Guitar String Gauge Explained

What is a guitar string gauge?

A guitar string’s gauge is the measurement of a string’s thickness or diameter. The thickness is measured in thousandths of an inch. So, a gauge 10 string has a thickness (diameter) of 10 thousandths of an inch.

So that you can get a feel for the sizes of individual string gauges, we have included a table showing the string diameters in imperial (inch) and metric (mm) for a typical set of regular light (10-46) strings . The smallest string has a diameter of approximately a quarter of a millimeter and the largest string is a little over 1.5 mm in diameter.

NOTEDIAMETER (inch)DIAMETER (mm)
E0.0100.254
B0.0130.330
G0.0170.432
D0.0260.660
A0.0360.914
E0.0461.684

What are the “standard” string sets for guitar?

You could buy strings one at a time and hand pick the sizes for each of E, B, G, D, A, E. But to make it easier and cheaper, the string manufacturers have put together a range of “standard” sets. Problem is, each manufacturer has a slightly different definition of “standard”.

D’Addario “Standard” Electric Guitar String Sets

SIZECODEEBGDAE
Super LightEXL120.009.011.016.024.032.042
Regular LightEXL110.010.013.017.026.036.046
MediumEXL115.011.014.018.028.038.049
HeavyEXL145.012.016.020.032.042.054
Extra HeavyEXL148.012.016.020.034.046.060
D’Addario “Standard” Electric Guitar String Sets

Ernie Ball “Standard” Electric Guitar String Sets

SIZECODEEBGDAE
Super LightSuper Slinky.009.011.016.024.032.042
Regular LightSlinky.010.013.017.026.036.046
MediumPower Slinky.011.014.018.028.038.048
HeavyNot Even Slinky
Magnum Slinky
.012
.012
.016
0.16
.024p
0.22w
.032
0.32
.044
0.44
.056
.056
Extra HeavyMammoth Slinky.012.016.024w.034.048.062
Ernie Ball “Standard” Electric Guitar String Sets

A closer look at D’Addario versus Ernie Ball

As “standard” electric guitar strings, these examples are both are made with a high carbon steel core and nickel-plated steel wrap wire. Keep in mind there are many variations of string construction beyond the scope of our discussion here. The variations include, round wound vs flat wound, coated versus uncoated, carbon steel versus stainless steel versus nylon (for classical/folk) versus catgut, single ball-end, double-ball end versus tied. I can feel another article or two coming on. . .

However, staying on track with our string gauge topic, if you compare the two tables above, you will notice:

  • There are slight differences between Ernie Ball and D’Addario offering’s. For example, the Medium D’Addario has a slightly heavier (larger) bottom E string.
  • Some gauges have a “w” and some have a “p” suffix. These represent “wound” and “plain” respectively. A wound string , is made up of central core wire and an outer wrap that is “wound” around the core. A plain string is a simple cylindrical wire or nylon. You can see the difference below.
Wound string (on left) versus plain string

The table above shows two Ernie Ball Heavy sets (12-56), one with a wound G and one with a plain G. So, it is worth looking closely at the gauge specification before you purchase.

A human hair is between 0.0007-0.007 inch. (Bionumbers database)
So, we calculate that a set of guitar strings made of human hair could be Extra Extra Super Light (1-7) gauge.
It is claimed that human hair was actually used as guitar string windings over gut core or spun into thicker gauge. (www.fuelrocks.com)


Is Ernie Ball better than D’Addario for Electric Guitar String Sets?

This is where is gets complicated. To answer this question, we need to look at more than just string gauge. . .and we need to determine what “better” means for you. What is more important to you – tone, longevity, feel, brand loyalty, the sound of your favourite guitarist, compatibility with your rig (amp, effects pedals, room acoustics), product availability or price?

Enough of the technical stuff, which string gauge is best (for me)?

When thinking about string gauge, consider that a heavier gauge generally . . .

  • requires more tension through your guitar
  • achieves a more bolder sound
  • requires stronger (more calloused) fingers
  • requires more finger strength to achieve crisp fretting and to bend notes

So, the answer is, it depends.

Summary

This article has taken a look at guitar string gauges. For simplicity, we restricted the conversation to electric guitar strings but the principles are the same for acoustic, bass or uke. The main take-aways are:

  • A guitar string gauge is measured in thousands of an inch and a “Regular Light (10-46)” set of strings will vary in diameter from .010 inch to .046 inch
  • You can buy individual strings and put together your own set, but why bother as you can get a ready-made (cheaper) full set of strings to meet most playing requirements
  • Each manufacturer offers an extensive range of pre-selected string sets ranging from Super Light through to Extra Heavy but they may vary slightly in gauge or windings
  • Aside from the “standard” range, each manufacturer has “specialist” sets suitable for different situations such as jazz, metal, drop-tuning and so on
  • When selecting a string, there is much more to consider other than gauge
  • it is probably best to try different brands and gauges until you find one that works for you. Experiment a bit but make sure you have the “right” string for your guitar. People have been known to buy a tie-on nylon strings for an acoustic guitar requiring ball-ends. Oops!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *