The String Gauge You Should Be Using

The importance of string selection is often overlooked. Perhaps this is because, unlike pedals, they don’t light up or have fun knobs to play with—they're thought of as nothing more than a necessity. A good analogy for buying strings is taking a trip to the supermarket: You can spend hours comparing cuts of meat and testing produce, but how much time do spend with staples like sponges? We grab the familiar and go, which is exactly what happens in the guitar shop.

I used to be guilty of this passivity, but nowadays, there's a lot to be excited about in the world of strings. After all, they can make or literally break a gig or session, so let’s take them seriously and dig deeper into the different tonal and physical properties to consider gauge by gauge, brand by brand and axe by axe.

Rocking Old School with the Nines

I hate it when people get all macho over string gauges. It is ridiculous. No one would put monster truck tires on a vintage sports car, would they? Nine-gauge strings do not always feel wimpy and some guitars absolutely scream for them. Take a vintage Strat or Mosrite for example (or anything with smaller vintage-style frets). Nines feel and respond amazing on these guitars and many vintage surf-style guitars were designed specifically to work with the lighter-gauge strings.

For many years, I rocked nines on my Mosrites until I discovered D’Addario Super Light Plus sets. They are basically a nine-and-a-half gauge set and they worked perfectly for both my Mosrites and my Reverend USA guitars when I was playing lots of surf-punk staccato runs and lighting fast down-strokes. I highly recommend this set for vintage guitars that require that little bit of extra tension without ever going stiff like ten-gauge strings tend to do with older axes. In my opinion, D’Addario is still king of the strings for vintage guitars in standard tuning.

Getting a Grin Again with The Ten-Gauge

Ah yes, the industry standard . . . and it’s plain to see why. There is a reason the old .010–.046 set is so widely used: This string set can work with the widest variety of guitars and tunings—especially with current production guitars that sport bigger frets than vintage axes. The classic set can work with Gibson-scale, Fender-scale, tremolo systems, drop-D and open-G tunings . . . the list goes on.

The only folks who should avoid the standard set are the down-tuned ladies and djenters. They will end up with floppy flatulent strings sticking to the pickups in a big magnetic thwack. In this gauge, I think all the string manufacturers are on an even playing field, so pick a brand and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Just dodge those Fender Bullets. In my opinion they don’t do the legacy justice . . . at all.

Turning Eleven—the Betweenager Gauge

There are only a few guitars I would recommend going to elevens with in standard tuning. Mainly, axes with super strong necks, dual-action truss rods and at least a 25-inch scale. Take my EGC Standard Series II for example – with its all-aluminum neck. I have had people pick it up, have a twang and ask me if I was using nines almost every time. When I tell them that I use elevens, they never believe me. The flatter, stronger neck of my EGC SSII makes it possible to go as low as I want with nearly any gauge, but the eleven set works magically with the scale of the instrument for bends, big tone and long-term abuse.

I use Elixirs with the EGC when I am gigging regularly for durability and tone. In fact, the very thing that used to bug me about Elixirs (or any other coated string) is part of the reason I use them with this brighter aluminum axe. Elixir’s coated strings don’t sound as bright as nickel-wound strings initially, but maintain their sparkle and spring way longer than standard sets, so it is a bit of a trade-off. If one is trying to tame an excessively bright-toned guitar, Elixirs will do the trick and last longer as a bonus.

It is worth mentioning that Elixir’s Nanoweb technology has come a long way since it started. I couldn’t stand the plastic feel of the original formula, but, like everything, technology can take time to get right and Elixir has done just that.

I also like using elevens on shorter-scale necks when I am tuned down to D-standard or DADGAD, especially with hollow-bodied instruments. My Godin 5th Avenue loves the deeper resonance and shows here affection for the looser low end churl by purring like an electrified panther. I highly recommend trying this.

Twelve Gauge Action for the Low Tones

Though twelve-gauge strings are the norm for standard-tuned acoustic guitars, I can’t think of an electric guitar that takes them well in this tuning. D-standard and below however, twelves are the way to go, especially with 25-inch scale necks. I use either the Ernie Ball 12–56 Cobalt or D’Addario NYXL 12–52 sets for my D-standard tuned Duesenberg Fullerton TV. The Doozy can take the tension with its substantial neck and 25-inch scale. In fact, in D-standard, the twelve gauge set feels much like a ten-gauge tension on a standard-tuned guitar.

I use the new-fangled alternative material strings with the Doozy to increase to offset the darker voice it speaks with naturally. The Cobalt and NYXL sets do as advertised—they increase presence and clarity that little bit more, which suits a down-tuned hollow-bodied humbucker guitar just perfectly.

String Subjectivity Disclaimer

There you have it folks, I use a variety of string gauges, brands and materials to suit a variety of instruments, in a variety of musical situations. With all this variety, many idiosyncratic factors come into play. I am not saying there is a right way to approach this. Different hands have different demands. Different ears like different gear.

Look at J Mascis with his bizarre mantra of “the action is never too high, only too low.” Who’s ever heard of such a philosophy? But, the proof is in his purple and green pudding that it works like magic for him. Be stiff or flippy-floppy. Be tight and bright or loose and juicy . . . but always listen to your instrument and try some new strings and tunings with it. When it is happy, it will let you know.

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