Light Vs Heavy Guitar Strings (here’s how to choose)
In a nutshell, light gauge strings are quieter, looser, less robust and have a more treble tone, whereas heavy gauge strings are louder, more attuned to bass tones, far more robust and less likely to go out of tune. However, there’s far more to it than that, so keep reading for the full story.
Deciding which strings to use is probably one of the most talked about subjects whenever guitarists get together. The quest for the perfect tone is the reason for this constant fixation with guitar strings and to be honest, it’s understandable. So let’s get into light vs heavy guitar strings.
What Is String Gauge?
As guitar strings are so thin in diameter, the string manufacturers need to have a point of reference for us not so technical guitarists to have some understanding of the comparable size of those strings. Guitar strings are measured in 1/1000th of an inch – a 9 gauge string is 0.09 inches in diameter.
When you buy a set of guitar strings they are commonly referred to by the thinnest strings’ size so a set of 10s for example start with a top E string with a 0.010 diameter. A set of 11s start with a top E string with a 0.011 diameter, and so on. Although the top E string will have a constant size, depending on the brand, the rest of the set might show some inconsistencies.
This is usually most apparent with the G string; one company’s set of 10s might have a G string of 0.018 whereas another brand’s G string might only be a 0.016. That 0.02 might not sound or look like much, but it can make the world of difference to playability and sound quality. That’s why many guitarists make their own custom set of strings so they always have a consistent sound and size of string.
Why Does The Gauge Of The Strings Matter?
The gauge of the strings plays quite an important part in the sound and playability of your guitar. This affects both the strumming and fretting of the strings along with tonal qualities and playability.
Thinner strings are easier to play as they require less force to press down or bend but they’re more liable to break than thicker strings. Plus they sound thin, reedy and lack some of the richer tonal qualities found in thicker strings.
Thicker or heavier gauge strings are more suited for rock or metal music because they have a more bass-like tone and work well in drop tunings. This is because when you drop the tuning you loosen the strings and thicker strings are under greater tension which allows them to be drop tuned and still hold onto a level of tautness that allows them to be played.
Light Guitar Strings
Light guitar strings are best if;
- You are a new guitarist
- You have low finger strength
- You prefer a quieter, clearer sound
- You want to play faster
Light guitar strings are favoured by new guitarists as they’re less painful to play with tender fingers. Light strings make fretting chords easier as the strings are under less tension which means you’ll need less effort to press them down to create a clear note.
They’re also popular amongst guitarists that play fast and like to shred because being under less tension, they require less pressure to bend or fret which allows the guitarist to play faster. Light gauge strings also work well on guitars with a shorter scale length and they have a more treble sound.
Many country artists, blues artists and jazz guitarists prefer light gauge strings as they are easier to use. Because of their playability, they’re great for fingerpicking, bending and fast playing, all of which are associated with jazz, blues and country music.
What Are The Advantages Of Light Gauge Strings?
Light gauge strings are easier to fret and easier to bend as well. They are best suited for short scale length guitars and have a clear, high end, treble sound. They’re also great for any style of playing that is strummed or plucked using a pick.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Light Gauge Strings?
Light gauge strings are quieter than heavy gauge strings and they have far less bass tones and sound “tinny” or “twangy”. Light strings are also more prone to breakages and they don’t stay in tune so well as heavy strings.
Heavy Guitar Strings
Heavier gauge strings are best if;
- You want a louder sound
- You want to play in drop tunings
- You don’t want to break so many strings
- You want a rich, warm tone
Heavy gauge guitar strings are probably the most talked about guitar strings of all. With many guitarists wanting to sound and play like their idols it’s only natural for the confusion. For instance, it’s well known that Stevie Ray Vaughan used heavy gauge strings and so if you want to get that heavy, bluesy sound you’ll need heavy gauge strings too right? Well not according to Billy Gibbons, he has said in the past that he used to use heavy gauge strings until B.B. King advised him to use light gauge strings so as not to have to work so hard to play.
Many acoustic guitarists prefer heavy gauge strings as they have a richer, warmer sound and more resonance than light gauge strings. Plus as most acoustic guitarists don’t bend strings too often the extra tension isn’t a problem.
What Are The Advantages Of Heavy Gauge Strings?
Heavy guitar strings are less likely to break, less likely to detune, sound louder and have a more bass like tone. You can thrash heavy strings without affecting their integrity or knocking them out of tune. Heavy gauge strings also have a better sustain than light gauged strings. If you want to play in lower than standard tunings heavy gauge strings are more suitable as they will remain more taut than light gauge strings which will often be too loose at lower tunings.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Heavy Gauge Strings?
Heavy gauge strings are far harder to play as they take much more finger strength to press down and they’re also more difficult to bend than light gauge strings. If you want to play in higher than standard tunings, heavy strings will probably be too taut to play properly. They are also not so bright sounding.
The Strings Gauge Changes The Tension
It might sound obvious, but the heavier the set of strings the more overall tension and therefore pressure exerted on the guitar. This can have serious repercussions especially if you don’t have the guitar set up professionally when changing string gauge. The main area affected by extra tension is the neck of the guitar which is why they have a truss rod to help strengthen the neck.
The truss rod is a metal rod that can be adjusted to increase or lower the resistance of the neck to stabilise it due to the pressure exerted by the tension of the strings.
The tension of the strings might not seem to be a big deal and it probably isn’t on each individual string. However, that tension over six strings of increasing thickness can have a great deal of affect overall.
Total Tension Of Guitar String Sets
According to D’Addario , one of the most popular string manufacturers, the following are the total tension amounts of various sets of strings.
Electric Guitar String Sets
|String Set Size||Total Overall Tension Per Set|
|0.09 to 0.042||84.88 lbs|
|0.010 to 0.046||102.52 lbs|
|0.011 to 0.049||117.11 lbs|
Acoustic Guitar String Sets
|String Set Size||Total Overall Tension Per Set|
|0.10 to 0.47||130.2 lbs|
|0.11 to 0.52||144.63 lbs|
|0.12 to .053||156.42 lbs|
As can be seen from these figures, there’s a significant increase in the amount of overall tension between the various sets of strings. That’s an extra strain of between almost 15 to 27 lbs.
What Sort Of Problems Can Extra String Tension Cause?
We mentioned the neck briefly earlier, but let’s look at the neck and other issues that can be caused by changing the string gauge on your guitar.
Potential Problems With The Neck
What happens to the neck when heavier gauge strings are fitted to the guitar is, it’s effectively pulled upwards. The extra tension in the strings exerts an upwards force on the neck of the guitar. To adjust this bending of the neck, the truss rod needs to be tightened.
It should be done in stages and is best done by a luthier who understands the intricacies of guitar necks and truss rods in particular. It’s easy to cause more harm than good if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing which is why we recommend leaving it to the professionals.
Potential Problems With The Nut
Depending on how heavier a set of strings you decide to put on your guitar, you could need to adjust the slots in the nut that the strings sit in. You might even need to replace the nut completely to accommodate heavier gauge strings. One of the main causes of strings going out of tune on a guitar is the string gets caught in the nut.
If the guitar is relatively old and you replace light gauge strings with extremely heavy gauge strings, it is even possible to break the nut. Changing the nut is an easy task to perform and even new guitarists can change the nut with no problem.
Potential Problems With The Bridge
If you own an electric guitar which has a Floyd Rose bridge or a bridge similar to a Stratocaster bridge, you might find you need to adjust the bridge too. The extra tension can cause the bridge to lift as the strings pull upwards on the bridge.
To alleviate this issue, you’ll need to tighten the screws that control string tension to pull the bridge back down.
Which Gauge Strings Are Best?
The reality is, there is no one size fits all when it comes to guitar strings. It all comes down to personal preference and nobody can tell you your personal preference apart from you. We would advise trying strings of different gauges and see which suits your playing style best. But in summary of the above points:
Light Gauge Strings:
- Are easier to play
- Tend to break easier
- Are easier to fret
- Much easier to bend
- Have a clear, high end, treble sound
- Can sound “tinny”
Heavy Gauge Strings:
- Have a richer, fuller sound
- Are less prone to breaking
- Rarely go out of tune
- Are harder to play
- Allow the action to be lowered
- Are more difficult to bend
When you decide on which string gauge is best for you, let us know in the comments.
Frequently Asked Questions
Lighter guitar strings are easier to play because they need less force to press them down. This requires less strength in the fingers to achieve a clear note.
Heavier guitar strings have a warmer, richer tone and are louder than lighter strings but they do not necessarily sound better. Many top guitarists prefer lighter gauge strings as they can be played faster and easier than heavier gauge strings.
Light gauge strings tend to break easier than heavier gauge strings especially if you are playing them incorrectly.
You can get a lower action with heavier strings because they are under more tension which means a narrower vibration. That means the action can be lower without causing fret buzz.