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Strings play an integral role in our performance as guitarists, and no matter how great of a player you are, the tone each string offers and the sound they are able to produce have a significant impact on the finished result, our music.
So, it can be quite disheartening, whether you are a rookie or a professional guitarist when something feels off, when your guitar strings are harder to play because they feel tight.
So, why do guitar strings feel tight?
Heavy and low-quality strings as well as old strings can feel tight and stiff, but a badly setup guitar with a high action can also increase the string tension. Strings will feel tighter on an acoustic guitar compared to an electric and for beginners, it could be the lack of finger strength.
An experienced guitarist is more in tune with his guitar and strings, and they know why their strings are stiff and how to deal with this issue, but if you’re not so sure then keep on reading!
Why Do Guitar Strings Feel So Stiff?
There are multiple things that can affect the tension of your strings and make them feel stiffer than usual, but let’s start with the most obvious ones and move on to the more complex reasons.
Reason 1: New Strings
New strings are usually harder to play on and they tend to go out of tune, that’s why you need to break them in and you also need to be prepared that it can take 1 to 2 hours or even 5 hours, for the strings to settle.
Reason 2: String Quality
Strings that are mass-produced can also be unpredictable and feel either too tight or too loose. This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive strings, but perhaps you need to be a bit pickier when it comes to brands and string production.
Reason 3: String Gauge
String gauge is the measurement of a string’s thickness and if you’ve spent enough time browsing strings for your guitar you’ve probably seen characterizations like heavy, light, super light, etc.
Everyone has their own string gauge preferences, but if your strings feel tight then your guitar is most likely equipped with heavy strings so going lighter is the key here.
Reason 4: Finger Strength
For those of you who are just starting out even light gauge strings can feel tight, but the good news is that with practice your fingers will develop finger strength and dexterity. You will also notice calluses appear on your fingertips and they will make playing the guitar less painful.
I don’t want to assume the level of your expertise and perhaps you’re not a rookie, but the strings might still feel tight, or the feeling might change from day to day. If that’s the case then perhaps you need to spend more time warming up your fingers.
It’s easy to get overconfident, I know this from experience since I can easily start my day by grabbing my guitar first thing in the morning only to find the strings too tight for my liking. My fingers also tend to get really cold so that makes it harder to press the strings down.
My advice is to run your fingers under hot water to warm them up and the strings will feel soft like butter!
Reason 5: Temperature and Humidity
Storing your guitar away and keeping the strings clean is a great way to maintain their sound and playability. That’s because temperature and humidity can decrease their lifespan.
Old Strings can become stiff and that’s why they are prone to breakage. But strings won’t deteriorate or grow old in one day, however, changes in temperature throughout the day can also make your metal strings feel tight.
Reason 6: Over-Tightened Strings
When a guitar is properly tuned the strings are as tight as they should be. So, remember to check if your guitar is actually in tune because if your guitar is tuned very high the tension will make them feel stiff.
Reason 7: Guitar Type
Going from an acoustic guitar to an electric one will surely take you aback because the strings will feel much looser and easy to manipulate.
However, if you are moving from an electric guitar to an acoustic then the strings will feel much tighter and harder to play.
Then again if you are a classical guitar player then even electric guitar strings might feel stiff for you that’s because nylon strings are much softer compared to steel strings that are usually used on acoustic and electric guitars.
It’s important to mention that strings on different guitars can also feel tighter. Players that are used to playing on a Fender Stratocaster might need some time to get familiar with a Les Paul, and the same can be said about acoustic guitars.
Reason 8: Your Guitar Setup
Perhaps your strings are not responsible for their stiffness and your guitar is the real culprit!
Strings can feel tight if your guitar has high action, that’s because you will need to apply more pressure on the strings in order for them to touch the frets.
Shallow nut slots can also interfere with your guitar’s tuning stability and make your strings feel stiff. Similarly to the nut, the bridge and the saddle should also lift the strings to the desired height, they need to keep the strings in place and they should not let them rest on the fretboard. So if the saddle and bridge are too high then the strings will once again feel stiff.
Another thing you need to consider is the truss rod which keeps the neck of your wooden guitar from warping under the tension created by the strings. If the truss rod is not adjusted correctly you’ll end up with high action that will make strings incredibly stiff to play on.
Should Guitar Strings Be Tight Or Loose?
Guitar strings should not feel too tight or too loose instead they should be tight enough to hold the right tune and loose enough that you can actually press them against the frets.
Too much tension or the lack of it won’t just affect the playability of your strings, but also the sound they produce. If strings are loose that means they are not in the correct octave and might not even be in tune, you will notice that they lack sustain, they will buzz and go silent quickly.
Overtight strings on the other hand will feel much harder to manipulate and you won’t be able to produce the sound you want them to.
How Tight Should Guitar Strings Be?
The strings on your guitar should not be overtight, instead, they need to be tight enough so you can perform the right note in the right octave.
If you are not sure if your guitar is actually tuned properly then you can find the right octave with the help of a piano, tuning forks, or an electronic tuner that you can clip on your headstock and it will read the vibrations and will tell you what note it is.
For those of you who have never used a guitar tuner, Marty does a great job explaining the process!
The stiffness of guitar strings also depends on what kind of guitar you’re playing so let’s take a closer look!
Acoustic Guitar Strings
Since acoustic guitars are non-amplified instruments they are strung with heavier gauge strings made of steel. That’s why they feel tighter and thus require more finger strength.
But just because acoustic guitar strings are tight it doesn’t mean they should be unplayable. The strings should be loose enough that you can bend the note one step higher up the fretboard.
You can also use nylon strings instead of steel strings on your acoustic guitar in which case the strings are going to feel less tight.
Electric Guitar Strings
Electric guitar strings are also made from steel, but you are more likely to use a lighter gauge. That’s because electric guitars are usually used in genres that require a fast-playing style and lots of sliding and bending techniques, something you wouldn’t be able to do if the strings were stiff.
These guitars also use amplifiers so they don’t require heavy strings for additional projection.
So, if you’re playing on an electric guitar the strings should be loose enough that you can bend the note two frets higher with ease. They should however be tight enough so that the string returns to its original position quickly without the unwanted buzz.
Classical Guitar Strings
Since classical guitars can’t handle the tension brought by steel strings you can only use nylon strings that are much softer.
You still need to have your classical guitar tuned properly and the strings should have the right tension, but the strings won’t feel as tight compared to acoustic and electric guitar strings. They should feel much softer unless, of course, you’ve never played the guitar before.
Do Old Guitar Strings Get Stiff?
Most strings nowadays are made from some type of metal and even nylon strings are wound with a metal wrap wire over a nylon core.
And just like any metal, strings are also susceptible to corrosion and rust this can affect the way your strings sound but also how they feel. So, strings can get stiff as they come closer to the end of their life and that’s why they are also more likely to break.
Sometimes it’s not easy to notice the deterioration of your strings unless they snap especially if you’re constantly playing on the same guitar but with experience, you will notice that they are tighter, they sound dead, and in some cases, your fingers might also turn black from the accumulated dirt.
Can My Strings Tighten Themselves Over Time?
Some of you might be thinking that losing tension and becoming loose is the most logical thing to happen to strings over time. However, your strings are more likely to lose tension if they slip out from the tuning pegs. This can happen if there’s an issue with your tuning pegs or if you strung your guitar incorrectly.
As I’ve also mentioned above old strings can feel tight, and this is either because of the corrosion of the metal or it could be the change in temperature and humidity.
The metal of your strings can expand and contract depending on the temperature so even a slight change could make your strings feel tighter and it can affect the pitch. Humidity can also cause the wood to expand and swell and that can make your strings feel tight.
That’s why storing your guitar away and keeping it in a controlled environment is important both for the strings and the guitar itself.
How To Make My Guitar Strings less Tight?
No matter what the reason is you can adjust the tension of your strings and make them less tight.
So, let’s see what you can do!
Use Lighter Gauge
String gauge does have an effect on the sound your guitar produces. Heavier strings give you a rich, and warm sound, that jazz and metal guitarists gravitate towards.
Lighter strings have a brighter tone and they are loved by many guitarists across various genres, like jazz, blues, folk, and country.
The string gauge you choose will be a matter of preference but if heavy strings are too stiff for you then consider going lighter. If you don’t like light strings then you can try medium gauge strings otherwise known as 13s.
Check Your Guitar Setup
As we’ve already discussed above your guitar can be just as responsible for your tight strings.
You can either take your guitar to a technician so they can see what is wrong with your guitar and adjust it accordingly or ask your teacher to show you how to make these adjustments.
For those of you who are confident in your own guitar knowledge, you can try and do a few things before getting a professional luthier involved.
You can start by checking if your strings are too far away from the fretboard and if the high action is responsible for the string tension. If that’s the case then you can lower your action but be careful not to lower the action too much otherwise this can cause fret buzz.
You can also check the intonation, in which case your bridge or saddle might be too high or in a position that increases the tension and makes your strings tighter than they should be. You may need to shave the saddle to lower its position or change the bridge completely.
You might also have to loosen the truss rod or readjust the nut so that the strings are in the right position in relation to the fretboard.
Experimenting with your guitar is a great way to familiarize yourself with this instrument but if you’ve never done any of that before I think it’s best to leave this process to a professional, otherwise you might cause irreparable damage.
Improve Your Finger Strength
No matter how stiff your fingers feel on your equally stiff strings I promise you that you will improve and the more time you invest into your guitar the easier it will feel.
Remember to also use your wrist muscles and not just your fingers, I often see new guitarists relying on just one finger when bending instead of sharing the burden between the wrist and multiple fingers, so no wonder their strings feel tight.
If you feel like even with daily practice your strings still feel stiff then consider taking a few guitar lessons, perhaps your technique is getting in the way.
Warm-up exercises are also an essential part of guitar playing and I want to remind you all to take some time to rest your hands. By playing for 30 minutes to 1 hour every day you can form calluses and improve your finger strength without injuring yourself!
String and Guitar Maintenance
Regular guitar maintenance doesn’t simply involve taking your instrument to a technician.
Of course, that’s also very important but a great way to make sure your strings won’t become stiff is by storing your guitar in a case and making sure the humidity and temperature levels are guitar-friendly.
Make sure you keep the strings clean. The best way to do so is to play your guitar with clean hands and use a microfiber cloth after you’re done playing to get rid of all the sweat and dirt that can cause corrosion and eventually make your strings stiff.
As you can see there are multiple reasons why your guitar strings feel tight. For those of you who have been devoted to your electric guitar, it can come as a surprise to find that the strings on your acoustic guitar feel much stiffer.
But if that’s not the case then perhaps you need to work on your finger strength or try to switch to a lighter gauge.
Make sure that your guitar is actually tuned correctly and check your guitar’s setup because your strings mightn’t be at fault, instead you can release some of the tension by reducing the action and adjusting the intonation.
Remember to experiment with your guitar and see what strings work for you!