String tone is derived from both its alloy and its diameter, or gauge, measured in thousandths of an inch. The thicker the string, the fatter the tone it will produce. Conversely, a thinner string will be easier to press down or bend. A thicker gauge string will have a stiffer feel when picked or strummed and produce more volume.
The majority of electric guitarists use what, based on the gauge of the thinnest string, are referred to as 9’s (9-42) or 10’s (10-46) while most acoustic players prefer a slightly heavier gauge like 12’s (12-53) which offer more projection and volume.
Which is the best string gauge for you? It’s purely personal taste based on your playing style and your desired tone. Here’s what some of our favorite electric guitar players have used, though many have experimented with different gauges over the years.
Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Brian May, Peter Frampton, Tony Iommi, and Jeff Beck have all used 8’s, though Beck has consistently gone heavier and now uses 11’s.
Carlos Santana, Steve Lukather, James Hetfield, and Eddie Van Halen use 9’s.
Danny Gatton, David Gilmour, Brian Setzer, Duane Allman, Joe Walsh, and Buddy Guy all prefer 10’s.
Then there are the guys who like ‘em heavy. Slash, Allan Holdsworth, Robert Cray and Pete Townsend all like 11’s, though Pete used 13’s early on. Stevie Ray Vaughn has used 12’s and 13’s for that thick, piano string, tone.
One important thing to keep in mind is that if you change string gauges you will most likely need to make adjustments to your guitar. Heavier strings put more pressure on the neck than lighter strings. If you switch from light to heavy, you may experience a bowing of the neck where the strings become very high around the midpoint of the neck making it difficult to play. Conversely, switching from heavy to light may cause a back-bow where the middle of the neck shifts toward the strings, possibly so much so that the strings buzz when played or even rest on the fretboard. Either way, manipulating the truss rod and adjusting the bridge can correct this.