Which gauge strings should I buy?
Both electric and acoustic guitar strings are available in different widths or “gauges”: from lighter / thinner to heavier / thicker. Heavy gauge strings can help you sustain notes for longer and boost volume but can be hard or even painful to play as they are strung tighter so they can cut into your fingers and are harder to bend. Light gauge strings make it easier to play bar chords and play complex fast-moving pieces, but break more easily and are considered to have a thinner sound.
Choosing which string gauge you use is like choosing your favourite plectrum – everyone has their own entirely subjective preference. Some people like heavier gauge strings for the sturdy feel and “larger” sound, and some people prefer to stick to the lighter gauges as they’re easy on your fingers! Both have their own advantages and disadvantages.
The Standard Gauges
As close to “standard” as you can get with most guitars, you’re looking at 9-42 or 10-46 gauge strings for most Electric guitars and 11-52 or 12-54 gauge strings for Acoustic guitars. Why are these standard? Well, most electric and acoustic guitars come strung with these gauges straight out the box, so the first time you played your instrument it’s likely it was strung with one of these and set up to accommodate them!
The Hybrid Gauges
For the awkward among us, most string manufacturers offer “hybrid” gauges as part of their core line up. What does this mean? Well hybrid gauge packs are typically a half & half Frankenstein of two other sets, with the bottom 3 strings matching one set, and the top 3 strings matching another set. For example, the Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky set contains the 9/11/16 gauge strings from their standard set of ‘9s, and the 26/36/46 gauge strings from their standard set of ’10s. This allows for easier barring/bending on the top strings, whilst retaining that heavier feel and sound on the bottom. Check out the extremely popular Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom pack for a heavier version of this concept.
The lower your tuning goes, the heavier your gauge will need to be. Ultimately the strings that you like the best will depend on your personal preference. Guitar feeling a bit hard to play? Try a lighter set. Do the strings feel like they’re flapping about in the wind? Might be time to move up a gauge. But it’s always worth remembering that when you drastically change the gauge of strings on your guitar, the different tension may mean the guitar requires a set-up to account for this, otherwise you risk running into a pile of tuning and intonation problems!