Every industry has its “inside language”, from advanced medicine to dog grooming. And with our society becoming more and more specialized in each industry, taking someone who is an expert in one thing and sticking them in the context of another thing often creates confusion. For example, a guitarist referring to his “Peavey” is entirely different from a turn-of-the-century logger who is referring to his “peavey”; and if you happened to get these two guys in the same place talking about “peavies” at the same time, I’m sure there’s bound to be hilarious miscommunication. In specialized industries, knowing the lingo can make a huge difference.
"This doesn't look like my amp at all..."
Music stores are no exception. If you aren’t a frequenter of music stories, or if you’re like I was for the longest time and just don’t care that much, it can be really easy to get lost in the terminology when shopping for that piece of music equipment you need. It can especially suck for the musician who’s just getting started, or the unlucky dude who’s Christmas shopping for his musician buddy and doesn’t know where the heck to start.
Possibly one of the most common miscommunications at our shop happens when customers come up to the counter and ask for a certain size of guitar strings. Now you’d think that shouldn’t be such a frequent source of confusion since most manufacturers clearly label the set of the string with easy-to-remember names like “light”, “medium”, “heavy”, “extra light”, “custom light”, etc. On the surface it doesn’t seem like a complicated system; ideally, a customer should be able to say, “Gimme a set of acoustic ‘lights’” and we should be able to respond with “BAM!! There ya go!” and proceed to celebrate that successful transaction with a high-five or chest-bump or whatever. But sadly, nothing in life is that easy because here’s the rub with guitar string sizing:
First of all, the term “lights” and “mediums” are about as misleading as the names Starbucks gives to its coffee sizes. You don’t go into Starbucks and ask for a “small” coffee, you ask for a “tall” coffee, which, to the uninitiated coffee drinker seems very misleading since the word “tall” is often reserved for referring to big things. But nope. A “large” coffee at Starbucks is inexplicably referred to as a “Vente’”, which is dumb but whatever. Clearly they’re a successful business and they’re weird decisions are working for them so, what can I say?
Guitar strings are the similar in that respect. One would think “medium” strings would be a standard or middle-of-the-road string, but in fact they tend to be the heavier option. “Light” are what most manufacturers put on your guitar when they send ‘em fresh from the factory. "Mediums" are actually the step up from standard, being stiffer and higher tension than “lights”. So when we get players coming in requesting “medium” strings, we are awkwardly forced to ask the dumb question, “So by ‘medium’ you mean….?” This is just to clarify whether or not they are looking for the colloquial “standard” or actual so-called “medium” gauge strings. And sometimes it annoys people when we ask such a seemingly obvious question but we do it only because we want to make sure we sell you the thing you actually need.
The second thing about guitar strings as far as the size names are concerned is that they aren’t always consistent between different brands or types of strings. Ernie Ball is a great example of this in that they come up with their own names apparently on the fly and they don’t usually make sense with everyone else’s system. A “standard” pack of electric Ernie Ball Slinky’s is referred to neither as “light” or “medium” but “Super”, whereas their heavier electric option is “Regular”. But then in their acoustic strings, the standard size is “regular” and the lighter stuff is “super”. To further confuse everyone, compare Ernie Ball’s Earthwood strings to a common equivalent in Martin or D’Addario; in the latter two, standard is “light”, but in Earthwood’s terms, standard is called “medium-light” and their heavier option is just plain “medium”. Confused? So are we.
So to bypass that whole fuster-cluck, we here at Bigfoot Music will often resort to simply referring to strings by their physical gauge. Gauges are usually listed somewhere on the string package in millimeters; example, a standard gauge for most acoustic guitars is “12 to 53”, which is simply a .012 inch string to a .053 inch string. Same with electrics, being almost always either “9 to 42” or “10 to 46”, depending on the style of your electric guitar.
Referring to string gauges, if you happen to know them, certainly simplifies things if you use custom gauges, too. If you’re a drop tuner or a specific type of player, you’ll probably need weirder sized strings that deviate from the norms. Instead of getting tripped up by Ernie Ball calling it “Power Slinky” and D’Addario calling it “Medium XL’s” , you can simplify it for yourself and call it “11 to 48” ‘s. They aren’t always exact matches, but you’ll get a lot further that way than having to listen to us ask your twenty questions and driving you nuts in the process. Just like how there’s little room for confusion when you go to a coffee shop and ask for a 12 ounce Americano instead of attempting to navigate the lingo, there’s less room for confusion when ordering strings when you go by the actual numerical measurements.
“I’d like a 12 ounce coffee please.” Boom. There you go.
“I’d like a pack of acoustic 12 through 53’s, please.” Bam. Simple.
So next time you stop in at the shop and order strings, save yourself a headache and order by numbers! Because of course the only thing dumber than guitar string sizing is drum sticks sizing, but hey! That’s for another blog…
In the meantime, stay excellent and have a good week!