No matter what you’ve been told, strings are actually one of the most important components of your tone. You’ll spend countless hours arguing about the topic of tonewoods and pickups. But the strings still stay one of the most under-discussed topics among guitar players. When it comes to playability, however, everyone seems to be in favor of lighter string gauges. So why do jazz guitarists use heavy strings then?
Well, the thing is – the question is not that easy to answer. The problem is that, at this point, it’s mostly a misconception. We could say that this is a thing of the past as plenty of jazz guitarists go with light gauge strings instead. But this whole idea of jazz musicians had to start somewhere. So there must be something to this whole “jazz musicians use heavy strings” thing, right?
Technically, this goes for old-school kind of jazz players.
Back in the old days, everyone played acoustic or completely hollow-body guitars. Having heavier strings meant that you’d be louder and could “compete” with other instruments in jazz bands and orchestras. With today’s amplification, and especially digital amp and effects modeling, there’s rarely any need for that.
But it’s a controversial thing to say that. A lot of approaches to the guitar are from the old days. So let’s get more into it and explain why some guitarists like to go with heavier strings.
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String Gauges Explained
For those who are not completely familiar with all the terminology, string gauge refers to the thickness of strings. Well, actually, it’s the rating system for string set thickness or diameter. So you shouldn’t mix it up with the difference between different strings within the same set.
So we have different sets according to their gauge. However, the rating is not exactly the same for acoustic and electric guitars. Let’s first see what is considered to be “heavy” and “light” for acoustic and electric strings.
When it comes to electric guitars, you’ll often see terms like “heavy,” “light,” or “medium” strings. In the broader sense, we can categorize electric guitar strings into five main categories according to their gauge. These are:
- Extra Super Light
- Super Light
So what does that exactly mean? How thick are these strings? Below, you can find the rating with thickness for each of the strings in an individual set, shown from the thinnest to the thickest in the set. The measures are expressed in inches, or 1000th of an inch. Here’s a more detailed explanation of each of these categories:
- Extra Super Light: .008, .010, .015, .021, .030, .038
- Super Light: .009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042
- Light: .010, .013, .017, .026, .036, .046
- Medium: .011, .015, .018, .026, .036, .050
- Heavy: .012, .016, .020, .032, .042, .054
Of course, there are other variants out there, although these five categories are the “standard.” For instance, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top uses even lighter strings than listed, with the high E one measuring at .007 inches. On the other hand, you also have heavier-than-usual strings, with the high E one measuring at 0.013 inches. It is believed that Stevie Ray Vaughan used these.
When it comes to acoustic guitars, the standards are a bit different. Of course, we’re talking about steel-string acoustic guitars. Nylon strings are a completely different story and we won’t be mentioning those here. Their gauges are a bit different.
Anyhow, these are the “standard” string sets for acoustic guitars. Once again, for more clarity, the strings are arranged from the high E to the low E.
- Extra Light: .010, .014, .023, .030, .039, .047
- Custom Light: .011, .015, .023, .032, .042, .052
- Light: .012, .016, .025, .032, .042, .054
- Medium: .013, .017, .026, .035, .045, .056
- Heavy: .014, .018, .027, .039, .049, .059
As you can notice, acoustic guitar string sets are thicker. This is mostly because acoustic guitars produce the sound acoustically (well, duh) so you need thicker strings for more volume. But we’ll get to that.
Of course, there are thinner sets. Some lead players prefer to go with .009 sets, and these are pretty common. However, they’re recommended for acoustic guitars that have piezo pickups and that can be amplified through PA systems or specialized amps.
“Hybrid” String Sets
It’s also worth mentioning that there are so-called “hybrid” sets. These are pretty common among some metal players. These usually come with thicker bottom three strings and thinner higher three strings. Such a combination allows for chugging heavy riffs, all while enabling more comfortable lead parts.
Nomenclature in the Practical Sense
The “light,” “medium,” “heavy” and other adjectives are kind of outdated. Guitar players, and even manufacturers, usually use string set names according to the thinnest string. So you’ll often hear names like “10s” or “11s” (also written “10’s” and “11’s”) used for entire sets. It’s a more precise way to name the exact string sets. Additionally, some hybrid variants would also include the name of the thickest string in the set. So you’ll also hear names like “10-52” or “10-54.”
How String Gauge Can Impact Tone and Performance
Now, there’s a lot of discussion on how the string gauge impacts the tone. As for acoustic guitars, you’ll definitely notice much more volume. Thicker strings allow acoustic guitarists to be heard next to wind instruments. They’ll also provide more sustain, and, in some cases, they might sound a bit mellower and less bright.
But as far as electric guitars go, this is a blurry territory. While they definitely affect your performance, a string set’s gauge doesn’t really do much to your electric guitar tone. In fact, I’d say that it has no impact whatsoever. Sure, it might be a controversial opinion, but my experience tells me that there’s no impact at all.
The only exception is if you’re using jazz-oriented hollow-body electric guitars. And I’m not talking about semi-hollow-body stuff, like Gibson’s ES-335. I’m talking about Gibson ES-125 or Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin.
As for the performance, well, this comes down to personal preferences. From my perspective, I’d always go with lighter strings, unless I’m using some super-low tunings on guitars with standard scale lengths. But, on the other hand, some players just like to have thicker strings. They feel better under their fingertips, making their performances more comfortable. That’s all there is to it!
Why (Some) Jazz Guitarists Prefer to Use Heavier Strings?
But now we get to the main question. Why do jazz players prefer to use heavier strings? This is actually not entirely true. Modern jazz players, like jazz fusion players, approach the instrument in a different way. For instance, game-changing jazz master Allan Holdsworth even preferred super-light sets, like 9s or even 8s. And he made an impact on whole new generations of jazz, rock, and metal players around the world.
On the other hand, there have been, and there are still, jazz guitarists who prefer thicker strings. This is almost exclusively the case with acoustic and archtop hollow-body electric guitarists in the genre. And, what’s more, electric guitarists will also use clean or just slightly overdriven settings on their tube-driven amps. These are some of the reasons why they might opt for heavy strings:
- They bring more volume on acoustic and hollow-body electric guitars
- Heavy strings can help achieve more sustain
- Heavy strings can sound mellower and darker in some settings
- You can sometimes get lower action without experiencing fret buzz (although this is debatable)
- They might feel more comfortable for those who play “block chords” – playing the chords and the melody at the same time
- They can feel better if you’re using lower tunings (standard D, standard C, drop C, etc.)
It is believed that an old-school jazz master like Joe Pass used 12-gauge string sets. Meanwhile, Wes Montgomery reportedly used a super heavy set of 14s. Generally, most of the traditional-oriented jazz guitarists will use thicker strings on both acoustic and hollow-body electric guitars.
As Far as the Tone Goes, It’s Just One of the Factors
Sure, there are settings where the string gauge makes an impact on the tone. However, bear in mind that this is just one of the factors in a complex tone-shaping equation. This is especially the case with electric guitars where pickups will do a lot of “heavy lifting.” Then we also have tonewoods, hardware, how the guitar is set up, as well as the amplifiers and effects used.
If you’re playing a solid-body electric guitar, bear in mind that there’s no noticeable difference in the tone. As far as the string gauge goes, it’s only about the performance and what feels better for you. There’s this theory that having thicker strings will make you sound “heavier” on solid-body electric guitars. Whenever someone says that in front of you, remind them that Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi used 8-32 string sets for most of his career, achieving some super-heavy tones in the process.
Do What Works the Best for You: It All Comes Down to Personal Preferences
While we’re at it, at the end of the day, the string gauge is a personal preference. True, most of the electric guitar players will go for thinner strings or some hybrids. Some exceptions include guitarists who play in lower tunings. But even then, some baritone guitars with longer scale lengths will make it feel normal with a lighter string set.
However, the most important thing is what feels the most comfortable in your hands. After all, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who reinvented the electric guitar, used really heavy strings. And it worked for him! The best idea is to try things out yourself and see how different gauges feel under your fingertips.
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