String Gauge Nightmare

A while back I made the jump from using 10-46 gauge strings to 11-50 gauge strings on my Strat.   I can remember tuning it up to pitch, plugging into my Fender Twin and totally freaking out.  Not because of the beefy tone you would expect from such burly strings, but because it threw everything out of adjustment.  It played like a guitar you would find on the bottom row at a big box music store.  The neck had major relief in it now and the tremolo was about an 1/8″ higher.   Not to mention the tuning stability issues and the intonation being so far out that playing octaves past the twelfth fret sounded like I was playing Armenian folk music.  Can increasing the gauge of a set of strings by a few thousandths of and inch cause this much mayhem?  Let’s look into it.

  •  10-46 gauge strings have a combined tension of roughly 108 lbs when tuned to standard tuning on a 25.5″ scale guitar.
  •  11-50 gauge strings have a combined tension of roughly 125 lbs, that’s 17 lbs more pulling at you headstock.
  • A guitar’s string height, neck relief, nut height and pickup height are measured in very small increments like 1/64″ and .001″
  • Fun Fact: If I used Stevie Ray Vaughn’s 13-54 gauge strings and tuned to standard tuning my strings would be producing 147 lbs of tension!

By increasing the size of the strings on my guitar by one gauge size I increased the tension by 17 lbs, or the weight of about two gallons of water.  When dealing with adjustments with such tight tolerances that is quite a lot.

I like my neck as close to flat as possible, basically no relief, now it was at about 1/32″ or a little bigger than my D string.  Getting this back to flat was my first goal, which is kind of a pain in the biscuits when your truss rod adjuster is in the neck pocket like mine is.  Something I learned was to make very small adjustments, like between an 1/8 and a 1/4 of a turn and let the guitar settle for a few days.  I went from 1/32″ of relief to flat all at once.  By the end of the week I had some back bow in the neck and had to loosen the truss rod a little.

Now that my neck was good I chose to figure out the tuning stability issue.  Why mess with the intonation or the tremolo if isn’t going to stay in tune?  After inspecting it for clues I found the problem, the thicker strings were binding in the nut slots.  I knew about the graphite pencil and Vaseline tricks, but that’s for helping strings slip through a nut properly filed for the string gauge being used.   Decision time, do I now irreversibly alter my guitar by filing the nut and risk screwing it up or do I chicken out and put the 10’s back on?  Common sense would tell me to do the latter, but I have a complete lack of common sense.  I did however get the appropriate nut files from Stewmac.com.  They cost a good chunk of change, but they have lasted for a long time and have since paid for themselves.  Stewmac.com also has a good instruction guide making widening the nut a breeze.  I just had to make sure I didn’t make the nut any deeper, only wider.

Next up, the tremolo.   I like the tremolo to float about 1/8″ above the guitar body, now it was over 1/4″.  After tightening  the spring claw screws to the point of being buried,  I realized I was going to have to dig through my draw of junk and find another spring.  I only had to add one more for a total of four springs in order to get it back to an 1/8″ of float without the claw screws being tightened all the way down.  This made the feel of the tremolo much stiffer, but it only took about a day to get used to.

Finally it was time to do the intonation.  Actually I had to raise the saddles about a 1/64″ on the bass side to get rid of some minor string buzz due to the larger diameter strings, then I checked the intonation.  Every string went sharp when comparing the twelfth fret harmonic to the fretted twelfth fret note.  Every saddle had to be moved further away from the nut increasing the string’s length.  After about fifteen minutes of moving saddles, retuning, rechecking the intonation, rinsing and repeating I was finally done, with everything.  Restringing my guitar only took me seven days, including the time it took for my nut files to arrive.

Overall I am quite happy with the bigger strings and feel that all the work was worth it.  I got the added beefiness in tone I was hoping for, and since I have meat hooks for hands, it actually made the guitar more playable.  I have notice that my overdrive tones are actually clearer and more articulate, too.   I also like how the strings don’t flap around as much when getting rambunctious with the picking hand.

If you want to figure out what kind of tension your dealing with go here http://www.mcdonaldstrings.com/stringxxiii.html.


2 Comments on “String Gauge Nightmare”

  1. AiXeLsyD13 says:

    I have used Ernie Ball 9’s for a loooong time, I recently tried out some Elixrs, same gauge… they seem to “give” more. I was thinking of trying their 10’s… So, I may have to get my guitar re-setup?

    • MTF says:

      More than likely. How much setting up depends on the guitar such as fixed bridge vs trem. On my Strat going from 10’s to 11’s made the trem lift up from the added tension. Another issue you may have is with the nut. Guitars come from the factory with the nut slots cut for the strings they come with, many times 9’s. Going to 10’s might cause the strings to bind giving you tuning issues. When I went to 11’s I had to widen the slot’s. Thicker strings stretch less when fretting notes which can cause the intonation to go out too and need adjusting but only after checking and maybe needing to adjust the truss rod due to the added tension on the neck. Sounds like a lot, but I found the change in tone and the feel to be worth all the trouble. If you don’t do your own setups learning how can will not only save you money, but allow you to really zero in on the perfect setup for you. Most shops will put it to factory specs, which I find is a great starting point, but my style and technique requires me to tweak it to make it perfect for me. Dan Erlewine has published a great book on the subject called “The Guitar Player Repair Guide.”
      Good Luck and Thanks For The Question!-Matt


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