When we talk about a guitar’s playability, most people jump to fret size, neck width and profile, body ergonomics, etc. Things that for the most part, cannot be changed (without significant and permanent modifications to the guitar, at least!).
Strings are another element of guitars that have a significant impact on overall playability, specifically the string gauge, or thickness. One of the biggest problems that has traditionally existed with guitar strings, however, is getting each and every string just so.
Guitar strings have traditionally been sold in packages ranging from ultra-light to ultra-heavy, leaving little middle ground for those who still want the comfort of lighter strings for solos, but the extra tension afforded by extra heavy strings when drop tuning.
Enter hybrid strings. Hybrid strings are string packages sold to cater to those who want a blend of different string gauges on their instrument. Buying hybrid strings is way more convenient than purchasing individual strings, and you’ll get the benefits of multiple gauges in one pack.
Throughout this KillerGuitarRigs guide, we’ll be taking a close look at hybrid guitar strings and how to decide if they’re right for you.
What are the Different Guitar String Gauges?
If it can be customized, you can be sure that guitarists will customize it! Strings are such a personal choice, too!
Two players could own the exact same guitar, but their playing style, the genre they play, and a host of other factors can have them leaning in two opposite directions when it comes to string gauge. Look at Angus Young and Derek Trucks – both SG players, yet Angus exclusively plays ultra-light 9s, while Derek uses Heavy 11s.
If you’ve never experimented with guitar string gauges, I strongly suggest you do so! Keep reading to learn more about the various gauges available, and why they may suit you and your style of playing.
Ultra-light, sometimes referred to as extra-light, are the thinnest strings around. While the actual gauge associated with ultra-light varies between brand, you can usually expect the thinnest string to measure .008 to .009. Ultra light strings are comfortable and easy to play, but as they’re so thin, they are easily broken.
Light strings are the next step up from ultra-light. The measurement of the thinnest string in a set of lights is usually .010”. They offer a step up in durability and breadth of tone over ultra-lights, but they do lose some of the comfort factor.
Right in the middle, you’ll find medium gauge strings. The thinnest string is typically .011, and they strike a great balance between tone and comfort, making them a great choice for the average guitarist who likes to play a bit of everything.
Medium is about as heavy as you can go and still easily bend strings more than a step. This makes them popular with blues and rock players who seek the versatility of lighter strings but want more warmth than light and ultra-light strings offer.
Heavy strings offer the longest sustain and the fattest tone, but this comes at a cost of comfort. Heavy gauge strings measure around .012” at the thinnest string, making them much more difficult to shred intricate solos with.
Starting at around .013 to .014 at the high E, ultra-heavy strings are absolutely enormous. This makes them extremely durable, but quite uncomfortable, especially for the novice player. The low end on ultra-heavy strings can handle some extreme drop tuning, however, making them a great choice for genres like doom and black metal.
What Are Hybrid Guitar Strings?
So, what if you want the best of both worlds? What if you want to get the reliability and tension of a set of heavies or ultra-heavies, and still retain the ability to keep some feel on the high end, and perhaps still throw in some huge bends? Then the answer, of course, is a set of hybrid strings.
Hybrid strings are usually made up heavy or ultra-heavy wound strings at the bass end, and light, or even ultra-light unwound strings at the treble side. The thick low end brings warmth and depth to the sound, while the treble strings retain the brightness associated with light gauge. This is great for being able to cut through the mix when required, but without standing out too sharply the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides. First of all, if you’re playing hybrid strings on guitars equipped with a trem system, you might find that because tension in uneven across the strings the trem may not rest in the correct position, leading to off pitch notes. Of course, this can be fixed with a setup, but it will also involve adjusting tremolo springs, which is beyond the comfort level of many players.
Additionally, the fact that there’s more tension on one side of the neck can lead to warps and twists on hard tail guitars. This is an extreme circumstance, and is exceedingly rare, but, wherever there’s a chance that permanent damage like this could occur, you should always proceed with caution.
How Easy is it to Find Hybrid Guitar Strings?
If you’ve decided that you’d like to try out a set of hybrid strings, you’ll be pleased to know that they are as easy to find as any standard set. In fact, almost all of the big names in guitar strings make at least one set of hybrids. When searching online, if you don’t find what you’re looking for when looking for “hybrid strings”, try searching for “mixed gauge strings”.
If Ernie Ball is your preference you need to look for their Hybrid Slinky strings. D’Addario makes life a little more difficult as they don’t have a separate brand for their hybrids, but for example, on their XL line, look for wording like “Medium Top/X-Heavy Bottom”. Elixir labels their strings much like D’Addario, so instead of looking for a specific line of hybrids, look for your favorite Elixirs, then look for wording like “Light-Heavy” on the packaging.
Some brands use the phrase “custom gauge”, so as with the overall descriptions of gauges, you won’t always find consistency between brands when it comes to hybrid sets either.
Final Thoughts on Hybrid Guitar Strings
Hybrid strings have their benefits and drawbacks, just like any string sets. If you’ve weighed the options and think you’d like to give them a try, then you should absolutely do so. They are a great way to compromise between the best features of multiple string gauges without having to go to the hassle (and generally increased expense) of buying 6+ individual strings.