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Get String Gauges Right for the Best Sound

As a young man, playing lead guitar in a rock band (the last one was the crazy jazz-rock-scifi band, the Martian Entropy Band), I wanted to bend the strings easily and play acrobatic guitar riffs a la Jimi Hendrix.  To do this I used the lightest strings I could on my ’67 Gibson SG no-name (with the P90 pickups, not the humbuckers).  At first I remember buying “tens”, guitar string sets in which the high E string was 0.10 inches thick, or 10 thousandths of an inch.  Those were good, but when manufacturers came out with extra light strings (high E of only .009 inches) that was simply better.  We were so heavily amplified I never noticed the reduction in sound power from the instrument.  All I cared about was tormenting those little strings, and I broke quite a few in the process.

Then, a few years later, I found even thinner “extra light” strings with a .008 inch high E string.  With these strings I could hear that the sound was thinner.  I could bend the notes all over the place but the sound was definitely weak and tinny, even with the compensation of the amplifiers and effects.  That was completely unsatisfactory.

Later still I was having my guitar mechanic/luthier friend, Tom Murray, do some fine adjustments on my Les Paul Studio and the topic of string gauges came up.  He went to his extensive bookshelf and pulled down a thick tome, and soon found a page with Gibson reference information on the Les Paul.  He told me that the reason the Les Paul was not sounding its best was that it was designed for a set of 10’s.  So I switched that instrument to 10’s and since then it plays great and, more importantly, sounds great.

(October 2014 addition)  I had been performing a few tunes with my Larivee 6-string acoustic guitar and really enjoying it, but I wasn’t sure what gauge strings to use.  I had been using “12’s” for some years (strings with a high E string 12 thousandths of an inch thick) and getting great sound, but it was hard to play and I wanted to make it a bit easier.  I switched to a set of 10’s, but they were far too light for the guitar.  I am sure my guitar mechanic friend could make them work, to a fashion, but I realized he couldn’t make 10’s work well enough no matter what he did: the sound was thin and weak and the strings buzzed badly in a number of positions.  I took the 0.10 strings off right away and switched to 11’s, and both the sound and playability were greatly improved.  I am continuing to use 11’s on that guitar until further notice.

After preparing for a recent solo performance I was moved to bring my old (1990’s) Epiphone big-bodied 12-string guitar out and tune it up.  I was thinking a set of 11’s might be just the ticket so I bought a set of GHS BB series strings with 0,11″ high E’s.  I have used a lot of GHS strings over the years and they have worked well for me.  After the ordeal of restringing the guitar and getting the tuning to settle down I played a few songs on it, and I was disappointed.  The sound didn’t meet my expectations.  It was thin and muddled sounding though it was easy to play.

At first I thought the strings were just not heavy enough, and I should switch to a set of 0.12’s, but then I realized that some of the individual string gauges chosen for the set might be the problem.  Some strings sounded great and others sounded weak.  The high G string, in particular, was only a 0.009″ string, and it had almost no sound at all.  It also felt a bit loose, like the tension on it was just too low.  For starters I think I will try a heavier string in the high G position and see if the sound improves, as maybe a 0.11″ or 0.12″ string would give out more sound.  Then I will carefully check each string individually to see if I can further balance the volume of the strings.

I may set up an experiment using a sound level meter (there are apps for smart phones that can do this) and jury-rig some kind of device that plucks a string with the same force every time.  If I can get the levels from the individual strings to balance better I think I have a much better shot at making this a great sounding guitar.

One thing is certain: I will be looking a lot more closely at the individual string gauges in each set from now on, and researching via my friend what the recommended string gauges are.  I don’t know why GHS chose such a thin string for the high G position, but it was a lesson to me: know (or record in the case) the best string gauges for your instrument and stick to them.

Thanks for reading and keep on jammin’! – Tim