Acoustic guitars are stringed instruments usually built from wood (tonewoods). The design and materials used will determine the guitar’s overall tone, and for the most part, most of the instrument’s parts are challenging to change while others are relatively easy to swap out. The most obvious is the guitar strings.
One of the most critical factors concerning strings is the string gauge. So with this in mind, we’ve decided to help you out on how to choose a string gauge for your acoustic guitar.
Let’s tackle one thing at a time.
What Are String Gauges?
Essentially, the string gauge is the diameter or thickness of a string set or a particular string. The standard measurement is typically measured in inches or 1/1000th part of an inch.
Although it may seem like not much of a big deal, be aware that just a slight difference in diameter can completely change your playing experience, as well as how you approach your instrument.
Classification and Nomenclature of String Gauges
To make things more precise, string sets are categorized into five sizes according to their thickness. So let’s go through each type and take note of the gauge of each string, starting with the High E to the Low E. (thick to thin).
• Extra light: .010, .014, .023, .030, .039, .047
• Custom light: .011, .015, .023, .032, .042, .052
• Light: .012, .016, .025, .032, .042, .054
• Medium: .013, .017, .026, .035, .045, .056
• Heavy: .014, .018, .027, .039, .049, .059
String set categories are named after the diameter of the first (high E) string. For instance, the extra light category can also be referred to as the “10s” (“tens”) while the medium will be “13s” (“thirteens”).
Be aware that extra light strings are also available for acoustic guitars, like the .009 gauge set in the “extra light” category.
How String Gauge Impacts Your Tone
When it comes to acoustic guitars, thicker strings may give you more volume. However, a volume increase is far less noticeable among the thicker gauges. You’ll hear a significant boost going from 10s to 11s, while it won’t be as prominent when going from 13s to 14s.
“As far as guitar picking, if I make the same mistakes at the same time every day, people will start calling it a style.” John Prine
Additionally, thinner strings will sound a bit brighter and “thinner.” Meanwhile, thicker string gauges, like medium or heavy sets, will help you get a more “even” tone, with a more considerable boost in bottom-ends and mids.
How String Gauge Impacts Your Performance
The main difference between heavier and light strings is tension and how they feel under your fretting hand fingers. You’ll need to apply more pressure on the heavier strings; bending gets way more complicated with heavier string sets.
It’s also important to note that lighter strings will give you more control over your playing dynamics. Even some subtle differences in your playing can be more noticeable when heard with 9s or 10s.
It’s generally recommended that beginner players start with lighter strings. They’ll be much easier to handle, you’ll feel less tension on your fingertips, and you’ll have a less painful experience.
One caveat for beginners and very light string sets, 9s, might be a bit tricky when bending; apply too much pressure, you’ll end up bending them enough to increase the pitch of a note that you’re aiming for. Additionally, a high 9 string may feel like a razor blade to some beginners.
The solution is to aim for 10s or 11s if you’re starting.
As you gain more experience, you’ll notice that you can play the same things with thicker strings. After a while, try to move on to heavier sets and see how that works for you.
Preferred Genres and Playing Styles
Players that use heavier strings usually prefer to hit their strings harder or play “dry” without a PA system. This is useful for classic rock, folk, country, and blues music. However, if you’re playing chords most of the time, then medium or heavy strings are the way to go.
Lighter strings are mainly intended for lead players and use their acoustic guitar’s integrated electronics to go directly into a PA system. Although quieter, they can come in handy for lead playing, mainly because they allow easier bending, vibratos, and dynamic control. They’re also helpful for rhythm players with a preference for lighter picks.
Thicker strings result in more string tension. Your .010 set will feel nothing like .013 or .014 sets. But if you go with lower tunings, you’ll notice that lighter strings can feel like rubber and even affect tuning stability.
The general rule is that you’ll need thicker strings for lower tunings, like standard D, standard C, drop C, and others. Meanwhile, all string sets can be used for the standard E tuning, although heavier sets will add much more tension.
Your Guitar’s Body Style and Size
While it’s not a super-strict rule, manufacturers will often recommend lighter strings for smaller-sized guitars, as well as cutaway models. On the other hand, guitars with larger bodies could use heavier sets to get more volume and resonance.
Therefore, guitars with OM, 000, 00, or 0 body shapes would go better with lighter strings. Meanwhile, larger instruments, like Jumbo or Grand Jumbo guitars, might most likely work better with heavier sets.
Consider your guitar’s scale length.
It’s essential to consider your guitar’s scale length (the distance between the nut and the bridge). Shorter scale lengths, ranging from 22.5 to 24.5 inches, will have less tension so that you can use thicker strings, especially for lower tunings. Conversely, guitars with longer scale lengths, going from 25.5 to 27 or more inches, will have more string tension, so you could try lighter strings to ease things up, even with some lower tunings.
Yeah, we have all these rules to consider. But at the end of the day, the choice comes down to you. After all, there are as many playing styles as there are guitar players. So the best way to find the perfect string gauge is to try them all out, possibly on your preferred type of acoustic guitar.
You can experiment and see how a heavier or a lighter set of strings works with your preferred instrument and playing style. Who knows, maybe medium or heavy strings might work better for you, even if you’re a lead player.
However, bear in mind that these rules can make your life easier. Sticking to them can help you achieve a better tone and a more effective performance.