Today I’m going to explain how to strike the right string tension balance.
In other words, we’ll talk about achieving the sweet spot between strings that are too tight and hard to bend, and strings that are too loose and impossible to keep tuned.
Let’s jump straight in!
Should Guitar Strings Feel Tight or Loose?
Guitar strings should be tight enough to hold a tune, while staying loose enough to press against the frets without too much effort. As a general rule, your strings are too tight if they are hard to bend up a half or full step. And your strings are too loose if they lack sustain.
That’s the basic overview, but there are differences in how this works between electric and acoustic guitars, so read the relevant section for your guitar next:
How Tight Electric Guitar Strings Should Be
In general, electric guitar strings are lighter gauge than acoustic strings. This is for two reasons: first, electric guitar strings use amplifiers to aid in sound production and don’t need to be as robust; and second, electric guitars are typically used for heavier music genres that see a lot of bending and fast playing–both of which are easier to do on lighter gauge strings.
Due to these factors, electric guitar strings will be inherently looser than acoustic strings. Since they’re thinner and more pliable, lighter gauge strings will never get as tight as heavier gauge strings no matter how high you tune them.
This allows them to be played faster and makes bending and sliding around the fretboard easier and more comfortable.
If you have an electric guitar, you should be able to fret a note near the middle of the neck and bend it up a full step (so it sounds like the note two frets higher) without too much difficulty…but with enough resistance that the string readily and quickly returns to the original note.
How Tight Acoustic Guitar Strings Should Be
On the other hand, acoustic guitar strings will generally be heavier gauge than electric strings. Since they’re thicker, heavy gauge strings will feel tighter than lighter gauge strings. Tighter strings vibrate with more energy, which is necessary for better sound production in non-amplified instruments.
The drawback is that heavier strings don’t bend as readily and aren’t as easy to play fast. But these techniques, while still performed on acoustic guitars, are used less frequently than with electric guitars.
Your acoustic guitar strings should still be loose enough that you can bend them up a half step (to a note one step higher up the fretboard), albeit with a little bit of effort. However, they should not be so loose that they lack sustain while being strummed, even if you’re not fretting a note.
How to Check Guitar String Tension
Properly tensioned strings will be in that Goldilocks zone: not too tight, but not too loose. So how do you check to see if your strings are there or not?
There are a few tests you can do to see where your string tension is currently sitting.
Before you do: Make sure your guitar is in tune! Strings tuned down too low will appear loose, while strings tuned up too high will appear tight.
Ensuring your guitar is in tune will rule this out as a cause of incorrect string tension so you can see if your guitar strings are actually tensioned correctly or not.
1. Fret Notes All Over the Fretboard
The first test is to fret notes at various locations on the fretboard. While fretting notes closer to your guitar’s head should be relatively easy (as the strings are closer to the fretboard), you still shouldn’t have any difficulty fretting notes closer to the bridge. If you need to apply a lot of pressure to fret a note here, your strings are too tight.
2. Bend Your Strings at Different Frets
Second, try bending your strings up a half step (for acoustic guitars) or a full step (for electric guitars). This will be easier on the frets near the center of your fretboard (since the strings are more pliable in the middle of their two contact points at the bridge and head), but you should still be able to comfortably bend your strings closer to the head as well.
If you have trouble bending a half or full step, your strings are too tight.
If the strings bend easily but don’t quickly return to their resting position, they’re too loose.
3. Check for Fret Buzz
Third, pluck each string without fretting any notes. Do the notes play smoothly with a decent amount of sustain, or do your strings buzz and go silent quickly? Fret buzz could be a symptom of strings that are too close to the fretboard: the strings aren’t at the correct height or tension, so they have trouble holding their pitch.
How to Properly Adjust Tension
If you’ve tested your string tension and aren’t happy with it, don’t worry! Here are a few ways you can adjust it, listed in order of how much guitar maintenance knowledge you should have before attempting, from beginner to experienced roadie.
1. Choose Lighter or Heavier Gauge Guitar Strings
Lighter gauge strings generally feel looser, while heavier gauge strings tend to feel tighter. So an easy, tool-free way to adjust your string tension is to change your strings.
Choose a set of strings one or two gauges heavier or lighter than your current set and you’ll notice an instant difference in your string tension.
Remember though, that different gauge strings will play and sound different. That’s why I recommend only moving up or down a size or two: a wildly different string gauge may not be compatible with the type of music you like to play or your overall playing style.
Before you switch out your strings, check out our complete guide on guitar strings to see how different string gauges will change the way your guitar sounds.
2. Adjust Bridge Height
From their insertion point, your guitar strings pass over the bridge. The bridge elevates your strings so they can cross over the pickups and span the fretboard without contacting it. But bridge height can be adjusted to alter string tension.
The higher the bridge, the higher the strings will pass above the fretboard. A higher bridge places more tension on the strings, which consequently makes them harder to press against the fretboard.
The lower the bridge, the lower the strings will pass above the fretboard. A lower bridge reduces tension on the strings, making them easier to press against the fretboard.
You can adjust the height of the bridge by turning the bridge screws: clockwise to raise it, counter-clockwise to lower it. Before you do, measure the height of your strings above the fretboard at the 12th fret. This measurement is your guitar’s action. This will give you a baseline value to return to if you raise or lower the bridge too much.
When adjusting, make sure you turn both screws as evenly as possible to avoid raising or lowering the bridge unevenly. Some guitar brands however do allow you to adjust the bridge height under each individual string, but this isn’t necessary if you’re a beginner.
Consult your guitar brand’s website to see if there are any recommended guitar action measurements for your specific model.
3. Adjust the Truss Rod
The truss rod is a metal bar located within the neck of your guitar. Properly tuned guitar strings place a great deal of stress on the guitar neck and could cause it to bend or break. The truss rod’s function is to add support to the neck and prevent it from bending too much.
If you sight down your guitar’s neck, you may notice it has some natural bend to it. A concave bend (where the strings are moved further away from the middle of the guitar neck) is referred to as upbow. A convex bend (where the strings are pulled closer to the guitar neck) is referred to as backbow.
Excessive upbow will reduce string tension too much and decrease the sustain of the notes you play. Excessive backbow will increase string tension too much and cause fret buzz.
Unless the neck’s upbow or backbow is severe, it may be difficult as a beginner to sight down your guitar neck and notice anything wrong. But if you do think you notice something out of alignment, you can adjust the truss rod yourself to move things back into place.
But how do you do that?
Your truss rod can be accessed where the guitar head meets the neck.
Still can’t find it?
It could be hidden by a removable plate. Once you remove this plate, you’ll see a screw that can be adjusted with an allen key.
To correct upbow, you’ll need to add more tension (referred to as reducing relief) to your guitar neck. Turning the truss rod screw clockwise will add tension and move the strings closer to the fretboard. This will also make it easier to fret your strings, increasing playability.
To correct backbow, you’ll need to reduce tension (referred to as adding relief) to your guitar neck. Turning the truss rod screw counter-clockwise will reduce tension and move the strings further away from the fretboard. This will also reduce fret buzz.
When adjusting the truss rod, be sure to only make small adjustments at a time: a quarter turn will be enough to notice a difference without moving your guitar neck too much and damaging it. And remember that adjusting the truss rod will cause your strings to go out of tune, so you’ll need to re-tune them before deciding whether your guitar needs further adjusting.
And if you’re not comfortable making this adjustment yourself, it doesn’t hurt to bring your guitar to a qualified professional to do it for you!