Why Can’t You Pick a Strings Gauge?

There’s nothing more annoying than a vacillator writing reviews who cannot make up his mind.  Dear and loyal reader Sean has rightly called me out on our Urban Semiotic blog for messing with him by changing my mind on what makes the best guitar strings gauge.


Here is Sean’s comment:

Hey David,

I notice you have been trying/testing a variety of strings, and seem to have gone full circle; I was ready to try Gibson Brites based on your review, then Ernie Ball Pure Nickel Wraps, and now see that you are back to D’Addario. As we both have the 2008 Gibson LP Standard (by chance also Iced Tea, though got my in Tokyo :) , I was curious what strings you are most pleased with on her. I have D’Add 10′s on my right now; which happened to stock up on in bulk last time I was in your neck of the woods – NYC.

Just curious!

Sean

He’s right.

I started to reply to him with a comment and then my comment became longer and longer and I began to realize  I had a whole big post full of explanation and apology — and this is what I wrote to Sean:

Sean –

Yes, I do seem to fly in circles when it comes to strings and I’m sorry about that because I’m not trying to mislead anyone, I’m just sharing my experiences and I have no vested interest in any brand of string or guitar company.

I’m just chasing sound and every strings set brings me a new meaning and mood.  I only write about one tenth of what I try — so you can imagine behind the scenes here I’m going around and around and around even more than in public!  Ha!

Gibson Brites are installed on our Standards at the factory.  The 2008 Les Paul Standard is my “go-to” guitar right now for Blues and Jazz and Rock.  I love how it fits me and my body and my terrible style of playing.  Heh!  So… Gibson thinks the Brites sound best on the guitar and I agree they are a bright, clear, pinging sound.

However, the Ernie Ball Super Slinkys — Classic Rock N Roll 2253 — have been on my Standard since I wrote that strings review.  I love the ease of play and bending is super simple — even Albert King two-step overbends!  I was getting some buzzing though, and to get what I felt was a clear and no-buzz sound, I found myself pressing on the strings a little too hard and sending the notes a little sharp.  That isn’t good.  Moving the bridge didn’t make a difference in buzz.

Then I bought my Gretsch G5120 and it comes with 11-49 D’Addario strings installed at the factory and the world changed.  I loved how the guitar sounded and I actually found those higher gauge strings easier to play even though that might not make sense at first read.

The strings offered more resistance — so I knew when I pressed down, I would get the right note against the fret without sharping out.  My playing feels more precise and less mushy with the larger strings because, I now believe, I am being more articulate in my finger movement to more precisely hit the right string to exert proper pressure.  Right now, I’m an 11s laddie — but ask me in a week or two to see if anything has changed… SMILE!

I have also been watching my favorite Les Paul players in concert on the HD Palladia channel.  The great thing about HD — and a good concert television director — is you can really see what the players are doing in concert.  You can see their fretboard fingerings, their switch positions and, I have discovered, their strings gauge if you look at the 4, 5, and 6 strings as a general guide.

In the Robert Plant Super Session concert, his guitar players use MASSIVE low end strings on the Les Pauls.  They look like earthworms they’re so thick.  We know Jimmy Page used 8s and 9s, but these new kids are going with much more strings tension to replicate that Led Zeppelin sound.

John Fogerty, in his Long Road Home concert, plays a ton of Les Pauls and they all have thick strings.

Last night I watched the Joe Bonamassa Royal Albert Hall concert and his Les Pauls are also “thickly-strung.”  Doing a little online research, I discovered that Joe uses heavy gauge strings.  He actually buys a 7-string set, drops the lowest string and then strings up the remaining 6 to make his guitar something like 11-56.  You can buy 11-52 sets now — Dean Markley makes them in their Blue Steel line — so maybe Joe is able to buy six-string sets now.  Ernie Ball also has a “Beefy Slinky” that plays at 11 to 54.

I know I will have trouble bending some notes using 11s.  A second fret G bend up a full step is already giving me a little ache on my Strats, but I can pretty accurately hit that same action on my Les Paul without too much trouble.  I know with time and practice I can make those bends stick across all guitars — but the only way to get there is to do it.

I thank you — and Sean! — for your keen readership and I promise to do my best to be clear and cogent and on point… even when facts may be changed by newly discovered truths.

22 comments

  • David,

    Maybe that’s why I have held off on getting a guitar — just want to see what you think is best after a couple of years worth of reviews :)

  • How are you liking the new strings today?

    • Hello, you, and thanks for asking!

      Yes, Day Two of 11-49s is proving to be better than yesterday. It takes a day or two for the guitar to adjust to the tension of new strings and it appears the new sound is beautifully coming into being.

      I’ve noticed that when I would bend with 9s, I knew precisely how far to take the string for a one or two-step bend. Now, with 11s, I have to relearn that “muscle marker” because I’m a little bit flat with the old memory. I have to push and pull just a bit farther. That’s fixable enough, though. Not worried.

      The higher tension of the 11s is putting me back in love with my Clapton Custom Strat for the Blues. The strings are ringing a bit better and vibrating the neck like crazy and with a little bit more room between the strings and the fingerboard, I can bend a bit better.

      The Les Paul really doesn’t feel like a step up in gauge at all — except for the enhanced sound. Bending is just as simple and good as it was before. Strange, say I!

      • Hey David!

        I wasn’t meaning to call you out, so to speak – and wasn’t looking for an explanation for flying in circles – I do it all the time. For me, any time I change strings no matter the brand the new sound miles better than the ones I just took off, and never paid much attention to the type of strings beyond their gauge, but your reviews got me thinking that hey, maybe I should pay a little more attention to pure nickel wraps and the like. And then the gauges… I normally play 10’s, sometimes 11’s, but then I started hearing/reading more about ‘ain’t nothing wrong with 9’s…’ here included. John Mayer commented in a mag recently that if you can’t bend to the note on heavy strings, then what is the point of (their) tone; heck even the shop where I bought a strat seemed a little surprised that I was buying 10’s to eventually replace its factory 9’s. So I might try a set of 9’s in the near future. Or I might not. Full up on 10’s in bulk right now. Basically just happy to read your postings David, and hear your take on things at that time – fully clear and cogent. Keep it coming!

        Sean

        • I’m glad you enjoy the reviews, Sean. I like writing them, too, because I always find something new and surprising to write about. That discovery gives me joy.

          If I had to vote today — I’d go with 11s over 9s. The heavier gauge strings more naturally bring out the personality of the neck of the guitar — and that’s where the real sound and resonance is created. Sure, you can boost the vibratory reaction with 9s, but for organic ambiance and sustained ringing, the heavier gauges are the way to go.

  • So you’re saying you have a ringing neck?

    • I have to say, yes! The super-slim V-neck on my Clapton Custom now vibrates like crazy with 11s. It was dead in my left hand with 9s and 10s and then with 11s, it comes alive and starts talking. Fantastical!

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  • Really interesting stuff, i’m also getting crazy with the gauge selection, with 9s my Les paul feels lazy, but, i can play for hours without the suffering witch cames after a session with 10s where Les paul feels really solid, in the other hand I can be more musical with 10s cause sometimes i cant really conect myself with the 9s.

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  • For the last couple months both my Strat and my LesPaul received the Ernie Ball “Cobalt Skinny Top heavy Bottom Slinky” réf:P02715. Pretty good feeling and sounding on the Strat, but I went back to a 11/52 for the Lp.
    But since I’ve different amps to plug in, I’ve also notice some noticable differences in sounding with my Strat, mostly depending on how the amp is set. Having several Strat, I turn around this sounding problem mounting different strings set on each of them. WHen I was younger, I’ve often being asking myself why do these great players have so many different guitars? Then When I had chance to meet some of my heroes, I didn’t miss the opportunity to ask them. Always I’ve the same answer: each guitar has its own virtuosity, but each one is also prepared for being used to acheive a precise type of sound… Music is often close to alchemy!

  • If you feel I’m running beyonf this topic, feel free to cut it off… SMILE
    Most of us are running our quest to some legendary tone.
    Most of beginners focus on choice of guitars, amps, pedals.
    They’re not wrong at all but it’s not the one and only way to succeed!
    (Also, let me beleive that legendary is is the one you’ll get when you’ll finally get your onwn voice/tone/phrasing/articulating yours and those ageless licks built upon our beloved pentatonic, mixolydian, minor or major scales).

    I pointed out the fact that one guitar could sometimes sound better with specific string set.
    Same sort of distinction can be made with amps ability to give their best clean, crunchy, screaming outputs within a specific range of the volume control while they’re not as good out of this range.
    And It goes the same with guitars and amps: some guitars and amps seem to be made one for each other but that’s not always the case…
    Just two examples: have a look at this video about Warren Haynes’s stage gear:

    .
    I don’t know if such video is somewhere availiable over the net about Stevie Ray Vaughan but playing his number one, he was using his Dumble SSS or Bassman or Fender Vibroverb depending on the song he played.

    All this long post for finally say even all these points are ones it’s necessary to think about. These are not at the same time the most important ones. That is most important is to know and to remenber that your sound is always coming from your fingers and/or your pick. There’s a well know story about Van Allen and another well know guitarist, I don’t remember the name actually, who was atonished by the sound Van Allen was able to get out of his gear… After the show he goes straight to Van Allen’s guitar tech and ask him if he could plug into that gear… You know what? He got really disapointed as he could hear himself he was sounding the same as with his own one! Your sound lies within yourselves, an amp is just an amp and a good one does its job well: it simply amplify what you’re giving to it. That Mojo Tone is just a question of achemy between your and you gear, nothing else!

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