My relationship with strings began when I decided to take my dusty old guitar and breathe some life into it. It had crusty strings, half of which were severed. So if I wanted to get any use out of my guitar, I had to purchase new ones. I went to the local store and grabbed the recommended set at an affordable price. I got home, wired them in standard tuning and started practicing. Well, everything seemed perfectly normal at first, but as the time passed and my hand muscles started to convulse, I realized that something was wrong. I did my research and found out that my beloved strings had wrong gauge for me. If you do not want your hands to suffer the same way as mine did, stay with me as I explain in depth what the hell gauges are and what factors should be considered while choosing them.
What is a string gauge?
Even though you might be seeing this word everywhere, you might not know exactly what it means. A gauge basically determines the thickness of your strings. The higher the gauge, the thicker your strings will be and vice versa. The most common configurations are 8s, 9s, 10s, 11s and 12s, which means that the high E (the first) string has 0.008 (extra super light), 0.009 (super light), 0.010 (light), 0.011 (medium) or 0.012 (heavy) gauge. If we were to put things simply, the gauge does also define the playability. As you go from light to heavy gauge, the strings become harder to bend and pick. For this reason, some might assume that lighter gauges are only for beginners. However, there is much more to that than the level of proficiency (and that is exactly what I am going to discuss right now).
The importance of guitar scale
Before I start visualizing what difference guitar scale makes, let’s first explain what the scale is. It is the distance between the nut and the bridge and can be measured by calculating the space between the nut and 12th fret and multiplying it by two. In most cases you will not have to do the math since the majority of the guitars have their specs available online. Now, the longer the scale, the higher the tension of the strings. If you have short-scale guitar, in order to achieve the same tension at pitch, you would have to get thicker gauge and vice versa. Understanding the scale of your guitar will help you figure out what kind of gauge might work for you.
Playing techniques and the feel of the strings
Yeah, you heard me, your playing techniques and the feel of your favorite string tension do also affect the choice of the gauge. And unfortunately, there is no way anybody can dictate what is right way to go here. You have to experiment with different gauges and see yourself, what works for you. If you rely on wide bends and crazy vibrations, then you will need lighter gauge at a smaller scale. Since there will not be too much tension, the strings will subordinate to your movements easily. But if you want to achieve richer tone, you would probably need thicker gauge. Again, unless you take your time and try out different tensions and gauges, you will not know what feel or tonal outcome you like. And at the end of the day, that is the only thing that matters.
It might sound a bit surprising for someone who is just looking for a proper set of strings, but you do also have to consider the tuning when choosing the right gauge. If you play in standard tuning, then you will not have to fuss around with this step. But if you are planning on experimenting with dropped tunings, then the gauge will have a huge impact on the overall sound. As you drop the tuning, the tension of your strings decreases. In order to make up for that loss of tension, you should go up a gauge.
Who would have thought that so much information had to be considered to simply find the right strings for your guitar? I definitely did not when I was just getting started. But when I did learn and considered all the above-mentioned factors, I was finally able to achieve the tonal perfection I was longing for. It is easy to neglect details, such as gauges, but those details are the key to tailoring your instrument to yourself. Good luck!