In the same way that you wouldn’t just buy the first guitar or amp that you found in the music shop, the strings that you choose for your acoustic guitar, the type, material and particularly the gauge, all need the same levels of consideration. A good guitar shop will be able to guide you through the process of choosing the right gauge strings, but as with any such selection, you need to know at least enough about the subject to ask the right questions and understand the terminology that you will encounter. Below are some of the considerations to bear in mind when deciding what gauge will best suit your needs.
The sound you can make with even an acoustic guitar covers a myriad of results. Much depends on the guitar itself and, if it's an electric guitar, obviously the amp and any pedals are major factors. But whether playing totally acoustic or through an amp, the gauge of string you choose to employ on your acoustic will also feature heavily in the sound equation. It is also important to pick the right strings for the more practical reasons of durability and compatibility with your guitar.
The gauge of a string is another name for the diameter, that is to say, how thick it is measured in 1/1000ths of an inch. The bigger the number the fatter the string, though the normal terminology is lighter or heavier rather than thinner or fatter. As a rule of thumb lighter strings are easier to play but break more easily, heavier ones have a fuller tone, can be played harder and louder, and are less likely to break.
You don’t need to know the statistics but if you are the sort of person who likes that sort of thing, here are some typical values for the different sets of strings.
But it is enough to just know the general ballpark description, at least for now.
There are four main areas to consider when deciding what strings to buy:
What sort of guitar are you playing and what are the benefits of the guitars body size? A small-bodied guitar will sound and feel better fitted with strings at the lighter end of the spectrum whereas you would probably want to maximize the possibilities afforded by the larger sound chamber of a jumbo guitar by using at least medium if not heavy strings.
As a general rule lighter strings emphasize the treble or sweeter aspects of a guitar's range, heavy strings the bass tones of the bottom end. More delicate music obviously favors the former but if you want to really dig in and drive a more aggressive sound, you need the heavy string option.
The two general approaches to guitar playing are finger picking and strumming. The lighter gauge strings are easier on the pickers fingers and the strumming approach will probably favor a more resonant and therefore heavier gauge driven sound.
If you have an older instrument, age and design might mean that it has less integral strength than a more modern instrument. Heavier strings obviously put more tension on the neck of the guitar so just be careful when re-stringing the priceless family heirloom.
There are other areas where you might favor the heavier string. If you are naturally a heavy strummer then they offer not only durability but also more sustenance in the sound. The tighter string tension makes them great for slide playing or for drop tuning - all the rage within the metal fraternity – and more resistance to fret buzz and so great on guitars with a low action (the height of the string off the fret board). And if you are planning to play unamplified, well, they are simply louder.
As mentioned before, lighter strings are simply easier to play and so great for beginners looking to not spend their first few months covered in cuts and blisters. They are also great for soloing, especially for blues players as you will want to bend the strings and again the wear and tear to your fingers is more manageable. And of course, they are the go-to option for most finger pickers for the same reasons of ease and avoidance of bloodshed.
You will learn what works best for you and your sound, even develop custom set ups by mixing lighter and heavier strings. For beginners, though, if you consider the factors listed here, you won’t go far wrong.
See all our bass and guitar strings.
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