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Any player knows that string choice, especially string gauge, is a key part of the tone equation.
That raises the question: Do thicker guitar strings sound better?
In general, a lot more goes into the sound of a guitar string than its thickness, but thicker guitar strings will sound louder than thinner ones. In some cases, that might translate to a better sound, but it might also not be the right sound for a particular player.
Let’s look at how string thickness can affect the sound and why you’d want to choose a thicker or thinner guitar string.
How Does The Thickness Of A Guitar String Affect Its Sound?
We’ve looked at string thickness a little bit before.
There is an awful lot that goes into the sound a guitar string produces. Thickness, also known as gauge, is definitely part of that, but so are other factors like material and how the string is made.
With everything else being equal, a thicker guitar string will produce a stronger vibration than a thinner one, which tends to create a louder sound. The reason why depends on the kind of guitar, and so does the effect.
This will be most apparent on an acoustic guitar. Thicker strings have more mass than thinner strings, even when they’re emitting the same frequency.
In an acoustic guitar, the volume is directly affected by the vibrations of the top — thicker strings literally make the top move more than thinner ones and therefore produce a louder sound.
Thicker strings also can tend to be louder on an electric guitar, but for a different reason. Just like on an acoustic guitar, a thicker string will vibrate more and have more mass, but in an electric, the vibrations of the top aren’t what cause the sound.
Instead, it’s the movement of the strings through the magnetic field created by the pickups. Thicker strings with more mass will also tend to create more disturbance in that magnetic field, making them louder.
That effect will be much less noticeable than on an acoustic, though, and can easily be overshadowed by small changes to guitar volume and tone or amplifier volume, and even playing dynamics.
The extra mass of heavier gauge, thicker strings can also give them more sustain, meaning they continue to vibrate longer. That’s in part because of inertia, with heavier things having more inertia.
To show exactly how complicated this can be, though, that same extra inertia can actually hurt sustain for electric guitars because it can cause interference with the magnetic field of the pickups.
Again, though, you might find such changes very difficult to notice, as they’ll be overshadowed by other things quite easily. You need very consistent playing technique and reliable equipment to be able to notice the difference in sustain.
What Are Your Choices For String Thickness?
There used to be a limited range of choices for guitar strings. In fact, people used to scavenge banjo strings, which are usually thinner, to make lighter high E strings for guitars.
Now, you have an almost unlimited range of string gauges to choose from. If you wanted, you could easily source individual strings and make an entirely custom set.
There are many, many choices out there, though. Here are some of the most common sets you’ll find for both electric and acoustic guitars.
|Electric Guitar||E (Low)||A||D||G||B||E (High)|
Do Heavier Guitar Strings Sound Better?
So we know that heavier gauge strings will probably be louder than lighter gauge ones. That means they’ll sound better and we should always choose the heaviest set, right?
Well, obviously not, or there wouldn’t be so many choices out there, would there? Instead, we’d still be in the bad old days where you went to the counter at the music store and bought whatever guitar strings they handed to you.
But if you ask many guitarists, heavy strings are the missing secret to super thick tone. But, as we covered when we looked at what guitar strings B.B. King used, that definitely isn’t a universal opinion.
King famously told ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons (famous for his big bends) that he was “working too hard” when he played his guitar, and the strings King later endorsed from Gibson only had a high E string of .010″ — fairly light compared to many blues and jazz players.
And no one would say King’s tone was anything like thin, even if his strings were!
In addition to the difference in volume, some players say that heavier strings sound darker than thinner ones. This makes some sense when you look at how guitar strings work.
Like all similar instruments, guitars make a sound when a string vibrates. The frequency depends on the length of the vibrating string.
But a vibrating string produces more than one sound. There is the lowest, loudest sound — the fundamental — and then it also produces higher sounds, called overtones.
A lot of different things can affect what overtones are produced and how loud each of them are, including scale length and string thickness.
That’s because both of those directly affect string tension. Basically, a thicker string needs to be under more tension to produce the same frequency as a thinner string of the same length.
The study of overtones and harmonics is very complicated, but videos like this one give an overview of the basic ideas.
Why Should You Use Thicker Guitar Strings?
One thing that thicker guitar strings will probably do better than thinner ones is hold their tune. Heavy gauge strings generally more tuning stability, at least at first.
Just like with tone, though, a whole range of other factors also affect tuning stability, from string age to playing style to guitar set up and how well maintained the instrument is. After all, a faulty bridge or bad tuning mechanisms will have a much greater effect.
The other advantages of heavy gauge strings depend on what you’re actually playing.
If you’re playing rhythm guitar on a steel string acoustic in an old-time ensemble — say fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar — you are going to want the heaviest strings you can manage to play. That’s because heavy gauge strings will offer a few big advantages in a situation like that.
The extra mass drives the acoustic top harder than thinner strings, giving you a louder sound, and the relative lack of higher overtones makes the lower, fundamental frequencies stand out in a band where a lot of things are happening at the very top end of the frequency range.
Likewise, if you were playing jazz-style chords on a hollow body electric guitar, you would also probably want thicker strings. You might even try flat-wound strings.
Both heavier strings and choosing flat-wounds would give you a darker tone, one with less resonant high end. The gauge contributes to that with tension, while the flat-wound strings use a construction method that helps really cut back on string noise and de-emphasizes higher-end airiness.
The extra tension also gives your playing a stronger, clearer attack, so the start of notes and phrases are far more distinct.
Other situations in which the extra tension of heavier strings is useful are any variety of alternate tunings. Drop-D tuning — D, A, D, G, B, E — is very popular for it’s “heavy” sound and thicker strings help that tone.
If you use an open tuning or play slide, you’ll also notice some advantages to thicker strings.
Why Should You Use Thinner Guitar Strings?
Plenty of guitar experts — of varying actual levels of expertise — would tell you that you always want to use heavier guitar strings because it will give you the best tone.
That really isn’t true at all. Thicker guitar strings will probably give you a louder sound, all other things being equal, but there are plenty of situations where louder might not be what you’re going for.
Think of a parlor sized acoustic guitar. You want volume and projection, but the small size of the instrument’s body means that too much volume might actually sound bad.
The relatively darker sound of thicker strings might also not give you as much high end sparkle as you’d expect from a small, delicate guitar.
And think back to B.B. King and his use of thinner strings. One reason was that it allowed him to bend strings more during his performance, which contributed a great deal to his distinctive playing style.
While you can certainly bend thicker strings, you do start to run into some limitations. First, thicker strings are under more tension to achieve the same note, like we covered earlier.
That means it takes more force to bend them, and even if you have the strength to do it, they bend more slowly than thinner strings would. If you have a fast playing style, fast bends are usually helped by thinner strings.
Because they’re under more tension they are also closer to the limit of how far they actually can bend. Especially if you’re not using brand new strings, deep bends on thick strings can easy cause a break mid performance.
And unless you have a tech waiting in the wings like Stevie Ray Vaughan — famously a player who used very heavy gauge strings — did in this old video, that means you’re changing a string before you can keep playing!
Are Thicker Or Thinner Strings Better?
One things heavier gauge guitar strings are good for is exactly the reason so many people avoid them — they strengthen the hand. The extra tension, as well as the difference in surface area on your fingertips, can make playing heavy gauge strings quite difficult.
Some players use this to their advantage. For example, they’ll practice intricate lead lines on acoustic guitar, building up speed as they go.
When they switch to an electric guitar, which generally use much thinner gauge strings than an acoustic, their hand speed is even faster.
The problem with that should be obvious, though: Not everyone has the hand strength to play very heavy gauge strings.
While that sounds like it should be a problem it isn’t necessarily.
After everything we’ve covered, you could be pretty sure that the recommendation would be that if you want to play loud and dark, use heavy gauge guitar strings. And you’d be right, but not entirely.
What if I told you one of the originators of heavy guitar sounds used the lightest strings you can find, even today?
Tony Iommi, the guitarist for Black Sabbath, uses .008″ or .009″ gauge string sets, depending on he tunes his guitars down a half step or one and a half steps. While they’re reinforced at the ball end to keep them from breaking, those are way thinner than most people would use.
Part of that is because Iommi lost two fingertips on his left hand before the band became famous, but even still, he was able to get the sound he did out of much thinner strings than you’d expect.
He uses a combination of dropped tuning, amp choice, pickup choice, EQ and effects to get his signature deep, dark tone.
That should be your main takeaway on string gauge: The best way to play is to find what makes the sound you want to make, regardless of how others might do it.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.