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How To Calculate Guitar String Tension – Finding the Right Strings for Your Fingers

Hello all, today I would like to talk about string tension. More specifically how to calculate guitar string tension to help you find the right strings for your fingers. This article is going to be about electric guitar strings.

Everybody has different fingers and hands; we are all built differently and because of this one string set may work better for you than it does for other and vise versa.

Calculating string tension as a guitar player has really helped me understand what it is that I’m going to get when I buy a product and has also helped me predict what I will like best based on what strings I am currently using.

By doing this you can really what readily available string sets will work best for you. Or help you build out your own custom set. This is especially critical when building your own custom set of strings whether you are using an altered tuning, using a multiscale length guitar or playing around with different string materials.

There is a good possibility that you’ve never thought of calculating string tension before, and there is nothing wrong with that. I know I certainly never thought of it for years, I just took for granted that when I put on a set of strings and tuned them up everything was as it was supposed to be… If I’ve intrigued your curiosity at all keep reading as I get into the nitty gritty of string tension with my personal journey trying to find the perfect strings.

Here is a very useful online tension calculating tool that I use for a lot of my research when buying strings.

Factors Affecting String Tension

Some factors that affect your string tension are:

  • String gauge (thickness of string)
  • Scale length (the distance from the nut to the bridge)
  • Tuning (whether you tune to standard tuning or not)
  • The material your strings are made of

Common Electric String Sets

You might assume that the string tension would be calculated to be somewhat balanced with standard string sets, I know that I certainly thought so.

But I could never figure out why the high E string was harder to bend than the B string and the G string was as easy to bend as the high E…. Weird. Another weird thing I noticed was how the low E string (which you would assume would be the stiffest string (highest tension) was noticeably easier to bend and fret than the A and D strings. This bothered me because it puts a lot more stress on your picking hand when playing more complicated picking patterns (think of heavy metal).

This led me to do my own research to figure out what was going on. For all the charts I assembled below I have used the same parameters other than the string gauge. All the strings are set to a 25.5 inch scale length, the low strings wound, the high strings unwound and of course its set to standard tuning.

Regular set of 10 gauge strings: The industry standardRegular 10 Gauge Set

Ah now this is starting to make sense…. I’m not crazy! I’m not to sure why this became the standard across manufacturers it doesn’t really make much sense to me.

If you look at the chart you can see that the B string is a lower tension than the high E and G which doesn’t make sense. Personally I would like all my high strings to bend with the same feel.

Next the low E… It really is a lot softer than the A and D strings, in fact the biggest change in tension across the whole set is from the A to the low E. I understand now why some companies have balanced tension sets because this is definitely not balanced.

Balance Tension: Balanced Tension 10's

to my knowledge D’Addario is the only manufacturer that makes balances tension sets of strings… very cool. On the right is a chart showing a balanced tension 10 gauge set by D’Addario(EXL110BT). As you can see the high and low spots are rounded out, if you like playing standard string sets I would highly recommend trying one of these balanced tension sets, D’Addario offers them in 9’s, 10’s and 11,s.

For me personally I like the low E string to have a bit more tension, something like 17-18 lbs in this case would be almost ideal in my eyes….. More on this later.

Regular set of 9 gauge strings: 9 Gauge Strings

Here we can see the same trend as the 10’s but with less tension.

They are a little different, the low E is closer in tension to the A and D but still more floppy (low tension). In fact the low E in this set has less tension than the G string…wow! That would be really hard on your rhythm playing.

The high strings in this set are very “noodley”…. especially the B string. I do remember when I used to play 9 gauge strings and the B was always supper loose. In the chart you can see in this set that the biggest change in tension is from the G to B string so that would make sense why it always felt that way.

Light Top/Heavy Bottom:Light Top/Heavy Bottom

These are strings that I commonly use, what first brought them to my attention was the 52 gauge low string.

I figured that it solve my floppy low string problem, what I didn’t realize was how stiff the A and D strings would be. I still use them from time to time as I am always going back and forth between 10’s and light top/heavy bottom.

I think these strings are worth trying for anyone who finds their low strings to be to lose.

Building Your Own Custom String SetsCustom String Set

This brings me to the ultimate solution…. making your own custom tailored string sets. For me a 6-string set looks like this, for my playing needs it works great.

By playing around with the online string tension tool and by tweaking the strings you usually use you can come up with the perfect strings for your fingers.

You can also use this tool to make custom strings for altered tunings and/or different string material sets and have them feel the same as your favourite pack of strings by entering in the respective specs. It is a very useful tool, I give a big thumbs up to D’Addario for that.

Some companies that offer single strings for custom sets that I would recomend are:

  • D’Addario
  • Ernieball
  • Cleartone (they actualy offer proper custom sets not singles you peice to gether yourself.)

 

Finding Those Perfect Strings

It does take some trial and error but the most important thing is to keep track of what you are using… Knowing is half the battle.

Sometimes we don’t notice the little things because we get so used to using the same equipment (strings in this case) for so long that we lose sight of how to improve upon it. Or we just take for granted that the one size fits all mentality has our best interests in mind.

I hope this has been useful.

Jay.

2 Comments

  1. Hey Jay,

    I play guitar but I’ve never though of calculating string tension.
    I just tune it up and play.
    Is that a problem?

    • That’s a good point I’m glad you mentioned it, I can get carried away when writing sometimes. Absolutely, at the end of the day if that works for you then more power to you. After all its about the music right?

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