String gauges

23 May

During my first few years as a guitar player, I didn’t have the first clue about string gauges. Sometimes I bought the pink pack (Ernie Ball Super Slinky, .009-.042), sometimes it was the yellow (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, .010-.046), depending on what they slapped onto the counter when I said I wanted some strings for my Fender. Inevitably, I got less overwhelmed and more picky over the years, and by the time I was 14 or so, I had settled on 10-46. However, it was only two years before we started playing more extreme metal, which seemed to demand downtuning. The guys at the music store recommended 11:s in order to take up the slack, and that worked well for a while, and when I experimented with 10-52 it felt even better. When we gave up the extreme stuff and tuned back up, I got used to the increased tension, and thus I stuck with 10-52 for years and years.

It took a concerted effort for me to go back to regular-gauge strings again. During my formative years, I developed the habit of never practicing through an amplifier, which inevitably made me play harder to compensate, which was exacerbated by the fact that I could seldom hear myself properly on stage. In those years, I developed a hard and rough playing style that not only had my fingers and lower arms fatigued within five minutes on a stage, it was also murder on regular strings. My dad preferred 9-42 strings in those days, and when I borrowed his Fender and hit a chord, you could hear the “bawaiaoum” of the bottom E string hitting F and then settling back on pitch. But a few weeks of proper warm-up exercises and diligent practicing with distortion allowed me to develop a lighter touch and an almost effortless right-hand technique, and thus I was able to go back to Regular Slinkys again.

Making this journey was a massive learning experience, and sometimes you cannot grasp the obvious until it jumps up and hits you right in the face. Here’s what I’ve learned. The feel of a string depends on three factors: length, thickness and pitch. Obviously, it is impossible to change the scale length of a guitar. Furthermore, one tends to prefer a certain tuning standard, mine is standard 440 Hz concert pitch, if nothing else then for the fact that music tends to be a team sport. Once during my downtuning days, I tried to jam with some other guys that were in concert pitch, and it was almost out of control. When they followed me, it was a cacophony since we were two semitones apart, and when I followed them, you could smell the smoke in the room, that’s how hard I had to think. Long story short, the scale length is fixed and you generally want to tune to the same pitch as the other guys and gals, so the only thing that is left to experiment with is the string gauge.

What I learned from my own experiments was that there are even subtler physical things going on with a guitar. When I tuned up to concert pitch back in 1993-94, I started noticing that the intonation was off. I could be in perfect tune and when I checked my intonation at the 12th fret using a tuner, it was spot on. Still, when I played certain chords, they would sound horrible. Open G was especially nasty with the low G audibly sharper then the higher open-string G. I tried lightening my touch, but to no avail. I examined the fretwire to see if maybe my rough playing had worn it down, but it looked all right. The clincher came when my next guitar, the yellow Stratocaster that I still own, developed the same problems after a while. I almost sold it out of sheer frustration. But the problem vanished overnight when I dumped the 10-52 strings for the slightly thinner 10-46. The conclusion was that thicker strings vibrate less at their extreme ends, i.e. next to the nut and bridge, which creates the physical effect of a shorter effective length, i.e. a higher pitch. You also have to expend a bit more energy to fret notes closer to the nut. Ergo, intonation was off on the first few frets, but not on the fifth or 12th frets. The thinner strings were able to vibrate in their full length and make the problem disappear. The last major revelation was that the problem actually hadn’t occurred gradually, I had only been made aware of it gradually. It wasn’t even an issue until I went back to concert pitch on the BC Rich in late 1993, or on the Stratocaster in 2000. As long as I tuned the strings down, the lesser tension enabled a freer range of vibration. I never noticed any problems on the Les Paul that I got in 2001, because it has a shorter scale length and consequently less tension to begin with!

Since about 2008 or so, when I reinvented my guitar technique, I have been constantly experimenting with string gauges (and picks; more about that in a separate article). The biggest variable in the equation is me. I rarely go for more than a few days without picking up a guitar, but when I do, it varies wildly what I do with it, and for how long. If I’m in the middle of a recording project, I might concentrate more on rhythm and clean playing, and if I’m between projects, I might practice the hell out of scales and sequences. If I have been slacking off for a while, 10:s feel too tight on a Fender, but when I get going again and rebuild my chops, I get used to them and they’re perfect. Conversely, 10:s always feel right on a Gibson, but after a few weeks of intense playing, they start feeling flimsy and I am tempted to experiment with 11:s. I just love the beefy feel of 11:s on the shorter-scale Gibsons. They sound monstrous when riffing, and really solid if I want to play more feel-type leads. Even though I seldom shred on record, I like doing it for fun, and with 11:s, it’s like running a 100-meter dash in moon boots. I’m not even going to mention the one time I put an 11-54 set on my Stratocaster, now that was a challenge!

A few years back, I was bothered enough by the tightness of 10:s on a Fender that I tried finding a compromise. One workable solution was a hybrid set, 9-46. It had the correct amount of oomph on the wound strings, but was nice and bendy on the plain strings. Two things, however, ruled that out. First and foremost, it made logistics twice as complicated. I didn’t like the idea of having to keep two different gauges around on the off chance that I would break a string and find myself missing a replacement. Second, I discovered that tension isn’t the only criterion to pay attention to. Sure, the difference between 9 and 10 just about compensated for the extra 0.75 inches of scale length on the Fender. But I didn’t like the lessened resistance of the thinner string against my pick. It’s like I need a certain amount of inertia against my right hand.

So the inevitable conclusion is that the string gauge that works across the broadest possible range of conditions and on all my guitars is the middle-of-the-road 010-046. I simply have to keep my chops up in order to enjoy my Fenders fully!

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Posted by on 23 May, 2017 in gear


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