All guitar strings come in different thicknesses and sizes and are measured by the string's diameter in thousandths of an inch. The range of the set, from the thinnest to the thickest string, is referred to as the string gauge.
Sets will range from extra light (8-38) to heavy (12-53). Jazz players may even go up to a 13-56 set for that thick, dark tone they are known for. There are sets specifically voiced for baritone guitars while altered and dropped tunings such as dropped C used in modern metal may require hybrid sets to compensate for the tuning used.
Generally speaking, the majority of guitar strings are constructed by wrapping a nickel plated wire around a steel core. However there are variations such as the use of a pure nickel wrap as opposed to a nickel plate, pure gold strings as used by Queen guitarist Brian May, stainless steel, and polymer coated nickel and steel to prolong string life. Each material offers different tonal properties, feel and overall sound for the individual player's preferences.
Another option some players go for is a flat wound string. The advantage of using a flat wound string is reduced finger noise when sliding up or down the strings. Jazz players and some bass players tend to go for this type of string.
Extra light strings such as a 7-38 set are what ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons uses and require a light touch. 8-38 is a common gauge in this category.
Light gauge string sets for electric guitar would range from 9-42 or 9-46 for a slight heavier bottom end. These gauges assist in bending strings, legato, and vibrato. They can feel fast to play too. Guys like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai use 9-42 gauge strings on their guitars.
Medium gauge string sets (10-46) is fitted to most new guitars in the shop and is a good all-round choice for most players. It is a perfect gauge for any style and for just strumming chords. If you need a bit more bottom end out of your guitar you could try a 10-52 gauge.
Heavy strings start at 11-48 and go up from there. If you're tuning down, the tension of heavier gauge strings will compensate for the looser feel. Using thicker strings on a guitar with a shorter scale length, e.g. a Les Paul or 335 style guitar, can feel the same in tension as a set of 10-46's on a Strat or Tele style guitar. It's a good idea to use heavy strings if you're drop tuning.
As a rule of thumb, thinner strings are generally easier to play, but won't sound as loud and may be prone to string breakages. Heavy gauges sound better but are harder to bend and play fast owing to their increased tension and thicker diameter across the string set.
Most string manufacturers produce a string set that covers all of these gauges. Check out Ernie Ball or D'addario for a starting point. Sometimes something as simple as changing a string gauge or brand will inspire fresh creativity and new tones.
2. Coated or Uncoated
Being made from metal, guitar strings will react with your skin and the atmosphere causing the string to corrode. Coated strings have a polymer coating that slows down the corrosion process. The result is strings that retain their tone, condition, and sound over a longer period than uncoated strings. A brand known for their coated electric guitar strings is Elixir.
3. Check the Bridge and Tremolo
There are three basic types of bridge system fitted to electric guitars: Fixed, 'Fender' style and Locking.
The second type of bridge is the Fender-style tremolo system (see left.) With this system, strings usually pass through the body of the guitar, travel over the saddles then up the neck to where they fix on the relevant machine head. Bear in mind that if you move to a different string gauge from the set the guitar was set up with in the factory it can change its feel. The increased tension of heavier strings, or the decreased tension of lighter gauge strings can cause the bridge to pull up or flatten out respectively. As a consequence the guitar will need some setup work for the new string gauge being fitted to optimise its playability.
The third variation is the locking bridge or Floyd Rose bridge (see right.) These units are specifically setup for the string gauge fitted in the factory. It is a counterbalance system whereby the string tension and the tremolo strings balance each other out to ensure tuning stability. Changing string gauges for these bridge types will require some setup work to ensure the system stays in tune and the spring/string balance is correctly balanced for best playability.
4. Choosing Your Strings
Here are some rules of thumb when asking for strings for your electric guitar.
- What sort of guitar do you play?
- What type of bridge does it have - Fixed, 'Fender' style, Locking?
- What style do you play?
- What is the sound I'm going for?
- Do you drop tune?
- What string gauge are you currently using? How does it feel?
- Coated or uncoated?
5. When Should I Change My Strings?
To keep your guitar sounding and feeling at its best, you should change your strings every 4-6 weeks of regular use. Old strings will develop tuning issues, sound dull, and lose sustain and volume. As they corrode, some strings will begin to feel rough when you run your finger along the strings. Older strings also increase the potential for breakage during play. Keeping your strings clean by wiping them down with a clean soft cloth after every playing session with help prolong the life of your strings.
If you're still unsure of what strings to buy, bring your guitar into The Music Spot and one of our friendly staff will assist in getting the right strings fitted for your instrument.