There’s one thing that’s true about learning to play The Blues. You’re going to get cut and your entire hand is going to hurt. There’s one instant salve that will save you and restore your faith in music: Nines.
There’s nothing more discouraging when you’re starting out with a guitar — and trying to make those Big String Bends for The Blues or trying to achieve a barre chord that rings across all the right strings — than having it all collapse in callouses right on your left hand fingertips and in the weakness of your left hand fingers in effectively holding down all the strings for a good barre.
The solution I discovered to this problem is in moving from 10 strings to 9 strings. If you’ve been using 10s, you will be shocked to discover how much better you can play by moving down to 9s.
Guitar string sets are bundled in gauges. The most common professional grade gauge is 10-13-17-26-36-46 and the most common amateur gauge is 9-11-16-24-32-42. The lower the number, the less muscle it takes for you to hold down a string on a fret to make it sound right.
I say “professional” and “amateur” because if you buy a Fender Stratocaster above the $2,000.00USD mark, you get 10s on your guitar, and if you buy below that threshold, you get 9s installed by the Fender factory.
Acoustic guitars usually have 13-17-26-35-45-56 gauge string sets, so you can see it is harder to play an acoustic than it is to play an electric. Doing effective string bends on an acoustic guitar is really hard to do right.
String gauge has quickly become a sign of “manularity” the guitar culture. “Oh, I don’t use 10s. I use 13s on my electric just like Steve Ray Vaughn!”
Some believe a heavier string “sounds” better — but I find that difference minimal. Jimmy Page used 8s on his guitars and there has been no better “manly” guitar player in the world than Jimmy Page.
I was getting frustrated on my 10s Blues guitar trying to correctly bend and barre and, by chance, I moved “down” to my Nashville Power Tele 9s guitar for some review noodling and when I did some Bluesy Bends and Barres on that 9s, I was able to successfully make the right sound with my left hand and fingers using the same amount of pressure I was using on my 10s git!
I know that sounds logical and imperceptive, but it is the practice that makes the perfection and when you’re working on 10s and then move to 9s seconds later — the difference is palpable and memorable.
Now I would never use 9s on a 10s guitar — people do, though, and some don’t even change the setup when they make that strings change — but I believe you should use the strings on a guitar for which the guitar was created to play. Honor the wood. Honor the craftsmanship. Honor the original sculpted intention of the strings nut.
My Gilmour Black Strat uses an even stranger strings setup: 10-12-16-28-38-48 and I find those string gauges take the same amount of muscle to play as a set of regular 10s.
If you need a break from 10s, find a way to use 9s for awhile. If you use 9s and need a break, find a way to use 8s. I found that in 15 minutes of using 9s, I could actually hear and feel what I was trying to do with 10s — and that discovery gave me more power and confidence to recreate that same sound going right back up to my 10s setup.
I do like the overall sound of 10s over 9s — I think the bass rumbles a bit more and the high strings have a more striking clarity — but for a quick salve and a reconnection to the joy of rediscovery, I’ll take a break with 9s any day to make my 10s playing even faster and better every day.