What Are Balanced Tension Guitar Strings?

What Are Balanced Tension Guitar Strings?

We talk a lot about Balanced Tension guitar strings – but what does it actually mean? We take a deep dive to explain what balanced tension guitar strings actualy are, and how we can apply this methodology to a few popular guitar string sets.

Since this video went live we’ve released a new tool that you will love even better than the spreadsheet we use in the video. Check out the Stringjoy Guitar String Tension Calculator.

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Today we’re talking a little bit about balanced tension guitar strings. We talk about this a lot, so I wanted to give a little bit of a deep dive into what exactly it is and how it actually plays out with string selection and a couple of different sets.

First off, let’s define tension. Tension on a given guitar string is a product of the scale length, the pitch that the string is tuned up to and the mass of the string, which is pretty well related to gauge, but a little bit different and we’ll talk about that a little bit later in the video.

What it means for you as a player, is that the more tension you have on a string, the harder it’s going to be to bend. You can feel this on most guitar strings. If you get really, really small amounts of tension, that string might actually start to hang off the guitar a little bit or just be extra, extra slinky. Our goal in balancing tension for a particular guitar string set, is to make it so that every single string in the set has the same reaction when you apply the same amount of force. What this means is that bending all of your strings will take the same amount of effort. This is a subtle change, but I think it can make a really, really big difference for a guitarist. It’s just a lot more natural to play a guitar string set where every single string reacts the same way.

Today, to help explain balanced tension guitar strings a little bit, we’re going to actually be switching occasionally to the screen of my MacBook here, where I have a really simple spreadsheet that I use to calculate tension. It takes the mass of the string, the pitch that the string is tuned up to, the scale length of the string and it tells us what the overall tension is in pounds.

One caveat I want to make right from the beginning, and you’ll see why I feel this way as we go along throughout the video, is that the typical gauges in a typical set of strings that you see on the shelf or that come on your guitar, are not necessarily the best gauges that there are out there. Many of these sets were put together in the ’60s by one or two people. They weren’t really using a ton of math to feel it out and they were just finding the strings that they felt played the most even and balanced across the fretboard. Then, over time, those just got used by everybody. They became commonplace and now we look at them as the Holy Grail of strings, but I don’t believe that’s really true and there’s a lot of small improvements that can be made that better balance out sets overall.

First up, let’s look at a typical set of nines. We’re going to look at 9, 11, 16, 24, 32, 42, which is really the most common set of nines that you see out there. Some companies, including us, have a little bit of different gauge set up on it for given reasons that we’ll get into, but let’s start here. Looking at this from the lightest string to the heaviest, you can see we start at 13.1 pounds, we go down to 11 pounds, up to 14.7, up to 15.7, 15.8 and 14.8 to round it out.

Some general rules of thumb that we want to keep in mind for balanced tension electric and acoustic guitar strings as we’re looking at this:

First of all, you generally want a little bit more tension on your wound strings than on your plain strings. The reason for this is because of the geometry of wound strings. Wound strings will just bend a little bit better naturally because they have the natural ridges that form in between windings, which enables them to be a little bit more flexible. Plain strings don’t have any of that. Generally, a wound string with a pound or two more tension on it, will feel about the same in terms of actual playability, as a plain string at the same. Remember that when we’re looking at it.

Because of that, this 15.7 pounds that we see here on the 24, versus that 14.7 pounds on the 16, that’s not bad. We could actually even have a little bit more of a discrepancy in tension between the wound strings and the plain strings. Second rule of thumb, you’re never going to be able to get these things exactly perfect. That’s not really the goal. You can only get so specific in terms of actual guitar string gauges. People don’t make a 24 and a quarter, and in fact, tolerance ratios would mean that that’s actually virtually meaningless. We’ll get into that and do a different video, but for right now, just remember, you’re going to have a little bit of variance. If you can get really anything between one pound close to one another or up to 1.3 pounds close to one another, that’s going to feel really, really similarly for you as a player.

With that in mind, looking at the low strings here, this really isn’t too bad of a problem at all. The fourth and the fifth strings are almost exactly the same. It’s a little bit of a toss-up as to whether you would want to go with a 44 here. That would get things a little bit closer, but a lot of players don’t like having that heavy of a string on the 6th. For our sets, we actually go with a 42, which is just based on testing it with a bunch of different players and seeing their preference, but for some players, they will definitely bump that up to a 44 and I have no problem with that at all.

But on this set, generally, the wound strings are pretty okay. What the big problem is, is in these plain strings. As you can see, we have a fair amount of tension on that nine. It balances pretty well with the tension we have down here on the wound strings, but we have this huge dip in tension down to an 11 and then a massive jump in tension up to the 16. That’s not going to feel very great. Your B string is going to have a much lighter feel to it. The G string’s going to really ring out when you play a chord and it’s going to be a lot harder to bend. Overall, it’s not really the best, so let’s see what we can do to it.

If we take this 11, and we use a 12 instead, you can see that that is dead on perfect. Same tension as that 9 on top and then, if we take this 16. Take it down to a 15, we are right in the money. So, there we have 13.1, 13.1 and 12.9. You couldn’t really get any more perfect than that. As a result, this set is going to feel much more even and much more natural. The wound strings are all going to have a really similar, familiar amount of tension between them and the plain strings are similarly going to have an almost perfect ratio of tension between them.

Altogether, I firmly believe a set of truly balanced tension guitar strings like this is going to feel a lot more natural, going to play a lot better and sound a lot better than the set that we looked at first and that is why Stringjoy Guitar Strings feature these particular gauges on our set of nines.

Next up, let’s look at a typical set of 10s. This is the most popular gauge worldwide for guitar strings, so for a lot of you, this is probably what you’re more used to. Let’s talk about it a little bit. As you can see, the 10, 13, 17 aren’t terrible. You see a really similar bump down in tension on the B string that we saw on the set of nines, but it’s not necessarily too far out. That’s not going to feel too unnatural and then down in the wound strings, similarly, the 26 and 36 are pretty close to one another. That’s a 1.1 pound difference. That’s really not too bad and then on the 46, we have this huge drop down from the 36. Let’s see if we can improve this any.

If we take that 13 and go up to a 13 and a half, like we use in our Balanced Light set, as you can see here, that really improves the balance of tension between these plain strings. We’re only .4 difference and the B and the G string are exactly the same. Now, on the bottom end, I think similarly, we can make this a little bit better. If we take that 46 and we bump it up to a 48, there we’re much more in the neighborhood here. We have a little bit of a jump in tension between the 26 and the 36, but it’s not too bad and a much natural, much more natural, ending down there on the 48, only about .6 pounds difference there.

Again, we have a little bit of a difference be the wound strings and the plain strings. We’re at about two pounds. I think that that’s really good and really natural. A lot of players prefer that for various reasons and it just feels a lot more balanced overall. But all together, I again think that this set is way better than that typical 10 to 46 set that we saw before. It’s going to feel much more smooth, much more natural, have a much fuller, more resonant tonality where you’re not losing volume on particular gauges that makes chords sound kind of weird. So, similarly, this is why we go for this typical gauge in our balanced 10 set. A lot of players love it. I certainly do. If you do want to make some changes here, it’s worth noting that if you didn’t want to go all the way up to a 48, you could also take this 20, this 36 rather, down to a 34. Again, that’s a little bit of a jump down in tension, which I don’t like as much as a jump up in tension, but it’s not terrible and then we go to a 46 down here and there we go.

If you really didn’t want a 48, I would recommend something like 26, 34, 46. To me, I don’t think it plays quite as well as 36 and 48 on the bottom, but it will do a serviceable job, all together to give you a much more balanced feel out of your guitar. Now, there are some string tension calculators online, where you can play around with these, sort of, numbers yourself. We might put my spreadsheet up somewhere so that you can access it pretty easily, but in general, just know that we’ve actually already done this sort of work for you.

When we designed all of our sets of balanced tension electric guitar strings, we ensured that everything matched up mathematically. Everything played and balanced really, really smoothly. We don’t really make any sets in the old fashioned gauges, just because we don’t believe that they’re really worthwhile. If there are improvements that can be made, I can’t see any reason why somebody wouldn’t want to go that way. You might have to set up your guitar just slightly at first, but you’re going to get a much more balanced and full tonality and playability from your guitar over the course of playing it, so I think that transition is very much worth making.

Now, I know some of you might ask whether these numbers hold true from manufacturer to manufacturer. You’re on to something here, because the difference between the core wire diameter and the wrap wire diameter that you use to add up to a particular gauge of string, this is kind of the recipe of each string from a different manufacturer, the difference there is going to affect the overall mass of the string, which is a really important calculation in how we determine tension. However, the difference in mass with a thicker core wire versus a thinner core wire, isn’t all that much when you stay at the same gauge, so ultimately, these rules tend to hold true from manufacturer to manufacturer, regardless of what those core to cover ratios are.

Most manufacturers don’t publish their core to cover ratios. It’s kind of the secret sauce that makes different guitar strings different from one another, so you might have a harder time tracking it down. The information that is out there, for most guitar strings, is going to be pretty accurate, and moreover, if you see a 42 gauge having more tension than a 40, it doesn’t really matter how thick that core wire is there. It’s pretty much always going to make that big of a difference because you have such a big difference in the actual gauge, meaning, much more mass regardless of that ratio.

What if you have particular needs or want some help dialing in a set of strings that will work great for you? Again, we’re a great resource for that, at [email protected], you can hit us up anytime. We will do this on the backend to determine the best set of strings for your particular setup and we’ll let you know what we think. We’re happy to do this. It’s free. It’s no problem. It’s something we really enjoy doing for players to help them dial in whatever is going to work best.

One final caveat, ultimately, when it comes to guitar, there’s a little bit of science involved, as you’ve seen here today, but, it’s also ultimately an art. If something feels right, it is right. I always recommend trying different things to see if you might be able to improve it, but ultimately, don’t go with something just because the math says that it’s perfect. If it doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s not going to play right for you, so just remember what your fingers tell you and what the playability of the particular set feels like to you, is all that really matters.

So, what do you think? Do you play balanced tension guitar strings on your guitar? Do you play some of our sets of balanced tension guitar strings or do you just stick with the old, classic gauges? Let us know down in the comments.