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String Gauges for Steel Guitar

Updated December 11, 2008

By JOHN ELY

String Gauge Chart
Download this handy string gauge chart.

The string gauge chart below could be used as a general guide for pedal steel guitar, but is primarily aimed at steel guitar without pedals. Depending on your tuning and other factors, there is leeway and room for personal choice when stringing up a "straight" steel guitar. For pedal steel, the choices are more limited due to the physics of raising and lowering strings. For the most part, pedal players should stick to the manufacturer's recommended gauges for their particular tuning and pedal setup.

Aside from steel guitar tunings, choice of string gauges is probably the most asked about technical topic in setting up a steel guitar. Below I have listed common string gauges used for each pitch from the rarely used high A string to the low A (very few will try to tune a note below this pitch).

String Tension On Your Guitar

Each pitch has a range of acceptable gauges. There are a couple of reasons for this. Some players prefer a loose fitting string and use gauges that are smaller than normal. Others prefer strings to be on the tight side and use the larger gauges listed. [Example: Using a .015 gauge for the high E-string will have a tighter feel than a .014 gauge string.]

Scale length can be a factor when selecting gauges. If you use identical string gauges on both a short scale guitar (22-22.5 inches from the bridge to the nut) and a long scale guitar (24-24.5 inches), the string tension on the long scale instrument will be noticeably greater. From the chart below, you can see that for Middle C, a .017 gauge string is normal. On a short scale instrument, string tension is lower so you might consider using an .018 gauge string. Some instruments have a "super long scale", 26 inches and beyond. For these instruments you probably will need to use the smallest of the recommended gauges; string tension will be significantly greater on these guitars. Also, if your tuning uses a high G or high G# and you have one of these super long scale models, you may have trouble with excessive string breakage, especially if there are irregularities at the nut or bridge. You may have to drop the tuning a step or two.

Those Bothersome Middle Gauges

Either unwound or wound strings can be used for pitches at or near A below middle C (gauges .020 to .024). However, this range of gauges presents some peculiar problems.

Unwound strings over .020 gauge can have a sort of "squirrely" sound due to the thickness of the core wire. You can almost hear the pitch blurring or sounding indefinite. This is really noticeable for .024 gauge and even .022 gauge. The advantage of unwound strings is they aren't as noisy as wound strings when using Hawaiian-style vibrato with the bar (that is, sliding the bar across the strings instead of rolling the bar). Note also that unwound strings in this range tend to be "unstable" from the point of view of intonation. Even the slightest drop or rise in temperature (from the heat generated by your palms, for example) can throw the string noticeably out of tune.

Conversely, wound strings in this range are more clear sounding, stable, and definite in pitch, but are more noisy when using Hawaiian vibrato.

Many players will base their selection of middle gauges on tonal blend. Wound strings in this range tend to have a bright, buzzy tone quality and can "stick out" when played in combination with higher unwound strings. For example, some C6th players (some great ones, I might add!) like to use an unwound .024 gauge G string, which blends well with the unwound strings above it (A, C, and E). Others find that the tonal differences between the wound and plain strings make the blended sound fatter. A lot depends on how you pick and, quite honestly, what you like to hear.

Use of wound or unwound strings is a personal choice and for most players involves some compromise. Personally, I prefer the stability and clarity of wound strings and can live with the more scratchy vibrato, but I know plenty of great players who would disagree with me.

Round or Flatwound Strings?

From the above discussion you can see that wound strings present some problems relating to tone and the use of vibrato. Some players have moved from the normal roundwound string to flatwound strings, which almost completely eliminates that scratchy sound you get from sliding the bar back and forth. A potential disadvantage is that flatwound strings are much less bright tonally, and that will bother some players including myself. You can now get semi-flatwound strings, which are fairly quiet on Hawaiian style vibrato while still retaining some of the brightness of round-wound strings. If the bright, buzzy sound of round-wound strings bothers you or you can't handle the associated vibrato noise, flatwound or semi-flatwound strings may be your answer.

An Inexact Science

A final note on this subject. It is not always possible to find a great selection of string gauges at your local music store. If you have to use a string that is one or two gauges smaller or larger than the recommended gauge range, you're still going to be okay. This is especially true for the larger wound strings. Any string over .030w can cover a wider range of pitches than the chart would indicate, so despair not if you're missing a few key string gauges and can find a reasonable substitute.

 
String Gauge Chart
PitchGauge RangeMy Choice
A.009 to .011.010
G#/Ab.010 to .011.011
G.011 to .012.012
F#/Gb.012 to .013.013
F.013 to .015.013
E.013 to .015.014 Guitar High E
D#/Eb.014 to .016.015
D.015 to .017.016
C#/Db.016 to .018.017
C.016 to .018.017Middle C
B.017 to .019.018
Bb/A#.018 to .020.020
A.020* to .022*.021
G#/Ab.024* to .026*.024w
G.024* to .026*.024w
F#/Gb.024w to .026w.026w
F.026w to .030w.028w
E.028w to .032w.030w
D#/Eb.028w to .032w.032w
D.032w to .036w.034wGuitar D String
C#/Db.034w to .038w.036w
C.034w to .038w.036w
B.034w to .038w.038w
Bb/A#.034w to .038w.042w
A.040w to .044w.042w
G#/Ab.042w to .046w.046w
G.044w to .048w.048w
F#/Gb.048w to .052w.052w
F.052w to .056w.054w
E.054w to .058w.056wGuitar Low E
D#/Eb.056w to .060w.058w
D.060w to .064w.060w
C#/Db.060w to .068w.064w
C.064w to .068w.068w
B.064w to .068w.068w
Bb/A#.068w to .072w.072w
A.068w to .072w.072w

* Either wound or plain acceptable

Example String Gauges for Common Tunings
C6th A6th E7th C6th C13th
E.014 E.014 E.014 G.012 E.014
C.017 C#.017 B.018 E.014 C.017
A.021 A.021 G#.024w C.017 A.021
G.024w F#.026w E.030w A.021 G.024w
E.030w E.030w D.034w G.024w E.030w
C.036w C#.036w B.038w E.030w C.036w
A.042w G#.046w C.036w Bb.042w
F#.052w E.056w A.042w C.068w