Picking The Right Guitar String

String Choices

Apart from brand preference, here is what you need to know about how your strings effect tone and playability.

Gauge (Size)

Strings come in different sizes, for acoustics we may use descriptions such as light gauge, medium gauge, custom light etc. On electrics we usually mention the size of the smallest string; 9's, 10's (meaning .009 or .010 is the size of the first string).

The size of the string effects the tension placed on the instrument. While larger gauge strings can help boost volume they also can be more painful on tender fingertips unaccustomed to the tension.

Lighter gauges are often easier to fret, but very light strings can cause some to over-bend a string which causes sharp notes.

Material & Finish

A strings material also affects tone. Common materials are Nickel, Bronze, Phosphor Bronze, Stainless and Silk and Steel.


Though most of us have our favorite brands, another way to experience different tone is to try various materials.

Effects of String Tension


First and most importantly is our set up. Instruments that have been set up properly to insure appropriate string height, nut slot width/depth, intonation and neck relief have been done using the string gauge the player is using. If one changes string gauges, more or less tension is being placed on the instrument depending on whether they go up or down in string gauge. This can affect everything about your set up and require several adjustments.

If you are experimenting with tone, try various materials and brands but remember to choose the same gauge to avoid changing the action.


Besides affecting the action, a change in tension may also affect the sound (sustain and tone). Some players may choose to increase the string gauge on their instrument in hopes of increasing volume and sustain.

A common complaint when using very light or extra light gauge strings is a loss of volume, sustain and a thin or twangy sound.


Alright, not that you could have missed it but ...bigger gauge=more tension, and more tension=more pressure on your fingertips while fretting. This tension is painful at first but callus and frequent playing reduce or eliminate it with time.

Let's not forget string benders. Not all of us can take an .011 gauge E string and bend it 2 notes sharp. Any players choose their string gauge according to their playing demands.

Extra light gauge strings which offer little resistance to the players touch can easily be over bent when fretting or string bending.

Special Considerations

Age / Structural Soundness

While most new instruments are solid enough to give the player the option to choose from several string gauges, vintage pieces or those with structural problems may limit your options.

Older instruments that were originally designed to be strung with gut strings or were braced lightly, require very light gauges and should be structurally sound before submitting them to tension.

If you are thinking about stringing up a vintage instrument for the first time I highly recommend having it inspected. All braces should be securely glued to the top and back. The bridge and bridge plate should be inspected and all other areas of stress should be checked for cracks or looseness.

Neck Relief

Another common problem that robs us of our string choice is the necks condition. Let me give you an example:

A 1967 Fender Strat comes in with a neck that is slightly back bowed (fingerboard is higher in the middle than the ends). After inspecting the truss rod I learn that it is completely loose, leaving us without the ability to introduce proper neck relief by loosening the truss rod. We opt for a heavier gauge string that puts more tension on the neck, pulling it straight.

Likewise a neck with entirely too much relief may require a lighter gauge string in reduce the tension with hopes of decreasing relief.

For more information on common neck issues and repair methods see my neck and truss rod articles.

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