by Matt Day

In this article, we discuss how hard you should press down on guitar strings to play effectively. If you’re having difficulty with playing barre chords, check out our article here.

A common question from beginner guitar players is to wonder how hard they should be pressing  down on guitar strings. This is a concept that most experienced guitar players don’t think about much at all, since applying the correct amount of pressure becomes natural and learned in time.  With that said, let’s take a closer look at the answer here.

How hard should you press on guitar strings?  Guitar strings only need enough pressure applied to provide contact against the fret in order to create the tone.  Many guitar players press much harder than this, which is unnecessary and can wear out your hands, and your guitar, more quickly.

So, how do we find the right amount of pressure to apply to our guitar strings?  Let’s jump in and address that now.

Why Beginners Apply Too Much Pressure

Applying too much pressure is common among new guitar players.  It just makes sense; new players are unfamiliar with the instrument and haven’t had a chance to learn how the guitar will react.  This is common across nearly all instruments. New piano players have to learn the feel of the keys to know how much pressure to apply.  Trumpet players need to learn the same thing about the valves they press on.

For guitar players, those that start out with an acoustic guitar are probably more prone to pressing harder because of the tension that the string is under, which makes players subconsciously assume they need to fight back against that pressure by pressing hard on the strings.  Players that begin on an electric or nylon string guitar find the strings under less pressure and may be likely to ease up on the pressure they apply to the string.

What Happens If You Apply Too Much Pressure

Applying too much pressure can cause several undesirable results.  Here are a few that you should keep in mind.

Too Much Pressure Is Harder On Your Hands.  Certainly the most concerning issue that could arise from playing too hard and pressing too hard on the strings is the impact that this could have on your hands.  By pressing harder on the strings than you need to, you are more likely to wear your hands out and cause pain within the joints of your hands and on your fingertips. It is undoubtedly true that there are thousands of people who have tried to learn the guitar, but quit because of the pain, which may have been increased by the unnecessary pressure they were applying to the string when they didn’t need to.

Too Much Pressure Slows Down Your Playing.  We know that pressing too hard on the strings is tough on your hands, but it isn’t ideal for your playing either.  Pressing too hard on the strings causes several playings issues, with the first being that it naturally slows down how fast you can play.  Pressing down harder than necessary puts your hands in a tighter state overall, which is counterproductive to playing fluidly and quickly. By lightening up the pressure you apply to the strings, you may find you can pick up some speed in the process.

Too Much Pressure May Create a Bad Tone.  Extra pressure on the string can also result in producing a sound that is inconsistent or unpleasant.  Some beginners will actually press hard enough on the string that they end up bending the string in the process (because they are pressing down at an angle), which results in their playing being out of tune at times, even though the guitar is actually in tune.  Pressing too hard on the strings can also create a unpleasant tone in that the pressure you are applying may be inconsistent across the strings or between different fingers.

Too Much Pressure Can Wear Out Your Frets and Fretboard.  Another possible issue with pressing too hard on the strings of your guitar is that the frets, and the fretboard itself, can wear out. This of course would only occur after many hours of playing, so this wear and tear is unlikely to be from pressing too hard, because players learn to find the right amount of pressure in time.

How To Find The Right Amount of Pressure

Now that you know the issues that can arise from pressing too hard on the strings of your guitar, we need to address how to find the right amount of pressure.  Here is a good exercise that will help you find the pressure sweet spot.

Step #1:  Using the first finger on your fretting hand, fret a note at the fifth fret on whichever string feels comfortable to reach.  We are using the fifth fret in this exercise because it is far enough away from the nut for the string to react normally, yet will keep us in an area that is commonly used on the guitar.  Be sure to fret the note as close to the fifth fret as possible, rather than at the middle of the space on the fretboard between the fourth and fifth frets.

Step #2:  Start by just placing your first finger on the string without applying any downward pressure.  Pluck the note with your picking hand, which should not produce a solid tone since the string is not against the fret at this point.

Step #3:  Slowly increase the pressure on the string by your fretting finger and continue to pluck the string.  Take note of the pressure that you’re applying when the string begins to create the correct tone. Notice that continuing to apply pressure on the string does not add any value to the tone, which means that any extra pressure is unnecessary.  

Step #4:  Repeat the process until you have a feel for the correct amount pressure needed to create a good tone, without over-pressing on the string.

Step #5:  Keep your hand in the same position, and repeat the process with your middle finger, which will be applied to the sixth fret.  Once complete, continue on to the seventh fret by using your ring finger, and finally the eighth fret with your small pinky finger.  

By following this process, you should now be building up a feel for how hard you really need to press on a string, regardless of which finger you are using.  When you’re ready, repeat this process with chords. Start by fingering an entire chord as lightly as you can, and strum the chord. Continue to add pressure slightly until you are creating a clean tone across all of the strings of the guitar.  Try this process for chords in the open first position, such as C, G, A and D, and then move on to barre chords, such as the major, minor, and seventh barre chord shapes.

Learning To Play With The Right Amount of Pressure

Now that you know how to find the right amount of pressure to apply to the strings, and you know what it feels like, you need to find a way to make sure you play in this fashion on a regular basis.  So, how can we make sure that we do that? Here are a few hints.

  • Start each playing or practice session by repeating the process above, so that you reinforce your muscle memory in your hands and recalibrate where the right amount of pressure is, and what it feels like.  
  • Begin to recognize that the correct amount of pressure on the strings is a light touch, and really is a way of playing.  It should feel fluid, easy and natural. Pay attention to how that feels and focus on playing that way, regardless of what song you’re practicing.
  • Keep in mind that some of the fastest, and even heaviest players actually are known for their light touch.  Adding any pressure above what is necessary is unnecessary and a waste of effort.

Still Having Trouble?

If you’ve followed the process above and are still having trouble, the issue may not be you as a player, and instead may be your guitar.  There are a number of reasons why your guitar is actually working against you as your’re playing. Any of these issues make learning the guitar and playing in general much less enjoyable, and can be discouraging.  If you’re still having trouble with finding the proper amount of pressure, consider the following:

  • If your guitar a very low end model?  Guitars that are very cheaply made sometimes border on the line between instrument and toy, and were just not made with playability in mind.  If the guitar you are using is a very low end model, it may be causing you to work harder to find a good tone than you otherwise would have to with a quality instrument.
  • Is the guitar action too high?  The action is the amount of space that is between the string and the fretboard, and if it’s adjusted too high, then as a player you will naturally have to press down further to bring the string to the fretboard, which can cause you to over-compensate with too much pressure.  Consider having the guitar looked at by a seasoned guitar player to see what they think of the playability and action when they play the guitar.
  • Does the guitar need a setup?  A guitar setup includes a guitar technician adjusting the action, neck, bridge and other aspects of your guitar to make it as playable as intended by the manufacturer.  This may or may not include cleaning or conditioning the instrument and fretboard, but regardless, a guitar setup is intended to make the guitar as playable as possible.  If you have a quality instrument, a setup is a worthwhile investment.

Other Common Beginner Mistakes

As beginners, we all made a lot of mistakes on our way to learning the guitar.  Besides pressing too hard on the strings, consider if you are committing any other common mistake, such as bending the string unintentionally when playing, or muting out one string when fretting another.  Learn to play slowly and listen to the tone that you’re getting out of your guitar, and make sure that you’re playing with the right amount of pressure and that all of your strings are creating the tone you intend.

Related Questions

Will pressing too hard on guitar strings cause the string to break?  Guitar strings can break for many reasons, however it is unlikely to be due to any action you as the player are taking with your fretting hand, including the amount of pressure you’re applying to the strings.

How much pressure do I need to apply to bass guitar strings?  The strings on a bass guitar will require a different amount of pressure than your guitar strings, but the concept is the same.  You want to apply the amount of pressure necessary to create the proper tone and little more.

About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day has been playing the guitar for over twenty-five years, and also plays the bass guitar and mandolin.