Tone Tips

The String Gauge You Should Be Using

  • By Fletcher Stewart @tonereport
  • March 11, 2017


Tensions, Tones and Tunings


Attention Tone Reporters . . . your old pal Fletch here with some string speak that might help you along the way. The importance of string selection is often overlooked and perhaps this is because unlike pedals, they don’t light up or have fun knobs to play with. They are thought of as nothing more than a necessity and a good analogy of buying strings is perhaps a trip to the supermarket. We look at all the lovely veggies, spices, meats and treats and get excited about what we are going to cook up while we select the components of our meal, but how long do we spend selecting toilet paper, sponges or other unexciting essentials? We don’t spend any time. We grab the familiar and go. This is what happens in the guitar shop. We are looking around at all the cool new gear and we grab a pack of old familiar strings as an afterthought.


I use to be this way, but in 2017, there is a lot to be excited about in the world of strings. After all, they can make or literally break a gig or session, so let’s take them seriously and dig deeper into the different tonal and physical properties to consider gauge by gauge, brand by brand and axe by axe. We no longer live in the Pepsi or Coke world and there is much more out there than ever before.


Rocking Old School with the Nines

I hate it when people get all macho over string gauges. It is ridiculous. No one would put monster truck tires on a vintage sports car, would they? Nine-gauge strings do not always feel wimpy and some guitars absolutely scream for them. Take a vintage Strat or Mosrite for example (or anything with smaller vintage-style frets). Nines feel and respond amazing on these guitars and many vintage surf-style guitars were designed specifically to work with the lighter-gauge strings. For many years, I rocked nines on my Mosrites until I discovered D’Addario Super Light Plus sets. They are basically a nine-and-a-half gauge set and they worked perfectly for both my Mosrites and my Reverend USA guitars when I was playing lots of surf-punk staccato runs and lighting fast down-strokes. I highly recommend this set for vintage guitars that require that little bit of extra tension without ever going stiff like ten-gauge strings tend to do with older axes. In my opinion, D’Addario is still king of the strings for vintage guitars in standard tuning.


Getting a Grin Again with The Ten-Gauge

Ah yes, the industry standard . . . and it’s plain to see why. There is a reason the old .010–.046 set is so widely used: This string set can work with the widest variety of guitars and tunings—especially with current production guitars that sport bigger frets than vintage axes. The classic set can work with Gibson-scale, Fender-scale, tremolo systems, drop-D and open-G tunings . . . the list goes on. The only folks who should avoid the standard set are the down-tuned ladies and djenters. They will end up with floppy flatulent strings sticking to the pickups in a big magnetic thwack. In this gauge, I think all the string manufacturers are on an even playing field, so pick a brand and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Just dodge those Fender Bullets. In my opinion they don’t do the legacy justice . . . at all.


Turning Eleven—the Betweenager Gauge

There are only a few guitars I would recommend going to elevens with in standard tuning. Mainly, axes with super strong necks, dual-action truss rods and at least a 25-inch scale. Take my EGC Standard Series II for example – with its all-aluminum neck. I have had people pick it up, have a twang and ask me if I was using nines almost every time. When I tell them that I use elevens, they never believe me. The flatter, stronger neck of my EGC SSII makes it possible to go as low as I want with nearly any gauge, but the eleven set works magically with the scale of the instrument for bends, big tone and long-term abuse.


I use Elixirs with the EGC when I am gigging regularly for durability and tone. In fact, the very thing that used to bug me about Elixirs (or any other coated string) is part of the reason I use them with this brighter aluminum axe. Elixir’s coated strings don’t sound as bright as nickel-wound strings initially, but maintain their sparkle and spring way longer than standard sets, so it is a bit of a trade-off. If one is trying to tame an excessively bright-toned guitar, Elixirs will do the trick and last longer as a bonus. It is worth mentioning that Elixir’s Nanoweb technology has come a long way since it started. I couldn’t stand the plastic feel of the original formula, but, like everything, technology can take time to get right and Elixir has done just that.


I also like using elevens on shorter-scale necks when I am tuned down to D-standard or DADGAD, especially with hollow-bodied instruments. My Godin 5th Avenue loves the deeper resonance and shows here affection for the looser low end churl by purring like an electrified panther. I highly recommend trying this.


Twelve Gauge Action for the Low Tones

Though twelve-gauge strings are the norm for standard-tuned acoustic guitars, I can’t think of an electric guitar that takes them well in this tuning. D-standard and below however, twelves are the way to go, especially with 25-inch scale necks. I use either the Ernie Ball 12–56 Cobalt or D’Addario NYXL 12–52 sets for my D-standard tuned Duesenberg Fullerton TV. The Doozy can take the tension with its substantial neck and 25-inch scale. In fact, in D-standard, the twelve gauge set feels much like a ten-gauge tension on a standard-tuned guitar.


I use the new-fangled alternative material strings with the Doozy to increase to offset the darker voice it speaks with naturally. The Cobalt and NYXL sets do as advertised—they increase presence and clarity that little bit more, which suits a down-tuned hollow-bodied humbucker guitar just perfectly.


String Subjectivity Disclaimer


There you have it folks, I use a variety of string gauges, brands and materials to suit a variety of instruments, in a variety of musical situations. With all this variety, many idiosyncratic factors come into play. I am not saying there is a right way to approach this. Different hands have different demands. Different ears like different gear. Look at J Mascis with his bizarre mantra of “the action is never too high, only too low.” Who’s ever heard of such a philosophy? But, the proof is in his purple and green pudding that it works like magic for him. Be stiff or flippy-floppy. Be tight and bright or loose and juicy . . . but always listen to your instrument and try some new strings and tunings with it. When it is happy, it will let you know.


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  1. Brun

    Ofcourse you can’t quote them all but for dropd tuning I have a preference for 10-52. Just a little more grid. I use them on my firebird et when out of stock also on my as73 in standard.
    A real comparison in between brands would probably be appreciated. Is elixir really lasting longer? etc.

  2. Bob 'Skippy' Blechinger

    I think Fletch is over-generalizing things just a bit, to be honest…

    Generally, lighter strings are going to be better for styles that favor speed, or stuff like tapping. Heavier strings are going to be better for players who do a lot of acoustic, and want the same feel on electric.

    But that’s GENERALLY.

    The thing that I’ve found over my years playing guitar, though, is that heavier strings will drive the guitar top/body more than light strings will, and as a result, you get (subjectively) better tone from the guitar. Light strings don’t usually drive the body as much, so the tone will be mainly the strings interacting with the pickups, with less of the top/body resonance as part of the tone.

    ANY guitar should be able to withstand heavier strings; it might need a truss rod adjustment to compensate, but it’ll work.

    And remember, Stevie Ray Vaughan - who had MONSTER tone - used a set gauged .013 - .058, and VERY high action!

  3. jltrem

    Used to use medium gauge, 11-52 with a wound G but old man arthritis has done his work on my hands and now use a hybrid set, 9-46. Hopefully I won’t have to go lighter. A friend of mine got into using an extra light gauge, 8-38, in the Seventies (remember that trend?) and has never gone heavier. I understand that’s what Billy Gibbons uses. I honestly didn’t use heavier strings back then for tone. I did it for tuning stability.

  4. Musicaine

    Thank you for the tips ! I never heard about the 9.5 d’addario, may fit with my stratocaster. The fret size/string gauge is a good trick

  5. Ifallalot

    I use .12s on my Jaguarillo.  Standard tuning.  You can’t get that “plonk” with .9s.  I guess I could try .11s but they feel good to me

  6. G

    Why are you telling people to avoid Fender bullets? I use them on all my Fenders and have found the quality and feel is superior to Ernie Ball.

  7. Glenn

    Good overview and examples of why one would choose different guage strings, materials and brands. It’s such a vast subject I realize it’s pretty near impossible to cover every aspect of string size and reasons for using different strings. It would probably take a book to cover everything relevant about string choice to all guitar players. In my more than 40 years of playing I’ve tried many different variations on strings, and seen some ideas or fads come & go. Back in the 1970’s some string manufacturers were trying to convince players that packaging strings by looping them into a circle to fit into the square envelopes were damaging them from the start. So what ensued were many companies using rectangular boxes as long as the straight strings themselves! Quite impractical when buying several sets and traveling with them on public transport for instance. They came up with brand names like “Nashville Straights” and the like. That didn’t last very long though, nobody could hear a difference once the strings were on the guitar! wink
    There’s a vast amount of needs for different guages. For example Nashville tuning uses only unwound strings, jazz guitarists often prefer a thicker guage in search of there tone, as well as flatwound strings. I use flatwounds for a fretless electric guitar I play. Roundwound would wear away at the fingerboard too easily.
    Anyhow, a very good article for the type of players it’s written for. Some very good insights to help guide those who aren’t sure about what strings to choose. Thanks very much!

  8. Glenn

    One more point I forgot to mention…. Most belive that thinner strings will help you play faster, and in many ways this is true. However there was a point in my playing when I worked up gradually to heavier strings. It was on an Alembic Series 1 guitar which had a very thick neck and it was a 7 piece through body construction. Being a fine instrument there was no problems obtaining extremely low action no matter the string guage. I ended up using a .014 as the high E string. What I found was that it enabled me to increase the velocity of my right hand picking. It made no difference with legato style, but when it came to alternate picking and tremolo the stiffer strings didn’t give or bend when picked. The strings maintained a rigidity which facilitated a quicker picking speed within a wide dynamic range. Even when plucked hard the strings didn’t give into bending as much from the force of the pick. Thanks again! ~Glenn

  9. Kerry Maxwell

    I’m a big fan of Fender’s 10-38 set (Dean Markley makes a similar set), kind of heavy top-skinny bottom gauging, and I often replace the 1st string with an 11. I got the idea from an interview with Steve Kahn, and it works really well with Telecasters. You get the benefits of a heavier set on the unwound strings, without the muscle-bound effect heavy wound strings can lead to. I’ve never tried them on a Gibson scale neck, and I doubt it would be a good match.

  10. Nick

    I thought you writing the idea of 9s being “wimpy” was strange lol never heard of this