FAQ – Guitar String Tension & Gauge Calculator

What is String Tension on Guitar?

Sets of strings are gauged so that with standard guitar tuning they feel nearly equal in tension. String tension is related to scale length and pitch, but for any given guitar it is not the string gauge itself which is essential but the mass of the string. Of course, as the gauge increases, so does the mass, but two strings from different manufacturers of the same gauge will not necessarily have the same mass. The metals used, the size and type of core wire, the size, and kind of wrap wire could all be different. For example, a silk and steel wound string has an average density lower than the round wound, which in turn has a lower density than flat wound.

Silk provides bulk without much mass while flat wound strings don’t have the air that surrounds round windings. Nearly all plain strings are made of high carbon steel hence have much the same density; thus, most brands of plain steel string will have a similar tension for the same gauge.

There are factors other than string gauge, scale length, and pitch that determine the string tension on your instrument. Assuming that the truss rod is properly adjusted, string height is the most significant but the string break-angle at the nut and saddle will affect perceived tension. Strings with higher tension will sound louder than strings with lower tension. As the distance, they vibrate over is smaller, you can generally achieve a lower action before you get fret buzz.

Higher tensions produce cleaner, purer tones with improved articulation and allow faster picking. Lower tensions certainly allow easier string bending.

Whether they are easier on the fretting hand is debatable as the lower tension increases the minimum string height possible. But at the end of the guitar market budget, it might be right to say that lighter strings are more comfortable to play because of the accuracy of fret height. While neck alignment, variations of the fretboard camber and nut and saddle problems tend to be the limiting factor in rope height.

Standard sets are gauged in light, regular, hard, and extra hard tensions. Although the total pounds pull of classical string sets are lower than their steel string counterparts. String height, as measured from the fretboard, is set higher on classical guitars. This fact makes the tension difference critical.

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Tension and Gauge Calculator

Here are a handy string tension and gauge calculator we put together. It produces results very close to those figures produced by popular string manufacturers. Use it, for example, to work out what effect an altered tuning will have on the tension and what gauge string would produce a tension similar to standard tuning.

The note selection uses standard octave notation with middle c being written as c’ and the octave changes on c. If you are unsure about what octave to select here are the standard tuning for guitar and 6 string bass in this notation.

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Winding Material

80/20 Bronze – This is actually brass as it is an alloy of 80% copper and 20% zinc. Delivers a strong, deep bass response with extremely bright and crisp overtones when used as wrap wire for acoustic guitar strings.

Brilliant sounding when new with excellent tonal range, they begin to lose some of their “new” sounds after only a few hours of use. The preferred choice of many stages and studio performers and others who change strings a lot. 80/20 bronze projects a penetrating acoustic sound.

85/15 Bronze – An alloy of 85% copper and 15% zinc so once again it is actually brass. A compromise between the brilliant sound characteristics of 80/20 bronze with more warmth due to the increased copper content.

Phosphor Bronze – An alloy of 92% copper with 8% tin and a trace of phosphor. Phosphor is added during the refining process to de-oxidise bronze. The residual excess of phosphor has the effect of increasing hardness, strength and corrosion resistance at the expense of ductility and increased brittleness.

Phosphor bronze strings last longer than conventional bronze alloy strings but do not have the brilliance of tone of bronze, producing a more mellow slightly warmer tone. Their “new” sound is retained longer than standard bronze strings.

Nickel-Plated – The vast majority of electric wound strings made today are made of a steel alloy that has electroplating of 8% pure nickel. While an unplated steel alloy is ideally suited for magnetic pickups, its sound can be a bit too bright. Nickel-plating warms up the sound a bit and improves oxidization resistance. Nickel plating also provides some surface softness which reduces finger noise and frets wear. Many strings labeled as nickel such as Ernie Ball’s Slinky range, are in fact nickel plated.

Pure nickel – Most strings of the ’50s were wound with an alloy called Pure Nickel, and they have become more popular in recent years for a more vintage sound. Pure Nickel strings are warmer sounding than nickel-plated and have a smoother feel better suited for jazz and blues. Not being as magnetically effective as steel their volume output is lower than nickel-plated strings.

Stainless Steel – A low-grade stainless steel is used for the windings as pure stainless is non-magnetic. Stainless steel wound strings have exceptional brightness, volume, and sustain. They don’t tarnish so quickly, and corrosion is reduced and is very durable. Stainless steel has a different feel to nickel-plated strings and being a harder material than the nickel silver normally used for frets causes more fret wear. Their bright sound is a little too harsh for some, but they are becoming more popular.

Silk and steel – The steel core wire is wrapped in silk fibers before being wound with either bronze or nickel-plated steel. The sound is mellower and softer similar to classical strings. Their lower mass means that for a given gauge, the tension is lower and their softness makes them easier to fret. They are popular for folk music and fingerstyle.

Silverplated Copper Wound – Bare round copper wire electroplated with pure sterling silver. The wound on a multi-filament nylon core this wire is the standard for classical guitar strings. A wound on a steel core (sometimes with a silk wrap) this is the traditional string to use on Selmer type guitars for that typical Django gypsy jazz sound, a Maccferri just doesn’t sound right with anything else.

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Guitar Strings Winding Type

Guitar Strings Winding Type
Round Wound – Using round wire for the string winding is the regular string that everybody is familiar with. Producing the brightest, clearest sound with good sustain on acoustic and electric instruments.

Flat Wound – Flat wounds are made with a flat ribbon-like wire which produces a completely smooth outer wrap. This provides for effortless sliding and practically eliminates finger noise. They produce a mellow, full sound that emphasizes the fundamental at the expense of harmonic overtones and sustain — typically used by jazz players on full-bodied archtops.

Ground Wound – Round wound strings that are ground, rollered or polished to leave the outer surface of the string smoother while retaining some of the tonal characteristics of a round wound string. There are several variations in the method of manufacture, ranging from being ground entirely flat for polishing off the round top. Both in terms of finger noise and tone, they fall between round and tape wound strings.

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Which String Set Should You Use?

Whether choosing electric, acoustic, bass or classical strings, the right string set for your style and instrument is a matter of trial and error and personal taste. Different tensions and gauges can bring out a completely different character in the sound of your instrument and the style of your play.

You should not assume that the string tension the guitar manufacturer selected at the factory is the right tension for you. Nor should you assume that the string type recommended by anyone. You should experiment with different string sets to determine what sounds, feels, and plays best for you.

If you are new to guitar playing a good starting point would be 9 or 10 thou for electric, 11 thou for an acoustic and medium tension for a classical.

Make sure to check intonation if you use a different string gauge. The change in tension will probably mean that some adjustment is necessary. One note of caution, be sympathetic to your instrument, stringing a light cedar top with a 13 thou set is going to lead to a large repair bill.

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When to Change Your Guitar Strings?

Most players change strings when they lose their brilliance, sound too mellow, when intonation goes off, or when their instrument is difficult to keep in tune. That could be once a week or once every three months. This changes depending on how many hours playing you do and what your skin chemistry is like.

As a broad guide, the typical average time works out to about 15 hours of playing. Keeping your strings clean will undoubtedly extend their lives. Changing one string after it breaks is not recommended, as the newer string will sound different from the rest.

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An experienced musician who works as a guitar player, producer, and writer. I first played guitar 16 years ago and love rock and classic heavy metal. Very passionate about sharing guitar experience and knowledge.

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