What does string “gauge” actually mean?
According to Websters Dictionary, a gauge is “a measure” or “a standard of measure”. When discussing guitar strings, guitarists often say things like ‘I always use nines’ or ‘I prefer elevens for detuning’.
Guitar string gauges are usually described by their thickness in thousands of an inch (or thou’) and sets of strings are referred to by the gauge of the thinnest string – the high E or 1st string. So when guitarists talk about ‘nines’ or ‘elevens’ etc they are referring to a standard set of guitar strings, with the first string being nine thou’ or eleven thou’ thick.
Popular electric guitar string gauges
The best all-round beginner gauge sets are either 10s (e.g. Ernie Ball Regular Slinky or Rotosound Yellows), or 9s (Super Slinky or Roto Pinks). Even if you want to end up as a Heavy Metal shredder, it’s still better so start of with these – if you try to start out with 11s or 12s your fingers will end up so painful that you’ll give up! If you want to use heavier gauges its best to work up to them.
It’s not that simple, however, as there are many variables in guitar strings not just the thickness of the first string. Most major string brands have a range that allows you to match the top and bottom strings to suit your style… so if you like to easily bend your high strings when playing lead but pound the bottom strings when playing rhythm then you can chose a suitable combination.
As a rule, heavier strings give a fuller guitar sound, but are harder on the fingers for beginners and are more difficult to bend when playing lead. Lighter guitar strings are easier to fret, better for expressive bends, slides and vibrato effects.. but give a thinner sound and break more easily! Beginners who use ‘eights’ often break their E string! With Rotosound string sets a spare high E string is included in the set, but even this won’t keep you playing for long with 8s unless your playing style particularly suits them. I don’t usually recommend 8 gauge strings for beginners.
Plain vs Wound strings
It’s generally assumed that the first and second string will be ‘plain’ (just a straight bit of wire), whereas the third to sixth strings will be ‘wound’ (a thin bit of wire in the middle tightly wound with a wrapping of even thinner wire to make up the total thickness). Where this generality is broken, it is indicated by p for plain or w for wound, added to the gauge. Again, you will hear guitarists say things like ‘I prefer a plain G’ – an example of this is Ernie Ball Beefy Slinkys, where the 3rd string is ’22p’.
Examples of available Gauges
Nine gauge guitar strings
All of the following are sets of “nines”, with individual string gauges of 09, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42 – although some have the G string wound, some plain according to the manufacture’s preferences.
- Ernie Ball 2223 Super Slinky
- Rotosound Roto Pinks
- Jim Dunlop Light
- D’Addario EXL120
Ten gauge guitar strings
All of the following sets are “tens” with individual string gauges of 10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky
- Rotosound Roto Yellows
- Jim Dunlop Medium
- D’Addario EXL110
Custom gauge guitar strings
Of course mano other sets of strings are available, These are often called “custom gauges” or “hybrid gauges”. As an example, here’s some Ernie Ball string sets available from their popular “slinky” range.
- Skinny Top Heavy Bottom 10, 13, 17, 30, 42, 52
- Power Slinky 11, 14, 18p, 28, 38, 48
- Hybrid Slinky 09, 11, 16, 26, 36, 46
- Extra Slinky 08, 11, 14, 22w, 30, 38
- Not Even Slinky 12, 16, 24p, 32, 44, 56
- Beefy Slinky 11, 15, 22p, 30, 42, 54
Similar sets are available from other guitar string manufacturers and many are marketed at particular musical styles such as Heavy Metal or Rock and Roll.