Strings have a bigger impact on acoustic guitars than electric guitars, as there are no pickups or amplifiers that contribute to the sound.
That’s why the choice of strings you use requires some thought, especially the thickness (or ‘gauge’) of the strings as that, in particular, has a big influence on playability and sound.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at acoustic guitar string gauges and help you understand the difference between them.
Table of Contents
Characteristics of Light vs. Heavy String Gauges
Lighter gauge strings
- easier to play
- easier bending of notes and fretting
- exert less tension on the guitar neck and are a safe choice for vintage guitars
- break more easily
- produce less volume and sustain
- prone to cause fret buzzing, especially on guitars with low action
Heavier gauge strings
- produce more volume and sustain
- harder to play
- require more finger pressure to fret and bend notes
- exert more tension on the guitar neck
Acoustic Guitar String Gauge Comparison Chart
Strings gauges are designated in thousandths of an inch.
- Extra Light – .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047 – otherwise known as 10’s
- Custom Light – .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052 – otherwise known as 11’s
- Light – .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 – otherwise known as 12’s
- Medium – .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056 – otherwise known as 13’s
- Heavy – .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059 – otherwise known as 14’s
Key Considerations When Choosing String Gauge
When choosing which string gauge is right for you, you should also consider these other things too.
Certain gauge strings go better with particular guitar body types.
- Jumbo size – medium to heavy gauge strings (13’s, 14’s). This extra tension helps drive the top of the guitar to provide a larger body of tone. Typically, they’re used by folk and bluegrass players who are what is known as ‘heavy flat pickers’
- Dreadnought size – medium gauge strings (12’s or 13’s), as these guitars are strong, sturdy builds and can handle the extra tension that heavy gauge strings put on them. They’re also designed to resonate louder.
- Grand Auditorium size – typically have 13’s
- Parlour / ¾ size – lighter gauge strings 11’s or lower (any heavy and they struggle with the tension). Because of the body size, these guitars don’t resonate so much, so there’s no point in putting heavy gauge strings on them anyway as you won’t hear the benefit.
Lighter gauge strings are much easier to fingerpick with. For strumming, medium gauge up will sound better. For a mix of fingerpicking and strumming, go with mediums. Fingerpicking with heavy gauge strings can be painful for beginners.
For guitars over a certain age, be careful fitting heavy strings as they can cause the neck to bow or the bridge to lift or snap off completely. If it’s a vintage guitar, take extra care.
Heavy gauge strings accentuate the guitars’ bass register giving you those deep and strong tones. Great if you’re a strummer and want to play loud chords that really ring out
Lighter strings will give you more treble and are more subtle.
The material the strings are made from also has an effect, each adding its own unique color.
- 80/20 Bronze – the most common type of material, with a clear and bright tone. The downside is they age (due to oxidization) pretty quickly, but they tend to be cheap too.
- Aluminium Bronze – crisper and better clarity than 80/20 Bronze, with a more pronounced bass
- Phosphor Bronze – warmer resonate tone, but less clarity and brightness
- Coated Phosphor Bronze – same as above, but coated to last longer (though they are a bit pricier)
- Polymer Coated – corrosion resistant
- Brass – bright, metallic, jangly sound
- Silk and steel – steel core strings with silk, nylon or copper wrap, mellow sound and good for fingerpicking
So which should you choose?
Well, the standard gauge is 12’s and you’ll find them on the majority of acoustics. Go with 13’s if you want to try something more resonant, but only if you have a large body guitar like a dreadnought or a jumbo, or you won’t hear the benefit.
If you have a ¾ size guitar or a parlor, go with some 10’s or 11’s to make things easy
One last thing, remember if you’re moving to a heavy gauge string to make sure the nut slots have enough room for the extra girth of the strings. Similarly, when going from heavy to light make sure there isn’t excess space in the nut slots for the strings to move around and buzz (if that happens, you may need a new nut). In either case, if you’re unsure, it’s best to seek the help of a professional.