If you are buying acoustic guitar strings for the first time, you will soon realize that you have a bewildering array of options. Different brands, different materials, different gauges…how do you decide?
To make your life a little easier, let’s take a look at the topic of string gauges. Most manufacturers offer three basic gauges:
Some companies sell in-between grades, as well, but these are the choices you will typically be presented with.
Not surprisingly, each grade has a purpose. The key is to match the string’s purpose with your needs and playing style.
The main advantage of heavy-gauge strings is their incredible sound. They resonate better and they typically sound louder. They really shine on a large guitar that has a naturally full-bodied sound.
However, heavy-gauge strings put more tension on the guitar itself. An old or small guitar may not be able to hold up to the abuse. Furthermore, beginning guitarists have a hard time holding down heavy-gauge strings. Until you have built up some hand strength (and calluses!) you may want to start with lighter strings.
One of the biggest advantages of light-gauge strings is their playability. Beginners can hold down the strings and play for extended periods of time with minimal discomfort. Also, these strings typically sound soft and put an emphasis on the treble strings, making a light gauge great for smaller guitars and more involved playing styles. For instance, light-gauge strings are sometimes recommended to fingerstyle guitarists to bring out the nuances of their playing.
Of course, the light-gauge sound can be a drawback. Depending on your playing style, you may simply prefer a deeper, richer sound. In that case, a heavier gauge will be well worth the extra hand strength that you will have to build.
Medium-gauge strings are sort of a compromise solution. While not outstanding in their emphasis of either bass or treble tones, they do provide a balanced sound that the all-around guitarist will enjoy. While beginners will definitely have a harder time with medium-gauge strings than they will with light-gauge strings, they are still playable.
Perhaps the best solution for beginning players is to start with medium-gauge strings, provided that the guitar is able to handle the pressure. You will experience some some fingertip and hand discomfort at first, but this will quickly pass.
As you begin to develop your own playing style, you will probably find that you have a particular tone in your head that you are trying to match. Use this sound as an indicator of the string gauge that you should buy. If you prefer a louder, deeper sound, experiment with heavy-gauge strings. If you enjoy subtle, complex tones in the higher ranges, give light-gauge strings a try. And, by all means, if you are happy with medium-gauge strings, keep using them!