Cage Match: Big Strings vs. Small Strings

bigvssmall
In the wonderful guitar universe, it’s important not to criticize what size strings a man or woman uses. However, any guitarist that has spent just a small amount of time on internet forum and message boards has navigated the minefield of these types of threads. This article will explain the reasons why someone might choose a particular string size, and unraveling the myths and truths about what it says about the player him-or-herself. 
In My Day…

Most vintage strings didn't have any gauges listed.
Most vintage strings didn’t have any gauges listed.

Actually, it was before my day, but many years ago, before Leo Fender turned guitar making into an efficient assembly line process, electric guitars were basically acoustic guitars with pickups. Strings sold for electric guitars were essentially acoustic guitar strings, and acoustic guitar strings were big. There was a practical reason for this: acoustic guitars needed big strings to be heard above a piano and drumset in the dance bands of yesteryear. Solos by guitarists were rare, until the dawn of the electric guitar. The electric accessories market was non-existent at this point. Most strings were sold with just the string number on them (strings 1 through 6), and certainly not precise measurements of to the thousandth-of-an-inch like we are used to now. String manufacturing hadn’t gotten that precise yet, and if anyone is “lucky” enough to try a guitar from 50 or 60 years ago with the original strings will be amazed that anyone could play these things at all.

A young Ritchie Blackmore before he made it in Japan.
A young Ritchie Blackmore before he made it in Japan.

It wasn’t until the mid 60s when guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore started replacing the standard guitar sets high E string with a thinner banjo string and moving the rest of the strings over, kicking off the rather large low E that the idea for the modern, smaller sets of strings was born. Remember, the G strings of electric sets were wound (from the strings’ heritage on the acoustic guitar), and the day’s modern bend-centric style of playing was much easier on a guitar with a plain 3rd string.*
*Vintage single coil pickups have their polepieces staggered to balance out the volume of the strings, and were designed thinking you would have a wound G string. Replacements for these vintage pickups are available from Seymour Duncan as the APS-1.
Acoustic guitarists traditionally used bigger strings for pure volume. Bigger strings drives the sound-producing top harder, resulting in a sound that still be heard over multiple instruments.
So, what happened with all these big strings?

It is so much easier to amplify the acoustic guitar these days with the Acoustic Tube pickup.
It is so much easier to amplify the acoustic guitar these days with the Acoustic Tube pickup.

The need for bigger strings for volume stopped being a concern when amplification got bigger. On electric guitars, amps could take the smaller output from thinner strings and amplify them just as well as they could the bigger strings.
Styles of playing changed, with guitarists bending strings two whole steps (or more) and that simply wasn’t possible on thicker strings, at least not without pain. In the 70s, higher output pickups started coming on the market which could take thinner strings and goose the signal going to the amplifier.
For acoustics, acoustic pickups started becoming available, and performers who were uncomfortable with big acoustic guitars with large strings suddenly figured out that, when plugged in, the sound isn’t always coming from the top of the guitar vibrating when driven by large strings. Styles like fingerpicking could now be heard, and smaller strings didn’t chew up nails or fingertips as much.
Also, string manufacturing took great leaps forward, with companies discovering new alloys for strings which produced more volume, with greater more consistent size tolerances.
The Case For Big Strings

SRV popularized the use of Very Large Strings in electric blues.
SRV popularized the use of Very Large Strings in electric blues.

The big string craze may have started back in the 80s with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s interviews in guitar magazines. Stevie used big strings (reportedly up to .013 on his Strats, but not all the time), and he tuned down 1/2 step. Tuning lower will make thicker strings easier to bend with the decreased tension. Stevie was also a pretty heavy player, and he beat his Strat into submission every night. He used vintage gear and vintage output pickups. No doubt that contributed to his bold sound.

The Jericho Avenger is a baritone guitar with larger strings and a long scale. It also comes stock with Seymour Duncan pickups.
The Jericho Avenger is a baritone guitar with larger strings and a long scale. It also comes stock with Seymour Duncan pickups.

Modern styles require low tunings, and anyone who has ever taken a .042 E string down to C# knows that it’s like playing a guitar strung with linguine. The strings are not tight enough to provide that tightness in the bass, and sustain is lost. Bigger strings help lower tunings sound brutal and mighty, and on 7- and 8-strings, the gauges get bigger and bigger. To be fair, most of the styles that use those guitars aren’t concerned with bending the big strings that frequently.
Also, scale length is a factor. To me, .009s on a Strat feel like .010s on an LP. A Les Paul’s smaller sounding length of the string itself (the scale length) will have more of an effect on feel due to the tension of the strings. In general, if you like the feel of .010s on a Strat, it will feel similar to .011s on a Les Paul.
As far as tone goes, large strings on a long scale (26″+) guitar sound positively massive.
The Case For Smaller Strings
Well, this one is easier. Smaller strings are easier to play. You can bend them, add vibrato, divebomb ’em, and it’s all easier. Besides, Billy Gibbons uses .008s. So does Yngwie Malmsteen. Need something heavier? How about the Iron Man himself, Tony Iommi. He is proof that with the right rig you can get downtuned skinny strings to sound positively massive. Tony uses a lot of gain, high-output pickups and a very light technique. And again, it rocks.

Where I Stand

This *can't* be how my strings are made...
This *can’t* be how my strings are made…

My guitars are all 25.5″ scale, and I use .009s. I’m a really light player, and I rarely use more than a light overdrive. I mostly avoid power chord-based rhythm, and .009 works for me. In other words, I don’t want to work any harder than I need to to get the job done, and I am very conscious of having a relaxed playing style so I don’t end up in pain So, .009 is the right choice for me.
On acoustic guitars, I use .012. I mostly need the guitars to sound good when plugged in and recorded with microphones in the studio, and .012 seems to be a good balance between ease of play and tone.
What Should You Choose?
If you haven’t been playing for long, it might be a discovery process. You can make anything work, but you may have to try a few different gauges over the first few months of playing to settle on something that gives the right balance of tone, volume and playability. You can always investigate the tone of your favorite players and see what they use, and that might be a good place to start too. Just remember that going up or down in string gauges might cause your guitar to need a few adjustments. Don’t worry, they aren’t difficult.
String thickness is a personal choice. Certainly some people can easily bend heavy strings, and other people can get a positively huge sound out of thinner strings. Use what you like, no matter what the other people say on the forums.

What string gauges do your favorite guitarists use? Do you have a favorite set you use for all of your guitars, or are they all the same?

Join the Conversation

35 Comments

  1. I like the Slinky tops, Heavy bottoms, so 10-52 which allows for detuning without too much slack,but keep the top strings flexible for lead work. I play an Epiphone les paul classic, and a lot of hard rock/Metal.

  2. I String My Strat with 12’s & I String My Tele with 10’s … I Use Standard Tuning And Play With A Very Energetic Rhythmic Style. I Run My Signal From the Guitar To WAH WAH – TUBE SCREAMER – BLUES DRIVER CHORUS TO FENDER 59 BASSMAN & FENDER VIBRO KING !!!

  3. I used to run an Ernie Ball RPS-11 (.11-.58) setup when I first started, but I dropped to an Ernie Ball RPS-8 (.08-.38) setup. I also used to use Dunlop Tortex Fin picks at 1.14, but would try gauges up to 1.2. Now I stick with Dunlop Tortex Fin picks at .50. I was fast, but very choppy for those first few years; now I’m fast, and very smooth with my style. I am not nice to guitar strings so, on top of it being much more comfortable, smoother, and allowing me to vary my styles outside of brutal punk music, it’s cheaper for me.

  4. 8’s are by far the best strings. for players who want to have great technique you should use them it will seriously improve your bends ect

  5. 11-50 (Navigator LP with ´59 specs)
    10-52 (Navigator LP Custom White)
    8-48 (Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster)
    10-46 or 10-52 (Fender Richie Kotzen Telecaster)
    All guitars tuned 1/2 step down (dropped-C# occasionally)

  6. I prefer .010-.046 Dean Markley Blue Steels on my Fender electric guitars used for both lead & rhythm and .013-.056 Martin Marquis on my Ovation Acoustics that are primatly used for Rhythm. On my 4 string Fender Jazz Bass I use .055-,105 Stainless half Flat Wounds which I can no longer find like the ones I have from D’addario. When they were available Iused Gretch Velvet Touch Light Flat wounds which I believe were .010-.046 and I loved them. I am a big string bender, and .008’s or .009’s would be easier to bend, and I could bend them farther, but I jusr don’t feel that I get the sound from anything less than a .010. When I first started playing over 50 years ago the strings were awful. In the 1960’s string design and quality improved many times over the 1950’s. I do not like the new Long Lasting “Coated” strings.. .

    1. There is only 1 coated string that I really like, Cleartone.
      Awesome strings, great tone, great feel, they are really nothing like all the other coated strings that have an odd feel cause….well….they’re coated.
      They do cost a bit more than regular strings, but give them a try, you may like them. In my experience they do actually last longer than regular strings.
      They keep their great tone longer, so in a cost to use ratio the cost is mitigated.

  7. DR Tite-Fit 010-046 are my best choice. I have a guitar something like a PRS Ted McCarty 24 but handmade, with DiMarzio PAFPro on neck position and some Shecter humbacker from the 90’s on the bridge… I use to use DR Tite-Fit Nickel Plated .010-.056 but strange things occurs with sixth E string, something like uncontrollable huge bass sound…

  8. For ES 335 I use Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky (Standard Tuning). For B Standard (Leadbelly, Amon Amarth) or C Standard or C# Standard (Eddie Lang) I use Ernie Ball Not Even Slinky.

  9. String length does affect tension and feel but I’m afraid that .010s on a strat feeling like .011 on a Les Paul is just inaccurate.
    Using a tension calculator, it is possible to calculate that the tension on a 24 3/4″ scale with ‘elevens’ (D’Addario EXL115s, for example) is 53.96 kg. Tension on a 25 ½” scale with ‘tens’ (EXL110) is only 49.3 kg. This difference is only about 1kg different to using elevens on both. A strat with 9s and a les paul with 10s yield an even greater difference of nearly 6kg. They may ‘feel’ different, but the reasons are more likely to be to do with neck shape, fret height and fingerboard radius.
    To get the same tension on any two different scale lengths, you will need to compare two that are wider apart than the traditional strat and LP necks. 3/4″ of an inch difference isn’t enough. For example, a 24″ scale length with elevens has a tension of 50.58kg, which is very close to a 25 ½” scale length with tens: 49.3.

    1. I think the author was speaking more in general terms, not in specific tension.
      I do agree that there is more to the difference than just string gauge.
      9’s on an LP feel great to me, just like 9’s on a Strat feel great to me.
      I don’t find that 10’s on an LP feel like a Strat with 9’s. 10’s feel like 10’s.
      But I think that’s also about how a player feels it specifically to oneself.
      Scale length makes a noticeable difference to me. I prefer the shorter scale length of 24.75 as I like how the strings bend. But, even though my Strat has a longer length, bending on a Strat is easy as well.
      My Schecter C1 Classic is a neck through guitar with a 25.5″ scale length and to me it’s feels in between my Strat and ESP Eclipse (LP style) guitars.
      I get what the author was trying to say. He was relating more about ‘feel’ rather than precise measurement of actual tension. 🙂

      1. Fair enough although there is so much voodoo regarding playing the guitar that it’s good to sometimes have some real data. I’m merely passing along the facts so people can do what they like with them.
        To me, a green guitar, regardless of scale length or string gauge, sounds terrible, but that’s another post altogether.

    2. String tension isn’t the only criteria some of us use for deciding string gauge. Thanks for the scientific data. It’s certainly food for thought.

  10. If you change your tuning pretty often, you should definately try Dunlop Heavy Core (10-48), I’ve been using them for a year. You have a larger range of tunings you can try, for example you can play play from E standard to C# standard with no problem, they’re not too tight in E, but tight enough in C#. (25.5 scale)

  11. Dark Horse Strings, 10-46 on 25.5 scale guitars and 11-49 on 24.75 stuff. 11-52 on my acoustic.

  12. Over here in the UK it’s generally accepted that it was Eddie Cochran, here playing on a tour, who explained to Joe Brown how to bend the strings by the substitution of a banjo 5th for the 1st string, etcetera. The news spread fast, and in a few weeks you couldn’t get a banjo 5th for love or money.
    And the rest is history.

  13. I think you should use whatever you feel more comfortable with. It doesn’t matter what everyone else uses. It only matters if you can play with that gauge. As long as it sounds right and feels right.

  14. I went from using 10-46 on my Strat for a long time to trying D’Addario EXL110+ 10.5-48 and tuning down a half step. That just got too weird for playing worship and reading chord charts (old habits die hard), and so I went back to 10s in standard tuning. Since then, I’ve migrated to 9.5s, and I’m hooked. I love that D’Addario is making these in-between sets! A little setup with the saddles and truss rod was necessary for these changes, but it’s all been worth it in the quest for tone and feel.
    I’m currently using 11-48 flatwounds on my Tele for jazz.

  15. I have been playing 25.5″ scale in C standard with the occasional “drop D” to A#/Bb. For me I buy singles (daddario) to get that perfect blanced tension. .011, .014, .020(P), .032, .044, .056. Set up for lowest possible action with a bit of fret buzzing, it plays great for any kind of “death metal” or “progressive metal” playing. Easy on the higher strings with no odd tension imbalances when playing alot of fluent leads with heavy vibrato and bends.

  16. I use DR DDT 13’s on my Schecter Hellraiser DLX and I love them. Easily my favorite set of strings for electric, because I play alot of really heavy stuff. Then I use light gauge Elixirs on my acoustic.

  17. i use diff gauges on diff guitars. i mean are you going to use 11’s on a lynch tiger? hell no, its a shredder and needs 009’s. my dimes are set in C so it takes 12’s. just go whats best for you and best for the guitar your trying to communicate thru…

  18. I like the feel of heavy strings, especially going back and forth between tunings (standard to open G mostly). I used 12s and 13s for years and would switch out the plain G for a wound G to get more snap against the fretboard. My hands can’t take it anymore, and I use heavy bottom 10s now. On acoustic I like the bluegrass 12s with the heavier bottoms.

  19. My favorite gauge is 10-52 for strat scale guitars. I love thrash and groove metal, so this feels perfect for me.

  20. I was wrong about Eddie Lang. The iTunes album I have is crediting some Carl Kress recordings to him. Kress tuned, low to high, Bb F C G B D which works with Ernie Ball Not Even Slinky (12 16 24p 32 44 56 or D’Addario Chromes 13 17 26w 35 45 56.

  21. On electric I started on 8’s on an old Epiphone (non LP type), then went with 8’s and 9’s on an ’82 Gibson Explorer II. I stuck with 9’s and I prefer to tune standard in 1/2 step down ala SRV,EVH, and others. 1/2 step down sounds cooler. 🙂
    When I added Fender strats I started with 9’s and then went with 10’s. I tried 11’s and NO WAY. On a longer scale Strat bending was much harder than it needed to be.
    I’ve been playing 10’s for a couple of decades but over the past 6 months I went back to 9’s on both my LP scale and Strat scale guitars.
    I do occasionally get a hybrid light top heavy bottom set of 9’s and they work fine, but honestly, a regular set of 9’s is great for me. I still get plenty of punch and drive, and no problems with volume with amplification, so not much need to go with a higher gauge.
    I too thought my sound would be punchier, thicker, or fuller by using thicker gauge strings, but that’s just not true for amplified electrics.
    For my acoustics I like 10’s or 11’s. I only have a couple of Taylor acoustics and those are fantastic playing guitars with lighter gauge strings.
    I do go 12 or 13 gauge from time to time when I want to change up the volume and tone.
    String gauge has a greater effect on volume and tone on acoustics vs electrics.
    The only drop tuning I do once in a while is 1/2 down from standard and then drop the E to D, which would be C#. Below that it all gets too muddy and becomes a 6 string bass not so much a guitar anymore. 🙂

  22. The Dunlop version of a medium top heavy bottom. 11-50’s. I’ve played the same gauge on a Strat and my Echotone.

  23. •Ok I got it figured out…. Transcribed 3 Carl Kress songs. The tuning is Bb F C G A D low to high. I use Ernie Ball Not Even Slinkys on 335.
    •On Telecaster D’Addario EXL 140 (10 13 17 30 42 52) standard tuning.
    •For a nylon string guitar strung like a banjo…. D’Addario Pro-Arte (blue) switch the A string out and put a first string E on there…. And tune the 6th string to an octave below the 4th string for resonance. ( G tuning would be D G D G B D)

  24. I began to develop pain after 25 years of guitar playing on 10’s. Way back in 2004 I saw Judas priest (Halford just rejoined) with Sabbath and was impressed how much bigger Sabbath sounded with just one guitar. Tony’s website revealed his gauges .008 .008 .011 .018w .024w .032 (go check yourself) . I switched to those gauges and the pain is gone plus I can play for hours without fatigue. Took some time to get used to but I found that it is one of the essential ingredients for the standard tuned material.

  25. For electrics, on my 25.5 ” scale length guitars (Fenders, G&L etc.) .009 – .042. GHS Burnished Nickle Rockers. On shorter scale length guitars, (Gibson, PRS etc.) .010 – .046. GHS Boomers. Acoustics .012 – .052 and sometimes slightly heavier for resonator guitars. Brand varies, mostly John Pierce.

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