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Guitar Strings: How, What And Why?

Elvis Elvis

I know this has happened to all of us at one time or another…

As you stare at the seemingly endless racks of strings at your local guitar shop for the first time, a disturbing chain reaction of thoughts races through your frenzied mind: what’s all this string gauge stuff? Do I need the 8-38 set, the 9-42 set, or maybe the 10-52 heavy bottom set? Should I get the ones with the special string coating? Does that help at all? Nobody told me anything about this! What am I going to do?!? Your heart begins to race as you feel the stares of the people in line quite literally piercing straight through you. Your palms start to sweat, and finally you gesture vaguely to the clerk and stammer out, “I’ll take those strings there”.

“These?”, he says, pointing to a completely different set from what you had in mind.

“No”, you say. “Those there, right next to your ear.”

“Right here?”, he asks, again reaching for the wrong package.

“No, give me…these!”, and you stretch almost halfway across the counter so as to ensure he gets the right set.

You quickly pay and hurry back to the car, hoping these strings do the trick; you don’t want to have to go through this again any time soon.

Guitar Strings: How, What And Why?

What a hassle! This happens to most guitar players when they first start out, but before you give up all hope…

I think I can help. Conventional wisdom says that you should use the heaviest set of strings you can comfortably play. That’s a good start, but there’s more to the story. Here’s what you need to know:

String gauge simply refers to how thick your guitar strings are in thousandths of an inch.

Most people refer to a set of strings by the thickness of the high E string, and it’s understood that the other strings will more or less match it in effective tension. For example, if you buy a set of “nines”, such as I usually do for my electrics, you have purchased a pack where the high E string is 9 thousandths of an inch wide and everything else goes up from there. Go a step down from this and you have “eights”. Everything is just a little bit lighter; a step up and you have “tens”, where everything is a bit heavier. Sets as high as thirteens are readily available.

This actually does make a difference.

People frequently wonder why it really matters, or how much difference a thousandth of an inch here or there really makes. To your brain it can seem insignificant, but if your brain thinks this, your brain is wrong. In this case (and probably only this case), let your fingers do the thinking. String gauge really, really does make a difference. If I step up from my usual nines to tens, I struggle a bit. Everything is just that much more difficult; solos are slightly more challenging, and intense chord work begins to tire my hand out just a little quicker. It’s noticeable, if just barely.

So what makes the most sense for someone who doesn’t know what strings to buy? Let’s take a look:

If eights are the easiest to play, shouldn’t everyone just put those on and go for it? Well, not necessarily. Extremely light strings are easier to play, yes, but this often comes at the expense of tone and sustain. It’s all but proven that thicker strings will sustain longer than thinner ones, and many players find that the sound they produce is equally superior.

On the other hand, grabbing a really heavy set isn’t necessarily the answer either. You’ll get more sustain and tone out of them, true, and they tend to hold their tune better, but they will also fight you harder on any lead work you may try to do.

So which type of strings should you get? My answer: It depends. Really helpful, aren’t I?

Still, it’s true. The appropriate string gauge will really depend on your goals as a player, and on the guitar you’re playing. If tone and sustain are really what you’re after, and you want to take that to the max, grab a heavy set of thirteens. This will work on either electrics or acoustics. If, on the other hand, you know for certain that you want playability above all else and are looking to do flashy lead work, grab a set of eights or nines.

If you’re like most people, though, you fall somewhere in the middle, in which case a medium set is a good way to go (twelves or so for acoustic, tens for electric). It’s all about moderation, you know?

But when it comes right down to it, there is no correct answer to this question. There are disgustingly skilled guitar players on either side of the aisle, so there’s not a wrong choice here. Joe Satriani tends to use nines or so, while Stevie Ray Vaughan is reputed to have used strings somewhere in the neighborhood of thirteens.

And hey, if you really end up wishing you’d gone with a different string gauge, guess what? Guitar strings are removable! Good luck and have fun!