The thickness (gauge) of guitar strings you use affects the feel and playability of the instrument massively, as well as impacts the tone and tuning stability. In this article I’ll directly compare light and medium acoustic guitar strings to help you decide which option is the best.
This guide will focus on acoustic guitar strings, if you’re looking for information on electric guitar strings then check out my comparison between 9-gauge and 10-gauge strings.
Light vs Medium Strings 101
Light guitar strings sound brighter and feel easier to fret and bend compared to medium strings which are under more tension. Medium strings sound warmer, fuller and louder and have slightly better tuning stability in comparison to light strings.
|Light Strings||Medium Strings|
|0.012-0.054” thick on average||0.013-0.056” thick on average|
|Under less tension||Under more tension|
|Feel easier to fret and bend||Feel stiffer and more sturdy|
|Sound brighter and thinner||Sound warmer and louder|
|More prone to fret buzz||Less prone to fret buzz|
|Less tuning stability||Better tuning stability|
|Suit shorter scale guitars||Suit longer scale guitars|
String Gauge on Acoustic Guitars
A guitar’s string gauge refers to the thickness measured as 1/1000th of an inch of the high E string. The thickness of each of the 6 strings of course varies, but the high E string is usually used as the reference point.
Acoustic guitar string sets typically vary from 10-gauge to 13-gauge, meaning the high E string is 0.01″ to 0.013″.
The two most popular string sets for acoustic guitars are light and medium.
- Light acoustic guitar strings typically have a gauge of 12
- Medium acoustic guitar strings typically have a gauge of 13
I say “typically” because it can vary between brands, although most follow this measurement. Hence, for the rest of this article I’ll be comparing 12-gauge and 13-gauge strings.
String Thickness of Light vs Medium Sets
Here is a breakdown of the thickness of each string in a typical light and medium acoustic guitar string set.
Light Set of Acoustic Guitar Strings:
- Low E: 0.054″
- A: 0.041″
- D: 0.031″
- G: 0.025″
- B: 0.015″
- High E: 0.012″
Medium Set of Acoustic Guitar Strings:
- Low E: 0.056″
- A: 0.045″
- D: 0.035″
- G: 0.026″
- B: 0.017″
- High E: 0.013″
As you can see, the difference between thickness of each individual string in a set of light and medium acoustic guitar stings usually 0.002-0.004″. However, this equates to approximately a 10% difference in string thickness on average which is quite significant.
The thicker the strings are on a guitar, the more tension they are under. Hence, medium strings are under more tension compared to light strings on an acoustic guitar. It’s this difference in tension which impacts playability and tone.
Effect on Playability and Feel
Medium acoustic guitar strings feel harder to fret and bend compared to light guitar strings because they are under more tension, and hence require more finger strength.
Beginners often prefer the feel of lighter strings because it makes the guitar easier to play especially when your fingers haven’t strengthened up yet. That doesn’t mean you have to be a beginner to use lighter strings though, it is all down to personal preference.
Lighter strings also feel more comfortable for players who suffer from joint pain.
Some players however prefer the feeling of medium strings as they feel more sturdy and less likely to bend out of tune.
If you’ve only ever tried medium strings, I’d recommend trying a set of light strings next time you restring your guitar, or vice-versa. Then you can really figure out which you prefer the feel of on your particular instrument.
Effect on Tone
Medium acoustic guitar strings are louder, warmer and have more sustain compared to light acoustic guitar strings.
Thicker strings produce more low-end (bass) frequencies, and as a result make the tone sound warmer. Thinner strings don’t produce as much bass, and as a result sound brighter. Lighter strings do not have more treble, they just have less bass response, which results in that perceived brightness.
Lighter strings generally lend themselves more towards fingerstyle as they are more articulate, whereas medium strings are typically more suited to strumming as they sound more warm and full.
I personally think that tone should not be the primary factor to consider when choosing between light and medium strings though. Instead, I think feel and playability should carry more weight. If of course you find both comfortable though, feel free to choose the set which sound best to you.
Check out this YouTube video to hear the difference between a light and medium set of strings.
Medium acoustic guitar strings offer better tuning stability compared to light strings because they are under more tension so it’s harder to pull the strings out of tune.
With that said, the difference is minimal when comparing light and medium strings as they are only one size apart. The difference is more significant when comparing very heavy and very light strings instead.
If you are having issues with tuning instability then check out this article I’ve written on 8 reasons why your guitar keeps going out of tune and how to fix it.
Medium acoustic guitar strings are less likely to cause fret buzz compared to light strings.
The reason being that the set of medium strings are thicker so under more tension. This means they can’t vibrate as freely so the risk of them touching the fretboard is reduced. Thicker strings also sit higher in the nut which can reduce the chance of fret buzz.
I certainly wouldn’t advise putting medium strings (instead of light) on your guitar just to fix fret buzz though, as this is not the underlying issue. If you’re noticing fret buzz and unsure why it’s happening, take your guitar to a good technician who will be able to advise.
String Gauge and Scale Length
Another point I wanted to touch on, is the relationship between string gauge and scale length of the guitar.
Guitars with a longer scale length will typically suit lighter strings compared to guitars with a shorter scale length which suit thicker, medium strings more.
This relates back to string tension.
Guitars with a longer scale length put the strings under more tension. Hence, to avoid the tension becoming too great, lighter strings are often used. On the other hand, guitars with a shorter scale length put the strings under less tension, so thicker strings are often used to prevent them being too lax.
This is often why you’ll see 3/4 acoustic guitars with light strings and full-size guitars with medium strings.