by Professor String

Do thick gauge strings take a toll? (Part I)




What do chips and salsa have to do with heavy gauge strings? If you like eating chips and salsa, then surely someone has asked you about your preference in salsa. At the top of the list would be the question: How hot do you like it? Some of you might say, “I like it hot!” Yet, others will say, “I like my salsa really hot!” The issue with salsa is the word “hot”. It lends itself to interpretation. How hot is hot? Just like the term “heavy gauge” strings. How heavy is heavy? If the salsa is too hot, your tongue is going to suffer. If the strings are too heavy in gauge, your fingers are going to suffer. Will your guitar suffer too? We are going to take a closer look at answering this question.


What’s heavy?

There are many readers who have asked various questions about using thick, or heavier gauge strings on their guitar. At the top of the list is this question: Can heavier gauge strings damage a guitar? First, let’s get an agreement on the term “heavy gauge” or “thick gauge” strings. We will use the E string as an example. By most standards, thin steel E strings are in the .008 to .010 range. Medium gauge steel E strings tend to hover around the .011 to .013 window. Anything at .014 or higher is considered to be heavy by most string makers. There are some players in the .015 to .018 window (yours truly uses a .016 for an E string). Let’s call this group the extra heavy gauge players.


What happens to a guitar when a heavy or extra heavy set is installed? First the overall tension is higher at the bridge and tuning peg. Other components affected will include the saddle, nut, neck, truss rod and headstock. Depending on the style of bridge and guitar, the top and sides will also be affected. In other words, almost every part of the instrument’s structure will be affected by the additional stress. Guitars with a box style construction (i.e. hollow body, acoustic…etc.) will rely on their bracings to handle the extra load. Solid body guitars are a bit more immune to the effects of gauge stress than box style designs. In either case, the neck attachment will play a critical role in achieving stability in gauge stress.


Bridge Issues

Something seldom considered when converting to heavier gauges is the bridge. There are numerous bridge designs out there. Some are friendlier towards heavier string setups. Bridges that employ moving saddles allow players to make intonation adjustments when switching around to different gauge strings. If you are moving up in gauge, you will surely need to make some intonation adjustment on the bridge saddles. Some string saddles have a small notch. The purpose of the notch is to keep the string seated and stationary in its position. In the case of larger gauge strings, the notch can be a problem and might need to be filed wider. Acoustic bridges are a bit of a different animal. While most will accommodate thicker gauge strings, adjusting intonation via saddle will not be possible. Acoustic bridges using pins might require some pin modifications to allow thicker gauges. Often times, the string channel on the pin will need to be opened up a bit more. Last but not least is the archtop guitar style of bridge. Archtops tend to have the long, and sometimes hinged tailpiece in combination with a floating bridge piece. Over the years, medium to heavy gauge strings have been the common choice for archtops. The idea of using the heavier gauges on an archtop is to get more vibrational energy transferred to the sound board (or top) of the guitar. This helps leverage more of the acoustic properties of the instrument. So, most of these guitars are made with heavier gauging in mind. There some exceptions. The tailpiece can be susceptible to breakage and stress if it not made correctly. The figure below shows a 7-string archtop guitar tailpiece cracking under the stress of a gauge tension. Such issues are not commonplace, but they do occur.



In part 2 of this article we will continue our discussion about heavier gauge strings and cover issues related to the truss rod.


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About The Author


Professor StringTM is a leading expert in the musical string business. He leads a development group that specializes in guitar and bass string research for musicians. You can visit their site at