Which String Gauge Should I Use?

Choosing the right strings for your guitar

les paul half step down Which String Gauge Should I Use?The first question most people have is whether they need thicker strings when they tune a half step down or not. So, what is the right string gauge? The answer is: it very much depends on what type of guitar you have. In particular the scale length of that guitar (bear with me for a minute).


The different types of guitars…

Your average guitar (Fenders, ESPs, Jacksons and Ibanez) has a scale length of 25.5 inches. This can be considered the standard scale length for an electric guitar. Although it is only standard for Fender type guitars, because Gibson guitars traditionally use a shorter length (see below). With Fender-type guitar you would typically use the same set of strings for Eb tuning that you use with normal tuning. For most people this will be a set of 009-042.

All Gibson guitars and their clones (Les Paul, SG) have a scale length of 24.75 inches, making the overall feel a bit sloppier to begin with, even when not tuning half a step down. The shorter length has some advantages: it makes string bending easier and, because the spaces in between the frets are a little smaller, you can cover more notes, especially in the higher frets. This can be useful, especially for people with smaller hands. Angus Young (AC/DC) picked up his Gibson SG for that reason.

Then there are PRS guitars and their clones, which fall somewhere in between with a scale length of 25 inches. They are a little closer to Gibson-type than they are to Fender-type, as you can see.

If you’re unsure about what kind of guitar you have, and you want to measure it yourself:
scale length is measured as the distance between the two closest points where the strings actually touch the saddle and the bridge. Not the tuning head or the locking mechanism of the tremolo or something.

Tip: measure the high e-string, because it will typically be closest to the actual scale length.


What are some average string gauges?

If you are completely at a loss as to which set of strings to use, here are some sensible starting points for tuning a half step down:

    Strat-Type guitars (25.5 inches)

  • Metal: 009-042
  • Blues: 010-052
    Gibson guitar and clones (24.75 inches)

  • Metal: 010-046
  • Blues: 010-052
    PRS and clones (25 inches)

  • Metal: 010-046
  • Blues: 010-052

The list does not mention Jazz, because Jazz players traditionally use extremely heavy sets like 012s or 013s or heavier, and it is difficult to give a valid recommendation. Jazz players also generally play the same scale length. A typical Jazz guitar would be a Gibson or any guitar with a short scale length, because they make the complicated chords easier to play.
With such a guitar you would probably want to move up to 013s, if you are using 012s, and stick with your 013s, if that’s what you are already using.


Alternative string sets

Most string manufacturers also offer what is called a “hybrid set”. This one goes from 009-046, meaning the higher strings (for solos) are those of a normal 009-set and the lower strings (for rhythm) are those of a normal 010-set. We see what those do in the section about sound and playability as you tune your guitar down a half step.

Guitarist Slash strings his Les Paul with a pretty heavy set of .011 to .048. Zakk Wylde uses a set of 0.10s. There is a Zakk Wylde custom set available that goes from .010 to .060, which means he could probably tow a truck with his low E-string. I doubt that is a good set to use as a standard on your guitar, it would be more appropriate for drop d tuning.

Of course if you already use 013s before you tune down a half step, you shouldn’t use thinner strings just because the list says so. Erm, OK, just making sure…


Beyond string gauge – different materials feel different…

A fact that is often overlooked is that different string materials also play a key role in how tight or sloppy a guitar will feel with a given string gauge. It’s true that most strings that you can buy your store are made from the same materials in the same factory.

There are exceptions however. A set of Rotosound strings (made in Britain) will have slightly more give than your standard D’Addario set. Likewise a set of Maxima gold strings will feel noticeably stiffer than the aforementioned strings. Then there are stainless steel strings. It is generally not a good idea to use them, unless your guitar has stainless steel frets. These strings can really damage your frets by putting a nice dent into them in no time.