I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing tone, and all of the factors that contribute to your sound. One of those many factors is the string gauge you use. Not only is this important to tone, but also the playability and feel of the guitar. There are many brands and sizes to choose from out there, and it can get a little confusing sometimes, so for this I’ll focus simply on gauge. When it comes down to it, this is all just personal preference and what you would be comfortable with as a guitar player.
First, a little bit about what gauge is and what options there are out there. When buying a set of guitar strings, there will usually be six different numbers listed on the package. The first number at the top is the gauge, or size, of the high E string and the bottom is the gauge of the low E string. All gauges are listed in thousandths of an inch, and range from .008 all the way to .56. You’ll usually hear guitar players refer to the whole set of strings as the gauge of the high E string. For example, a set of strings with an .008 high e will be regarded as a set of “8’s.” Options usually range from “8’s” to “12’s.”
Musician’s Friend has an excellent buying guide describing how the gauge will effect your playing. They say that lighter strings are usually easier to play, allow for better bending and movement across the fingerboard, break more easily, and cause very little tension on the neck. Heavier strings are pretty much the opposite. They’re generally harder to play, harder to bend, very sturdy, and can cause the neck to bow. The guys over at the store say the biggest thing to consider in your choice of strings is what style of music you play and the tone you’re looking for. Heavy gauges have more sustain, and more tension, making them perfect for metal players who like to down tune or get a really fat sound. Lighter strings are more for the bluesy players that use a lot of bends, and don’t play as rough. Tone-wise, they sound more “thin” and brighter.
You can search all over the internet for player’s opinions on the subject. Many players will talk about their preference being based completely off the feel the strings produce, while others will discuss tonal qualities. In my years of playing, I’ve always preferred heavier strings. Lighter gauges sound to thin to me, and I like the bigger tone I get from them. Feel wise, I can definitely agree that heavier gauges are much harder to play. I recommend that new players start at lower gauges and then work their way up if they feel it necessary. My favorite strings are Titanium Reinforced Ernie Ball Power Slinky Strings, which are “11’s.” As I said before, string gauge is all preference. Play what you enjoy!