In our introductory article about the guitar strings, we had discussed about gut, nylon & steel strings along with details of the winding used on these strings. In this article, we will discuss about the following topics:
Guitar String Gauges & Tension
String gauge is defined as the thickness or diameter of the string in “thousandth of an inch”. String Gauge of “10” means that the diameter of the string in inches is 10/1000 = 0.010 inches. Packs of guitar strings are usually referred to by the gauge or diameter of their thinnest string.
Heavier gauge means thicker string and more tension exerted by it. With higher tension, you also need to apply more force to press the string against the fret. Heavier strings produce and transmit more energy to the top of the guitar, which means much louder sound. Lighter gauges are easier for beginners as they require much less finger strength and more accuracy.
The string gauge is measured by micrometer having measurement accuracy to a thousandth of an inch. These instruments are fairly expensive.
The sets of guitar strings are categorized by the string industry in the following categories:
Actual gauge of a particular string in a category can vary slightly between different brands, depending on the guitar or music being targeted. Let us look at each of these categories in some detail.
Ultra-Light And Super-Light.
These strings sets have diameter of 0.008 and 0.009 inches respectively for the smallest or the 1st string.
These sets start at 0.010 and 0.011 and are good for delicate guitars.
Starting diameter for this set is 0.012.
Medium gauge strings start at 0.013. The main features are
The diameter of the 1st string of the heaviest gauge is 0.014.
String Gauges for Different Genres
Expert musicians are able to use gauge of their choice for any genre. For less experienced players, there are general guidelines linking gauges to different musical styles.
Medium And Hybrid Strings
Medium strings are suitable for almost every genres.
Hybrid or mixed strings set types can be “Heavy top / Light bottom” string set, which will be discussed in our next section. They are not specifically made for any genre of music but add versatility in playing.
As stated above, these are only guidelines and not rule.
Typical String Gauges and Tension
In the table below, the gauges of different strings in a set is presented along with approximate total tension. The values shown are the most common ones or average values. Exact values may vary slightly between different brands. This table is prepared for normal long scale guitar with 25.4 inches. The values for tension are marginally lower for short scale guitar that comes with 24.9 inches.
String / Set
Approx Tension in Lbs
Tensions in the Nylon strings are much lower and usually in the range of 75lbs. On twelve string guitars, it is in the range of 205 to 250 pounds for different scales and gauge sets.
In modern times the string manufacturers have started to clearly discriminate between electric and acoustic guitars. In this case, the extra light string set for electric guitars might be different from extra light for acoustic guitars.
Some guitarists just call them “Thirteen to Fifty Six” string set using the gauge of first and the last string. Some even go one step further and just call them “Thirteens”.
It is becoming increasingly common to use mixed string sets to get a particular type or feel of sound or to suit some particular guitar. Let us see some examples for these type of sets:
String deposits and Corrosion
Continuous pressing of strings against frets, metal fatigue, corrosion and dirt are some of the factors which cause the string to deteriorate over time. If you are little vigilant and carry out regular maintenance, you can avoid these breakages. Let us look at some of these phenomenon
All these factors lead to uneven distribution of mass along the string length and erratic intonation. It is recommended to
String breakages can be really frustrating if they happen during a live performance. They can break when they are struck too hard, due to flaw in the winding or simply because of age. But it is possible to minimize the breakages by carefully observing the breakage point and analyzing the reason.
When to replace guitar string
By now, you have understood the mechanisms that cause wear and corrosion in guitar strings, leading to their breakages. Once a string breaks in the string set, it is recommended to replace the entire string set, unless the set is completely new. This will keep the strings in sound balance, and you don’t have to keep record of individual string replacement.
The frequency of replacement of strings depends on many factors such as
Based on answer to these questions, strings can last for many months for some players. While others with unfavorable body chemistry or hard playing styles may require replacing them in one or two months. Some serious players replace them every time they go for a performance or recording.
We recommend you pay close attention to your guitar strings and observe the following telltale signs giving you a clear message to replace the strings.
If you are not constrained for budget and are a learner or amateur player, it is recommended to replace the strings at least every three to four months. This period can be six months, if you clean your guitar strings regularly with string cleaners and conditioners and none of the above signs are visible.
Making Your Own String Set
If you do not like any one of the prepackaged string sets available in the market or want to experiment, you can purchase single strings and make a custom string set. Other cheaper alternative is to buy complete standard set and replace one or two individual strings of your choice.
Electric guitarists are more into this type of experimentation. This is due to the simple fact that in case of ultra and super light strings, change in unit gauge has more pronounced effect than acoustic guitars. They try various string compositions, gauges and brands to find a combination which is best for their fingers and style of playing.
Take care that you do not mix grossly disproportionate strings. This combination will neither feel nor sound balanced together.
Change in gauge may require adjustment in string height at the bridge saddle, neck and nut.