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!


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.