This is one of those questions the answer comes down more to personal preference than anything else. Once you’ve grown accustomed to playing the guitar, you can decide on whether you’d prefer to have them tighter or looser. After you’ve experimented with different tunings and gauges, you’ll have a better idea of how to proceed.
For instance, if you’ve tuned your guitar lower than standard tuning, you’ll probably need thicker strings but if you’ve chosen to tune it sharp, you’ll need thinner gauge strings. It depends on what you’re doing, but there are some common guidelines you can follow.
Generally, the tightness of guitar strings depends on standard tuning (EADGBE for six-strings), string gauge, playing style, genre of music and personal preference. Strings should feel taut but not overly tight. If you struggle to bend a string a half or whole step, they’re probably too tight.
If your strings are too tight, the guitar will be hard to play. For example, the strings will not bend easily, they may break if you play them too hard, the pitch is too high and the continuous tension will have it so that you need to adjust the truss rod and re-set the action and everything (my guide on this), which isn’t a big deal, but it’ll need to get done. The fact of the matter is that it isn’t hard to tell whether your strings are too tight or too loose.
Guitar Strings Need To Be Tight Enough To Vibrate
As we’ve already said, guitar strings have to be tight enough to vibrate at a discernible pitch. If one or more of your strings is going out of tune more quickly and has a little more tightness to it than the rest of the strings, it may be too tight or too loose. Use a tuner to determine if your strings are in tune.
Just remember that tighter strings produce a higher pitch while looser strings produce a lower pitch. How tight or loose you want your guitar strings also depends on the string gauges. 9-42s will be quite slinky at standard tuning whereas 12-52s will be incredibly stiff at the same tuning.
Just as a frame of reference, I have my ESP Eclipse II tuned to D standard (1 whole step down) and I have 11-49s on it right now.
The reason for that is that 9-42s on a guitar tuned one full step down will be far too loose to the point that the guitar will feel like a toy. At least I don’t like to play it like that.
I’ve touched on this topic many times before including in this article, but I find that lighter gauge strings are easier to play than thicker gauge strings, and the difference in action isn’t worth it to me.
People say you can afford to get a lower action when you’re using thicker strings, but I don’t find the difference that big.
There are other options out there too though, including slinky top-heavy bottom strings from Ernie Ball.
Skinny top-heavy bottom strings are made for guitarists who like to drop the Low-E string another full step which is called a “Drop” tuning. This allows you to play power chords with one finger which is extremely common among metal and rock guitarists.
How Much Tension Should There Be On A Guitar String?
There needs to be enough tension on the strings that they produce sound. There are a few types of guitar strings, and some require more tension to produce the sound than others.
Nylon strings are typically only used on classical guitars and need the right amount of tension or you won’t yield much sound, they will also break easily if turned too tight. Brass/bronze or steel/nickel strings are mainly what is used on acoustic and electric guitars.
These can get pretty tight without breaking, so refer to the pitches below for the correct tightness for pitch. The correct pitch depends on what tuning the guitarist wants to play.
In standard tuning on a tuner, the guitar’s strings will read from lowest to highest:
- E2 or 82.41 Hz
- A2 or 110 Hz
- D3 or 146.8 Hz
- G3 196 Hz
- B3 246.9Hz
- E4 329.6 Hz
Tuning tighter or looser will not have these results. If you aren’t familiar with Hz or Gigahertz as they are called, then a Chromatic Tuner like the Boss TU-3.
There’s nothing wrong with the Snark Clip-on Tuner though which I use more because of how convenient it is.
Can You Over-Tighten Guitar Strings?
You can over-tighten guitar strings which will either tune them to a point where they play too sharp or until they break. If by pressing on the string you get a lot of resistance, it may be too tight which means you should probably try lighter gauge strings.
How Do I Know If My Guitar Strings Are Too Loose?
Your guitar strings are too loose if they’re not tuned to pitch, or if they vibrate so loosely that they fail to produce a discernible sound. Between an electric guitar and an acoustic, the electric strings should be a little looser because of how thin they are compared to acoustic gauges.
The pitch, however, should be the same when played.
Other Articles You May Be Interested In
- Should Guitar Strings Be The Same Height? [NO]
- Can A Whammy Bar Break Strings? [ANSWERED]
- What Makes Guitar Strings Go Dead? [ANSWERED]
Important Things to Note About String Tightness
1) Increase Or Decrease Your String Gauges If They’re Too Loose or Too Tight
Whether or not your guitar strings are too tight or too loose depends not so much on the tuning but more on the gauges, considering most of us tune to standard tuning or a similar tuning.
A person who feels that their strings are too looser probably needs to increase the gauges, whereas if they’re too difficult to play, you’ll probably have to decrease the gauges.
This is one reason why beginner guitarists, I believe, should start out with lighter string gauges. 9-42 gauge strings are standard, but if you find even these are hard on your fingers, 8s might be even better. These days, I prefer 9-42 gauge strings for standard tuning because they’re easier to play.