How to Choose Guitar String Gauges

guitar string gauge

Strings are one of the most important pieces of gear for your guitar — while they might be small, they play a big role in determining your axe’s tone, feel, and playability. Because they’re so important, many players spend a long time trying strings from different manufacturers and finding the ones that feel best to them — but not as many players pause to consider how the gauge of their strings is affecting their guitar.

The gauge of your strings refers to their size: strings with a larger gauge have a larger diameter, which affects their sound and feel under your fingers. String gauges are usually referred to by the gauge of their lightest string: 0.009 strings (also called 9 strings or “nines”)  have a top string that is 0.009 inches across in diameter, while 0.011 strings (usually referred to as 11 strings or “elevens”) incorporate a top string that’s 0.011 inches in diameter.

Larger string gauges can have both positive and negative aspects: while many players prefer the sound of heavier strings, they can also be more difficult to press down and to bend, particularly for extreme bends like whole-step bends and greater. As you go up and down in string gauges, you might also feel a difference under your fingers in terms of string tension and the overall “slinkiness” of the strings and the neck.

The best string gauge for your guitar will depend on a number of factors: many guitars vary in their scale length, which means that they’ll work best with either lighter or heavier strings. The genres that you love to play on the guitar can also call for different sets of strings, as well as the pickups that you use and the picking style that you employ. To choose the right string gauges for your axe, you’ll need to take all these factors and more into account.

If you’re looking for the best set of strings for your specific axe, you’ll also want to check the nut and bridge of your guitar: depending on how the string slots are cut, you might need to alter or replace your nut to accomodate a different string gauge. Some nut slots might not be cut deep enough to hold heavier, larger strings in place without them slipping out of their string slot or buzzing across the fretboard.With that in mind, our article on the best fretboard notes to master might help you out.

To get a good idea of which string gauge will work well for your guitar, you should try comparing the advantages and disadvantages of different sets of strings. As you evaluate the merits of different gauges, you’ll be able to narrow down which ones you should put on your guitar and which you can leave behind. Let’s break down the different, most popular string gauges from lightest to heaviest.

Most Popular String Gauges

These gauges of strings are by far the most popular sets for players across all genres. If you’re playing on an electric guitar, it might be a good idea for you to consider using these strings before you try out sets that are either lighter or heavier. If you purchase a new guitar, these are also the string gauges that will nearly always come stock on your axe. Even if you change the strings, the nut slots and bridges on these guitars should be able to hold these string gauges without any problems.

0.009’s

0.009 strings, often called “nines,” are the most popular string gauge on the market. While many sets incorporate a top string that’s 0.009 inches in diameter (and are therefore referred to as “nines”), the most common set incorporates strings that rise in diameter from 0.009 inches to 0.011 inches, 0.016 inches, 0.024 inches, 0.032 inches, and 0.042 inches at the heaviest side of the guitar neck.

These sets of specific string gauges, usually called 9-42 strings, provide plenty of slinky feel and give you the ability to perform wide, sweeping bends without struggling to fret the notes or push the string too hard. If you’re having trouble bending, look at our guide to bending notes on your guitar!

9-42 sets of strings are also best suited for guitars with a 25.5 inch scale length, like Fenders and many superstrat and metal guitars. The longer scale length means that players need to compensate with lighter strings for the extra tension and reduced smooth feel. Of course, some guitarists use heavier strings on their Fender guitars and other 25.5” scale models — but many players prefer to maintain a bit of extra slide in their strings rather than push them to the maximum tension that they can go.

In terms of genre and style, 9-42 strings are very versatile. They can adapt easily to almost any genre, particularly songs with plenty of bends and fast, precise solos. The lighter, smaller feel makes 9-42 strings easy to press down quickly and to switch between — if you’re looking to improvise your own solos on guitar, these strings can help you play as fast as you can without falling out of control quickly!

10’s are some of the most popular strings around — but this comparison video tests them head-on with strings of gauges ranging from 8s to 11s!

0.010’s

0.010 strings are usually referred to as “tens,” and they’re the strings that are one step up in thickness from nines (particularly 9-42 strings). Traditional 10 strings run from 0.010 to 0.046 in diameter, with the specific strings measuring 0.010 inches, 0.013 inches, 0.017 inches, 0.026 inches, 0.036 inches, and 0.046 inches at the bass side of the scale.

10-46 sets of strings, as they’re usually known, provide a great middle ground between lighter and heavier sets of strings. Even though they require more string tension than nines, tens are still very slinky, and are the string gauge of choice for plenty of guitarists across all sorts of models.

Whether you play a guitar with a 25.5” scale length, like a classic Fender, or one with a shorter length (like the 24.75” scales found on Gibson and other guitars), tens are sure to work for your axe. Because they’re heavier than sets of 9-42 strings, they offer a bit more “meat” underneath your fingers.

Depending on your history playing guitar, 10-46 strings might feel more comfortable to play for longer periods of time. The thicker diameter means that they don’t cut into your hand quite as much as 9-42 strings do. The thicker strings are also able to produce a louder, thicker sound than lighter strings; players often gravitate towards heavier string gauges because the tone of the strings is less “pingy” or “tinny” and offers a more round, balanced sound.

Of course, how much this heavier, louder output will matter depends on your pickups and the sound that you’re aiming for. Single-coil pickups, like those found on Fender Stratocasters of Telecasters, will emphasize the clear, bright high-end frequencies that lighter strings excel at providing. This guide to the best strat pickups might help you find some good options!

Humbuckers and P-90 pickups, on the other hand, offer greater output through the midrange and bass frequencies and therefore can take advantage of the increase in volume and depth that heavier strings include. Look at our articles on the best humbucker pickups and the best P-90 pickups for more information!

And while some players prefer extra-light strings because they find them easier to bend, most players don’t have trouble performing wide bends with 10-46 strings. A longer scale length, like the 25.5” found on Fender guitars, can make bends a bit more difficult to perform — but overall, plenty of players use 10-46 strings on their Stratocasters and are able to bend them without much difficulty. Once you get used to the slightly thicker feel, you shouldn’t have any long-term issues with bends.

0.011’s

0.011 strings are usually referred to as 11s or “elevens.” They’re the next string gauge up from 10-46 strings, and they feel thicker and tougher to bend with than their lighter counterparts. While you might not feel much of a difference in going between 10s and 11s, they’re noticeably heavier than 9-42 strings. If you’ve always used nines, you might want to take some time to try out 10s before you make the move all the way up to 11s.

Many rock players use 9s or 10s instead of 11s, though some guitarists like the extra heft of the heavier strings, particularly with the added thump of the bass side. Having heavier strings at the bass end of the guitar gives your power chords and fast rhythm passages some extra punch and attack. When paired with the best rock guitars, these strings will help you excel!

Outside of straightforward rock, plenty of players in other genres love to use 11 strings or even heavier sets. As we mentioned above, the extra output on the bass side of the neck creates a much stronger sound that’s easy to adapt to a variety of different playing styles. Punk, metal, and even indie players often use 11s on their guitars for these very reasons.

Sets of 11-52 strings are also very popular on guitars with slightly shorter scales than the standard 25.5” used on many models by Fender and other manufacturers. As you decrease the length of the scale on your guitar, you increase how thick you can make your strings without suffering adverse effects in feel and bendability. You’ll still get all of the great benefits of the heavier strings, like the increased sound output, but you won’t need to deal with the side effects as well.

2 Les Paul

Gibson guitars, like this Les Paul, have shorter scales than Fenders and many other guitar brands. 

Scale Length

All Gibson guitars, as we mentioned above, carry scales that measure 24.75” long. While the difference isn’t a total game changer, on these shorter scales 11-52 string sets will feel a bit looser and easier to handle than they do on longer scales. These string gauges also work well on even shorter scale lengths.

The scale on a Fender Jaguar, for example, is only 24” long, a full inch and a half shorter than the scale found on most other models by the same manufacturer. Many famous Jaguar players, in particular Johnny Marr, utilize 11-52 sets of strings on their Jaguars for the extra sound and tone that they provide.

Compared with a 25.5” scale length, switching to a 24” scale will make a very significant difference in the tension on your strings. Some playes even say that playing 11-52 strings on a 24” scale Jaguar compares very evenly to playing on 10-46 strings on a guitar, like the Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, that includes the longer scale length.

It is important to note that while shorter scales can compensate for the added difficulty in bending that these heavier sets of strings cause, the shorter scale will still not change the thickness of the string underneath your fingertips, or make the guitar magically more friendly to being played with all sorts of different string gauges.

For those reasons, it’s important to take your time with a certain gauge of strings before you rush to replace them. If you stick with an old pair of strings, chances are that you might end up finding out that you do like them after all — nearly every brand has a specific advantage to offer, and sometimes strings end up changing a bit in sound as they age and are played more often.

And if you switch immediately from string gauge to string gauge, you’ll waste time searching for, buying, installing, and scrutinizing the quality of your strings. It’s more important to practice and improve on your instrument than it is to be constantly worried about changing your strings at every turn!

This helpful breakdown examines plenty of different string gauges, and also discusses alternate tunings you can use to change up your sound as well!

Switching String Gauge

So if you really want to switch gauges of strings, or even if you just want to change to an axe with a different scale length, make sure you take your time before you make a decision! Plan out how the switch will affect the styles of music that you like to play, and spend some time testing out multiple guitars with your desired string gauge on them.

After you switch your string gauge, you should also give it a bit of time to sink in. Even if they don’t feel as nice as your old strings immediately, don’t switch back right off of the bat! Practice with the new strings on your guitar for a week or two, making sure to play a wide variety of different styles of music. This gives you the best chance of finding a way for your new strings to excel.

After you switch to a new set of strings, you should also step up your scale practice routine. Scales might seem boring, or even intimidating — particularly if you don’t practice them regularly, as a part of your standard practice routine! But the extra training that your fingers receive by practicing your scales regularly will give them a big advantage when you want to play fast, difficult passages.

Scale practice is also an effective way to get your fingers comfortable with a new string gauge; if you switch between different gauges frequently your fingers might not build up effective calluses. This can make it more difficult to play for long stretches of time on the guitar, and can even be painful depending on the types of music that you play. In certain cases, your fingers can actually bleed from playing too long without calluses built up!

The best way to build up calluses is to practice consistently over a period of a few weeks. As your fingers adapt to the different feel of a new gauge of strings, they’ll grow more comfortable and adjust naturally to build up new calluses and protect your fingers. All you need to do is practice and stay consistent for a steady period, and your fingers will do the rest naturally!

Lighter String Gauges

If nines, tens, and elevens don’t fit your desired feel, you might want to try out a set of lighter strings. Even lighter sets, like sevens and eights in particular are popular in certain genres like metal and speed rock. While the lighter gauges don’t provide quite as much meat for players to grab onto as they play, they do make it easier to play fast, difficult passages at tempos that might not otherwise be possible.

One other thing to keep in mind is that lighter string sets decrease the tension on your guitar’s neck. This generally leads to a “slinkier” feel, in contrast with the stiffer, heavier feel of larger string gauges. If you bend strings a lot in your playing, lighter sets will feel much easier underneath your fingers. You’ll find the lighter sets easier to bend at larger intervals (like a step and a half, or even up to two full steps), and easier to keep in tune as you bend them.

However, the decreased tension might force you to adjust the truss rod of your guitar in order to balance out the lighter pressure. Suddenly moving to much lighter strings can shock the neck of your guitar and cause the wood to warp if you don’t take any action to prevent it. Adjusting the truss rod to lower the tension pushing in the other direction will prevent this warping from happening.

A truss rod adjustment can be a quick fix, but depending on the setup of your guitar you might need to take the neck off of your axe in order to get at the truss rod. In these cases, it’s probably best to take your guitar to a professional technician in order to ensure the best outcome.

In general, it’s always a good idea to get your guitar set up and adjusted if you switch multiple gauges of strings at a time. Even if you can adjust the truss rod on your own, a luthier or other technician will be able to adjust it specifically to improve the action and playability of your guitar. If any other issues crop up with facets like the nut or bridge of your guitar as a result of the string change, a technician will be able to fix them without any issues as well.

This video from Anderton’s compares light and heavy string gauges to help you decide which sound you like better!

Heavier String Gauges

On the other side of the scale, you can also find string gauges heavier than nines, tens, and elevens. Like sevens and eights, these heavier string gauges are a bit less common than the three most popular sets.

However, they’re still the favored string gauges for a select few genres, particularly jazz and certain subgenres of blues. These guitarists love to use the best hollow body guitars, which sometimes require heavier strings.The best blues guitars, as well, will take advantage of the heavier strings.

Heavier strings are popular with some players because of their bigger, louder sound. The heavier your strings are, the louder a sound they can produce, and the more full, balanced tone you can get out of your guitar. If you’re going after the best tone that you can achieve from your axe, heavier strings are a good way to get there without spending too much money and without needing to make any costly modifications to your instrument.

With that being said, though, heavier strings are more difficult to play with, and particularly to bend. If you’re used to playing with strings that are nines or lighter, switching immediately to twelves or thirteens might be a big shock! The larger strings might cut your fingers, and can often slow down your playing as you attempt fast passages.

That extra difficulty also translates to bending strings. Thicker strings, particularly sets starting at .12 and higher, require a lot of hand strength to bend beyond a half step or more. Even if you do manage to bend heavy strings very far, you might struggle to keep the bends in tune at all times. If you really prioritize a “slinky” feel with strings that are easy to bend, you might want to reconsider switching up to higher string gauges.

It takes time to get used to the thicker feel under your hands. As always, practicing scales is a good way to get comfortable with the feel of the different string gauge. After all, if you can play comfortably with heavy strings without sacrificing dexterity or speed, they can be a great addition to your sound — there’s a reason that jazz greats like Wes Montgomery and blues legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan used heavy sets of strings like twelves and thirteens!

Hybrid String Gauges

But while there are plenty of different string gauges available to suit most tastes, some players might still not be satisfied with the standard sets of strings offered by most manufacturers. For those players, it might be a good idea to consider hybrid string sets. Hybrid string sets combine different individual gauges from various traditional string sets to make up sets that are completely unique in both sound and feel!

The most common hybrid string sets incorporate single strings from sets that would ordinarily be in nines, tens, and elevens. By mixing and matching different gauges, they allow you to get a different feel and find the exact right tone for each string on your axe.

Most of the hybrid string sets that you’ll find utilize the top strings from a lighter set and pair them with heavier strings on the bass end of your axe. This gives you the thick, heavy bass sound that’s perfect for playing rock power chords or jazz comping accompaniments, while preserving a lighter, slinkier feel towards the top half of the neck for you to solo with.

Using the right pair of strings here can definitely help you improve your guitar solos! Check out this list of 15 easy solos to learn if you’re looking for more tips and advice.

You’ll often find these sets incorporating the top strings from a set of tens, and the bottom two or three strings from a set of elevens. The same sort of method is also common for sets that run between nines and tens: the top three strings will be from a set of standard nines, while the bottom three will come from a set of tens.

Certain sets even run in between a set of standards nines, tens or elevens, in order to give you a more smooth progression from the thinner to the thicker strings!

If you’re interested in trying out a couple of sets of hybrid strings, look for packages of strings marketed as “light top, heavy bottom,” “heavy top, light bottom,” “hybrid set,” or other terms which fall along those lines. While each manufacturer has their own specific terminology to name these sets, the vast majority of the names fall within those general guidelines.

Even if you struggle to find a set with a name that indicates that it’s a hybrid set, you can always check out the packages to read the individual gauges for each string. By comparing them to sets that you know to be standard nines, tens, or elevens, you can gauge exactly how different a given hybrid set will feel if you try it out.

Advantages of Hybrid Sets

Overall, if you don’t feel comfortable playing with a traditional set of strings that increases in set increments, hybrid string sets are an outstanding tool which you can use to improve your string experience and ensure a more productive playing time!

The one downside, however, is availability: unlike standard string sets, some manufacturers don’t produce many hybrid sets, if they produce any at all. Even the brands that do produce hybrid sets might not distribute them to all of the stores near you.

With that in mind, it’s essential that you find a high-quality guitar store near you, which carries hybrid strings from multiple different brands in order to give you the freedom to pick and choose. Thankfully, if you can’t get your hands on a hybrid set of strings you can always go online for them.

Some manufacturers even allow you to customize your very own set of strings, with any combination of gauges — as long as you order the individual strings in bulk packs ranging from 10 to 25 minimum, you’ll be able to mix and match to build your dream set of strings without incurring any extra cost along the way!