To aid in understanding the gauges in common use today, I’ve constructed an analysis of each string of the standard tuning. It’s worth noting that some famous players like Paul Franklin and Russ Hicks gravitate toward heavier strings for richer tone.
The scale length of a pedal steel is the distance from the center of the changer finger to the the center of the nut roller – the full vibrating string length. Most pedal steels have a scale length in the range of 24” to 24.5”, though a few are 25” or longer. Generally speaking, a shorter scale will take a slightly heavier string than a long scale.
The most common E9th gauges in use today are: .013 .015 .011 .014 .017 .020p .026w .030 .034 .038
F# – .012 or .013 plain. The most common choice is .013. Players who raise the string to G# and have a long scale are sometimes more comfortable with a .012.
D# – .015 plain. Few players use anything different.
G# – .011, .0115 or .012 plain. The traditional choice is .011, but you’ll get a better tone if your guitar can hold a heavier string without breaking. Many short scale players now use a .012, and the .0115 from Jagwire or GHS works on almost any guitar. Still, .011 is the safest choice if your guitar is prone to string breakage.
E – .014 or .015 plain. Almost everyone uses .014. The only exception I know of is Paul Franklin who uses .015 Jagwire. People have been buying his signature set, so maybe this is a forward-thinking trend. All new guitars are set up by the builders for .014.
B – .017 or .018. The most common choice is .017 because it gives you a longer, more sensitive pedal pull. The .018 has a stronger tone, it pulls more quickly and takes more effort on the pedal. Some players switch to .018 after years of using .017 because of the tone or for the shorter pull.
G# – .020, .021, .022 plain or .022 wound. The modern standard is .020 plain. Older players (or players with older guitars) often prefer the .022 wound for its rich tone and long travel on the B pedal. Most modern guitars have a lever that lowers G# to F#, and a plain string makes that change work better. The .021 or .022 are used by players who want even shorter knee lever travel.
F# – .024 or .026 wound. The standard gauge is .026. The only exceptions are John Hughey and his disciples who use .024 wound. I don’t know why.
E – .028 or .030 wound. The standard gauge is .030. Again, John Hughey’s variation is .028 and I don’t know why he went lighter than the standard. Virtually everyone else uses .030.
D – .034 wound. Few players use anything different.
B – .036 or .038 wound. There is very little difference between .036 and .038. Players who have a short scale prefer the .038. Also, players who lower the string to A on a “Franklin pedal” prefer the .038.
The plain strings from any given manufacturer are all the same alloy. It’s usually called plain steel. The differences between sets from a manufacturer are in the alloys used for the wound strings, and in the gauges.
Nickel wound strings are the traditional choice. Nickel wounds sound almost too bright when you first put them on, but they mellow in a few hours of playing time to a long-lasting, consistently rich tone.
Stainless steel wound strings are the choice of many contemporary steel guitarists. They are much brighter sounding than nickel, and they maintain that brightness for their entire life cycle.
Both nickel and stainless wounds develop false harmonics at the end of their life cycle, which is why it’s hard to tune old strings. Nickel strings also sound “dead” – lose their brightness – when they are very old. Stainless strings stay bright and just sound out of tune when they’re old. A lot of “tuning problems” can be solved by installing a fresh set of strings.
Jagwire and S.I.T. both offer a choice between nickel and stainless steel wound sets for pedal steel. Black Diamond sets are nickel wound. GHS Boomers are similar to nickel wound strings (I think they are nickel wound, but I have no proof). GHS also offers stainless wound sets.
GHS Progressive wound strings fall between nickel and stainless on the brightness scale. They are available only by the gauge (no pedal steel sets), but they have been proven to be very good strings for E9th pedal steel. I have them on my own guitar as of this writing and I’m very happy with them.
Pure nickel is the name given by the industry to the nickel alloy used in the ’50s and early ’60s. Pure nickel is not as bright sounding as modern nickel wound strings. John Pearse strings for pedal steel are pure nickel wound, as are the GHS Rollerwound (semi-flat) strings.