A guitar string's gauge is its thickness in thousandths of an inch. According to Guitar String Guide, when guitar players say they "use nines," for example, it means they use sets of strings whose first string is nine-thousandths of an inch thick, written as ".009." The gauge of the first string is an indication of the gauge range, since string thicknesses in sets of strings tend to be relative to each other.
A typical gauge range for six strings for electric guitar is .009, .011, .016, .026, .036 and .046, as sold by one string manufacturer. The first string, normally tuned to high or top E, is the "nine," as it is nine-thousandths of an inch thick. The B string is 11-thousandths of an inch thick, and so on. Other gauge range options are also available.
Different manufacturers likewise offer different gauge ranges, although they are all broadly similar, due to the physics of sound. One maker of acoustic strings, for example, offers extra-light strings with a gauge range from 10 to 47, or .010 to .047. Another set has a range from 16 to 56, or .016 to .056. The difference between the two bottom E strings may seem significant, but it is a mere nine-thousandths of an inch. While not critical for tuning purposes, the difference in thickness between two corresponding strings makes a significant change to the sound and feel of the guitar.
The first string on a guitar is tuned to top E, the highest open, or unfretted, note on the instrument. For most guitars, which are tuned for right-handed players, this string is the one on the right as you look at the guitar face on. All the other strings have lower open notes: B, G, D, A and bottom E. The reason the gauge is heavier for each successive string is that thicker strings can play lower notes.
Choosing a Gauge
According to New Strings, string gauge affects both tone and guitar playability. You need to give a thicker equivalent string (e.g., a .056 over a .047) more tension to tune it to the correct note. This has two main effects. First, you will need to press harder on the frets, and second, the string will produce more volume. If you are just starting out playing guitar, choose thinner gauge strings until your fingers and wrist become accustomed.
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