Choosing String Gauges– Guitars & Basses

Compared to the past, today’s guitarist can avail of a wide variety of string gauges. Indeed, the selection is so wide, almost any requirement can be met. There are four major factors affecting the choice of a new set of strings.

Gauge: Generally speaking, the heavier the string’s mass, the more volume it will produce due to its ability to “drive” the soundboard on acoustic guitars and the more stable it will remain in tune. However, heavy strings can be hard on the fingers and on the guitar, especially acoustic guitars. The lighter the string, the easier it is to bend. In some cases, very light strings on short scale guitars can be difficult to keep in tune and will break easier. The rule of thumb is to choose the strings to suit the guitar and style of music. Extra-light gauge strings often work best for electric guitar, rock, and blues music, whereas light to medium gauge strings typically are better for acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar, jazz and folk music. Sometimes a string’s tension is referred to in addition to gauge. This has to do with the thickness of the core of the string. Two strings of the same gauge tuned to the same note may have different tensions if their core- to- winding ratios are different. The thicker the core, the harder the tension. This is a common consideration for classical and flamenco style guitar.

Material or alloy: Although almost all strings have a ferrous core, the material used in the winding varies. Because of the way an electric guitar picks up the strings using a magnetic coil, strings made from non-ferrous material may not work. For electric guitar, steel strings will sound brighter than nickel, which has a smoother, more vintage tone. Almost any string material will work on an acoustic guitar, but some suit better than others. Common acoustic guitar string material includes bronze, phosphor bronze, brass, silk & steel, and even gold.

Winding type: Winding wire around a core increases its mass and determines its range at an optimal tension. This can be fine round, flat, or round wire ground flat and wound concentrically around a round or hexagonal core.

The player: Perhaps the most important factor is the style of playing. Heavy-handed players who grip the guitar neck like a vice or who have a strong picking hand should look at heavier gauge strings to avoid the deflection problems associated with using light string gauges. There is also the interplay between the string material and the player’s body chemistry. Some material from which strings are made can react badly to moisture, perspiration or the acidic oils in skin. So if strings tend to go dead quickly, a change of string type (for example, steel instead of nickel strings) is recommended. Coated strings are also available, which may prolong the life of a string by inhibiting the contact between the player’s body chemistry and the metal of the string.

6-String/6-Saddle Standard Scale Electric Guitar

Gauge: Almost any gauge string can be used; however, for tuning stability, .011″ to .46″ gauge is a good choice. If the style of music demands tuning down or drop tuning, choose heavier string gauge sizes. After putting new strings on your guitar, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel , Chrome or Gold

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

6 String/6 Saddle Short Scale Electric Guitar:

Example: Gibson & Epiphone Les Paul,Les Paul Jr., SG, ES335, Byrdland, Fender Mustang, Guild™, Rickenbacker™, Godin™

Gauge: Almost any gauge string can be used; however, for tuning stability, an .011″ to .46″ gauge is a good choice. For lead playing involving fast fingerwork and extensive stringbending, .009″ to .042″ (Extra Light) or .008″ to .038″ (Super Light) strings may be a better choice, but beware of picking too hard. If detuning or drop tuning, make sure to choose a heavier gauge. After putting new strings on your guitar, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

 Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel , Chrome or Gold

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

6-String/3-Saddle Electric Guitar:

Example: Fender & Squier Telecaster,Fender Duo-Sonic & Musicmaster

Gauge: Almost any gauge string can be used; however, for tuning stability, at least an .011″ to .46″ gauge is a good choice. Sticking with a three saddle bridge indicates a love for the Tele “Twang” sound, so heavier strings or “heavy bottom/light top” strings allow good bass response while allowing comfortable bending of the higher strings. After putting new strings on your guitar, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel, Chrome or Gold

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

6-String Archtop Floating Bridge/Fixed Saddle Guitar

Example: Gibson L7, ES-150

Gauge: Almost any gauge string can be used; however, for tuning stability, a .012″ to .46″ gauge is a good choice. Some guitars will sound better with a wound 3rd string, which will be evident by the way the bridge saddles are carved. After putting new strings on your archtop, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

 Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel, Chrome or Silver for electric, Phosphor Bronze or Silver for acoustic.

Winding: Single ball-end Flatwound

7-String Electric Guitar:

Example: Ibanez™ Universe, JEM & RG models, Dean™ Razorback, RC7X & EVO 7, ESP™ LTD 7-string models, Schecter 7-string models.

Gauge: Almost any gauge string can be used; however, for tuning stability, an .011″ to .46″ gauge is a good choice. For lead playing involving fast fingerwork, .009″ to .042″ (Extra Light) or super-light .008″ to .038″ strings may be a better choice, but beware of picking too hard. If detuning or drop tuning, make sure to choose a heavier gauge. After putting new strings on your 7-string, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome, or Gold

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

Guitars with Floyd Rose™, Kahler™, Kramer™/ESP™ Flicker floating tremolo bridges:

String types for this style of guitar are often dictated by the bridge design such as the Speedloader system by Floyd Rose, which needs to be used with specially designed strings. Consult the manufacturer/luthier for recommendations.

 

 

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome

Winding: Roundwound Single ball-end, double ball-end, plain

 

Guitars with a Steinberger TransTrem™:

This system necessitates the use of double ball end strings. Pay close attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome

Winding: Roundwound double ball-end

 

 

Baritone Electric Guitar:

Example: Danelectro™, Fender Jaguar™ & Baritone Tele, PRS SE Mike Mushok™ Baritone

Generally speaking, heavier gauge strings should be used on this style of guitar; a .013″ to .072″ gauged set is a good mean/average. After putting new strings on your baritone, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel, Chrome or Gold

Winding: Roundwound or compound roundwound single ball-end

6-String Acoustic Guitar

Example: Martin™ D & OM series, Guild™ D, F, G & JF series, Gibson J, B & LG series, Goodall™, Bourgeois™, Breedlove™, Taylor™, Larrivée™ & Collings™.

In the case of acoustic guitars, the heavier the gauge, the better the tone. However, the bracing design and strength of the guitar’s construction will dictate how heavy the strings should be. For Jumbo and Dreadnought-style acoustic guitars, the average gauge is .012″ – .054″, whereas on parlor and OM style guitars, the gauge should be lighter. For older, lightly braced acoustic guitars, using silk & steel strings can avoid warping the top or unseating the bridge. When in doubt, use a lighter gauge. After putting new strings on your acoustic guitar, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Bronze, Brass, Gold, Phosphor Bronze, Silk & Steel for Acoustic/Electro-Acoustic with Piezo, Nickel, or Stainless Steel for Electro-Acoustic with magnetic sound-hole pickup.

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

12-String Acoustic Guitar:

Example: Guild F & D series, Martin D series, Taylor 300 to 900 series, Gibson B series, Ovation™ Celebrity, Balladeer, Legend & Adamas.

Care should be taken when choosing strings for a 12-string guitar, as the tension can cause irreversible damage to the top and bridge. Some 12-string guitars feature twin truss rods in order to add strength to the neck, but the guitar’s body may not be sufficiently braced to withstand medium gauge strings. If in doubt, use .010″ to .047″. Many players know that a lightweight acoustic guitar is usually a loud guitar, but when it comes to 12-string instruments, the opposite is often true. The higher-pitched octave strings should always be “on top” or above the regular string of each pair. After putting new strings on your 12-string, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Bronze, Brass, Gold, Phosphor Bronze, Silk & Steel

Winding: Single ball-end Roundwound

12-String Electric Guitar:

12-String Electric Guitar with 12 Individual Saddles:

Example: Rickenbacker 360/12, Steinberger, Fender Strat XII, Burns™ Double Six etc.

Variations in the order of the strings on an electric 12 string make a big difference to the sound. Typically, and contrary to acoustic 12-string guitars, the classic 12-string electric guitar sound comes from having the heavier gauged string of each pair “on top”. This, coupled with flat windings, gives it that sound. However, pay attention to how the nut slots of the guitar are cut. This will indicate the correct order of the strings for that particular guitar. After putting new strings on your 12-string, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise, it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome

Winding: Single ball-end Flatwound

12-String Electric Guitar with 6 Individual Saddles:

Example: Rickenbacker 330/12, 360/12, 370/12, 440/12, 620/12, 660/12, Fender XII, Gretsch Electromatic 12, Danelectro 12 etc.

With 12 strings over only 6 individual saddles, some intonation problems may arise due to the differently gauged pairs. In this case, try to choose wound strings for the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th. Using wound/unwound pairs can exacerbate the problem. After putting new strings on your 12 string, always stretch them along their length until they do not exhibit any detuning; otherwise it will take several days before they become stable. If necessary, use a lubricant on the nut to aid smooth travel of the string over the end of the fretboard to the tuning machines.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome.

Winding: Single ball-end Flatwound

4-String Electric Bass Guitar:

Example: Fender Precision & Jazz basses, Gibson Thunderbird bass, Rickenbacker 4000 series basses.

When changing strings on a bass, the thickness of the strings can cause them not to lay straight along the contours of a bridge, especially with string-through-body types. To avoid resultant slackening of the string during play, it’s a good idea to stretch the strings along their length after they are installed and tuned to pitch. Some players of fretless basses favor flatwound strings to minimize finger noise.

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome

Winding: Single ball-end roundwound, groundwound or flatwound.

5-String Electric Bass Guitar:

Example: Fender Precision, Jazz, Musicman Stingray 5

When changing strings on a bass, the thickness of the strings can cause them not to lay straight along the contours of a bridge, especially with string-through-body types. To avoid resultant slackening of the string during play, it’s a good idea to stretch the strings along their length after they are installed and tuned to pitch. Some players of fretless basses favor groundwound or flatwound strings to minimise finger noise.

 

Material: Nickel, Stainless Steel or Chrome

Winding: Single ball-end roundwound, groundwound or flatwound.

Bourgeois is a registered trademark of Bourgeois-Pantheon Guitars LLC.

Breedlove is a registered trademark of Breedlove Guitars, Inc.

Collings is a registered trademark of Collings Guitars, Inc.

Danelectro is a registered trademark of the Evets Corporation

Dean Guitars is a registered trademark of Armadillo Enterprises, Inc.

ESP is a registered trademark of ESP Guitar Company

Fender, Stratocaster, Telecaster, Mustang, Duo-Sonic, Squier, Guild, Ovation & Jackson are all registered trademarks of Fender Musical Instrument Corporation (FMIC).

Floyd Rose is a registered trademark of Floyd Rose Inc. AP International.

Gibson, Les Paul, Les Paul Junior, SG, ES-335, Byrdland, Steinberger, Kramer are registered trademarks of the Gibson Guitar Corp.

Godin is a registered trademark of Guitares Godin

Gretsch & Bigsby are registered trademarks of Fred Gretsch Enterprises, Ltd.

Ibanez is a registered trademark of Hoshino Gakki

Kahler is a registered trademark of Kahler USA Inc.

Larrivée is a registered trademark of Jean Larrivée Guitars Ltd.

Martin is a registered trademark of C.F. Martin Inc.

Peterson, Sweetener & Sweetened Tuning, StroboPlus, StroboPlusHD, Stomp Classic, StroboRack, StroboSoft, and StroboSoft2 are trademarks of Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc.

PRS is a registered trademark of Paul Reed Smith Guitars Inc.

Rickenbacker is a registered trademark of Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC)

Taylor is a registered trademark of Taylor Guitars, Inc.

®2013 John Norris for Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc. All rights reserved.