String gauge is a measure of the thickness of guitar strings. A single gauge unit is equal to .001 inches. For example, a 12-gauge string has a diameter of .012 inches. Thicker guitar strings, often called heavy gauge strings, have certain advantages over thinner guitar strings.
Heavy gauge strings tend to give guitars a fuller sound than thinner strings. Both single note lines and chords sound clearer with thicker strings, especially when using a lot of distortion. Heavy gauge strings generally sustain longer than thinner strings as well. You can also hit thicker strings harder than thinner strings, allowing you to create a punchier tone. Thicker strings can be used to play any type of music, although they most often are used by jazz, country, heavy metal and punk guitarists.
Heavy gauge strings are extremely useful if you want to tune your guitar down more than a whole step. Regular strings tend to get floppy and buzz against the frets when tuned down a significant amount, but thicker strings typically stay nice and tight as you lower the pitch of your guitar strings. The deeper you tune your guitar, the heavier gauge strings you will need to compensate for the change in tension.
Using higher gauge strings in standard tuning can allow you to set your action closer to your guitar's fretboard without getting that annoying buzzing sound that generally comes along with this modification. Strings that are set closer to the fretboard are easier to fret than strings that are higher off the fretboard, and they also tend to have better dynamic response.
Using heavy gauge guitar strings can damage your guitar if it is not properly set up for them. Thicker strings lead to an increase in tension on the guitar neck, and if your truss rod -- the metal rod inside the guitar neck that provides a counterforce to the tension of the strings -- is not set up properly, the neck on your guitar could start to bow, making it completely unplayable. The string slots in your guitar's nut may also need to be widened when using thicker strings. If you are not comfortable making these adjustments yourself, take your guitar to a guitar shop and have them set it up for you.
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