Nines, Tens, Elevens…

This is how I buy my strings. Since I don't gig anymore, it's a convenient way to keep a lot of strings around and I don't end up with 10 5 string sets because I use up all the high "E" strings. Of course, I always run out of "E"s first with these.

No, I’m not rating the women passing by my window, I’m talking about string gauges for your ES 335/345/355. What strings you use is very subjective but I think these guitars have a “sweet spot” that you can capture with certain strings but perhaps not with others. I don’t usually mess around with custom gauges where maybe you take a low E from a set of 9’s and an A from a set of tens and so on. I generally use them as they are packaged. I also don’t have a lot of brand loyalty but I usually wind up with (no pun intended) D’Addarios (XL). I change my strings frequently (at least once a month) and I buy the big 25 set bulk packages that you can pull a single string from instead of opening a pack. They are a very good deal too. I found them for around $65. That’s like $2.50 a set. I like to use 10s on a 335 but they can present some problems. Very light gauge strings were not really in use in the late 50’s and early 60’s-in fact, I’m not even sure they existed. It seems that 12’s or even 13’s were pretty much the norm (.051-.041-.031-.023w-.016-.012). The problem is intonation. I’m not sure about the physics-I’m sure it has something to do with the size of the string as it relates to the length of the scale. These guitars were made for a wound G string and heavier strings than most of us use today. This also can cause nut problems (insert joke here). The smaller gauge string sit lower in the slots and can bind and cause all sorts of tuning problems too. It doesn’t end there either. Most players seemed to be using flat wound strings back in the early to mid 60’s as well. I remember Mr. Orsini, my guitar teacher getting upset, when I switched over to round wounds on my Fender Duo-Sonic. He said they were too noisy and too “twangy”. Well, I kind of liked twangy and didn’t listen to him when he told me to change back. Flat wounds don’t bind as easily in the nut slots and they stay in tune better as a result-unless, of course, you prepare the nut properly and lubricate it. That’s a different post, however. So, anyway, I use 10’s and they can be a problem. When intonating, all the strings are usually pretty well in the range of the ABR-1 saddles except for the G and occasionally the B. I find that the plain G string gets pushed all the way back toward the tail of the guitar and I usually have to turn the flat side of the saddle toward the tail as well, to get that extra little bit of range. On one or two guitars I’ve encountered, the G string is impossible to intonate and then I go to a higher gauge on that string and it usually is OK. Why 10’s? I don’t have terribly strong fingers (arthritis from advancing years) and I can’t do the kind of bends I used to do and so the lighter the string for me, the better. However, 9’s just don’t work very well on a 335. They are very tough to intonate for the same reason as the 10’s-only worse- and the guitar loses a lot of the resonance that makes 335’s so great because the strings don’t vibrate with the same power. A lot of folks swear by 11’s on a 335 and I agree that they sound excellent and are better to intonate but I just can’t get the bends I want out of them. I recently discovered 9.5’s and I put them on my ’64 about a week ago and I really like the feel of them but they lack the power needed to coax that 335 into its “sweet spot”. I also recently received a guitar from a seller with 12’s on it. I usually change the strings as soon as I pull the guitar out of the case but I saw they were pretty heavy looking, so I figured I’d play it for awhile and see what it sounded like. I think if I wasn’t a “lead” player, I would really consider the heavier gauge because I found the harmonics coming through beautifully. Power chords never sounded so powerful. So if you’ve got the strength, try a set of 11’s and if you’re a 98 pound weakling like me, go with the 10’s. Leave the 9’s for your Strat or your Tele. They have a longer scale and a set of 9’s will have some extra tension for that reason (the longer the scale length, the higher the string tension at pitch). And, my wife says I’m a sexist because of the thing about nines, tens and elevens and “rating” women. I didn’t come up with that myself. I wonder what she would have said if I had called it ones, two and threes. I also mentioned that she was an eleven, so she dropped it.

4 Responses to “Nines, Tens, Elevens…”

  1. Jonne says:

    It took me 30 years to go slowly from 10’s to 11’s and finally to 12’s. And I’ve been kicking myself why it took so long. Like Charlie says it’s very important to remember that these old guitars and amps what we love so much were designed during the age of 12’s. Or do I dare to say: they were designed for 12’s. No wonder bridges can rattle easily or you might feel why these great sounding PAFs don’t punch like everybody says hey should. Please check this 1878 Seth Lover interview by Seymour Duncan:

    “SWD: The pickups were designed using heavier strings than today.
    Seth Lover: The pickups were designed using heavier strings with the high E being a .012 gauge and now they use .008 which moves the magnetic field much less. They just can’t generate enough energy with that size string. Some players say “my pickups are weak,” if they would only use a heavier string that the pickup was designed for they wouldn’t have any problem.”

    There was once in a Guitar Player magazine: big strings+high action=killer sound. I do vouch for that. I know 12’s are not for everybody and there really can be some physical restrictions – after playing even a short 3-5 days tour I can feel that in my fingers… But the point is taking baby steps and slowly getting use to play with a little heavier gauge – maybe just changing one string at the time. And suddenly you might just realise that “what do I need these booster pedals for anymore”.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    Excellent comment. I use 11’s consistently now- I used 10’s up to a couple of years ago and I think the guitars sound better and intonate better. Maybe 12’s next

  3. Jonne says:

    Thanks Charlie. And so sorry about those typos… Seth Lover interview is naturally made 1978. They’re not that old.

  4. Roy says:

    I also use heavier strings. D’Addario Flatwound 12’s. Of course, I play predominantly jazz, funk, soul. Mostly lead work. And I want that warm rich tone. If I what jangle I pick up a Strat. Over the last 10 years I moved up from 10s to 11s to 12’s. With heavy strings… the guitar stays in tune, the intonation is better, I use just the barest hint of overdrive from the amp. Strings last over a year even with daily playing (sometimes 2 years). It’s the opposite of the typical “change your strings constantly for that sparkle” I hate to change strings cuz it takes weeks for them to start to “settle in”… And as you might imagine, I feel the same about the wood. Play only vintage guitars. Not collectibles, but well-worn “players”. The wood has aged. (until the 70’s Gibson built all guitars with wood that had aged in warehouses for decades… then they ran out of their “stash”… the rest is history)… The tone it there. The PUPS have real copper wiring. It’s all about the hands, strings, and pickups. You are back to playing a musical instrument and not a machine.

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