String Gauges Explained!
Author: Casey Date Posted:6 September 2019
One of the most common questions we are asked (on a daily basis) is:
What strings should I buy for my guitar!?
The right set of strings will really help your instrument sound (and perhaps more importantly, FEEL) as good as it can. The string world is riddled with terminology that can be quite confusing, so we have decided to put this information in writing to help de-mystify the topic!
The first thing to note is that there are 3 main string categories:
- Acoustic (usually referring to steel strings guitars)
- Nylon/Classical (referring to guitars with nylon treble strings)
- Electric (used on electric guitars, or hollow body jazz guitars- but not to be confused with acoustic guitars that have a pickup)
Acoustic – Steel String
These are the most common type of string we sell probably because steel string acoustic guitars are the most common guitar people own. The strings are usually made up of plain steel trebles (that look like wire) and from the G down to the low E they are wound in a phosphor bronze wire (with an orange/bronze appearance). These strings are designed to give a clear punchy sound on acoustic instruments and can also be used on acoustic guitars with a pickup.
The gauges for Acoustic strings are measured in thou (thousandths of an inch) and are listed by the gauge of the top E (thinnest string) and the gauge of the low E (thickest string). For example, 12/54 would indicate a 0.012 inch high-E and a 0.054 low-E, hence these strings are usually nicknamed 12/54’s or 12’s. As the gauge changes, these numbers will change and the spread of the other strings in between the top and bottom E will change accordingly in the same ratio.
- Most common: 12/54 (usually comprising of gauges 12, 16, 24, 32, 42, 54)
- Light : 11/52 (usually comprising of gauges 11, 15, 22, 32, 42, 52)
- Heavy: 13/56 (usually comprising of gauges 13, 17, 26, 36, 46, 56)
** You can also get Extra Light Strings (10/47) and sometimes extra heavy strings but they will often require some form of modification to your guitar’s setup to accommodate the super low or super high tension. These are more ‘specialty strings’ and not common sellers.
So, what does all this mean for me?
Light = Easy under the fingers because the strings are thinner and strung at a lower tension.... but you get a thinner sound! These strings are better suited to beginners who are building up hand stamina. (Also if you go too light, you can run in to issues where there is not enough tension on the neck to give appropriate relief, causing buzzing over certain frets... In these cases the neck will need to be adjusted.)
Medium = The most common gauge that most factory guitars are set up for. A good compromise between left hand comfort and good tone.
Heavy= You will always get the best tone out of heavy strings – which is why most professional players will use them. They are more fatiguing on the left hand as they are thicker and strung at a higher tension, but the reward is a very rich and full-bodied sound.
The confusing part!!
The difficulty comes in the way that manufactures try to advertise strings. For some reason, no-one wants to market strings as ‘Heavy’ as this possibly tends to scare people away?!
So, as a result, you tend to have heavy strings labelled as ‘Medium’, Medium strings labelled as ‘light’ and light strings labelled as ‘extra light’! This is something to be careful with when shopping for strings because if you asked for a medium set, you could be given either a set of 13/56 (marked with medium on the packet...but actually quite heavy) or a set of 12/53 (marked with light on the packet but are a pretty safe medium gauge string)...confusing right?
The same principles apply to Electric sets, with two main exceptions:
- The strings are nickel wound-giving them a silver/grey finish (instead of phosphor wound)
- The gauges are lighter. Eg. A standard set of Electric strings are 10/46 (which would be considered extra light on an acoustic guitar).
Common Gauges for electric guitar
- Most common: 10/46 (usually comprising of gauges 10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46)
- Light : 9/42 (usually comprising of gauges 9, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42)
- Heavy: 11/52 (usually comprising of gauges 11, 14, 18, 28, 38, 49)
Within this framework different manufactures have slight variations gauges. For example, a set of 11’s from Daddario are 11/49 whilst Dunlop’s 11’s are 11/50 and Ernie Balls are 11/48. They are all very similar (and the difference would probably be imperceptible to most players.)
Nylon Classical Strings
Nylon strings tend to come in only two (or sometimes three) gauges: normal, heavy or light. In general, nylon strings have a significantly lighter tension than acoustic steel strings and as a result are popular amongst students and beginners.
Because of this, classical guitars tend to be more lightly built than acoustic guitars and have less supporting bracing. It is vital that you do not put acoustic steel strings on your classical guitar as it will eventually warp the neck and even tear off the bridge. It is also ill advised to put nylon strings on an acoustic steel string as the low tension nylon strings do not have enough power to activate the heavier soundboards of acoustic guitars.
How do I know what type of guitar I have?
If you are unsure what strings your guitar needs this may help: if it has bridge pins it will usually be a steel string acoustic and if it has bridge holes for tying strings, it will usually be a classical guitar...of course there are exceptions so this is only a rough guide. (Alternately, bring it in and we can help identify for you!)
Unlike acoustic strings, classical strings are not sold based on their actual measurements; instead they are sold as a general set such as ‘regular tension’ or ‘high tension’ (and sometimes light tension). At Hans music we stock an extensive range of different classical strings and the main variables are the material that the basses and trebles are made from as well as variations in how they are extruded resulting in different finishes and tones. (This will be expanded in a future blog)
It is worth noting that most classical sets will require you to tie a knot on the bridge to secure one end of the string. With a bit of practice these knots are easy to do, however if you don’t like the sound of this, some sets come with ball ends- allowing you to simply thread them through. Ask us specially if you want these strings as they are less common.
We hope this has helped to make sense of the guitar string market, but of course we are here to help and if you need any further clarification or advice, please don’t hesitate to ask us!