Why Are My Guitar Strings So Hard To Press Down?

Why Are My Guitar Strings So Hard To Press Down?

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When you’re a rookie even holding the guitar feels awkward and alien, for me that feeling was multiplied tenfold when I first touched the strings of my guitar.

Nowadays I know quite well the difference between having trouble pressing down on strings as a newbie versus someone with years of experience, but I will still ask myself:

Why are my guitar strings so hard to press down?

Heavier gauge strings are harder to press and steel strings require more pressure than nylon strings. It’s also harder to press down strings on a badly set up guitar with issues like high action. Additionally, beginners who lack finger strength will find it harder to push strings against the fretboard.

There are more factors that may affect your fretting and string playability, and I actually have 8 of those, as well as a few tips that can make your guitar strings easier to press!

Why Are My Guitar Strings So Hard To Press Down?

There are a few things to blame here, but first I want to talk about how badly set-up guitars can make pressing down guitar strings more difficult.

So, let’s get started!

Reason 1: High Action

The action is the distance between the fretboard and the string and it’s one of the main parts of a guitar that determines how easy it is to sound notes when applying pressure with the fingers.

There are two types of guitar action, low action is when the strings are closer to the fretboard and high action is when the strings are further away from the fretboard.

As you can imagine if your guitar has a high action then you will need to apply more pressure on the strings in order for them to touch the frets.

I do want to emphasize that high action doesn’t always mean bad and low action doesn’t always mean good. The problem is having too high or too low action, and both can make it difficult to play the guitar, if not impossible.

As a beginner, it is better to start with an action that’s low because it requires less effort since you need to apply less pressure and you can play quicker. However, if you cross over to the very low action, bending becomes much more difficult and you get the infamous fret buzz.

On the other hand, a high action allows you to strike your strings harder and create a fuller sound, you will also get string vibration without the fret buzz. But high action also means that you need to press the strings harder, and you’ll have to bend the strings more.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that low or high action can be a preference thing, but if you find it difficult to press the strings down, or you’re unable to make them reach the fretboard then the action is too high and you’ll need to readjust it.

Reason 2: Shallow Nut Slots

Another thing that may contribute to a higher action and cause a number of playing issues is the nut.

The nut is the last thing that your guitar strings come in contact with on their way to the headstock where the strings start or end, depending on how you look at it.

If you look closer, you will notice that the nut has slots which are like grooves or dents that hold the strings in place and helps keep them straight.

When these slots are too shallow, they keep the strings in an angled and higher position above the fretboard instead of being parallel.

Nut slots can also be too narrow, and your strings won’t be able to sit in their rightful groove properly, not only will this affect your sound by causing them to buzz, but it will also be much harder to press the strings along the fretboard.

A good quality nut that is not too high or too shallow will improve your tuning stability, so if you think that this is the source of your playability troubles then readjusting or changing it completely should help you.

Reason 3: Truss Rod Adjustment

The truss rod is a thin metal rod that sits under the fretboard and runs the length of the guitar’s neck, it starts from the nut to the heel where the neck joins the body.

This is what keeps the neck of your wooden guitar from gradually warping under the high tension created by the strings.

To be more precise, the truss rod acts as a counter tension, it exerts the opposite tension to the tension that strings exert on the neck to achieve balance.

If however the truss rod is not adjusted properly you’ll end up with the buzzing noise or a too-high action that will make the strings impossible or difficult to press down.

Reason 4: Bad Saddle and Bridge Positioning

As you’ve already may have noticed, the high action is what makes strings harder to press for the most part.

We’ve seen that the nut and the truss rod are one of the things that can contribute to a guitar having a high action, but it could also be a high saddle or bridge.

The bridge is located on the lower bout of the body of a guitar and the saddle is usually a piece of plastic or bone that is attached to the bridge.

Just like the nut the bridge and the saddle lift the strings to the desired height, and it keeps them in place without letting them rest on the fretboard.

They also form one end of the vibrating length of the strings at the end of the fretboard and transmit the vibration of those strings through the bridge to the soundboard.

If your neck doesn’t contribute to a higher action, then you might want to check if your saddle is too tall.

It’s possible that you might need to shave the saddle to your desired height which will make it easier for you to press the strings down, or you might have to replace the bridge altogether.

Reason 5: String Gauge

Once you’ve checked your guitar’s setup and found that everything is in place, you’ll need to move on to your strings next, because they can also affect how easy or hard it is to press down on them.

So, let’s talk about string gauge, this is the measurement of a string’s thickness, and it can range from super-light to heavy.

How light or heavy you’ll choose to go is a personal preference, but your choice will have an immediate impact on the tone and feel of your strings.

Heavy strings are much harder to press down and to reach a given pitch, you also need to put them under more tension which can strain your guitar.

The heavier you go the richer, thicker, and warmer your strings will sound, and you will often see jazz guitarists use heavy strings because they don’t bend or use vibrato as often.

Pat Martino is well known for his use of extra heavy set of flatwood strings, we’re talking about .015 to .052!

Metal guitarists also tend to use a heavy gauge because they are better able to retain tension in drop tunings.

If you’re just starting out your guitar journey and you can’t seem to find the finger strength to press down on heavier strings, and you’re not happy with their playability overall then it’s best to go with a lighter gauge, 10’s, and 11’s are a good starting point, but even 12’s can work for you.

Lighter gauge strings are much easier to play, especially for those with a gentle playing style, because they require less pressure, they are softer to play on and they hold less tension, plus they offer less resistance to bending and vibrato.

Lighter strings have a brighter tone, and I often use them when strumming and fingerpicking. They are also favored by contemporary jazz, blues musicians as well as folk and country guitarists.

If you feel like light strings are too flimsy for you and you’re afraid that they will break easily you can go for a medium gauge otherwise known as 13’s. They produce a heavier sound that suits genres like rock and blues, however, they will most likely feel more challenging to new and even intermediate players.

Reason 6: Guitar Type

Another thing you need to be aware of is that different guitars may require different strings.

Electric guitar strings are typically made from nickel-plated steel, pure nickel, and stainless steel.

Classical guitars on the other hand are not built to withstand the tension brought by steel strings and you can only use nylon strings.

Then again acoustic guitars can be equipped both with steel and nylon strings. Even though steel strings are more common beginners can go with nylon strings to prevent sore fingers.

If you have an acoustic guitar that you’ve always played on with nylon strings and one day you decided to go for a steel set, then you might find the steel strings harder to press down.

After all, nylon strings are much softer and gentler on the fingers, that’s why a classical guitar is usually much easier to play for beginners.

That being said, you also need to be careful not to use steel strings on a classical guitar because it has a thinner top and lighter bracing so it’s likely to break due to the higher tension of steel strings.

This brings me to my next point, and that’s your guitar’s age and condition overall. Overused guitars are more sensitive and heavier strings won’t just be harder to play on, but they might damage your guitar.

You might also find it hard to press down strings on a cheap guitar because they’re usually made with high action. This is due to the fact that it takes more time and skill to manufacture a detailed guitar where the nut is properly cut, and the neck and bridge are also properly adjusted.

When it comes to more expensive brands and guitar models, you’ll find that some of them also work better with certain strings.

Let’s take the Fender Stratocaster for example, it has a relatively long scale, so it works better with medium or heavy strings. Does this mean that these strings will be easier to press down? For a beginner not really, but for an experienced guitarist, this would be a great option.

Similarly, Archtop guitars shine brighter with heavy and very heavy strings, but they are not for everyone.

Reason 7: Your Finger Strength

I don’t want to point fingers at anyone, but perhaps the issue actually lies with your fingers, specifically with your finger strength and dexterity.

For inexperienced players, strings will naturally feel harder to press down, even light-gauge strings, and that feeling can last for a few weeks or even months until your fingers have formed calluses.

Blisters, friction burns, and even skin sensitivity on your fingertips are all part of the journey, but they can also cause discomfort and you may instinctively avoid pressing harder on the strings to protect your fingers from further pain.

With practice, you will develop more finger strength and you’ll become more confident and quicker in your fingerplay. You may realize that the strings were never the problem in the first place.

Reason 8: Humidity

By now you know that warped guitar necks can be the result of using heavy strings, or perhaps because the truss rod was not adjusted properly, and both of these things can make strings difficult to press down.

However, it could also be the result of low humidity or high humidity. If your guitar is constantly exposed to humidity above 60% or even for a few days, then it will start to take in water causing the wood to expand and swell.

If that’s the case, your strings will actually feel higher and of course as a result they’ll be harder to play.

A “dry guitar” on the other hand is called like that when it’s exposed to humidity below 40%. Under these conditions, the wood will begin to shrink and that will affect the sound and feel of your guitar when you play it.

Furthermore, constant temperature and humidity changes might cause bowing of the neck. You may notice that your strings are actually too far from the fretboard and as a result it will be hard or even impossible to push them down.

How Hard Should You Press On Guitar Strings?

Under different circumstances, guitar strings can be hard to press. As we’ve seen, the setup of your guitar, your guitar strings choice, the guitar itself, and even the environment can have a great impact on the playability of your strings.

But I want to circle back to the fingerplay. Sure, some strings are easier to press than others, but perhaps your strings aren’t difficult to press down, in fact, they probably don’t need to be pressed down that much.

If you’re pushing your strings the wrong way or too hard against the fretboard your guitar will sound weird, and your fingers will end up sore.

Trust me I’ve been there; in fact, I think that a lot of guitar newbies try to overcompensate at the beginning of their journey by pressing the strings more than necessary.

I think specifically with acoustic guitars and steel strings you feel that you have to push more on the strings because of how tense these strings actually feel.

However, to get the right pressure down you need to start by pressing down on the strings gently. As you start picking listen to the sound your guitar is producing, if you hear the notes clearly without the fret-buzz then the pressure is enough, if not you can add more pressure.

I also understand that beginners need to put in a lot of work to enhance their finger reach and range, your hands just feel wooden and that can cause soreness, but perhaps your fingers are sore because you were pressing too hard on the strings.

Why You Shouldn’t Press Too Hard On Your Guitar Strings?

For those of you who are guilty of pressing too hard on your guitar strings knowing how much pressure your strings should actually take might not be enough.

It’s also important to understand why this is a practice you need to avoid and a habit to get rid of.

You Might Damage Your Guitar

If you’re pushing your strings, the wrong way or too hard against the fretboard then over time the frets and the fretboard itself will start to wear out.

This won’t happen overnight or after just one session, at least I hope you’re not pressing your strings that hard! But jokes aside, consistently pushing your strings this way can damage the neck overall and shorten your guitar’s life expectancy.

You Might Hurt Yourself

Your guitar isn’t the only thing that can suffer, your hand specifically your wrist and fingers will most likely experience pain and discomfort during or after playing.

Applying the wrong pressure on strings while playing is something most beginners do at the start, but if you’re self-taught or you’re not as careful with your tutor’s instructions then it can become a bad habit.

I do want to point out that we’ve all experienced sore fingers at the start of our guitar journey. As newbies, we need to put in a lot of work to enhance our finger reach and range.

Our muscles are learning something new and the skin on our fingertips needs time to form calluses, however, intense pressure is likely to put extra strain on your hand.

In fact, a 2003 study showed that the fretting hand was the most reported location of playing-related pain (41.8%).

More so, consistently pressing down hard on thin metal or nylon strings can, according to Healthline, cause blunt trauma to your fingertips, you might strain your finger tendons, and develop inflammatory conditions like tendinopathy and tendinitis.

I know this may sound extreme, but it could happen and even if you don’t injure yourself, the constant pain and discomfort will most likely make you lose your interest in guitar playing.

It Slows Down Your Playing

Pressing too hard on your guitar strings isn’t just painful, but it’s also counterproductive. You will just end up slowing yourself.

Most times your hands should move in a fluid and quick motion, and you can achieve that by lightening the pressure you apply to the strings.

It Affects Your Sound

The extra pressure will also have an impact on the sound, and the notes you play will end up sounding weird and inconsistent.

Even with a perfectly tuned guitar, pressing too hard can make it sound like it’s out of tune.

How To Make Guitar Strings Easier To Press?

The first step is to understand why is it so hard for you to play your guitar, specifically to press down the strings on your fretboard.

Once you know the cause you can look into the solutions below.

Adjust Your Action Height

The first thing you need to check is whether your guitar is properly set up. In this case, you need to check the action and anything that may be contributing to the action being too high.

If the strings are hard to press because of the high action, then you’ll need to adjust the action just high enough, so you are able to easily press the strings and low enough that you don’t hear the buzz when they touch the fretboard.

This might mean that you’ll have to shave the saddle or change the bridge completely, perhaps you’ll need to loosen the truss rod or readjust the nut or replace it.

If you’ve never done this before then it’s best to take your guitar to a professional, but if you’re an experienced guitarist then you can actually experiment with different action heights until you find the one that is easier to press down and one that produces the desired sound for you.

Detune Your Guitar Strings

If you find your strings too hard to press, then you could try tuning all the guitar strings at a lower pitch than the standard tuning.

The standard tuning in a traditional guitar means that the standard notes used from the thickest E string are E-A-D-G-B-E. If let’s say your want to drop two semitones the standard notes will become D-G-C-F-A-D.

Detuning your guitar is a great option for rookies because by loosening the strings they will become easier to play and bend.

I do want to add that the tuning on your guitar might have been way too high in the first place and that’s why you’ve been having a hard time pressing them against the fretboard, if that’s the case you can simply detune your guitar to its standard tuning.

Use Lighter Strings

To make things easier for your fingers you can go for a lighter gauge. Lighter strings are much easier to push down and that’s why they are a great option for beginners or if you want to ease yourself back into playing the guitar after a long break.

Not only are lighter strings easier to press down but they are more flexible and they make bending less difficult compared to thicker strings.

If you want to push down your guitar strings with ease you also need to choose the right string material that will suit the type of guitar you’re playing.

Nylon strings as we’ve already talked about are much softer than steel strings and they will work perfectly for players with weak fingers.

Make sure you also look for good-quality strings that are resilient to corrosion or rust and that have plenty of elasticity. Of course, this will depend on your budget, and I do want to make it clear that you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune on guitar strings, but it’s important to look for respectable brands.

Switch To An Electric Guitar

I think plenty of people believe that it’s best to start playing an acoustic guitar first and then transition to an electric guitar because it will make your hands and fingers stronger.

Then there are those who think electric guitars are the obvious first choice because they are physically easier to play thanks to their smaller bodies, thinner necks, and lighter gauge.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to your preference because both instruments have their own difficulties. I’ve known people that never wanted to play an electric guitar (crazy I know!) and vice versa.

My point is that if you want to learn both instruments and you find acoustic guitars harder to play because of their high action and heavy steel strings then perhaps you should switch to an electric guitar, or look for an acoustic guitar that plays like an electric.

Once you gain more of that finger strength and flexibility you can come back to the acoustic or even classical guitar, and may I dare mention the 12-string guitar?

That being said, I think if you play the acoustic guitar switching to nylon strings with a lighter gauge is a much more cost-effective option than getting an electric guitar.

Warm-up Before Playing

Just like you stretch before exercising you should also do the same when you start playing your guitar.

Warming up will prepare you mentally and physically before the activity and most importantly it will prevent injuries by raising the temperature of your hand muscles, 34 muscles to be precise, thus increasing your flexibility and overall efficiency.

To warm up you simply need to stretch and massage your hand and fingers. Once again don’t go too hard on yourself, light stretching should be enough to enhance your flexibility and lengthen tight muscles.

Let me tell you about the bane of my existence! I have cold hands all year round and if you’re like me then I need to tell you that that stiffness you feel from cold hands is going to affect your finger dexterity and sensation.

It’s easy to press harder if your fingers feel wooden from the cold and consequently less sensitive. I usually run my hands under warm water before stretching, because it improves circulation.

Remember to also start playing a simple exercise to warm up instead of jumping into something over complicated. Your guitar teacher will most likely show you a couple of exercises to help you warm up both hands, but even if you don’t have a teacher then don’t worry the internet is full of useful tutorials that can guide you.

When it comes to such tutorials, Tony Polecastro is worth checking out in my opinion.

Improve Your Finger Strength

Playing the guitar should feel fluid, easy, and natural, but this is a difficult concept to grasp when you’re just starting out.

Strings will naturally feel tenser and that will make you want to press harder, but a light touch will get you a long way.

To achieve this light touch, you need practice and by working on your finger strength you’ll start noticing that you invest less energy into pressing the strings but playing faster isntead.

I also want to add that as a beginner you will most likely try to use one finger when playing the strings which means that you will need to apply more pressure. Instead, use more than one finger, and try to rely on your wrist muscles in the process.

Strings require a certain amount of pressure to be pressed and to produce the right sound, with practice and as your fingers develop calluses and become stronger and flexible this pressure will feel less intense.

However, you need to remember to also give your fingers time to rest, it’s great that you are enthusiastic about it, and playing every day for 30 minutes to 1 hour is a great way to speed up the formation of calluses, but make sure you don’t overdo it or play the guitar with wounded fingers.

Take Your Guitar To A Technician

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of having your guitar set up properly, but I do want to point out that if you’re an inexperienced guitarist who is just starting their journey then it’s best to leave this job to a professional.

A guitar technician will be able to adjust the action, neck, bridge, and any other part in need to make your guitar and strings playable.

They can also advise you on what guitar strings will work best for your guitar and tune it according to your needs.

If you just ordered a new guitar from a well-known manufacturer don’t be surprised to find that the setup is not ideal.

First of all, the ideal setup is not the same for everyone and small adjustments are to be expected. The environment and shipment conditions and your own preferences can add up to a setup that doesn’t feel right.

So, take your guitar to your local shop, or better ask your guitar teacher to show you how to do basic adjustments.

Closing Thoughts

There’s no better feeling than smoothly fingerpicking your favorite set of strings as a musician or an aspiring one for that matter.

Like most things in life, this road is not without bumps and sooner or later you’ll be met with strings that don’t want to give in to your touch.

But stick with it! Stiff strings are one of the biggest reasons new guitarists give up and end up playing the piano, drums or something else but if you apply this tips things will get better and you’ll be jamming in no time!