String Gauge-How It Affects Your Guitar Tone | Fort Lauderdale Guitar Lessons
Hi this is Dyce Kimura. I am giving Fort Lauderdale guitar lessons out of my studio in sunny South Florida. Today I want to talk to you about the topic of string gauge, and specifically, how string gauge can actually effect your overall tone.
This is a critical question, because string gauge is an important concern for all guitarists—acoustic or electric, and no matter your proficiency level, age or style of music that you play. You probably have noticed by now that some people use really big strings—and others will use any thickness of string. Unfortunately, though, many guitarists don’t spend enough time on selecting the right string. That’s probably because they have no idea just how important selecting the right string is.
If you are like the typical guitarist—no matter what level you are—then you are probably spending plenty of time and energy pouring over your amps, pedals and pick-ups. Even beginning guitar players obsess over the tone they get out of their axe. However, what many guitarists fail to ever really consider is the gauge of your guitar’s strings. That’s because the strings are where all of your guitar’s tone begins.
While there are many types of string materials and thickness, I have one general rule that I subscribe to: fat guitar strings equal a fat tone. And even though pedal, effects and pick-up manufacturers want to make you believe through their advertisements that tone comes from their products—in fact, the true origin of a great guitar tone is from the strings. If you start with a fat tone, then all your guitar, effects, pedals, amp and other processes have to do is preserve that fat sound, and perhaps, enhance it a bit. However, if you are starting with a thin tone, then all the effects, pedals, amp and other processes in the world are just trying to SIMULATE a fat tone.
That’s why, personally, I use big strings on all of my guitars. For example, on electric guitar, I play either 11 through 12’s; specifically, I use 11-50 or a 12–52. At one point in my life I was even playing 13–56. At that stage, I drop-tuned significantly, but that produced an absolutely massive sound. Of course, I’m a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, and earlier in my career, I tried my best to mimic his tone as best I could. One thing that I learned about Stevie Ray Vaughan: not only did he use that specific Strat and not only did he have 5 or 10 amps turned all the way up simultaneously—but he used massive strings. So I started experimenting with that, and took it from there.
I play my Stevie Ray Vaughan signature guitar, and even though I used them with 13s, more recently, I have gone down to a 12 or 11 gauge. Typically, I use 11-gauge in standard tuning and 12-gauge strings tuned a half-step down. And these strings sound HUGE! One of the biggest differences I have noticed with these strings is that I get a substantial amount more of bass. However, because of the fact that these strings are so much bigger, I actually have to strike the string harder in order to make them ring better. Thus, these thicker strings become a workout for both hands. Meanwhile, my left hand has to do considerably more work when it comes to choking (bending), hammering, pulling and grabbing chords. In short, it is just a lot more work all around!
However, at the same time, I noticed that hitting the strings harder will change the nature of your tone dramatically. This is a very important concept. To get those big fat strings ringing properly, you must have a greater level of attack to ring the string. (Don’t worry! The string can handle that increased level of attack because it is so much thicker than the typical string). It’s not like you are over-picking the strings—for example, like you would be if you were attacking a 9-guage string this hard!
In general, thicker and tighter strings generally have a more focused sound. These strings will hit their resonant frequency more quickly, because the extra tension leaves them less slack to flap around and vibrate.
Meanwhile, thicker and tighter strings when plucked from the same distance are louder, because these strings are filled with more energy. Simply put, there is more metal vibrating around in front of the pickup. Scientifically speaking, there is more kinetic energy that is available to be transmitted to your guitar’s sounding board.
“Bigger Strings Need Higher Action,” Fort Lauderdale Guitar Lessons
Conversely, heavier strings do not have to vibrate as much to produce the same volume as a narrower string needs to be. These strings need to buzz less in order to produce the same volume as a narrower string. However, there is one caution to having thicker strings: make sure to get your guitar set up properly by a good guitar technician. Over the years I have learned to have to raise my action in order to avoid string buzz. The strings buzz a lot more with thicker strings unless the action is raised because there is simply more string flopping around to make contact with the frets. Also, speaking of raising action, I have had to raise the nut at the zero fret, and file the nut groves to widen the string slots as well. On one guitar I even had to change out the tuner heads because they couldn’t fit the fat E string in the slot hole! (But that was when I was using a 56 bottom-E string.) Raising the action has meant that the guitar gets even harder to play and the neck feels even more cumbersome (which means some additional strength is needed to play it.) However, this raised action actually sounds better. You will get much more sustain and tonal depth with raised action because the string can transmit its vibration at a steeper angle which will give you more prolonged sustain. Also a higher action (if not too high) will give you more control over the subtle bending of the strings. Overall, this is generally why I consider a guitarist that chooses a slightly higher action over a fast, lower action to be more mature in his tonal expression.
Keep in mind that this additional energy required doesn’t come from out of the blue. It takes YOU more effort and strength to pluck a thicker string, of course. In my opinion, it is up to each of us to find the happy medium between a thick string that puts out a great sound—without having a string that’s so thick that it becomes too difficult to pluck.
I also use a Dunlop 88 Tortex pic with 12 gauge strings, as well as a 0.73 pic for 11-gauge strings. With these, you can get kind of a cushy affect where the pic moves when it hits the strings. This movement of the string can in fact give you a wonderfully-raunchy guitar tone with lots of “mids.” Therefore, I don’t want to pick too hard because I play lots of rock ‘n roll and blues. However, I also don’t want to pick too softly, because I want to maintain my speed and clarity—regardless of the style I may be playing at a particular time. In the end, I like to be right in the middle.
As I mentioned, I like to use the 73 Dunlops for 11-gauge and the 88 Dunlops for the 12-gauge. If I’m playing my acoustic, I will use either 12-gauge or 13-gauge strings made by D’Addario and I will use those with the 73 mm Dunlop pic. So because I am hitting the strings harder I am going to get cleaner highs; and because the strings are bigger I am also going to get bigger lows. Not to mention, I also get more “mids.” In short, I get more of everything. Furthermore, with bigger strings, the amp does not have to work as hard to manufacture the EQ that I desire. That’s because the EQ is already naturally coming out of the strings; I just have to open it or close it depending upon how much of the knob I turn.
If you are playing a good guitar with the big strings, your amp only needs to clearly communicate what you are already doing with your guitar. That is, you just want to clearly communicate the EQ that comes out of your guitar over to your amp. You will not need to boost things a whole lot or do a lot of extra work once you have a great tone that is already coming directly from the strings.
“Keep it Simple,” says Dyce-Fort Lauderdale Guitar Lessons
One of the analogies that I use when it comes to tone is that guitar tone is like a piece of steak. When you order a really superb cut of steak at your favorite steak house, it will most likely be perfectly fine by itself. At the most, it might just need a little bit of salt to get it perfect. Guitar tones are like that, too. With a great guitar tone, all you need is a little bit of “salt.” For instance, all you may need is a hand wired 808 tube screamer, to add a little bit of flavor. Just like your steak, when you already have a good sound, you do not need to manipulate the tone with all kinds of dressings to make it sound better. Meanwhile, conversely, if you are eating a really bad steak (let’s say a T-bone from Denny’s), the first thing you will do is to immediately go for the A1 steak sauce. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen guitar players doing the exact same thing. I often encounter guitar players using mediocre pick-ups with thin strings—and then dressing up the sound with a bunch of fancy effects trying to make it sound exotic; and then drive the entire thing into a mediocre amp. Amazingly, they still wonder why they do not have a killer tone.
I often ask these guitarists the total cost of their rig: usually, they would have been better off spending the money on a USA-made Fender or Gibson guitar with a high quality amp (I like Fender amps as well). Use big strings and a good overdrive pedal for your “salt” and you can go from there. Let the quality guitar, amp and big strings speak for themselves. As long as you don’t digitize your tone or overuse pedals you will sound big and gnarly.
For example, I have a good guitar, a USA Fender that has some great pickups (I use Texas specials) and then couple that with a Celestion greenback 12-inch speaker. I just turn it up and let the strings ring out. From there, I just tweak my tone settings until the strings sound perfect—and you can do the same.
And while we are on the subject of amp settings, what is the perfect amp settings you ask? The truth is, there is no real set answer: it all depends upon your amp’s volume. That’s because the more volume you have, the less bass you need, because the bass sound comes from the speaker moving the air.
You may want to experiment with even thicker strings. For example, I used to use 13–56 gauge strings. (For reference, a 56 for the low E is the same gauge as the high G on a bass guitar.) When I played the 13–56s, it was like the low string of my bass guitar was on my low E-string—which was huge. Another thing to consider is if you’re using a locked tremolo, you’re going to need all five strings in the back. Why do I always put five springs in the back; not only does it give me a strong tension on the bridge to counteract the big strings but it also gives me a better tone; overall, I have found that the more metal you put on your guitar the better it sounds. (However, this is not true for people using a Floyd Rose; if you’re using a Floyd Rose, you should not go higher than a 10-gauge.)
Overall, you can have more metal by using bigger strings, you can have more metal by adding more springs, and you can have more metal from using bigger frets. Depending on how big your frets are that changes your sustain, because the strings need to resonate and the vibration transfers into the guitar by touching the frets. The bigger the fret the greater piece of metal you have resonating that tone which gives you more sustain and a bigger sound. Furthermore, a bigger string generates a few more vibrations or residue that drives into the wood. Likewise, a bigger fret gives you more of a surface for the string to catch the vibrations and sound them into the wood. I tend to use Jim Dunlop 6100 frets, but lately my luthier has convinced me to start using 6105’s. One caution is that if you start using bigger strings you will need a little bit more in volume from the amp, in order to get the full ring of the bass strings compared to when you used to use the new strings. Also, if you play at a super-low volume with really big strings you are only going to hear mids and highs. In order to get the low-end to really come out you are going to have to turn your amp up to at least 40% depending on the wattage of the amp. Which is precisely why a lot of guitar players today play so loud.
I hope this info on string gauge and how it affects your tone has been helpful. Of course, I must add that this is strictly my opinion and this may not be yours—but you’ll have fun arriving at your own perfect sound. These are just some of the tips and information that I share 1-on-1, whether teaching Fort Lauderdale guitar lessons, or online via Skype.
Dyce Kimura offers Singing Lessons and Guitar Lessons to students in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami area. He also teaches students globally thru Skype. For more information call 7864573687. Also feel free to email Dyce at email@example.com. Remember its always best to get advise from professional Fort Lauderdale guitar lessons. For more information click here.