Our "That Pedal Show" Blog

String Gauge & Tone (aka The Dubious Legend of Thick & Skinny)

By Andy Perrin | July 26, 2017

That Pedal Show 7/21/2017

This week on TPS, Dan & Mick undertake a little experimentation and myth busting by targeting some common conceptions about the relationship between string gauges and tone quality. In short, the challenge is to see if the age-old “thicker strings = better tone” equation holds up or if there are other factors to consider with when discerning the best strings for your style and tone. The episode is full of parallel clips of Dan & Mick playing a spectrum of light to heaving gauges of D’Addario strings on their usual guitars and full rigs. In addition to some excellent practical tips for restringing your electric depending on a tuner styles and bridge setups, the most relevant outcomes to the immediate issue at hand are as follows:

String Gauges Aren’t Inherently “Better” or “Worse”

Spoiler alert. While Dan & Mick weren’t converted to a new gauge of strings by episode end, they did conclude that the oft-touted claim of bigger strings for better tone is based on a problematic assumption and is entirely subjective.

As Mick commented, “Do heavier strings sound better? Not necessarily, not if you can’t play them. Should I use lighter strings? Yes, you absolutely should if it helps you play easier and better.” Near the tail end of the episode after playing both a set of uber light 0.008s and hefty 0.012s on Dan’s Les Paul, both TPS anchormen reflected on the important variable of playing the gauge that is most comfortable. As Mick summed up, the question should not be “Does it sound better?” but “Do you sound better?” Regardless of whether they’re silky thin or are in a gauge that would make your bassist blush, the point is the strings need to work for your style, help build the tone you’re after, and fit with where you’re at in your journey as a guitarist.

Strings Are An Item of Gear Not An Accessory

One of the conclusions reached in the episode was the simple reminder that strings are not an accessory—like a leopard print guitar strap, or something—they’re an item of gear that functions in the context of your overall rig. Sure, you might rock a little harder whilst wearing your lucky strap, but it doesn’t really change your tone. Strings, however, do impact sound and affect the configuration of your carefully curated arsenal of instrument, amp, pedals, etc.

For example, when Dan swapped out his usual set of 0.011-0.050s for 0.008s -0.038s on his Fender Telecaster, he commented “that doesn’t sound like my guitar.” Similarly, when his Les Paul was re-stringed from heavy to light gauge, the character of Mick’s Two Rock amplifier was notably different. Was it better or worse? Again, wrong question. The insight here is that as an item of gear strings both respond to your playing style as well as react to other items of gear. If you change the gauge, expect some variety in the resulting sound of your guitar and gear ecosystem.  

Swapping String Gauges Is An Economical Gear Experiment For Altering Tone

Sometimes small additions and economical investments can make huge differences in the way you play and the tones you create. One of the recurring themes of the episode was just how mind-boggling a little experimentation with string gauges can be. The best part? Next to the picks in your pocket, strings are the cheapest item of gear you’ll ever buy. So, for under $10 you can try a new gauge, brand, or type of strings to see if things sound different to the ear or feel different under the fingers. Again, it isn’t about fattening up strings for better tone per se. It’s about trying on a few sizes to find the right fit for you and your rig.

If you’re thinking of running your own lab for string gauge experimentation, head over to Riff City and check out our full range of strings options from D’Addario, Dunlop, Elixir, Ernie Ball, Fender and others

Dan’s Rig Rundown:

Guitars: 1963 Closet Classic Fender Telecaster (ca. 2000); 1958 Gibson Custom Les Paul Standard (ca. 2002).

Amp: Hamstead Artist 20+ RT.

Pedals: Strymon Timeline; Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe 1100-TT; Keeley D&M Drive, Kingsley Page Tube Boost; ThorpyFx Veteran Germanium Fuzz; Mooer Trelicopter; Mooer Elec Lady.

Mick’s Rig Rundown:

Guitar: 1962 American Vintage Fender Stratocaster (ca. 2000).

Amp: Two Rock Classic Signature.

Pedals: Hamstead Signature Tremolo; Free the Tone Flight Time; Free the Tone Tri Avatar; Kingsley Maiden Valve Preamplifer; Keeley D&M Drive; Fulltone Wah; TC Electronic Hall of Fame; Bigfoot FX Magnavibe; Fulltone Octafuzz; Analogman Sun Face Fuzz; Boss TU-3s tuner.