I’ve heard it said that many guitarists are high strung. I am here to defend every last one of them, as that can be a very cool thing! As long as it is the guitar that is high strung—as opposed to the player—you will likely agree with me on this.
The common term for a high-strung guitar—“Nashville tuning”—came to be because Nashville session players and producers were early adopters of layering different guitar sounds. Now, Nashville tuning isn’t actually an alternate tuning—you simply swap out your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth strings with the octave strings typically used on a 12-string guitar, and tune them an octave up from standard tuning (the high-E and B strings remain unchanged). Some string manufacturers, such as D’Addario, even offer dedicated high-strung sets.
Therefore, a 6-string electric or acoustic guitar would use gauges such as:
E (first): .010 to .012
B (second): .013 to .017
G (third):.008 to .010
D (fourth): .013 to .017
A (fifth):.017 - .024
E (sixth):.025 - .032
Sometimes, I will use the same gauge on the sixth string as I do on the first for a little more top end. The effect of these high-octave strings makes for a chiming, bright, and shiny sound that is unreal when blended in with other standard-gauge guitars.
Don’t think for a moment that this technique is only applicable to country music. Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” uses a high-strung acoustic, as does the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (on which Keith Richards played a 12-string acoustic, and Mick Taylor picked a high-strung acoustic). I began using this technique on recordings 40 years ago, and have always made sure we have at least one acoustic and electric high-strung guitar in the studio at all times.
For acoustic high-strung parts, I favor small and thin-bodied flat-tops. The resonance from the lighter wood helps the high register sing like a bird. I started out with pawnshop acoustics that were practically made out of balsa wood or cheap laminates. Early Stellas were a good match. The problem with some cheaper guitars, of course, is the intonation. The boxes may sound great, but they can be quite challenging in the tuning department. So you don’t want the hassle, go for something like a Baby Taylor or a Yamaha Mini Folk. I must admit that my favorite guitar for acoustic high-strung parts is a 1957 Maccaferri—an entirely plastic guitar.
The sound of electric guitars strung with light gauges is equally stunning. The color they add to a track is very different than a 12-string or traditional 6-string, as they cut through with loads of jingle jangle. Many Fender guitars work well for this job, as they are naturally bright. I often use a ’62 DuoSonic that just sounds killer strung up this way, but newer, low-cost Squier Telecasters can do the trick as well. You really don’t have to spend much on a guitar that will provide that great Nashville strung sound.
As with all my suggestions, these are ideas to experiment with. See what you come up with on your own, because for the price of a set of guitar strings, you may find something that adds huge value to your recorded and live sound.
Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 40 million units, and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues and dance genres.