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The Great Guitar String Gauge Debate

Size matters. Or does it?

For quite some time, we’ve been lead to believe it’s more manly or bad ass to use heavy gauge strings. This obviously seems to be a male fueled debate. Most women just want men that know how to use the equipment. Read the manual, guys. Oh wait, we’re talking about guitars, right?

Your ears want to hear good music. It’s not really debating how thick the strings are and how tough you are for playing them. You’re either making pleasurable music or not.

There is a lot of myth around guitar tones. A fair amount of folklore seems to center around string gauge.

Research Project

Let’s talk about a few players for a second. We all know that Stevie Ray Vaughan used heavy strings. This was partly due to low tuning his guitar and playing very hard. The choice for heavier strings wasn’t just about tone. It was to prevent string breakage.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t sound good on 10’s. If he did, he would have sounded like… You guessed it, SRV!

Jimi Hendrix liked very light strings. Some say he made his own sets. They were likely 9’s with lighter low strings.

Did Hendrix sound like a wimp? Nope. Hendrix didn’t have as heavy a picking hand as SRV. He was able to use the lighter strings without breakage becoming so much an issue.

Microscope

I’m not trying to say that there is no difference in tone between different string gauges. There most definitely is. But, it’s not black and white. It’s not as if one sounds good and the other sounds bad.

First off, tone is subjective. There are so many other variables that will change tone along with strings. Your opinion on string gauge may be different than someone else because your pick attack is different.

Junk in the Trunk

As the strings get bigger, the bass gets exaggerated. More bass isn’t always better. I find when I record guitars with 12’s, I have to filter out more low frequencies. Especially in a bigger mix.

They start digging into the bass guitar range and things can start getting muddy. 10’s or 9’s will require less low cut at the mic pre or in the mix.

Pump Up The Jam

Thicker strings have more projection. The guitar will be a little louder. If you play with a set of 12’s and than a set of 9’s on the same guitar, you will hear a cut in output. Especially on the unwound strings.

Squeeze It

I find that thinner strings are more balanced or compressed sounding. There tends to not be as much of a divide between really low bass notes and highs.

Tantric

Thinner strings tend to sustain less. Seems obvious, right? There is a lot of fear put into guitarists’ heads about sustain. How long does your guitar sustain?

I have never done a session with any guitar where a producer or artist complained my guitar didn’t have enough sustain. It didn’t matter what gauge I was using.

Come Clean

If your bag is super clean tones, it’s likely that you’re not going to like the sound of 8’s. They tend to be compressed and quite narrow sounding on pristine cleans. Maybe you will like it.

Through my career I’ve tried many gauges and brands of strings. You do have to spend some time with each set. It’s not a one day decision.

Program Test

One thing I’ve learned about testing things is to record everything and compare when you’re not playing.

Your mind plays tricks on you. Since I’ve started making the Anatomy of Guitar Tone videos, it has been a real eye-opener.

Listening back has been a very different experience and sometimes contradicted my opinion in the room.

This is partly due to our preconceived notions on gear. No matter what you think, you have them. It pollutes our true opinions.

The Method

Tone is part of the reason for picking strings. Playability is another. Everyone has different technique. Some guitarists use a very light approach. Some don’t bend. Some bend a lot. To some degree, your technique is going to dictate your string gauge.

If you bend a lot like I do and play in standard tuning, using 12’s might not be your bag. Unless you like to torture yourself.

This is part of the reason players like Buddy Guy use light strings, so they have a lot of flexibility with bends.

Jimmy Page also uses very light strings. Does his tone sound thin? Nope.

David Gilmore is another player that uses lighter strings. Makes sense when you listen to his playing.

Again, string gauge is personal. I’m simply trying to say there is no shame in using lighter strings. They don’t sound worse than thick gauges. They sound different.

What is your preference and why?

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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  • Rodrigo

    Another fat-toned guitarist who uses very light gauge is Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. A few months ago I went lighter also, from Ernie Ball’s Regular Slinky to Super Slinky and I’m quite happy. I use bendings quite often and play in standard tuning, so it fits my style, and I think it sounds a bit cleaner. Also, I’m starting to hit the strings less aggresively.

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