by Scott Zimmerman

When you’re playing the guitar, every aspect of the guitar has an impact on how your playing sounds, and how easy it is to play. One question that many of my students ask me is if some guitar strings are easier to play. Let’s dive into that question in this article.

Are some guitar strings easier to play? Lighter gauge strings are easier to play than heavier gauge strings because they require less tension. This means that your fingers don’t have to work as hard to press down or bend the string, which makes fretting chords and notes easier.

If you find yourself wanting to play more but are discouraged because of finger discomfort and poor tone quality, a quick and inexpensive string change may be the solution.

As every guitar player knows, initially, the most challenging part of learning to play guitar is overcoming soreness in the fingers in the pursuit of a clear tone. It can be the thing that stops a beginner from continuing to play. In fact, nylon string guitars and electric guitars are the easiest guitars to play in terms of finger comfort and ease of tone production, and many players prefer them for that reason alone.

However, many acoustic players prefer the sound of steel-strings. By selecting the correct strings for ease of play, you can play longer and have a more enjoyable playing experience.

What strings are easier to play for a beginner?

The general rule of thumb is that lighter gauge strings are easier to press down and fret, and will not fatigue your fingers as quickly as heavier strings. If you play a steel-string acoustic, switching to light or ultra-light gauge will help. If you are already using a light gauge string but are still experiencing soreness, try using a type of string called “silk and steel”. This type of string is actually a composite material and is softer than normal acoustic steel strings.

Do strings that are easier to play sound good?

Of course judging sound quality is subjective; however, if you are able to play longer with more ease, the overall playing experience will be more enjoyable, which will make you feel that you are getting a better sound. Objectively speaking, thinner gauge strings will produce less volume, and they tend to sound thinner with less bass and mid-tones. They are also more prone to buzzing when strummed or plucked too hard.

If I switch to lighter gauge strings will I need to do anything to my guitar?

Lighter gauge strings will lower the tension on the guitar and make it easier to press the strings. However, with the lowered tension the strings may be closer to the frets and will also have a tendency to bounce off the frets more easily if you strum or pluck the string hard. This will cause fret buzz and may not be very pleasing to the ear.

Basically, it is a trade-off. You may need to adjust your strumming technique and temporarily accept this sound while you are learning and allowing your fingers to develop. As you progress and your fingers become more conditioned, you can increase the gauge of the strings to eliminate the fret buzz.

You may also want to consider having your guitar professionally “set-up” at your local guitar shop to accommodate the lighter strings. However, this will be an additional expense and will “set” the guitar for a specific gauge string and will somewhat lock the guitar into this type of string for the future, so it is worth considering whether this is a temporary change to lighter gauge strings or a more permanent solution.

What changes in sound and play-ability can I expect if I switch to easier-to-play strings?

You can expect some trade-offs when switching your strings to a lighter gauge. Keep in mind that your goal at this point is to allow your hands and fingers to develop over time and that any sonic setbacks are only temporary.

Having said that, lighter gauge strings will produce less volume and will be looser and floppier than heavier strings. Volume is not really an issue at this point but the looser tension that makes it easier to fret will also produce a buzzing sound if the strings are plucked or strummed too hard. You may need to make some right-hand adjustments to avoid this, i.e. strumming or plucking the strings with less pressure as well as using a lighter pick for strumming.

In addition, if you are a fingerstyle player you will feel less resistance against your right-hand fingers which may require some adjustment with your right-hand technique. No matter what you’re doing, always be sure to listen carefully to how everything sounds to see if adjustments are making a good sound that you like.

Can I create a custom set of strings to make it even easier to play? 

You can create a custom set of finger-friendly strings by using silk and steel on the bottom four strings and substituting the two thinnest strings (strings 1 and 2) with electric guitar strings. The gauges of the first and second strings for electric guitars are available in thinner gauges than acoustic strings. Try using a .008 gauge on the first string and a .011 on the second string if you’re interested in giving this a shot.

What else can I do if I have tried a lighter gauge or a custom set of strings and my fingers are still sore?

Another way to make guitar strings easier to play is by detuning your guitar. By detuning your guitar ½ step or even one whole step, the overall string tension will be reduced. If you want to play up to pitch use a capo on the 1st or 2nd fret respectively. I would recommend using an adjustable capo versus a quick change type so that you can adjust the pressure of the capo for optimal intonation.

Many professional players play or have played consistently at a half or whole step down, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Slash, among many others.

What are the easiest types of nylon-strings to play?

In general, nylon strings are easier to play than steel-strings because they require less tension. They come in two types: normal tension and hard tension. The difference in tension is usually about five pounds. For obvious reasons, I would recommend using normal-tension because they will be easier to play.

Later, you may want to experiment with hard tension as they will produce more volume, but hard tension nylon strings will feel significantly stiffer under both your left and right-hand fingers.

Does the size of the guitar make strings easier to play?

In fact, the size of the guitar will determine whether strings are easier to play. The size of the guitar’s scale length will affect the amount of tension on the strings with higher tension increasing the pressure necessary to press the string for a clear tone. Scale length is determined by measuring the guitar string from the nut to the 12th fret and then doubling that number. Typically anything over 25” is considered a long scale. Smaller scale length guitars will have less tension on the strings and generally be easier to play.

This scale length varies by manufacturer and even from model to model. For example, Fender and Gibson guitars have often used different scale lengths from each other (and even within their own model line), which makes bending and fretting strings on many Gibson guitars easier than some Fender models.

What else can make guitar strings easier to play?

If you have tried lighter gauge strings and you are still having difficulty pressing the strings to achieve a good tone it may be time to have your guitar adjusted by a professional luthier. Many guitar shops have an experienced technician available.

The guitar tech will be able to check the action and neck of your guitar for any problems. If the action (the distance of the strings from the frets) is too high, it will be difficult to press the strings into the fretboard. On acoustic instruments, the luthier will remove some of the surface of the nut and saddle to lower the action. I have had this done on a nylon string classical guitar and it turned it into one of my favorite instruments to play. It was well worth the nominal expense.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.