If you are looking to develop a killer blues guitar tone, you need to consider your guitar string gauges. I appreciate this might sound obvious. After all, the topic of guitar string gauges is one that is often spoken about.
A lot of blues guitarists talk about the benefits of heavy guitar string gauges. Since the very early days of electric blues guitar, there has been a long held idea that heavy gauge strings are better for tone. This was perpetuated by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan had one of the best electric blues tones of all time, and he also favoured very heavy guitar string gauges.
Yet beyond this, not that much more is said about guitar string gauges. And in fact I feel that the topic is rarely explored in depth.
In my opinion, this is a little unusual. Not only do the guitar strings that you use affect both the playability and tone of your guitar, but there are now a huge range of different guitar string gauges out there.
In a sense this is brilliant, as you have a lot of choice. But it also makes it a little difficult to know what is the best option for you and your playing style.
In this article I will be looking in depth at guitar string gauges, and covering the following:
- Different guitar string gauges, and their pros and cons
- Mixed gauge guitar strings, their purpose and some of their benefits
- The guitar string gauges of famous blues guitarists
- How to choose the right guitar strings for your set-up
I hope this will give you everything you need to choose the guitar strings that will work best for you. So without further ado, let’s get into it:
A brief introduction to guitar string gauges
Before we start looking at the different varieties of guitar strings out there, I think it is first worth understanding the main varieties of string gauge, and what it means when people talk about ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ guitar strings.
String gauge is a measure of the thickness or diameter of a guitar string. Comparatively speaking, all guitar strings are very thin, and so they are measured in 1/1000ths of an inch. A .009 gauge guitar string is 0.009 inches, and a .010 gauge guitar string is 0.010 inches.
When guitarists talk about string gauge, they generally refer to a string set by its thinnest string. So if someone says that they play ’10s’, they mean they play a set of strings where the high E string is a .010 gauge.
It is worth noting though, that there are a huge variety of .010 gauge string sets, which I will cover in more detail below. As such, there is not really a ‘typical’ set of guitar strings. Every brand of string manufacturer produces sets of guitar strings with slightly differing thicknesses.
Having said that, I do think that .009 and .010 gauge guitar strings are generally considered to be ‘normal’ guitar string gauges.
.008 gauge guitar strings, or anything lighter, are considered very light.
.011 gauge guitar strings are quite heavy, and any guitar string gauges heavier than that would be considered to be very heavy.
The key differences between guitar string gauges
When looking at different guitar string gauges, there are 2 main factors you need to consider – tone and playability. As mentioned earlier, proponents of heavy guitar string gauges argue that you need to play heavy strings to get a decent tone. But in my opinion this argument is overly simplistic.
When you are looking at which guitar strings you should buy, it is important to take both tone and playability into account. After all, the tone that you produce is a direct result of your playing style and how you manipulate your strings. And so the 2 elements are directly linked to one another.
As such, when thinking about which guitar strings are right for you, it is important to look at some of the key areas of playing that are affected by the gauge of string you use. These are as follows:
Vibrato is a crucial technique for expressive blues guitar playing. It is also a highly nuanced technique and one that you need to adjust and adapt to change the feel of the phrase you are playing at any given time. For example, you may want a gentle and subtle style of vibrato for the beginning of a solo, and a wider and more aggressive vibrato style as the solo builds up.
Having said that, I do think that we all have a style of vibrato technique that could be considered our ‘default’. For B.B. King this was a very fast, trilling style of vibrato which made him sound almost like a slide guitar player. For Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was a wider, more aggressive style of vibrato. The former used relatively light gauge guitar strings, whilst the latter used very heavy gauge strings.
That is not to say that you can’t adjust your style to different string gauges. It is just that particular gauge guitar strings are better suited to particular styles of expression.
The lighter the string, the less resistance it provides against your fingers. If you move your fretting hand fast on light strings, you’ll achieve the B.B. King style vibrato sound. Do the same thing on a thick string and – unless you are very strong – the string won’t move nearly as much. Rather than get a fast trill, you are more likely to get a broader, slower and more sweeping style of vibrato.
If you do decide that you want to play heavy guitar strings and also use a fast style of vibrato, you will have to work harder with your fretting hand.
It is a similar story when it comes to string bending. Thicker guitar strings resist your fretting hand more than lighter strings. So you have to apply greater pressure to the neck of your guitar to fret the notes. The same goes for string bending. You have to apply greater pressure to your strings to bend them up and down.
As a result, it is more difficult and physically demanding to bend heavy gauge guitar strings. And it is for this reason that a lot of blues guitarists favour lighter gauge strings.
Bending is a key element of lead blues guitar playing, and one that you do not want to compromise. So if you struggle at all with the accuracy of your bends, or if you favour big, two tone bends in the style of guitarists like Albert King, lighter gauge guitar strings would be a better option.
Lighter guitar string gauges are also a better choice if you want to play fast. Heavy gauge guitar strings require you to apply more pressure on the strings to sound each note. This isn’t conducive to playing at speed, where you want to move from note to note as quickly and with as little effort as possible.
Personally I don’t think that playing at speed is as an essential skill when it comes to blues guitar. But it certainly is a great tool to use to add intensity and variety into your playing. Just look at guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and more recently, Joe Bonamassa and Philip Sayce. They all use speed very effectively in their playing.
If you endeavour to do the same, then I would suggest opting for lighter gauge guitar strings.
Conversely, if you don’t care about speed and favour a slow, but emotive style of soloing, I would recommend going for heavier gauge guitar strings. Heavier strings have greater mass and so take longer to stop vibrating once played. This means that each note sustains for longer.
In other words, if you were to play the same note on two identical guitars that differed only in their string gauge, the notes would resonate more clearly and for longer on the guitar with thicker strings. It’s largely for this reason that people proclaim that thicker guitar strings have better tone.
Whilst that is slightly overstating the case, sustain is a key part of your overall sound, and better sustain has benefits for both lead and rhythm playing.
For lead, heavy guitar string gauges allow you to play long, soaring notes and bends, which are a key element of effective blues soloing. Notably, they allow you to do this without applying vibrato to sustain the note, as you have to do on thinner strings. In this way you can get more out of the guitar without colouring the notes.
The benefits of using thick guitar strings apply equally to rhythm playing. When you play chords on thicker guitar strings, each note will sustain for longer and the chord will really ring out. So if you are predominantly a rhythm guitarist and string bending and vibrato isn’t such a concern, then heavier gauge guitar strings could be the way to go.
Tuning & intonation
Thicker guitar strings are also more suitable for down tuning. Because there is more tension through the strings, you can tune them down to play in a lower key without the strings becoming slack. A lot of blues and rock guitarists – including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Philip Sayce and Slash tune(d) down a half step to Eb.
This makes playing heavy guitar string gauges easier, as it reduces the tension on the strings. It also sounds brilliant. Tuning to Eb adds a thickness and warmth to your tone and makes your playing sound distinctly bluesier.
Heavier gauge strings also stay in tune better. This is a significant benefit, especially when you consider that string bending, vibrato and a heavy pick attack will all cause your guitar to fall out of tune. Heavy guitar string gauges can help to reduce the extent to which this is the case. And so if you have quite a heavy pick attack, are playing in a band or if you are gigging a lot, then using slightly heavier gauge strings will help with your intonation.
Finally, I would argue that you can achieve a greater dynamic range by playing with heavy gauge guitar strings. On guitar strings of any gauge, you can use a soft touch to play quietly. But on thinner strings I think you are limited by how much you can dig in with your picking hand.
If you watch a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you’ll see that he often uses a very aggressive pick attack. When he does this and strikes the strings hard, he instantly adds a power and intensity to his sound, which simply comes from the pressure he applies to each string.
It is not possible to adopt such an aggressive pick attack on thinner guitar strings, and so the variation in tone you can achieve using nothing but your strings and pick is more limited.
The importance of playing style
As you can see from these points, there are pros and cons to both heavy and light guitar string gauges.
Light guitar string gauges are easier to play. This makes them great for string bending, applying vibrato and for playing fast.
Heavy guitar string gauges are harder to play. Yet they sustain better, have better intonation and are arguably more versatile than lighter strings.
Really then, there are no good or bad guitar string gauges. There are simply different string gauges, some of which will work better for you, depending on your playing style and preferences. And this is the point you should focus on when looking at new guitar strings.
A lot of players get caught up in thinking about the inherent tonal quality of their guitar strings. Yet this is only part of the equation. You can have the best sounding guitar strings in the world, but that means very little if you can’t play and express yourself properly.
In other words, make sure that you are never sacrificing comfort or playability in your quest for tone.
I speak from personal experience here. As a teenager and after reading that Stevie Ray Vaughan played .013s, I fitted my guitar with .012 gauge guitar strings. Instead of sounding more like Vaughan, my tone actually got worse, as I wasn’t able to bend, slide or apply vibrato properly.
In the blues, getting great tone is a compromise between tone and playability. It is about finding the sweet spot where you get a great tone and you can play comfortably.
Mixed gauge guitar strings
In an effort to find this sweet spot, a lot of string manufacturers now offer mixed, or ‘hybrid’ guitar string gauges. Typically – but not always – these are string sets where the bass strings are a relatively heavy gauge, and the treble strings are a comparatively light gauge.
The assumption is that most guitarists are bending and applying vibrato on the treble strings, and hitting their bass strings with greater force. In this way, mixed gauge string sets aim to provide the best of both worlds. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense, and so it is perhaps little surprise that a lot of famous blues guitarists have used mixed gauge strings (more on this below).
In recent years there has been a surge in the popularity of mixed gauge string sets. So there are a lot of different options to choose from here. You can get mixed gauge strings ranging from .008 to .011 on the top, and .040 to sometimes as high as .060 on the bottom!
Although they are less common, you can also get mixed gauge strings where the treble strings are medium or even heavy gauge, and the bass strings are a comparatively light gauge. In this sense, the gauges are the opposite to what you would anticipate. Yet despite that, some amazing blues and rock guitarists played with their strings set up in this way (and these players are detailed below).
If you are interested in trying out mixed guitar string gauges, experiment with a few different sets to find what works best for you.
Half gauge guitar strings
In more recent years, string manufacturers have also started to create half gauge strings. Traditionally, guitar string gauges would go up in whole increments. So you would have a set of .008s, then .009s, then .010s. Now though, there are half gauge guitar strings. So you can get .0085s, .0095s and .0105s etc.
When I first saw these string sets, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical. I just didn’t think there would be any appreciable difference between the half gauges. Actually though, it does make a real difference. And so if you have ever found yourself feeling that .010s were too light, but .011s were too heavy (or something similar) I would definitely recommend trying these strings out.
They also work well as a training tool if you want to start playing heavier gauge strings but you don’t want the pain of using a much heavier string. It is quite challenging to jump up whole string gauges at a time. When you use half gauge strings you can work up incrementally until you feel comfortable playing your desired string gauge.
Some practical recommendations
With all of these different choices, picking a set of guitar strings can feel like an overwhelming task. Truthfully, there are no hard and fast rules on which guitar string gauges will work for you. It depends largely on your playing style, and ultimately comes down to feeling and what helps you play at your best. Having said that, there are some guidelines that you can follow which will help you to determine which gauge of strings to go for. These are as follows:
Choose Light Gauge Guitar Strings If:
- You are a beginner
- Your fretting arm is not that strong or you have smaller hands
- Big bends and fast vibrato are key elements of your playing style
- You like to play fast
Choose Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings if:
- You are a more advanced player, your fretting arm is strong, and using heavy strings won’t compromise your playing
- You are less concerned with playing fast and more concerned with sustain and the quality of each note
- Your pick attack and playing style is quite heavy
- You down tune or often play in keys lower than standard tuning
Beyond that, and if you are looking to try out different guitar string gauges, I would also recommend the following:
Play it safe
At least when you are starting to experiment with string gauges, avoid opting for guitar string gauges on the very extreme ends of the spectrum. Very few guitarists play .007 or .013 gauge strings. Put simply, this is because they are not suitable for most guitarists.
Make small changes
Similarly, be conservative when you make changes to your set-up. Let’s say you like how .009s feel, but you want to play a heavier gauge of string. Don’t jump straight up to .011s. Move to .0095s and play them for a few weeks. Then move up to .010s, and so on.
You will better adjust to each change and will never be in a position where your fretting arm and fingers are very sore.
If you are not careful, experimenting with new guitar strings can lead you down an almost endless rabbit hole. There are now so many different guitar string gauges to choose from, not to mention different brands of string, as well as strings made from a range of different materials.
Whilst I do think that it is worth trying different guitar string gauges and brands out, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there must be a better set of strings out there. If you love playing .010s, then stick with .010s!
Guitar string gauges of the greats
If you are still a little unsure of where to start with your guitar string gauges, then you can take some great inspiration from these famous blues and blues-rock guitarists:
Light gauge guitar strings
There are quite a number of guitarists who have played light and in some cases, very light guitar strings. Some of the most notable blues players who have favoured light guitar string gauges are as follows:
- Billy Gibbons plays very light guitar strings. His signature set of guitar strings runs: .007, .009, .011, .020, .030, .038.
- Jimmy Page also plays quite light strings. He has played Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings for the majority of his career. These run: .009. .011, .016, .024, .032, .042.
- Towards the latter part of his career, Gary Moore also played light strings. He used a gauge that ran from .009 to .048.
Heavy gauge guitar strings
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some notable blues guitarists who have used very heavy strings:
- Stevie Ray Vaughan is probably the blues guitarist most famous for using very heavy strings. Although the guitar string gauges he played varied, the set he most commonly used ran: .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, .058.
- Joe Bonamassa typically uses .011-.052 gauge guitar strings. In his own words: ‘I find that the resistance (with 11s) is adequate where I don’t overplay. I can dig in and I’m not over-bending, and I’m not playing out of tune’.
- Modern guitarist Josh Smith uses .013s to .056s. And unlike Stevie Ray Vaughan, he doesn’t tune down to Eb and instead plays in standard pitch!
Mixed gauge guitar strings
Finally, there are a whole range of blues guitarists who have used mixed gauge strings. Some of the most notable are as follows:
- B.B. King played a set of mixed gauge strings, which ran as follows: .010, .013, .017, .030, .044. .054. So he had his guitar set up with a medium/light gauge on his top strings and a heavy gauge on his bottom strings.
- Jimi Hendrix was quite unusual in that he played medium gauge strings on his treble strings, and then quite light gauges on his bass strings. His string gauges were as follows: .010, .013, .015, .026, .032 and .038. Duane Allman and Rory Gallagher also played the same gauge.
- Reportedly Albert King played strings that ran from .009-.050 gauge. So there was a big contrast between his treble and bass strings. His treble strings were really quite light, whereas he used a heavy gauge on his bass strings.
Some closing thoughts…
Well there we have it, everything that you need to know about different guitar string gauges.
As is so often the case with guitar gear and the quest for tone, you can get very granular when it comes to guitar strings. There are so many different guitar string gauges to consider, as well as different brands of string and strings that are made from a range of different materials.
The key is to understand and pay attention to these different elements, without becoming overwhelmed by all of the information out there. As such, my closing advice would be to experiment and try out lots of different guitar string gauges. Keep an open mind and don’t become wedded to the idea that you have to play a certain gauge of string.
Instead, choose the guitar string gauges where you feel and play at your best. You will bring out the best in your playing, and your tone will improve as a result.