Here’s LITERALLY everything you need to know about guitar string gauges. It’s boring, we know, but it is something you have to understand to get the most from your playing…
Table of Contents
As a beginner guitarist, choosing the right guitar strings can be overwhelming. There are various factors to consider like brands and construction material and that’s before you even start thinking about gauges.
There are a ton of different brands, that have different gauge numbers. This can be very confusing for a beginner guitarist.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about guitar string gauges, and how to pick the right set for your playing style and tuning preference.
This is a LOT of information to cover, because there are so many options for guitar string gauges these days. But we are going to cover absolutely everything, so let’s dive in.
Factors to Consider When Choosing String Gauge
Before we dive into the different string gauges, it’s essential to understand the factors that affect your choice of string gauge. These factors include:
- Playing Style and Genre: Some music genres require a specific string gauge to achieve the desired tuning. Thicker gauges will affect your ability to bend, but allow you to tune lower.
- Guitar Type: The type of guitar you have will affect the string gauge you choose. This mostly matters when we are looking at different scale lengths.
- Tuning Preferences: The tuning of your guitar can affect the string gauge you need.
- Finger strength and dexterity: Your finger strength and dexterity will affect your ability to play certain string gauges.
- Type Of String: There are tons of different string materials to choose from, including coated strings.
- Brand Of String: You always want to stick to a name brand. There are many copies out there that are very low quality, and sometimes not even the correct gauges.
Guitar string gauges seem really complex when you look at the list above, but it can be very easy with the right guidance! Today we will walk you through all of the most important factors.
The first thing to consider is your playing style, and what type of music you want to play. Also consider what type of guitar you play.
If you plan on tuning lower, then you will need thicker string gauges. We will talk about the process of changing gauges later in this article.
The type of guitar that you play will also have a big impact on how the strings feel. A les Paul and a Stratocaster feel much different with the exact same strings due to scale length.
This is because the Strat has a longer scale length, so it will feel much different to play. Gibson guitars have a smaller scale length, so there is less tension.
Types Of Strings: Materials, Gimmicks, And Brands
There are a lot of different types of strings on the market that range from coated, to special materials, alloys, and metals. Some string sets are just “regular strings” and these can be really inexpensive compared to the more “special” strings.
Coated strings have become very popular recently, and they definitely last longer than “regular” strings. They also cost twice as much as regular strings, so this is a personal choice since they do feel different when you are playing.
I like coated strings for my acoustic, but not so much for electric guitars. They do last a long time, and reduce sliding noise from your fingers when playing an acoustic guitar.
Different string materials are a big selling point these days, but I think most of this is marketing “snake oil” to jack up the prices. These “special” strings may be made of different types of metal, or some type of alloy.
They claim to have a brighter tone, of add more to the frequency spectrum of your guitar. I have tried all of these strings, and I cannot tell the difference through a loud rig. It is mostly a gimmick, and any tonal changes are minimal.
Trust me, if you record three different sets of “special” strings with the same guitar and you cannot pick out the “special” strings in a blind test? Then they must not be THAT special.
Some brands do offer different materials that are going to help with longevity like NYXL, but it does not have a major effect on affect tone. These strings do hold tune better, since they are made from different, stronger metals.
Flat wound strings are built much differently, and are known for having a warmer tone on electric guitars. This is because the string is made from a flat, tape-like piece of metal, instead of the rounded metal we see on “regular strings”.
Flat wound guitar string gauges come in higher gauge numbers, and are mostly used for Jazz. They feel much different from regular electric guitar strings. These should be avoided by beginners, in my opinion.
Different Brands Of Strings: They Definitely Matter
There are some very “cheap” brands out there, and you should always stick with a reputable name brand. The big names are trusted because they have excellent quality control. Some of the main brands that most players use are:
- Ernie Ball
- GHS Boomers
- DR Strings
- Elixir (#1 Coated Brand)
- PRS Guitars
- String Joy
These brands make all kinds of guitar string gauges, and one of them is sure to meet your needs as a player. But definitely stay away from any suspicious string brands, or anything that seems too cheap.
There are “fake” versions of these strings that you might see on Far-East websites. Most of the time, these fake string packages look a lot like the real ones, but the quality is horrible and they show up with corrosion problems.
Hopefully that will help you make some informed decisions, as we want you armed with the best information when it comes to guitar string gauges and brands/types of strings!
So what are the most common guitar string gauges? Today we are going to go over every aspect of choosing the right string set for YOU, as a beginner.
Common String Gauges
There are many types of guitar string gauges, but we want to cover the ones that get used the most. Here are some of the most common string gauges for different types of guitars for Standard 440 Tuning:
Electric Guitar String Gauges (Standard Tuning)
- .009-.042 (Light)
- .010-.046 (Most Common)
- .011-.048 (Heavy)
All of these gauges are pretty common when it comes to standard tuning. But different companies may ship your guitar with different string gauges, depending on the guitar brand.
We call these “stock” strings, and different companies use different string brands. But each company or factory also uses different guitar string gauges.
For example, almost every Fender guitar will come with .009-.042 already installed in the guitar. Most other brands will use what we call “10s” on the guitar, which is .010-.046.
The guitar will usually be “set up” for the string gauge it is shipped with, depending on the guitar brand. This really depends on the guitar brand, and how much QC goes into the instrument before it ships to retailers.
There will often be a “hang tag” on the guitar’s headstock that tells you which strings come on the guitar. If not, then check the brand’s official website or the store you bought the guitar from for more information.
The hang tags or manufacturer can tell you what gauge comes “stock” on the guitar you bought. But there is a good reason that the three guitar string gauges above are most commonly used by manufacturers.
All three of these gauges are what we call “optimal tension” when it comes to Standard Tuning. These are thick enough to provide a very robust tone, while still having enough slack in the tension to bend notes easily and efficiently.
Bending notes and vibrato is definitely something you should consider when picking a string gauge for standard tuning. If you plan on doing full-step bends and vibrato, then you don’t want to use a gauge that has too much tension.
The 10-46 set is the most common, and this is the string set that most guitarists prefer. This is because the tension is right in the “middle” and that makes bends easy, and provides good tuning stability.
All of these gauges will work great for minor de-tuning applications as well. If you want to tune down a half step, or if you want to try Drop D tuning, these gauges will be great.
However, some players want to go a little bit lower, and if you tune low you need to adjust the string tension. Thicker strings will be needed to tune down so let’s take a look at those:
Common String Gauges (Tuning Down)
If you plan to tune down your guitar past Drop D tuning, you are going to need some thicker strings. If you try to tune down to D Standard with stock strings, they will probably be too floppy.
Plenty of guitarists like to tune down, and the lower the tuning…the more string tension you need to compensate for the lack of tension.
There is not really an official “guide” when it comes to guitar string gauges for tuning down. You may have to try out a few different sets until you find your preferred tension.
The gauges above are all good for D Standard, Drop C, and even Drop B Tuning. So you may see these in the guitar store, or online. Just know that these are special sets that are made for tuning down.
These are probably a little too heavy when it comes to Standard Tuning. You probably hear a lot of myths regarding some Blues players using heavy strings in Standard Tuning, but that isn’t exactly true.
Those are mostly myths, and these higher gauges would make playing very difficult for beginners. We just wanted to cover what these heavier gauges are used for, so you don’t buy them on accident for Standard Tuning.
I recommend beginners to stay in standard tuning until you learn the notes of the fretboard. Tuning down will probably confuse most beginners while learning the basics.
String Gauge and Tone
The string gauge you choose can significantly affect the tone of your guitar. At least, that is what some string companies will have you believe.
I have played for almost 30 years now, and we even recently tested some of the more expensive strings. Companies made some rather bold claims on the package of the strings.
Here’s what string companies say about different string gauges:
- Thinner gauges produce brighter tones with less sustain.
- Heavier gauges produce warmer, fuller tones with more sustain.
This is only somewhat true, and there are many more factors involved. It seems logical to think that heavier strings will “sound” heavier right?
They do not, actually, the effect is the opposite. Thinner strings sound just as full and warm, and can add extra clarity when you are using high gain sounds. So heavier strings don’t change the guitar’s tone?
Not really, and there have been extensive tests done to prove most of this information false. A heavier or lighter string gauge has very little to do with tone. Guitar string gauges are much more about the feel.
Guitar pickups simply do not have the nuances to pick up such small differences in frequencies. Guitar string gauges just do not make a big difference in tone, despite what you have heard.
I have even heard famous guitarists swear that there are differences in tone. I think this is the placebo effect of the string just feeling tighter, and larger.
The material that the string is made out of may produce more output. So the guitar signal through the pickups might sound slightly louder with different types of metals.
Strings can come in all different types of construction/metals:
- Regular Nickel Plated (Round Wound)
- Stainless Steel
- Cobalt Alloy
- Titanium Core
- High-Carbon Steel
Materials can make a big difference if you have an allergy to nickel. If you break out in a rash from nickel plating, then stainless steel strings can help. But do they sound different?
I have personally tested all of these at one time or another, and while some might have a higher output, they honestly do nothing for actual “tone”. The different materials DO help hold tune better, and keep intonation stable.
While we tested the expensive strings for the tonal qualities, we did notice that NYXL Strings do hold tuning better. The NYXL strings also took less time to “break in”.
But don’t believe the hype, since when we tested the expensive strings out for ourselves, we found that the “tone claims” were mostly false. Some definitely lasted longer than others, which does make a difference.
Extensive testing by other parties has been done showing that the tonal difference in guitar string gauges is minimal at best. The effects on sustain and “warmth” are also very minimal. Your tone, sustain, and “heaviness” is much more dependent on:
- Guitar Construction (Sustain)
- Your Amp and Speaker Choice (Heaviness)
- The Guitar’s Pickups (Overall EQ)
- Pedals and Effects (Everything Else!)
Your guitar’s construction plays a huge role. Some guitars are just better than others when it comes to sustain. I find that Les Paul guitars seem to have a lot of sustain, and have a warmer sound.
But on the other hand, I have played no-name, budget Strat-style guitars as well that sustained for days. Every guitar is different, so sustain depends on the build quality of the instrument.
The rest is going to depend on your amp and speakers, and your guitar amp might be the most important part of your whole rig! Your amp is the “brains” of your whole setup. It makes all of the sounds right?
You amp has EQ built-in that will have a much larger impact on your tone than your strings. Your speaker produces the overall sound, and it is just as important as your amplifier.
Finally, effects pedals can also have a huge effect on tone and sustain. If you use a compressor for example, your guitar will sustain longer. Any “drive” pedal will also add to your sustain.
An EQ pedal can make your sound change as well, in a massive way. If you want the “boosted highs” that string companies claim, you can use an EQ pedal to dial in those frequencies.
Don’t believe me? Then check out the comparison video that Rick Beato did about guitar string gauges. In the video below, you will see that the lighter gauges actually sounded better when playing heavy stuff!
Most of these legends and myths come from years of guitarists not knowing the full story. Strings are the LAST part of components when it comes to your tone.
That being said, Flat Wound strings do sound very different, and they are made for Jazz guitarists. These are made from different materials, using a unique process for very particular guitar styles.
But when it comes to regular guitar string gauges? Well, I think Rick’s video speaks for itself.
Guitar string gauges matter, but not when it comes to tone. The gauge of the string only matters when it comes to tension and playability. So play the strings that YOU like to play, and use your amp/EQ to manipulate the actual tone.
String Gauge and Playability
String gauge can also affect the playability of your guitar. Here’s what to consider:
- Thinner gauges are easier to play and bend, making them ideal for beginners.
- Heavier gauges can be more challenging to play and may require more finger strength.
This is probably the most important factor when it comes to choosing a string set. The playability is absolutely paramount when it comes to guitar string gauges.
There may be a lot of reasons to change string gauges, but the “feel” of the strings on the guitar should be your #1 priority. If the guitar is too hard to play, then you should probably go down a “step” with guitar gauges.
So if you are using a set of 10-46 strings, and you feel that they are hard to bend or press down on the fretboard, then switch to 9-42. This is called “going down a step” in gauges.
This can be a double-edged sword when it comes to beginners. It can be very difficult to play a heavy gauge, especially when you are just starting to learn chords. But heavy strings can also be a good learning tool.
This is why some guitarists start playing on acoustic guitars instead of an electric one. Acoustic guitars have larger string gauges, and are not as easy to play as electric.
But there is a technique that many guitar teachers will use with intermediate students. Once the student gets down the basics, the teacher will sometimes tell the student to go up one gauge in string size.
This will make the guitar harder for the student to play, but this change in guitar string gauges is just temporary. The teacher may tell the student to only change for a month or so, then go back to their preferred strings.
That way, when the student goes back to their preferred (lighter) gauge, it will be even easier to play! This technique will definitely help with bends and vibrato.
However, some players find a string gauge and stick with it for life. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to one guitar string gauge that you prefer.
But the general rule, is to play what YOU feel comfortable playing. For example, I prefer “10s” on my guitar, because this makes the strings very easy for me to bend, and I play in Standard Tuning.
Everyone has different hands, and different needs when it comes to playing guitar comfortably. Find the gauge that is right for you and your style.
I have used the same guitar string gauges and brand for over 20 years. Some guitarists like to experiment with what feels right for them, and it may take a while for guitarists to settle on a size.
String Gauge and Tuning Stability
The string gauge you choose can also affect the tuning stability of your guitar.
Here are some factors to consider:
- Thicker strings hold their tuning better than thinner strings, sometimes.
- Changing string gauges can affect the guitar’s setup and tuning stability.
- A heavy attack from your strumming hand can knock strings out of tune (Sharp).
Thicker strings absolutely hold their tuning better, and this is one reason that some guitarists prefer heavier guitar string gauges. This is especially true for guitarists that play heavy music, and have an aggressive picking technique.
If you play very aggressively with your picking hand, it can be easy to knock the string out of tune while playing. This usually makes the top string palm mutes sound sharp in nature. Some Metal players prefer a heavy gauge for rhythm guitar playing.
This is why “Hybrid Guitar String Gauges” exist. You may see some companies offer a special set where the lower strings are heavy, and the treble strings are lighter. Lots of Metal players use hybrid string sets for heavy palm mutes.
Tuning Set-up With Different Gauges
A big thing to consider if you are changing your string gauge, is your guitar’s setup. If you have a floating bridge, it will need to be rebalanced/recalibrated. Likewise, you will probably also have to reset your intonation, since the strings are holding more/less tension.
In extreme cases, you may also have to file the nut on your guitar. If you plan on tuning down and using heavy strings, you will probably have to file the nut to accommodate the bigger strings. Then, you will have to intonate the guitar and adjust the truss rod.
We discussed how different materials and metals can also help with tuning stability. This is true to an extent, and NYXL or Ernie Ball Paradigm strings do hold tuning better over time.
But the most important part of tuning stability is to make sure your nut is cut to the correct size. The other thing to remember, is to always stretch your strings.
New strings, not matter what brand you end up liking the most, always need to be stretched before you tune up to pitch. Personally, I have a formula for the best tuning stability:
- Tune the guitar to pitch
- Give each string a stretch, individually, by fretting a note and gently pulling up
- Stretch the strings by pressing down the 3rd, 9th, and 12th fret
- Strum all of the strings without fretting a note
- Re-tune the guitar
I usually do this two or three times, or until the guitar’s tuning stability is stable. If you stretch your strings, you will stay in tune from the get-go.
If you plan on making any big changes when it comes to guitar string gauges, you will probably need a full setup. Most of the things you can do at home, or you can take it to a guitar tech if it is beyond your skillset.
Changing String Gauges
This is where so many beginners make a mistake. Every day on Reddit, I see at least one post where someone’s bridge is sticking up in the air. This is because the changed string gauges, and didn’t realize they need a setup.
When changing string gauges, it’s essential to adjust the guitar’s setup to ensure the best sound and playability. Here’s how to change your guitar strings:
- Loosen the old strings and remove them
- Put the new strings on the guitar
- Adjust the guitar’s setup as needed
- Stretch The Strings
- Tune to pitch
Changing guitar string gauges is pretty easy, and you start just like any regular string change. You loosen and remove the old strings, and get the new strings ready to install.
The rule of thumb when changing guitar string gauges is that if you are only going up one size, or down one size increment, then you probably don’t need a full setup.
Of course, this changes if your guitar has a floating bridge. With a floating bridge, even a slight change in guitar string gauges can throw the bridge out of whack.
So if you have a floating bridge like a Floyd Rose, you will need to adjust the tension of the springs in the back of the guitar. If this is not something you are experienced with, then take your guitar to a tech.
If you have a standard bridge, then you have a whole lot less to worry about. Changing string gauges with a fixed bridge is much easier, but may still require adjustment/setup.
Having to do a full setup on your guitar will depend on the string gauge that you want to change. If you have a fixed bridge guitar, then setup may be minimal.
For example, if you go from .009-.042 up to .010-.046 then you probably don’t need a full setup. You may need a slight truss rod adjustment, and change the string height.
Drastic Changes: Setup
However, if you are going for a more drastic change then a full setup will be needed, in this order:
- Nut file for bigger strings, a NEW nut installed for smaller strings
- Set the nut to the correct height
- Put on your new strings
- Balance your floating tremolo, if you have one
- Measure the new string action
- Truss rod adjustment
- Set string height
- Set the intonation
If you do not know how to do a full setup, then again, it may be best to take it to a tech that knows what they are doing. If you go to a tech, you should bring the NEW strings with you, and tell them how you like your guitar to be set up.
It is always a good idea to take measurements of how your guitar is currently set up before you change the string gauges. That way, you can inform the tech (or yourself) how you like the string height.
Most guitar techs will know exactly how to get your guitar ready to play if you are making a drastic change in your string gauges. Filing the nut or installing a new one, and truss rod adjustment is not a beginner-friendly operation.
So if you are not comfortable with doing a full setup on your own, take it to a tech. Extreme changes in guitar string gauges can really change how your guitar plays, and it will need a proper setup.
In some cases, it may cause some serious issues that can possibly damage the guitar.
So if you are unsure about doing the full setup, take it to the tech! Most techs will do a string gauge setup for you, and it usually costs $40-$80. Definitely think about the work that has to go into the instrument when changing guitar string gauges.
Choosing the right guitar string gauge is crucial for achieving the desired feel and playability.
Everyone is different, and guitar players all settle on a certain preference when it comes to guitar string gauges. It can all be really confusing, so use this guide when you have a question!
Consider your playing style, guitar type, tuning preferences, and finger strength when choosing a string gauge. If you have any problems, then you might need to change string gauges.
Common problems that you might run in to as a beginner can vary. Changing up the string gauge to something lighter or heavier can definitely fix those common issues.
At the end of the day, the strings might be the most important part of your guitar. The neck needs to be comfortable, and the guitar shape should be something you like.
But those factors are not in your control. Guitar companies make a guitar with a specific neck carve and body style. The top three guitar companies use different scale lengths as well.
But guitar string gauges are the factor that you have control over when it comes to how your guitar plays and feels. Choosing the right gauge for YOU is something you can control, and change.
The wrong string gauge can make a great guitar feel awful, while the right gauge can make a great guitar play its best. Knowing the information in this article can save you a lot of time, and money!
What Are The Most Common Guitar String Gauges?
Electric guitars come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but players seem to like:
.010-.046 (Most Common)
What String Gauges Are Good For Tuning Down?
If you plan on tuning down past Drop D Tuning, you should probably consider a heavier gauge of strings. The most popular string gauges for tuning low are: