The guitar strings are held firmly between the nut and the bridge, enabling them to vibrate and produce the intended sound. For many beginner acoustic guitar players, however, the strings feel too tight, and they start wondering, “how tight should acoustic guitar strings be?”. The right amount of tension, such that the strings are in tune but not too tight to press down, is vital for a beginner (or any guitarist) to enjoy playing without putting too much physical strain on their fingers. In this article, we will be taking a deep look at why your guitar strings may feel too tight and how to rectify this issue.
How Tight Should Acoustic Guitar Strings Be?
Ideally, for acoustic guitars, you want strings that are easy to press for you in standard tuning. Most medium and light gauge strings should have the optimum tightness for a beginner. But do remember that acoustic guitars will have more tightness than electric guitars unless you restring them with extra light strings. The strings’ tension directly depends on the tuning, which we cannot alter (for the given set of strings) unless we change the tuning. However, as we’ll learn later, the tightness also depends on the string gauge, which we can change to have our strings have a tightness that feels right for us.
The strings of an acoustic guitar are under much more tension than an electric guitar and hence are tighter. The tension the strings are under in a specific tuning depends on a few factors. Without going into much detail, these are the scale length (the distance between the nut and bridge of the guitar) and the string gauge (thickness). Since the scale length of the guitar and tuning of the strings MUST remain the same, the only other factor the strings’ tightness will depend on is the string gauge.
Those who tune their guitar by ear fear it could be an octave above the standard tuning, causing the tightness. But practically, you just can’t tune guitar strings an octave up without the strings snapping – the tension would be too high.
It is virtually impossible to have a guitar incorrectly tuned an octave above or below (it’d be too floppy in case of an octave down). But, various other factors may be causing this tightness. It could be the less-than-ideal gauge strings or a higher action requiring more travel between the string and the fretboard. Ultimately, the question of how tight my acoustic guitar strings should be is relative. But you can always make your strings less tight or easier to play. Let’s look at all these factors in more detail and see why your guitar strings may feel too tight for you.
Why Do My Acoustic Guitar Strings Feel Tight?
If you’re having trouble fretting the strings on your acoustic guitar and feel that the strings are too tight, you might want to find out the reason for this. Acoustic guitars are infamous for having strings that are pretty hard to press down. Some badly set up or cheap acoustic could be very hard to play, even for seasoned players. Most of the time, it is not directly because of the strings’ tightness but because of other factors.
Your String Action Could Be Too High
Almost all guitars, mainly acoustic ones, have a sub-optimal string action out of the box. You need to apply more pressure to press down strings that are too high which is why they might feel too tight. So even though the string action doesn’t affect the tension the strings are under between the nut and bridge, it does affect the tension when fretting. By Hooke’s Law, more distance means more force needed which means increased pressure on the fingers.
Most acoustic guitars have a truss rod that can be adjusted to lower the string action. The truss rod is a metal rod inside the neck of the guitar that keeps the neck firm against the strings’ tension and prevents it from bending. Some guitars give you access to the truss rod from the headstock (where the neck meets the headstock), while others can be accessed from inside the sound hole towards the neck side.
Tightening the truss rod will decrease the string action, while loosening it will increase it. Do note that there is a limit to how much the string action can be adjusted from the truss rod. Too tight, and the strings will start touching the fretboard, causing a buzzing sound. Also, if the guitar is not set up properly, the truss rod can only do so much to lower the string action without causing other issues. If you feel the action is still too high, especially in the first few frets, and the truss rod is already too tight and has started causing string buzzing, you need to get the nut or the bridge saddle or both filed.
The nut and saddle are typically made of plastic, bone or ivory and can be filed down very carefully to decrease the string action. You can try searching YouTube for videos on how to do this, but if you’re a beginner, I’d recommend taking your guitar to a luthier or repair shop and having it done by a professional.
A guitar with proper action with medium or light strings should be a joy to play, and the strings shouldn’t feel too tight.
Your Guitar May Not Be Properly Setup
The essential step a beginner should take after buying a guitar is to get it set up by a professional. Intermediate and advanced guitarists also have their guitars set up, but they usually do it themselves. The difference between a perfectly playable guitar and an unplayable one could be the setup.
Most, if not all, guitars don’t come set up by the manufacturer. Just like you have to tune the strings, you need to adjust the various components of the guitar to be in their optimal playing conditions. This usually means:
- restringing the guitar with a string gauge that feels comfortable to you
- adjusting the truss rod
- filing the nut and the saddle to modify the string action for the best playability
Some beginners do all these on their own, but I suggest getting it done by a professional once and getting a feel of the guitar so that you can do the subsequent setups yourself.
Your String Gauge Could Be Too Heavy
As we have learned, heavier gauge strings will be under more tension in the same tuning. From a quick string tension calculation (using this tool), the various string gauge will put the guitar under the following tension (combined):
- Extra Light – 140lbs
- Medium – 170lbs
- Heavy – 230lbs
As you can see, there is a good 20% decrease in tension when using extra light strings compared to medium strings. And the heavy strings exert enormous tension, and if the guitar is not braced well, it may even damage it.
If the strings feel too tight for you even after the guitar is correctly set up with an optimal string action, you might want to restring it with lighter gauge strings. Thinner strings will produce a slightly different treble-forward tone and less sound, but much easier to fret and play. Since strings are relatively cheaper, you can get a set of a few different gauges and try them to see what feels and sounds best to you.
Your Guitar Could Be Off Tune
Strings are made of metal, and metal expands and contracts as the surrounding temperature increase or decreases. If you live in a cold climate and keep your guitar in a closet or somewhere where there is no heating, the strings could feel relatively tighter when you take the guitar out for playing. It would also be a few semitones above the tuning (sharp), which is why it is always a good idea to tune your guitar every day, and even mid-playing after it gets warmed to room temperature.
Do note that this shouldn’t make a day-and-night difference on the strings’ tightness or tension. But a guitar with strings that are only a bit too tight to start with can get very tight in such cases.
How To Check If Your Guitar Strings Are Too Tight?
Your guitar’s strings should be easy to fret all over the fretboard apart from the first and second fret, which may be relatively harder to press down BUT ONLY FOR BEGINNERS WHO HAVEN’T BUILT HARD CALLUSES YET. If the string near the nut (1-3rd frets) is tough to press down, your strings are too tight and might need a filing down of the nut. If the strings are harder to press down all over the frets for you, you might be better off with lighter gauge strings. Once you restring the guitar with thinner strings, do this test again. You’ll see the difference immediately.
Do Guitar Strings Get Tighter with Time?
Guitar strings being made of metal, elongate and shorten with changes in temperature and humidity. If you live in a cold place or it’s the winter season, the extreme changes in temperature, such as when you put the guitar in an area without heating and then take it out to play in a warmer place, can make the guitar strings feel stiffer initially. This can be anywhere from going sharp a semitone to several steps depending on the temperature change.
Apart from this, the strings don’t change much, except maybe get LESS tight if you didn’t properly stretch them while restringing. In this case, you’ll see that the guitar goes out of tune (flat) for the first few days after putting on new strings.
Should Guitar Strings Be Tight or Loose?
Guitar strings should neither be too tight so that they are tough to press down and play or too loose such that they start touching the fretboard and cause buzzing. The string in standard tuning can't be set to be too tight or too loose, as the tension very much depends on the tuning itself. The perceived tightness could be caused by strings that are too thick for you, or the guitar itself may be improperly set up. Very loose strings are almost always caused by an improper string set (one that is for different scale lengths) or an improper truss rod setup.
How Long Does It Take for New Guitar Strings To “Break In” or Settle?
Sometimes the guitar strings may go flat after restringing the guitar after a few hours or days. The brightness of the tone also subsides to a degree and settles or stabilizes, which some people refer to as the strings getting "break in". If you stretch the strings properly while putting the new set on, the strings shouldn't go flat after playing. If they do, you just re-tune the guitar.
As for the tone, it will become less bright in the case of many types of strings. And this will happen in the course of a few hours but might take even a few days. If you like a bright tone, you can get specially designed strings that keep their bright tone for longer.
What Is a Good String Height for an Acoustic Guitar?
A good rule of thumb for guitar action is that you should barely be able to slip a quarter coin under the low-E string at the 12th fret for a 24-fret guitar. Remember that the prerequisite for this rule is that the guitar has to HAVE optimal nut and saddle height. On a guitar with a nut height which is too high might require you to go overboard with the truss rod adjustment in order to achieve this. This would leave you with a guitar that still has strings that are harder to press near the nut and maybe introduce some fret buzzing because of the sub-optimal truss rod adjustment.