low-end and suit larger guitars but are more difficult to play and may strain the guitar. Medium gauge strings fit somewhere in the middle.
In this article, we'll discuss light, medium and heavy gauge strings in more detail and list out the pros and cons of each. By the end of the article, you'll have a great sense of how the right string gauge will help you play your best.
Does Guitar String Gauge Matter?
Guitar string gauge matters in a variety of senses:
Comfort: Especially for starting players or players with small hands, heavier guitar strings might mean a stronger effort, and hence, reduced playability.
Volume: The gauge of guitar strings determines the loudness of the unplugged instrument. In that sense, heavier-gauge guitar strings might produce louder results than lighter-gauge strings, especially when strumming and playing chords.
Tone: As we approach string gauge from a tonal palette, it is safe to say that the lighter the gauge, the closer the tone will be to a treble-driven result, and the heavier the gauge, the closer to bass-driven sounds.
Besides these player-centric considerations, the style, size, and age of the guitar matter as well. In case you didn't know, the heavier the guitar strings, the more pull they create for the guitar. In that vein, stringing an instrument that's 100 years old with heavy guitar strings (0.14, for example) might translate into a broken or bent neck due to strings pulling too hard on the wood.
Also, guitars with a longer scale usually take heavier strings better; in other words, the strings used on a dreadnought or solid full-size guitar should be different than the ones used on a parlour or 3/4 guitar.
Using Light Guitar Strings
The gauges in this category are 0.08, 0.09, 0.10 for electric guitar strings, extending to 0.11 and even 0.12 with acoustic strings. Every pack of guitar strings is named after the thinnest guitar string (the high E).
Light guitar strings are most commonly found among beginners because they are gentler on the fingers and easier to fret. This might translate into a not-so-steep learning curve as you might be able to play the first chords easier and faster.
In the same vein, these are the best strings for smaller-body acoustic guitars and players who favour fast playing or shredding. This is because these strings are gentler on the guitar neck and require less effort on the left hand to fret and bend each note, allowing fast players to play even faster.
Finally, depending on the style of music to be played, guitar strings can mean a big tonal difference. For example, lighter guitar strings on an acoustic guitar will produce a defined, treble-oriented sound suitable for rock, folk, and any style strummed with a light attack, especially if it requires plucking with a pick.
Amazon's top ten best-selling acoustic guitar strings are made up almost entirely of 0.12 “light” packs.
Pros Of Using Light Guitar Strings
- Easier to fret and bend
- Suitable for small-bodied (or short-scale) guitars
- Treble-oriented clearly defined sound
- Great for styles that are strummed or plucked with a pick
Pros Of Using Light Guitar Strings
- Not as loud as heavier-gauge strings
- Lack the bottom-end of heavier strings
- Break more easily
Using Medium Guitar Strings
The medium-gauge guitar string category involves 0.10 in electrics, 0.11 on both, and 0.12-0.13 on acoustics. This is the gauge strung to most guitars as they're shipped out from the factory. This decision is because they are the most balanced and will suit the majority of players while in the shop and, at least, until the first string change.
In this regard, perhaps the best asset of medium guitar strings is balance. What you get when you string your instrument with medium-gauge guitar strings is tonal, comfort, and volume equilibrium.
In other words, they are the best strings to put on your guitar when you are not entirely familiar with the instrument, want it to sound in a specific direction, or know your taste. Furthermore, some players play medium strings throughout their entire career;
Amazon's top ten best-selling electric guitar strings show clear domination of 0.10 packs.
Pros Of Using Medium Guitar Strings
- Tonal balance
- Suitable for all guitar shapes
- Neutral/equilibrated sounding
Cons Of Using Medium Guitar Strings
- The sound is not defined in one direction
- Not as loud and without the low-end of heavier strings
- Not as bright as lighter guitar strings
Using Heavy Guitar Strings
The topic of heavy gauge guitar strings provides an ongoing debate among guitarists: do heavier strings give you that big sound for rock and blues? Well, to this day, opinions are clashing about this sensitive topic. On the one hand, you have all the SRV fans swearing by their 0.12 strings and bending them with superhuman strength and a more-than-moderate effort.
On the other hand, a big part of the blues scene moved on to lighter guitar strings. A big example of this movement is Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top's guitar player and singer. In this video, you can see him telling the anecdote about starting to play 0.007 strings on his guitars following the advice of BB King.
That being said, heavier guitar strings 0.12, 0.13, 0.14, and above (Dick Dale was known for using monstrous 0.16 on his legendary Stratocaster) generate a more stable, low-end oriented, corpulent, and big sound on any instrument. The counterpart to that gain in the lower frequencies is losing some treble and spark as well as being harder to play.
As Billy Gibbons says in the video, heavier guitar strings make you work harder because they require more from the player to get the same sounds. Think of them as a destination, and not as a starting point. In other words, they should be the choice of seasoned players rather than beginners.
Pros Of Using Heavy Guitar Strings
- More low-end than lighter strings
- More stability
- Less breakage
- Produce more volume and a “bigger” sound
Cons Of Using Heavy Guitar Strings
- Harder to play
- Require more strength from the player side
- Not suitable for every guitar or player
- Less top end and brightness
Finding the right string gauge is a journey rather than a decision. It is a journey that involves many steps of trial and error, different tastes throughout your playing life, and, more importantly, many sets of strings. Knowing these fundamentals will help you find your path, but like everything else in music, it will continue to change as you grow as an artist.
Find the right set of strings, pour your talent into great music, and let the world hear you.
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