I hear a lot of questions, from everyone from total noobs to seasoned expert players, regarding which string gauges to get for their guitar. Thusly:
“I play in drop C – what’s the best string gauge so I don’t have a floppy low string?
“I have an 8 string with a 24.75″ – 29″ fan – what kind of strings should I get if I want balanced tension?”
“Wat gauge for 7 stg drop F#? v impotent pls respond”
“I pooped my pants – can u pls wipe me?”
Really though, the subject of string gauge is a pretty vast one, and can’t typically be covered by 3482394872 different people commenting on one Facebook thread. It takes a little bit of math, a little bit of physics, a little bit of thinking, a LOT of trial and error, and some help from people smarter than me.
1. Determine the scale length of your guitar.
How long is your guitar’s scale length? You may first be asking, what the FUCK is scale length and how do I measure it? Before we start making any sense of why a particular string gauge is best for you, we must first understand scale length. First of all, don’t stress – you probably won’t have to bust out the measuring tape and try to eyeball it. The specs for all commercially available guitars and many less common ones are easily found on the internet. If you got a custom guitar made for you by a small luthier and you DON’T know what scale length it is, then you probably didn’t need a custom guitar. But if you did, call the builder and ask. Secondly, the scale length of your guitar is the distance from the nut to the twelfth fret times two. This is EXTREMELY important, because it determines the tension of the string at pitch, which is a huge factor in deciding which strings you need to get the feel and sound you desire.
Guitars generally come in one of three basic scale length categories: what I would consider “standard” – 25.5” or thereabouts, typically found on strats and derivatives; short scale – anything 25” or less, such as a Les Paul, Paul Reed Smith, or Fender Jaguar/DuoSonic/Mustangs; and baritone, which is a vague demarcation that generally starts around 26.5”-27” and longer. The longer the scale, the thinner the strings you will need for the same string tension at pitch, and vice versa.
As a general rule, a guitar with 7 or more strings will likely be on the longer side (see the Gibson Les Paul 7 string as a glaring exception) as, just like on a piano, lower pitches need a longer string to hold a steady note when tuned to pitch. The low B and F# strings on a 7 or 8 string guitar get less and less reliable the shorter the scale length. Also worth noting, however, is that the longer the scale, the tighter the string will be at pitch, which affects not only playability, but also tone. At a certain tightness, the sound loses some of its guitar-like quality, and lacks some of the harmonic overtone content that gives the tone its richness. In order to achieve an ideal balance, we need to find a synergy between the scale length and the string gauge. Once we reach this, the nexus of tone, playability, and intonation (or at least, a workable compromise) becomes a reachable goal.
(See below for multiscale guitars)
2. What kind of feel do you prefer (String tension)?
So once you’ve discovered the scale length of your axe, and have a reasonable understanding of where it sits on the spectrum of lengths, then it becomes a bit of a trial-and-error process. If you’ve played a guitar before, then it’s likely you’ve bought strings for it at some point and changed them out. What gauge have you used in the past on that guitar? How did they feel? What kind of a feel do you prefer? If you’re doing a lot of highly expressive, wide bends and big vibrato, then you’ll likely be wanting a slinkier feel. This is a lot easier to achieve on a shorter scale guitar and using lower gauge strings, because the shorter the scale, the lower the string tension will be at pitch. A set of .10’s on a Les Paul (24.75”) will feel pretty different from the same strings on a Schecter KM7 (26.5), with almost 2 more inches of length, they will be significantly tighter on the Schecter.
If you’re playing jazz, you might not be doing as much in the way of big bends and crazy vibrato, and you might prefer a tighter feel with a fatter tone. Higher gauge strings and/or a longer scale length will achieve this (although Les Paul played jazz, and his eponymous guitars are short scale). Many rock and metal players like a tighter feel on the lower strings for good intonation on rhythm guitar parts, and a bit of a slinkier feel on the high strings for expressive lead playing. The trial and error part here is actually trying higher and lower string gauges to figure out what kind of a feel you like, because if you don’t know what you like, how can we work towards it?
The main takeaway here is that string tension has probably the most important role in the feel of your guitar. There is a very handy tool for this – the String Tension Calculator. It will help you figure out the amount of tension a string has at a certain length and pitch.
3. What are you tuning to?
Now that we understand the principles of scale length and string gauge, we need to factor in one more thing: tuning. If you don’t have a tuning that you use, then you need to go back to the drawing board and read my guide on how to pick a tuning for you guitar.
Once you’ve done that, the major principle here is that a lower tuning will reduce the string tension, and a higher one will increase it. In fact, it is the reduction or increase in tension that changes the pitch of an open string to begin with. So it stands to reason that if you have found a scale length and feel that you like at standard pitch, but now intend on tuning lower, you will need to compensate by increasing either the string gauge (easy and cheaper; buy thicker strings and put them on) or scale length (harder and more expensive; buy a new guitar with a longer scale). As a very rough guide, I tend to go up a gauge for every whole step lower I go; this works to down to around B standard or so, at least. for example, I like 9’s at standard tuning on a 25.5” scale guitar, but I tend to play a whole step down in D standard, so I up the gauge to 10’s to compensate, and that feels pretty close.
Using drop or alternate tunings will throw an extra curveball into the mix – if a set of strings is balanced tension-wise across the neck for standard tuning, having one or more strings tuned up or down from that will change that balance, so using a higher or lower gauge string in those spots to compensate might alleviate that if it’s bothering you. Use the String Tension Calculator to find out which gauge will be a close match.
Balanced tension is a term that means the tension is the same (or close to the same) for all strings across the neck. This isn’t necessarily the best thing, just something that gives a certain feel that some people like. Some string sets are sold as balanced tension sets. I recommend you try a set and see if it’s right for you. It’s possible to build a balanced tension (or “unbalanced” in a way you like) set for an alternate tuning or a specific guitar, and we’ll get into that in a bit.
4. Intonation and Tone
I feel as though to a certain degree, intonation and tone on the guitar are at odds with each other. The guitar snarls and screams when it sounds like it’s supposed to, but often at the cost of perfect intonation. Conversely, when the intonation is perfect, like when the tension is a bit higher, the tone might not be what you’re looking for or expect from a guitar. Basically, if the tension isn’t enough, every time you hit the string it will go sharp. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. It’s REAL fucking annoying.
I don’t really have a good solution for this, only to say that understanding the dichotomy is important to achieving your desired end result, and that you can only know what you’re looking for when you try each end of the spectrum. I’ll give an example: I got my first good seven string maybe 3 years ago, an Ernie Ball/MusicMan JP7. It’s a spectacular guitar, 25.5” scale, excellent in every way. But having only played a terrible cheap seven before that, I didn’t realize that it was the low gauge string I was using on the low B that was giving me intonation problems, not the build quality of the guitar. So I upped the gauge drastically to account for the intonation being a bit wonky, but as I approached .70 gauge, I began to notice a distinct tonal shift. The string started to sound more sterile and bass-like the higher the gauge went. It lacked some of the nice growl that it had at a lower gauge. For me, an ideal scale on the low string is 26.5 or 27”, because then you don’t need quite as heavy of a string for a good intonation and tone. On a longer scale guitar, however, the strings start to get a bit too stiff as you go across the fretboard. You just can’t win!
This is why a mad genius named Ralph Novak came up with a design that is only now really gaining a foothold in the world of guitars…. the multi scale neck!
5. Multiscale Guitars
Why multi scale? A multi scale guitar takes the idea of string tension to a whole new level. The problems we encounter in string tension occur when the pitch you are trying to tune your guitar to is just not ideal at the length of the string you’re allowed by the neck. Frets are laid out according to a formula that is based on the scale length, so you can’t just move your saddle back further and get a better sound – that will put every fretted note out of tune on that string. The higher a string is tuned, the shorter the ideal scale length, and the lower it’s tuned, the longer the ideal length.
So then what we wind up with is a constantly changing ideal scale length across the guitar’s numerous strings. So why fight it? A multi scale guitar simply implements a constant rate of change in the scale length across the fretboard, slanting the frets to accommodate, and voila!
If you’ve understood all the principles I’ve laid out here so far, then you’ll see how even something like a multi scale guitar can have your desired feel. A multi scale or fan fret guitar generally has its scale denoted thusly: 26.5”- 25”, or the reverse, high to low. Either way, what you need to do is to take the length of the longest string and subtract the shortest one to get the difference (the change in length across the fretboard) which should be constant (Oni guitars uses a system of curved fanned frets – I’m not even going to try) and then divide that number by the number of strings. That number will be the amount each string changes in length from one to the next (we’ll call that X). Start at and then skip the shortest string length (which we already know) and add X cumulatively to each one to get the scale length for each. For instance, if we use the example of a 27”-25” scale 7 string guitar, we know that it’s a difference of 2” from one side to the other. We then take 2” and divide it by 7 (I recommend using Google for this, math with feet and inches is really weird), giving us ≈.286″. We know the highest string is 25”, so the next highest will be 25” + .286″, giving us 25.286″. We then add .286″ to THAT number, giving us the length of the third string, and so on. You should eventually reach the longest string, which, if you’ve done it right, should be 27”, and now you should have the lengths of each string. Once you have that, you can just apply your tension formulas as before. This will lead to a bit of insanity in picking strings, as you are unlikely to find many string sets that cater to the gauges you will need to get your desired tension, and a custom set will be your only option. Strandberg does offer sets for multi scale guitars on their website, and many string companies offer custom set builders or bulk single string options (Kalium Strings, Just Strings, Stringjoy)
If you have a set of strings for a standard flat scale length that you like, and you want to get a similar feel on a multiscale, you can use the string tension calculator to figure out the tension of your favorite set, and then use it to figure out what strings would have the same tension at the scale length of each string on your multiscale guitar.
I’m sure that when you picked up the guitar, your deepest desire was to have to do loads of math and follow complex formulas to determine something as basic as which fucking strings to buy. No? I didn’t think so. Lucky for you, you should only have to worry about this once per guitar purchase, and once you find the ballpark of the gauges you need, then you can dial it in over a course of two or three sets and once you’ve found your Goldilocks zone, buy your strings in BULK! That’s a magical moment.
6. Wound Third String or No?
There is nothing more mysteriously pesky on the guitar than that damn G string. Of all the stupid problems we have to deal with as guitar players, there is none more unnecessarily annoying as the third string just never quite sounding right. The most basic explanation has to do with the temperament and intonation compromises made on the guitar, which is addressed by something like True Temperament frets, where the small differences in the size of the frets (which determine the size of each half-step) is compensated for by actually making the frets squiggly. If this seems like an extreme solution to you, but you want to improve the intonation of your third string, a wound third might be what you need. Some sets come with a wound third, and this is usually denoted on the package.
What is a wound string, you may ask? If you look closely at your guitar’s strings, you will notice that the thinnest three are usually a single thickness of plain wire, smooth on all sides. All the other strings will likely have a texture to them, which yo can feel if you run your finger along the length. This is due to the wound string construction – one wire acts as the core wire around which another is wrapped or “wound” around for the entire length, making the string thicker, but still flexible. A genius solution in my opinion – a solid string of the same gauge would be impossible to play. Of course, when you enter into wound string territory, the price goes up quite a bit – in order to wrap a string all the way up, the winding string needs to be incredibly long. So you’re essentially buying two strings.
String gauge is only one part of the feel and sound of your guitar, but it’s a big one. Taking the time to try different things and learn about what different gauges can do for you will improve your guitar playing experience, and when you make playing more enjoyable, you play and sound better. I don’t have all the answers for what is best for each person’s playing style or guitar, but I hope this guide serves as a good jumping-off point for you to get to where you need to be.