Some rational facts about String Gauges

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08 Sep Some rational facts about String Gauges

The following article was first published on Strung Out? Fret Not! and has been reproduced here by kind permission of the original author.

Tonal Considerations

Subjectively, higher string gauges will result in a “thicker”, “fatter” or “louder” tone, while lighter string gauges will result in a “thinner”, “brittle” or “weak” tone. While there is much truth in those statements, overall there are other, more important factors that affect tone than string gauge alone. Very discerning/experienced guitarists choose different string gauges for different amps and guitars as it is usually the interaction of all components in the set-up that results in their tone. If you want to improve your tone, simply increasing the gauge won’t necessarily do anything for you; you need to choose your string gauge with regard to the rest of your rig. Tone is a result of the interaction of each part of the chain (we’ll look at this more in a moment).

Inertia

Since heavier strings have greater mass than lighter strings, they have greater inertia. Thinking back to high school physics, you will recall that inertia is the tendency for an object to resist changes in motion. Also, remember than inertia not only affects moving objects, but is also the tendency for stationary objects to resist changes in motion. This means that when you pluck a heavy-gauge string, the string will be slower to respond than with a light-gauge string, which results in a less ‘punchy’ attack to each note. Similarly, once the string is vibrating, a heavy-gauge string will take longer to die away than a light-gauge string. In a nutshell, higher gauge strings will result in a slower attack and increased sustain, whereas lighter strings have a stronger attack, but less sustain.

Anyone who has played with compressor pedals should note that this slower attack and longer sustain of heavy strings, is similar in effect to a compressor set with a long decay time. Thus, higher gauge strings have a more ‘compressed’ sound than lighter gauge strings. One reason I like heavy strings on slightly driven tones is that the softer attack means that the amp won’t distort unpredictably at the start of each note. Lighter gauge strings with a slightly driven amp tend to have a very gritty and overly distorted attack which doesn’t suit my tastes.

Harmonic Content

Another factor affecting your choice of string gauge has to do with the harmonic content of the string. Heavy strings need to be tighter than light strings for a given pitch, and it’s also the case that tighter strings produce stronger harmonics than lighter strings. Overall this means that heavier strings have a ‘brighter’, ‘clearer’, more ‘lively’ tone than lighter strings, which tend to produce more of the fundamental.

Magnetic Interaction

Heavier strings naturally sustain longer, but they also interact more with the magnets in the pickups, which tends to dampen the sustain. The gain in sustain from the heavier string tends to approximately balance out the loss of sustain from the extra magnetic interaction – so the net effect is a string which sustains for approximately the same amount of time!

Because energy is a closed system, the decrease in sustain due to magnetic interaction is effectively changed into an increase in the inducted voltage. The extra material of the heavier string causes more voltage to be inducted into the pickup coil, which results in a louder output.

Of course, if you lower your pickups, you’ll lessen any increase in output, and restore some of the extra sustain which the heavier strings bring.

So, in short, heavier strings tend to have stronger harmonics, a more compressed attack, and a potentially higher output and/or longer sustain.

So Heavy is Better.. Right?

There are many players out there who have followed the ‘heavy-gauge-means-better-tone’ idea to its extremes. If you absolutely must have the most compressed, loud, thick and harmonically rich tone possible then by all means, heavy gauges may just be the ticket. But often you can achieve sufficiently appealing tone factors without resorting to extremely heavy gauges.

Rather than achieving a compressed sound from heavier strings, you may like to consider simply using a compressor pedal. Whilst this doesn’t create exactly the same sound as heavy strings, the effect is still quite similar. Also, if you’re using under-wound pickups, you may like to consider a slightly hotter pickup, which can often create a more compressed tone.

If it’s the louder output of heavier strings which you find appealing, maybe you would like to try a higher output pickup, or simply raise the height of the pickup in relation to the strings. Also, you may consider using a booster pedal if you just want to push the amp a little more.

Before you settle on heavy gauge strings, experiment with other ways of achieving your tone. Like I said earlier, tone is a result of every part of the signal chain working together, and string gauge should be chosen to sensibly match the rest of your set up.

What About Acoustic Guitars?

On acoustic guitars the effect is similar. Obviously, most acoustic guitars don’t have magnetic pickups so there is no magnetic damping. This means that heavier strings tend to sustain more, and are also louder. The general rule that heavier strings have stronger harmonics and a more compressed attack also applies.

Drop Tunings

This is a simple point but one worth making. If you want to use ‘dropped’ tunings where the strings are slacker than standard tuning you may want to consider using heavier strings. This ensures that the lower tunings can keep in tune, and that the strings maintain a good tone at the lower tunings. It is not uncommon for players who use ‘drop D’, to purchase hybrid sets of strings which are a standard medium light set (say a set of 0.010s), but have a heavier low E string, which makes drop D tunings maintain better tone and tuning stability. Also, if you plan to have your guitar in dropped tunings all of the time, you may like to consider purchasing a set of strings specifically for the intended tuning. Again, these have potentially better tone, and better tuning stability.

Of course if you want to use sharper tunings, you’ll want to make sure that you use a lighter set of strings. Also, if you ever want to experiment with extreme tunings, make sure that you visit your guitar tech first, to ensure that your guitar is properly set up for the new strings, and make sure the guitar is ready for the extra stress and tension that alternate tunings can cause.

Disadvantages of Heavy Strings

Obviously the main disadvantage of using heavier strings is that they are more uncomfortable, and generally require more effort to play. If you play with lots of bending and vibrato, this can also result in too much muscle tension in the hand and wrist. If you choose to play with heavier strings, watch out for any tell-tale aches and pains which may indicate that your technique isn’t quite ready for heavier strings. If this is the case, a teacher can work with you on your technique, or you could switch back to a lighter-gauge set.

Also, even if you do have a good, relaxed technique, you may still find that constant practice on very heavy strings will tear several layers of skin from the tips of your fingers. Different people’s skin will callous differently, so you may not have any trouble with this. As a case in point though, Stevie Ray Vaughan who is well known for his heavy gauges, is reported to have used super-glue on the tips of his fingers to create artificial callouses for extra protection (although I’ve used this trick, I don’t recommend it since there could be long-term health effects as a result of regular application of super-glue to the skin).

Regarding tone, there is one significant drawback to using heavy strings, which is how it affects vibrato, and other subtle expressive techniques. Since heavier strings are harder to play, they are also harder to ‘finesse’. Using a string gauge that is not suited to a player’s finger strength and dexterity masks the idiosyncrasies of the individual player. Many people, myself included, feel that these small, subtle differences between players are important to the overall tone, and makes each person’s playing unique. So, heavier strings may increase volume and harmonic content, but might also make expressive playing more difficult.

What I Use/Recommend

For electric guitar I now use a 0.009-0.042 set with an unwound G string. This is pretty light, even though I have played (much) heavier gauges in the past. I personally no longer see a strong argument for using very heavy strings, although if I were to play a shorter scale instrument such as a Les Paul for example, I would almost certainly use a set of 0.010s at minimum – otherwise the strings tend to feel like rubber bands :)

On acoustic guitars though I definitely recommend heavier strings if possible, particularly for rhythm playing rather than finger-style. Acoustic guitars have the advantage that they are not usually used for lead playing, so the heavy strings tend not to be a problem. Heavy strings also allow you to play fairly hard, without the sound breaking up or going out of tune, whilst quiet playing still sounds ’solid’ and confident. Essentially, heavier strings will allow for a greater dynamic range on acoustic instruments. If you’re a finger picker, though, you may like to try a lighter set, such as 0.011s or 0.012s. On a well made instrument, you should still be able to achieve a ‘good’ tone without having to sacrifice any of the more ‘delicate’ maneuvers which finger-style can require.

Original article link:

http://www.tyquinn.com/2009/string-gauge/

PS it’s worth it to mention this quote from a user on the My Les Paul Forums I found:

it’s worth remembering that a lot of those 60’s and 70’s legendary players used 09’s if not 08’s!
Clapton used to string his Les Paul with 08’s when he recorded the seminal “Beano” album, the album which started the whole “Les Paul/Marshall” thing with a Tone by which all the other Tones are still measured!
Same thing with early Beck and Page during his Zeppelin years, and as far as righteous Tones they don’t come any better than that!
Let’s not forget John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever respectively; and Tommy Bolin , Yngwie, Billy Gibbons, Brian May, the guys in Judas Priest…all 08-38’s users.

Additional note: Angus uses 009-042!

Since I found that out for good, I moved to 9s (from 10s) on ALL of my guitars, including ACOUSTICS!

avatar
Fil "SoloDallas" Olivieri
sd@solodallas.com

I like Geetars!

26 Comments
  • avatar
    Stevier
    Posted at 00:56h, 21 October

    I want to go to 9s for easier vibrato bends etc, but can’t get used to their fragile feeling.

    I love ernie ball 10s tuned to Eb.

    • avatar
      SoloDallas
      Posted at 05:58h, 21 October

      10s in Eb are also good, but NOT the same as 09s. Please try 09s but when you do, please also realise that you have an HUGE potential added. Contrary to what most people think, 09s ARE the electric guitar ideal, not the 10s. 09s will give you the final opportunity the have the sound you desire WITH the technique you probably have in mind.

  • avatar
    DSchlageter
    Posted at 15:53h, 16 November

    I just restrung my R0 reissue with Ernie Ball Slinky .10’s, replacing the “pure” nickel Gibson Vintage .10 strings. I thought I’d see what the “brighter” strings would sound like. I broke my B while learning the Free Bird solo Fil just released, playing it over and over with the crazy bends trying to get it down the way he does it (Fil does it so well). One thing that I noticed was that bends seemed to take more effort. So I wonder if the effort required may also depend on the maker and the type. The original Gibson strings were on for a few months of playing. So I put a new set of Gibson’s on an SG, different guitar, but it still seemed easier than the Ernie Balls that were on the SG when I replaced them. I have heard that Ernie Balls have good longevity and I wonder if that may have the added effect of making them stiffer?

    • avatar
      SoloDallas
      Posted at 17:17h, 16 November

      Well this is a brilliant question for me. Because it allows me to state that yes, there is for certain a big difference in string tension across several strings producers. So, you have for example D’Addario strings which are knowingly stiffer than Ernie Balls, for example. This is why I only use Ernie Balls and 009s at that. They are amongst the softer strings I found, and I NEED soft strings for multiple reasons, synthetically because I play a lot, bend a lot and vibrate a lot. I just desire string low tension. I demand it. I like guitars that play butter-like. And with perfect setups as much as possible. I spend a lot of time even after luthier setup – professional – on single guitars because of this reason. 10s are still manageable, on a couple of guitars I kept 10s, but those are not my go to guitars. The “fear” of having thinner tone with 009s is overrated. I strongly advise to try and use 009s and get used to them.

  • avatar
    rjofig
    Posted at 13:43h, 04 November

    Here’s a question related to the topic.
    When changing strings, I generally loosen each one then cut and remove all. I’ve read several articles arguing to change one string at a time to avoid the extra tension on the neck, which makes sense to me, but I really like to have access to clean up the fretboard thoroughly.
    I don’t know if the stress of leaving all strings out for a few minutes while cleaning is really something to worry about in an SG… Any words of wisdom from those with more experience with them?
    cheers

    • avatar
      banane
      Posted at 16:07h, 04 November

      That were also my thoughts. Cleaning the fretboard isnt possible with the strings on. On the other side I doubt that removing the strings for some minutes will be harmful for the wood. So I clean the fretboard (and remove all strings but one to keep the bridge and the other things in place) every 3 string changes.
      I change my strings about every 2 weeks (after 40-60 hours of playing), so fretboard cleaning is done every 2 months maybe.
      Best compromise for me and maybe a bit too frequently.

      • avatar
        rjofig
        Posted at 16:21h, 04 November

        Good point; never really timed it, but I think I end up changing strings every 2 months or so and it seems like a good time for a good cleanup as well. More frequent changes and less frequent cleanups seem like a good approach, every time I put new strings, I realize how much better they feel and play and wonder why I had not changed them earlier :)

        • avatar
          banane
          Posted at 20:03h, 04 November

          Same for me, i don’t change them exactly after 40 hours, but it’s the same everytime, the new strings sounds and feels so much better after changing and I’m wondering too why I didn’t change them earlier :)

  • avatar
    Burnie
    Posted at 02:41h, 25 October

    Well, I want to change the string gauge. I have still the standard gauge (.010) on my Gibson SG ’61 reissue.
    I have recognised that .009 strings are much better for bandings and vibratos – especially for vibratos. And I am tired of hurting fingers and shredded skin on my fingertips.
    But when I change the gauge I want the “PLEK job” for my guitar to preserve or improve the playability. And my question is, is it necessary to change the guitar nut as well? Or do you -SD- know whether a neck adjustment is included?

    Thank you for anwering =)

    • avatar
      SoloDallas
      Posted at 09:09h, 25 October

      Pleasure Burnie, good to see you.
      Yes, the neck adjustment is included. Actually, a WHOLE setup of the guitar is included with a Plek Job.
      No, the nut not necessarily has to be changed; good luthiers usually know how to set it up without replacing it

      • avatar
        Burnie
        Posted at 17:41h, 25 October

        Thank you SD
        I have still 7 sets of .010 strings. When they are consumed away I will change the gauge.

        Hehe, I am proud to live in the capital of PLEKing Berlin, Germany^^

  • avatar
    5F6-A
    Posted at 07:02h, 14 September

    Great info in that article! 😉

    • avatar
      SoloDallas
      Posted at 07:03h, 14 September

      Oh… I wonder WHO pointed me to it? Maybe a friend who needs to be THANKED :)

  • avatar
    OldSchoolRocker666
    Posted at 09:55h, 12 September

    My local store doesn’t even have Ernie ball but alot of other brands.. I love the sound of fresh installed 09-042´s , but is forced to use Dunlop(not bad strings but i just prefer Ernie Ball of some reason).. I bought 3 or so packages with 09 Ernies and was blown away, so easy to bend, i just love the sound, easy to play with and they weren’t expensive at all.. I wonder how serious a guitar store is when they have alot of brands but not Ernie Ball included amongs them :( I miss the E.B Strings! :( :(

    But Dunlop is a good replacement i think, uses 10s at the moment but that’s good still :)

  • avatar
    bluesguitardude
    Posted at 17:21h, 11 September

    even if i agree with the information here, (which i really do,) i prefer to use .011 strings in my gibson sg… im already getting used the heavy gauge…

  • avatar
    adam10603
    Posted at 15:43h, 09 September

    Well, I usually use a 9-42 set, but once I ran out of strings, and my local guitar shop had only 10 gauge, heavy buttom strings (10-56, I believe). I was surprised with the tone they produced. It was a very open and clean sound, and lots of buttom end resonance from the wood. And because I have only an SG copy guitar, with not as resonant wood as a gibson has (it’s mahagony too, but a different kind, and it’s not as resonant), so this really helped my tone. Unfortunately I felt uncomfortable with those strings, it required lots of strength to bend them. So finally I decided to use 9-46 “hybrid” strings (hybrid, because it’s a mix of 9 and 10 gauge strings. high E, B and G strings are from 9 gauge, and D, A and low E strings are from 10 gauge. This gives you easy bending on the lighter strings, and a more open, and “bigger” rythm sound for chords on the lower strings)

  • avatar
    Jacob Yergert
    Posted at 02:06h, 09 September

    I use Ernie Ball Power slinkies and beefy slinkies. I think those are .11s and .12s. Ive just always liked the feel of the bigger ones, and they sound just a tad bit… “clearer” on my guitar? theres less dirt, as you said.

  • avatar
    cwildes
    Posted at 01:00h, 09 September

    I tend to use thicker strings (12-56) on all my electrics because I’m a very physically aggressive lead player, and I find when I use thinner strings I end up bending strings too much, and my vibrados are harder to control. In my opinion, thicker strings give you more control over vibrados if you can comfortably work with them without cramps, etc.

  • avatar
    Ryley
    Posted at 22:56h, 08 September

    Fil, would u consider 0.10s a heavy guage string? bc i used .09s for 2 years then recently switched over to tens bc i have big hands and my sound was somewhat weak and muffled with .09s…. soo i tried tens and they work great for me. may go back to .09s in the future but as of now im a .10s guy

    • avatar
      Ryley
      Posted at 22:58h, 08 September

      oh ps, forgot to add this in, i find i have a lottt better vibrato control with .10s , really balances out my hand strength i feel :)

  • avatar
    Aaron
    Posted at 22:48h, 08 September

    I have gone back and forth between 09s and 10s and i have a hard time making up my mind. The 09s are definitely easier to play but they do feel brittle to me. With the 10s I feel like i have more to grab onto when i bend a sting especially high on the neck. I tried 12s one time and i loved the sound of power chords but solos became so much work. I am such a procrastinator!

  • avatar
    Angusrocks
    Posted at 18:55h, 08 September

    Yes, i agree, today i changed my strings from 10s to 9s.
    They are easier and more comfortable to play. But i had to change some settings as well.

  • avatar
    Tyler
    Posted at 15:57h, 08 September

    I used 10s for probably the last 2 years but Im going back to 9s because I just dont feel 10’s are worth it. I look for maximum playability in a guitar, I dont want to make it any harder to play then it has to be. I think Tony Iommi is the perfect example, his tone was huge and still is and he’s used 8s throughout his career and alot of times he tunes down to d and c tunings.

  • avatar
    Dave4433
    Posted at 12:31h, 08 September

    As long as I’ve been playing 09s, I’ve been comfortable with them.

    They don’t sound to thin (at least for my ears they don’t), you just need to find the right settings between your amp and guitar.

  • avatar
    OldSchoolRocker666
    Posted at 11:50h, 08 September

    I think one argument for lighter strings such as 09-042 is that people with small hands can play more comfortable , depending on the player, ofcourse bigger strings can be played as well even if you have relativly small hands, but personaly i feel it’s better with lighter strings, particulary for solo parts and such, it feels much better, easier to solo, more smoother in some sense, also loves the sound of newly tuned fresh Ernie Ball 09-042 Super Slinky strings :) But it could be good to try out alot of brands, string sizes and hear for yourself to find what suits ”best” for you :)

  • avatar
    Alex
    Posted at 11:30h, 08 September

    I always use 10s, I kept over-bending 09s, sometimes by a tone.

    Strange how 08s achieved the classic 60s-70s guitar sound, but surely it isn’t just the string gauge that got the tone right? If I were to go back in time, grab one of Clapton’s guitars and restrung to 10, keeping the same settings etc, would the tone get better?

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