What gauge string do I need for my musical instrument?
We often hear from folks that have "found an old zither in the attic" or "picked up this instrument at a garage sale" or had an instrument given to them by a well-intentioned friend or relative. There are a myriad variety of these old zithers, psalteries, ukelins, and other musical instruments around and most of them need some strings. Unfortunately, if you have ever brought one of these instruments into a modern music shop and asked for some new strings, you are not likely to get much help.
The purpose of this page is to help you find the correct replacement string for your instrument. This information could also be used as a resource for those that wish to design their own musical instrument and need to figure out how to string it.
In order to make good use of this information and find the correct string, it helps to understand a few concepts about strings on musical instruments and about how the chart below is set up. I'll start with a brief overview of these ideas and then give you a few scenarios where this table would come in handy and how to make use of it.
The table below uses Scientific Pitch Notation (SPN). SPN is a way to identify a specific musical pitch using the musical note name and a number which identifies the pitch's octave. In this system, Middle C on a piano is C4. The number, or octave, changes occur on the C notes. So the C one octave above middle C would be C5 and so on. See the keyboard below.
Vibrating Length (VL)
This is simply the length of string that is allowed to freely vibrate when plucked. Usually this distance is measured from the bridge to a guide pin or tuning pin. It should be fairly straight forward to figure this out.
This is the diameter of the string. If the old string is still on the instrument you can measure the diameter with a digital caliper. Do a quick google search and you should be able to find a digital caliper for less than $20. They are also often sold at home improvement stores.
Some of the gauges in the chart below are highlighted orange. This indicates the use of a wound strings. Wound strings have a steel core and a bronze winding. A wound string is necessary to provide enough mass when the string tension for a given note and VL falls below 30% of its breaking point.
String Gauge Table
The table below contains a collection of several strings we use on our instruments. The table is sortable. You can click on the Header of each column to sort from smallest to largest. Click the Header again and the table will sort from largest to smallest. (The mouse may just look like a cursor when you hover over a column header but click anyway. It works.)
The Sort by Pitch column is there to easily sort the notes from low to high. If you sort the Note column you do not get all of the A notes together, then all of the B notes, etc. This can also be useful.
How to use this table
You have a zither that is missing a string. You know that the string is supposed to be tuned to G above Middle C and you have measured the Vibrating Length to be 18" but you don't know what gauge replacement string to use.
If you sort the table by note you can scroll down until you see all the examples of G4 (G above Middle C) You'll find six examples from different instruments. Look for the example that has the VL closest to what you need. Your VL is 18" which is right between the Autoharp (17.375") and the Hognose Psaltery (19"). Both of those instruments use a .016" diameter string. So it is safe to conclude that a .016" string will work for your instrument.
You are designing an instrument and need to know what gauge string to use. For example, let's say the vibrating length is 14" and you want the note to be tuned to a D. You can sort the table below by VL. You find a few D notes in the 14" range to chose from. The mandolin uses a wound .024" string for D4 (the D right next to Middle C). More common in that vibrating length would be a D5 (the D above the C one octave above Middle C). You'll find the Bowed Psaltery uses a .010" and the Kantele and Hognose use a .014.
A note about tension.
When you find you have a different gauge options to choose from - remember that increasing the diameter for a given note and VL will increase the tension. More tensions will generally result in a louder, clearer tone. You have to balance this against the additional stress you will place on the instrument. If you are concerned about the structural integrity of your instrument, it might be wise to lean toward the lighter gauge string. If your instrument seems overbuilt, it would be safe to lean toward the heavier gauge.
|Sort by Pitch||NOTE||VL||Gauge||Instrument|
|01||C6||6.125||.012||Limerick Lap Harp|
|04||B5||6.75||.012||Limerick Lap Harp|
|07||A5||7.375||.014||Limerick Lap Harp|
|11||G5||8||.014||Limerick Lap Harp|
|16||F5||8.63||.016||Limerick Lap Harp|
|20||E5||9.25||.016||Limerick Lap Harp|
|26||D5||10||.018||Limerick Lap Harp|
|32||C5||10.75||.018||Limerick Lap Harp|
|37||B4||11.5||.020||Limerick Lap Harp|
|42||A4||12.25||.020||Limerick Lap Harp|
|50||G4||13.125||.022||Limerick Lap Harp|
|56||F4||14||.022||Limerick Lap Harp|
|62||E4||15||.022||Limerick Lap Harp|
|71||D4||16||.022||Limerick Lap Harp|
|80||C4||17.25||.025||Limerick Lap Harp|
|85||B3||18.5||.025||Limerick Lap Harp|
|90||A3||19.75||.025||Limerick Lap Harp|
|100||G3||21||.025||Limerick Lap Harp|
|104||F3||22.25||.032||Limerick Lap Harp|
|107||E3||23.5||.032||Limerick Lap Harp|
|109||D3||24.75||.032||Limerick Lap Harp|
|117||C3||26||.032||Limerick Lap Harp|