Tone and String Gauge

On your journey toward your ideal guitar tone, one aspect you don't want to overlook is your string gauge.

String gauge refers to the thickness of the strings, measured in thousandths of an inch. Thus, a set of "9s" has a top E string measuring .009in thick.

Here are some quick points to consider about lighter and heavier string gauges for you to consider.

Light strings...

  • Are easier on your fretting hand since less force is required to fret a note
  • Require a lighter pick attack to avoid excess string buzzing
  • Make bending strings easier
  • Require a lighter fretting hand technique to avoid intonation problems
  • Can produce a brighter/thinner tone than heavier strings

    Heavy strings...

  • Are more difficult on your fretting hand, requiring more pressure to fret notes
  • Allow for a more forceful pick attack, so you can really dig in
  • Make bending strings more difficult
  • Are not as likely as lighter strings to buzz with lower action
  • Can produce a darker/heavier tone than lighter strings
  • Put more stress on your instrument, which could wear it out faster in the long run

    In my experience, string gauge has more to do with feel than tone. Yes, I can hear a difference in tone when I go from a set of 9s to a set of 11s...but the difference in feel is massive, especially for my picking hand.

    Also, consider this. It's been said that Billy Gibbons, Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny, Duane Allman and John Petrucci all play (or played) on lighter gauge strings. I don't think I'd accuse any of those guys of having a thin or weak tone.

    What are your thoughts on string gauges? What do you prefer? Can you hear a big difference between gauges?

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