String tension: what gauge of strings do you need?

Buying guitars strings can be a complicated and overwhelming business. 

Strings are typically sold in gauges that contain a well researched and time tested set of different thicknesses that work together to provide a similar tension at different pitches.  A good place to start might be with a set of 9-42 (or nines, ranging from 0.009” on the top E to 0.042” thick on the bottom E) or 10-46 (tens – 0.010” to 0.046”). This is presuming you’re using standard E tuning, of course.  Some like a beefier low E. If you like lower tunings, you’ll need use thicker strings. 

If you play different guitars with different scale lengths – 25 ½”, 24 3/4” or even 24” – you’ll notice that the strings feel different on each. Playing a set of nines on a Les Paul, for example, will have less tension and feel looser than on a Stratocaster.  Many people will compensate for this difference by using tens on a 24 3/4” scale and nines on a Fender. 

But how accurate is this? What gauge of strings do you actually need to achieve the same tension? 

Using data from D’Addario’s website, I decided to draw a chart to compare different gauges on different scale lengths.  Using D’Addario string sets as examples, I calculated the tension, in lb and Kg (in parentheses), of each set at four different scale lengths. Then I plotted the results in a graph.

EXL 120EXL 110EXL 115EXL 145
Scale lengthNines
lb (Kg)
lb (Kg)
lb (Kg)
lb (Kg)
(609 mm)
24 3/4″
(629 mm)
(635 mm)
25 ½”
(647 mm)

As you can see, if you want to maintain the same tension on each, you’ll probably need to get a custom set.  Simply switching to a standard set won’t get you even close.  The closest comparison of two standard string sets (shown in the pink dotted line) would be tens on a 25 ½” scale (found on a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster) and elevens on a 24” (like a Fender Mustang). 

Personally, I don’t find the difference in tension found in Gibson and Fender scales to be enough to worry about using different gauges, but your mileage will vary and you may want to order custom string sets if maintaining the same tension between different guitars is critical. 

What are your experiences with using different gauges on different scale lengths? What are your favourites? 

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