Guitar Strings: The Ultimate Guide For The Blues
Guitarists spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about guitar strings. Perhaps it isn’t surprising. Choosing which set of guitar strings to use is no easy task. There are different gauges and materials to consider and an ever increasing amount of marketing hype and jargon with which you have to contend.
This is marketing hype to which we’re not impervious. I remain ever hopeful that the perfect set of guitar strings is out there, just waiting to be discovered. A set that will instantly improve my playing and tone and turn me into a killer blues guitarist overnight. It’s a hope that I think many of us share.
Whilst I’m not totally convinced that such a set exists; I do believe that picking the right set of guitar strings can have a profound impact on your playing.
So take a seat, put the kettle on and bunker in. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing the right guitar strings to become a killer blues player:
There are three key considerations you have to make when choosing guitar strings – their gauge, the material from which they’re made and the way they are wound.
String gauge always seems to be the keenest focus amongst guitarists, so I’ll start here.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s worth running through different string gauges, what they are and the impact that they have on your guitar.
All guitar strings come in gauges, which are measured in thousands of an inch. So when you hear people refer to ‘0.10s’, they are referring to guitar strings that are ten thousands of an inch. The thicker the guitar strings, the tighter they need to be wound to get up to pitch and the greater the tension on the neck of your guitar.
There is a huge variety of different guitar strings on the market, but the most common gauges are probably 0.9s, 0.10s and 0.11s. Also fairly common are 0.8s on the lighter side, and 0.12s – which is typically the heaviest gauge string you’ll see on the shelf at your local guitar store.
Mixed and Half Gauge Guitar Strings
A number of string manufacturers now offer mixed gauge guitar strings. These typically feature heavy gauges on the lower strings and lighter gauges on the higher strings. The idea behind mixed gauge strings is that you get many of the benefits of thicker strings, without compromising playability (see below for more on this). So on the upper strings, where you are likely to be bending and adding vibrato, there is less tension. This gives you improved playability and comfort. Then on the lower strings, the extra thickness improves sustain and adds a bit of beef to your overall tone.
More recently, a number of brands – like D’Addario have also released half gauge strings. So rather than having to make a jump up from 0.10s to 0.11s, you can opt for 10.5s.
I’ve never used these strings, so I can’t comment on how they feel. But in theory they make sense. Jumping up a whole gauge is tough and your playing will be compromised whilst you adjust to it. If there’s the option of working up to the heavier gauges with less pain, then go for it!
What Gauge is Right for You?
Thanks largely to the beautiful tones of Stevie Ray Vaughan – there has been a long held belief that thick guitar strings are needed for decent tone. Stevie famously played 0.13s (ouch!) and also had one of the best natural guitar tones in blues. So the idea has often followed that thick guitar strings are better for your tone.
This is overly simplistic.
It is however, worth knowing how string gauge affects your tone and playing. Whilst the thickness of your guitar strings doesn’t have as big an impact on tone as you might think, they do have a massive affect on playability. This in turn alters the tones you can create as a result. Your playing style and how you interact with your guitar will differ greatly if you’re playing 0.13s, compared to if you’re playing 0.7s.
If we break this down into the key elements of playing that are important to the blues, then we can look at the clear pros and cons of using thick guitar strings.
Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings – The Cons
A lot of guitarists (myself included) have made the mistake of opting for heavy guitar strings without considering the full impact of their decision. As a 15 year old Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatic, I fitted my guitar with 0.13 gauge guitar strings. Within two days, my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t even play my guitar. To save you from making the same mistake, here are some of the cons of heavier gauge guitar strings that you need to consider:
Vibrato is a very nuanced technique and one that is unique to each individual. So there are going to be generalisations here. But broadly speaking, I would say that thinner gauge strings lend themselves to a more delicate style of vibrato, and vice versa.
B.B King used fairly light gauge guitar strings on the upper strings and he is famous for his fast, trilling style of vibrato. He moves the string extremely quickly. On the other side of the spectrum is a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who adopted a slower and much more muscular style of vibrato.
This is largely a result of string gauge.
The lighter the string, the less resistance against your finger. If you move your fretting hand fast on light strings, you’ll achieve the B.B. King style sound. Do the same thing on a thick string and it won’t move nearly as much. Rather than get a fast trill, you’re more likely to get a broad, slow, sweeping style of vibrato.
That’s not to say that you can’t adjust your style to different string gauges. It is just that particular gauge guitar strings are better suited to particular styles of expression.
For similar reasons, it’s more difficult to play very quickly on thicker strings. Heavy gauge guitar strings are more resistant to your fingers and require you to apply more pressure on the strings to sound each note.
This isn’t conducive to playing at speed, which is why shredders typically favour thinner string gauges. Whilst shredding does not have its place in the blues, playing at speed often does. So you should take this into account when buying your next set of guitar strings.
If like me, ‘Slowhand’ would be an appropriate nickname for you, then you probably don’t want to go too heavy. Either that, or you want to work up to heavier gauges so you don’t compromise your speed too much. If you’re a natural shredder, or have shredder inclinations, then opting for heavier gauge strings is probably a good idea. Joe Bonamassa is a good example of this. He uses heavy gauge guitar strings as a preventative measure:
I’m not a shredder guy…but I have shredder tendencies that I think get in my way. I have a tendency to put in a million notes and show off to the world, and that’s not usually my best solo. So, the .011s keep me from going there all the time. I can ramp up to it, but I’m not living there, over-playing all the time.
You may see a theme developing here – but it’s worth noting that bending is more difficult on thicker guitar strings. As noted above, thicker guitar strings resist your fretting hand. So you have to apply greater pressure to the neck of the guitar to sound the notes. To push the string up or down to bend requires greater pressure again.
So when using thicker strings, not only will your fretting arm fatigue more quickly, but hitting big bends will be very difficult (if not impossible).
This is one of the main reasons that a lot of blues guitarists opt for light gauge guitar strings. Bending is one of the key elements of blues guitar playing and something you don’t want to compromise. So if you are doubtful about whether you can handle heavy strings, I would err on the side of caution.
Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings – The Pros
With all of these negatives, why would anyone opt for thick guitar strings? Well, it’s not all bad news – and in fact there are a number of key benefits that thick guitar strings offer that you can’t get from thinner gauge strings.
You can get a greater dynamic range by playing with thick guitar strings. On guitar strings of any gauge, you can use a soft touch to play quietly. But on thinner strings I think you’re limited by how much you can dig in with your picking hand. If you watch a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you’ll see that he uses a very aggressive pick attack. He strikes the strings hard, which creates a certain tone that does not come from his guitar or amp, but rather from the pressure he applies to each string. It is not possible to adopt such an aggressive pick attack on thinner guitar strings. So you become more limited in your dynamic range.
Heavier gauge guitar strings take longer to stop vibrating once played. This means that each note sustains for longer. In other words, if you were to play the same note on two identical guitars that differed only in their string gauge, the notes would resonate more clearly and for longer on the guitar with thicker strings. It’s largely for this reason that people proclaim thicker guitar strings have better tone.
Whilst that’s slightly overstating the case, sustain is a key part of your overall sound and better sustain has benefits for both lead and rhythm playing.
For lead, it allows you to play long and soaring notes and bends, which are a key element of effective blues soloing. Notably, they allow you to do this without applying vibrato to sustain the note, as you have to do on thinner strings. Thus you can get more out of the guitar without colouring the notes. This works very well on the lower strings, where typically you’ll be bending and applying vibrato less liberally than on the higher strings. It’s one of the reasons that players like B.B. King opted for mixed gauge guitar strings. His custom set start pretty thick at 0.54 on the low E, but then are much thinner on the higher strings, finishing at 0.10.
The benefits of using thick guitar strings applies equally to rhythm playing. When you play chords on thicker guitar strings, each note will sustain for longer and the chord will really ring out. So if you’re predominantly a rhythm guitarist, heavier gauge strings could be the way to go.
Thicker guitar strings are also more suitable for down tuning. Because there is more tension through the strings, you can tune them down to play in a lower key without the strings becoming slack. A lot of blues and rock guitarists – like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Philip Sayce tune down a half step to Eb. Tuning down a half step not makes playing easier (as it reduces the tension on the strings) but it also sounds amazing. I’m not totally sure what it is, but the key of Eb sounds heavy and thick. It’s a super bluesy sound.
Finally, and of less importance – is the argument that heavier gauge strings stay in tune better. The reality is that the extra tension means they are less likely to go sharp. Truthfully I don’t think this should be a major factor when you’re choosing which guitar strings to buy. Intonation is affected by a whole host of elements. String bending, vibrato and a heavy pick attack will all cause your guitar to fall out of tune. If you’re playing blues lead guitar, then you are most likely going to have intonation issues. This is only a real consideration if you’re playing in a band. In that case, playing with very light strings could cause you issues. But beyond that, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to picking the gauge of your guitar strings. Both thin and thick strings have their merits, and the challenge is really more about figuring out what suits you best. As a general rule, I would avoid opting for gauges on the very extreme ends of the spectrum. Very few guitarists play with 0.7s or 0.13s, because they are not suitable for most of us. Finding the right guitar strings will take some trial and error but if you’re looking for a few guiding points, I would recommend the following:
Opt for light to medium gauge guitar strings if:
- You are a beginner
- Your fretting arm is not that strong or you have smaller hands
- You’re a bit of a shredder
- Big bends and fast vibrato are key elements of your playing style
Opt for heavier gauge guitar strings if:
- You are an intermediate or advanced guitarist
- You’re less concerned with playing fast and more concerned with sustain and the quality of each note
- You down tune or often play in keys lower than standard tuning
- You’re a glutton for pain and want shredded fingers to show everyone that you play the guitar.
Guitar String Materials
In addition to picking the right gauge of guitar strings, you need to consider the material that your strings are made from. Different materials have an impact on your tone and to a lesser extent, playability.
All guitar strings are made of a hexagonal shaped core, made from high-carbon steel wire. This is the same for all guitar strings, but the construction of the core (also referred to as music wire) varies between different brands. So even if all the conditions are the same, a set of 0.10s from Ernie Ball will sound and also feel a little different to a set of 0.10s from D’Addario.
In the case of the lower strings on your guitar – typically, the low E, A and D strings – this core is then wound in another material. It is this that has an impact on your tone. The most common materials used for winding are nickel, cobalt and stainless steel. The guitar strings are then sold in one of the following forms:
This is the material that guitar strings were made from in the early days of the electric guitar. Guitar strings made from pure nickel have a more vintage sound and a naturally warm and rich tone. Tonally, they are perfect for the blues. On the downside, pure nickel strings can be a bit stiff and heavy, so even a lighter set of pure nickel guitar strings can feel a little tougher to play.
Nickel plated guitar strings are the most commonly available strings on the market. These were first introduced in the 1960s and are favoured for their more versatile tones. They are higher in output than pure nickel strings and have a slightly brighter tone. They produce a well balanced sound and also make a great choice for blues guitar.
Stainless Steel and Cobalt
More recently, brands like Ernie Ball and D’Addario have made strings from stainless steel and cobalt. These are very bright, sharp sounding guitar strings that have a high output. As such, they tend to be favoured by guitarists playing in heavier genres who are down tuning or using a lot of distortion. I wouldn’t recommend them for the blues.
The last factor you need to take into account is the way that your guitar strings have been wound. There are three different types of winding on modern guitar strings; roundwound, flatwound and halfwound.
Roundwound guitar strings are by far the most common. If you’ve never heard of the different string windings before, then chances are you’ve always played roundwound strings.They produce a balanced but bright sound.
The alternative to roundwound strings are either flatwound or halfwound. Flatwounds (so named because they are made with flat wire) have a much darker and more mellow tone. They really lack in brightness compared to regular roundwound guitar strings. This often makes them popular with jazz players, as well as those seeking vintage tones.
Having said that, the flat winding also has an impact on playability, which is worth considering. Flatwound strings are smoother to the touch and eliminate a lot of string noise. But they are also stiffer and more difficult to bend and apply vibrato. So if you utilise a lot of bends in your playing or fast vibrato, they may not be the best choice.
Fortunately, string manufacturers have now introduced halfwound strings. These aim to offer a happy balance between roundwound and flatwound and capture the benefits of both.
Putting it all together
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing your guitar strings. The guitar strings that are going to work best for you will depend on a whole host of factors including: how long you’ve been playing, your playing style and how much you practice.
I can’t tell you which strings will work for you, but I hope this article has helped guide you in the right direction. If you’re suffering from information overload, then the key take aways are as follows:
1.) The gauge of your guitar strings has a significant impact on the playability of your guitar. This in turn will alter your playing style, tone and how you interact with your instrument.
2.) The material your guitar strings are made from impacts your tone. There are certain materials – like cobalt and stainless steel – that are worth avoiding if you want a vintage blues tone.
3.) For more seasoned players, it’s worth trying flatwound and halfwound guitar strings. These offer some benefits for blues guitarists and are great if you want a darker blues tone.
4.) If in doubt, use the most popular guitar strings. You can’t go far wrong with them and there is a reason they are so popular!
5.) Experiment with different guitar strings. Buy a new and different set every time you have to restring your guitar. See how they feel and how they sound. After a bit of trial and error you’ll soon discover what works for you and what doesn’t.
The amazing thing about guitar strings is that you can experiment with very little investment and almost no risk. You can’t change your guitar or amp every week, but for less than £10 you can get yourself a shiny new set of strings. So try a few things out, and who knows – you might find that perfect set of guitar strings.
Good luck! And if you have any questions, send them over in the comments! 👍