String gauge refers to the thickness in diameter of a string, it is usually measured in thousands of an inch i.e., 10s is measured in 0.010, 9s is measured in 0.009 etc. The issue of string gauge is extensive and varies from instrument to instrument, but in this article, we would be talking solely about electric guitar string gauge. You may have heard guitarists make sentences like, “I use 10s”, “I use 9s” or “I use 8s”. What they are simply referring to is the gauge of their thinnest guitar string because string gauge is named or called after the gauge of the thinnest string. Let’s take an 8s string gauge for example;
The thickness of strings on a set of 8s from the thinnest to the thickest is 8, 10, 15, 21, 30, 38. (the thinnest is 8, that’s why it’s called a set of 8s). When measured in 1000ths, we will have 0.008, 0.010, 0.015, 0.021, 0.030, 0.038 (0.008 being the thinnest and 0.038 being the thickest).
Set of 9s – 0.009, 0.011, 0.016, 0.024, 0.032, 0.042 (9, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42)
Set of 10s – 0.010, 0.013, 0.017, 0.026, 0.036, 0.046 (10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46)
Set of 11s – 0.011, 0.015, 0.018, 0.026, 0.036, 0.050 (11, 15, 18, 26, 36, 50)
Set of 12s – 0.012, 0.016, 0.020, 0.032, 0.042, 0.054 (12, 16, 20, 32, 42, 54) and so on. The higher the number, the thicker the strings will be.
9s and 10s are the most commonly used string sets we have and almost every manufacturer of strings usually makes these gauge ranges with different types of materials such as stainless steel, nickel plated steel, pure nickel, cobalt, titanium, chrome, copper etc. Some manufacturers however, would rather identify the strings by name instead of identifying them by gauges or numbers. You may find terms like ‘super light’, ‘light’, ‘medium’ or ‘heavy’ on the strings to classify their thickness. These descriptions make it easier to identify strings at a glance, but sometimes, they may vary from one brand to another; the ‘super light’ of one brand may be the ‘light’ of another brand, so in order to avoid errors, I think it’s best to still look out for the string gauges in their numbers, it gives the exact thickness of that set.
What’s with all the different string gauges anyway?
To a beginner, it’s all very confusing. Like, “why not just have one to fit every kind of electric guitar?” I know right! This is your simple answer: string gauge differs because guitarists are different, play different types of electric guitars, have different preferred choices, different genres of music they play and different kind of tones they want on their guitars. The heavier the string gauge, the more tension it will have; the lighter the string gauge, the less tension it will have. Tension means the difficulty of the string to bend or be pressed down to it’s required pitch. Strings with high tension are stiffer, feel tougher to play and are hard to fret.
For beginners, start out with thinner strings, they are easy on the fingers as your fingers may begin to get sore wile playing. As you advance and your fingertips develop, you may now begin to try out heavier string gauges.
Which string gauge should I go for?
Go for a string gauge you’re most comfortable with. Some blues guitarists for instance, prefer the lighter string gauge with less tension because they feel like it is much easier to bend and play being that blues players deal with lots of bends and vibrato in their playing. But then, some defying blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughn have made exceptions to this fact by playing blues with a heavy 13s gauge! That’s incredible! He feels okay with it, but some other blues players would not even dare it (I’m topping this list, lol). What matters most here is what you’re comfortable with and what would make you enjoy your playing instead of making it seem like some tedious labor. How to know what you’re comfortable with? It’s quite simple! Experiment until you get what you’re looking for. If you go from 9s, to 10s all the way to 12s and find out it doesn’t work for you, simply switch back to your 9s or 10s, it’s not that hard!
If you like to strum your guitar strings hard, you may prefer heavier gauge strings because of their stiffness and ability to stay in tune for a longer time, they are also more difficult to break or snap than the lighter gauge strings and they produce more volume and sustain. If you want a thicker, fuller and more powerful tone (perfect for rock, jazz and metal), then you would go for the heavier strings. It is also perfect for guitarists that use alternate tunings, Drop C for instance, you would need heavier strings to make up for the lower tuning and still keep the strings in check. However, you should take note that heavier strings affect the relief on the neck of the guitar which may in turn affect the entire instrument.
Choosing your string gauge is very flexible, you do not have to stick to 9s or 10s all through. You can make your own unique custom-made gauge set. What do I mean? If you are a guitarist that prefers fuller and richer tones for the last three strings of your guitar but would like to keep the first three a little more ‘easier to handle’, then you can try out a 9s for your first three strings and 10s for the last three. You can even buy your strings individually from different brands just to try out a different feel and tone. Keep experimenting until you get what works best for you.
Back to the question, ‘Does string gauge matter?’
Yes, it does. It matters because of our individuality as players. If it didn’t, we would all be using only one string gauge. Finding the right gauge for you makes playing the guitar very interesting and makes your playing at its peak, but using the wrong one could be very tiring and frustrating. As little as these gauge differences seem to the natural eyes, they are very important.
What string gauge do you use? Leave comments and any other questions you may have in the comment section below.