How Is Gauge Measured for Guitar Strings?

by Alasdair Smith
Understanding string gauges helps you choose the best set for your playing.

Understanding string gauges helps you choose the best set for your playing.

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Guitar strings play a large part in creating some of the distinctive sounds we all love to hear. Strings are made in different gauges; those differences allow players to produce a range of tones and pitches. Thinner gauges produce notes in a higher register, while thicker strings produce lower notes. Understanding how strings are measured and how this difference affects the tone of the guitar is useful when deciding which ones are right for you.

Gauge Measurement

Steel guitar strings are traditionally measured in terms of thousandths of an inch. Guitar players refer to this simply as "thou." A very light high E string might measure 0.008 inch, which is often referred to simply as an "eight." At the other end of the spectrum, the lower strings on a guitar may be 0.042 inch or more. Many manufacturers also provide measurements in millimeters as well, but the traditional scale remains the standard by which all players choose their strings.

Sets of Strings

Strings are normally sold as full sets so that the gradation in gauge is logical and smoothly progressive. Sets are normally called by the name of the high string; a set with a high E of 0.010 inch would be a set of 10s. Life is never that simple, however, as the gradation in gauge can vary in order to offer different tonal possibilities. For example, a set of "skinny tops and heavy bottoms" features a 0.010-inch top E, with the B and G strings a lighter gauge than a standard set of 10s. The bottom three strings, however, are thicker than a standard set, finishing with a 0.052-inch bottom E, compared to 0.046-inch on a regular set. The heavier bottom strings give a fuller, more bass-rich tone, for strident rhythm playing.

Wound or Unwound

The top two thinnest strings on a guitar are always plain wire. Depending on the overall set, the third string may be plain or wound. A wound string features a central steel core, wrapped tightly with another wire. The combination of steel core and outer wound sheath gives a deeper, fuller sound. The choice of winding is important, too. Electric guitar strings must be wound with a magnetic metal or alloy to get the best performance from the magnetic pickups. On an acoustic guitar a phosphor-bronze alloy winding is often used for its richer tone.

Making Your Choice

The choice of which gauge guitar string is best for you depends on a number of variables. If you are new to playing guitar, you'll find heavier strings pretty painful on your fingers. Opting for a set of tens or even thinner might be the best option until your fingertips toughen up enough. You should also consider what style of music you're into. If you're a heavy metal shredder, light strings such as a set of nines that can be played fast and furious through intense amplification are perfect. For solid rhythm work, a heavier set of strings gives the fullness of sound required for this vital role in a band. Some jazz players achieve an even richer tone by playing on 13s. Acoustic guitars tend to benefit from a slightly thicker gauge of strings than electrics in order to get enough volume and tone from the guitar.

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