How does string gauge affect a guitar's sound and playability?

Answer


Sound
Thicker, tighter strings, have a more "focussed" sound. They reach their resonant frequency more quickly, because the extra tension leaves them less scope to flap around.
Thicker, tighter strings, plucked the same distance, are louder, because they contain more energy. There is more metal being waved back and forth in front of the pickup. There is more kinetic energy to be transmitted to the sounding board.
Looking at this in the opposite direction, heavier strings need to vibrate less in order to produce the same volume as a narrower string. So you are less likely to experience fret buzz at the same loudness.
Thicker, tighter strings, plucked the same distance, have more sustain, because they contain more energy and it takes longer to disperse.
Of course, that energy doesn't come from nowhere. It takes more strength to pluck a thicker string.

Playability
The more tense a string is, the harder it is to fret -- you have to press harder. Beginners are likely to prefer narrower gauges and looser strings, until they develop callouses on their fingers.
Players wishing to play very fast solos often choose light strings, because they can make gentle, fast fretting movements.
The looser a string is, the easier it is to bend. This is an advantage if you want to incorporate dramatic bends into your playing. However, with very light strings, it can be too easy to bend notes -- to the extent that a beginner can have trouble playing a chord in tune, accidentally bending one string or another.

Typical gauges
Strings are sold individually, but most people buy sets. Buying a set gives you the confidence that the gauges work well together. As shorthand, the gauge of the top E string is used to describe the set. For example "a set of 10s" would refer to a set in which the top E string is 0.010 inches.
On both electric and acoustic metal-strung guitars:
  • 0.009 sets are considered very light
  • 0.014 sets are considered very heavy
Correspondingly, the bottom E strings tend to range from 0.047 to 0.059.
The choice of which gauge to use is a personal one, based on your playing style and the tone you are trying to achieve.

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