I remember sitting down with a pretty famous jazz guitarist from Chicago a number years ago. It was after hours at a local jazz club in town where he had just started a 3-month residency and he was regaling me and a couple friends of mine with some incredible road stories.
All the while, his Gibson archtop never left his hands. His fingers roamed the fingerboard as he spoke, unleashing seemingly endless streams of hip bebop lines and chordal ideas. The fact that this guy could really play was undeniable.
After a half hour or so of a very cool and informal exchange, one of my friends asked the obligatory guitar geek question -- what kind of strings did he use?
I could sense Mr Jazz Guitarist immediately going into 'stealth mode'.
After pausing for a couple of seconds, he stated matter of factly that he was using a .014" first string! And that was only because he was 'breaking in' his guitar. His usual choice for a high E, he stated nonchalantly, would be a .016". He wasn't sure exactly what gauge his low E string was other than it was somewhere in the vicinity of .060"!
Straight away my mind started racing, trying to mentally calculate the total string tension in lbs on his guitar. While it would be certainly possible he was using a .013" or or even .014" set, a .016 set would read something like this -- .016, .018, .026, .036, .046, .060. Try tuning that to concert pitch.
That sort of string tension could break the headstock off a guitar if you even looked at it wrong.
When he started on about how he also liked to keep his action up really high, I grew even more incredulous.
He went on to tell us another story about how another guitarist once borrowed his guitar at a jam session and then, with a look of panic, proceeded to attempt to lower the guitar's action right there on the bandstand when he realised he couldn't play the dang thing!
Uh-huh. From where I was sitting -- about 3 feet away -- Mr Jazz Guitarist's string action looked pretty low to me. Not to mention that he also outright refused to let any of us touch his guitar to marvel at its supposed extraordinarily high action.
For some players, I suppose, there's a certain kind of machismo in talking about how tough their guitar setup is and how hard it is to play.
It is as if to say "My playing is pretty incredible and I'm pulling it off with intolerable action and blister-inducing strings because I want that TONE. Heck, I even prefer it when my guitar fights back a lot!"
The whole string gauge/high action thing among blues and jazz guitarists is analogous to rock guitarists who claim to plug straight into the amp while hiding a Tubescreamer or Boss overdrive pedal set to full bore behind their Marshall heads.
Want a bigger, fatter tone? Do your fingertips a favor by adding a single 15" extension speaker to your amp setup. That baby will move a lot more air than even an .016" first string tuned to Eb.
Stevie Ray Vaughan's Studio Tone Secrets