Many beginner guitar players often become discouraged in their practice. So many things are working against you. Sore fingers from not having developed calluses, mental fatigue, impatience, lack of time in the day…. The list goes on. However, one of the biggest discouragers is a guitar that is difficult to play. The good news is that this is very, very fixable.
Beginners simply may not be aware that there are many ways to adjust a guitar’s playability and there are several key components of the guitar that need to be maintained in order for that guitar to remain comfortable to its wielder.
After years and years of playing and teaching, I have created somewhat of a troubleshoot list to help people make their guitars easier to play. Many are simple and can be done by the average hobbyist. Other adjustments may need special attention from a qualified luthier or repair tech.
Starting from the simplest and moving up to the more complicated adjustments or repairs, I will show you how to make your acoustic guitar easier to play.
But first, a basic analysis is in order.
Start by simply inspecting your instrument and assess the condition of the guitar. You don’t need to know how to fix everything you may find, but you should know the things to look for that affect your guitar’s playability. Start from the headstock and work your way down. After this inspection, we will discuss the various remedies for any adverse conditions you may find.
The condition of the tuners is very important. Check to make sure they are not loose and the tuning machine moves smoothly and holds the string firm. Tuners that a really loose, feel very difficult to turn, or missing any parts will cause tuning issues which can be very frustrating for a new player.
Also, check for any cracking where at the back of the headstock it meets the neck. This is a common place for pegheads to break due to a fall or some other form of trauma. If it is cracked along this joint, it’s only a matter of time before it breaks, leading to an expensive fix or a retired guitar.
The nut is the strip of bone, plastic, or other synthetic material just below the peghead with little slots in it to hold the strings. A nut that has too low of a profile may cause buzzing, whereas a nut that is too tall will result in the strings being too high making them harder to fret.
Check the fingerboard for any unevenness or damage. Also, look for dirt. The fingerboard should be level and clean for intonation purposes and ease of playing.
Look for pitted frets, frets that are sharp on the edges, or frets that are uneven. All frets should be of the same height, otherwise, you may have dead notes and tuning troubles. And nothing is worse than scraping your hand on a sharp fret end that was either not properly filed or is coming unseated from the fret slot.
Check the neck for straightness. A neck that is curved can cause issues. You can “sight” the neck by positioning the guitar in such a way that you can look down the length of the neck from the headstock, looking toward the body. Have the guitar oriented with the fretboard facing out (like it would be in a playing position) and look down along the length of the low E string.
A neck should be pretty straight. If it is slightly concave, that’s okay. If it’s very noticeably concave, it has what is called “forward bow” and that can be the cause of the strings being too far from the fretboard.
The opposite is also a problem. “Backbow” of the neck brings the strings too close to the fretboard and the strings will buzz and in extreme cases, completely deaden the notes.
The type of strings and their condition has a lot to do with how comfortable the guitar is. Heavy (thick) strings are harder to press down. Nylon is much softer than steel. Clean strings are easier to play than an old, nasty set.
Most issues with the body tend to be cosmetic or tonal in nature, but something that can affect playability is warping. If the guitar has any places where it’s swelling or bulging, it can make the guitar feel uncomfortable. If there is warping or swelling at the bridge, it can cause the bridge to lift and take the strings up with it.
Speaking of the bridge, check to see if it is starting to separate from the body. Excessive string tension and poor storage of the guitar can lead to the bridge popping off. At the start of this process, the bridge begins to lift up and the strings get really high off the fretboard. This will need immediate attention.
On top of the bridge is a little piece of bone or plastic – just like the nut – where the strings are seated. And just like the nut, the height of this affects the string height, which is also known as “action”.
Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what constitutes as being too high, too low, or uneven. The purpose of this is to look for any obvious problems. You may not know what “proper” action is, but you will be able to tell if something is just not right.
So what do you do about these issues? Let’s start with the simplest, most common solutions.
Change Your Strings
The vast majority of beginners do not change their strings nearly as often as they are supposed to. The reality is you should be changing your strings like you change the air filter in your home – about once a month. Some can go longer like coated strings, some of the cheaper ones may need to be changed every two or three weeks.
I’ve known people who have had the same set of strings on their guitar for years! Don’t be cheap here. Spend the $25 or so to have the strings changed, or better yet learn to do it yourself and buy strings in packs of three or more to save money.
You also may want to consider getting a lighter gauge string. Most acoustic guitars from the factory or the music store are equipped with regular light strings, which measure .012” at the high E string – also known as “twelves”. As a beginner, you are better off with an extra light gauge such as a .010 or .011
A change in string material may also be called for. Different material will sound different, but some can really make a difference in comfort. Steel strings are what are most commonly used, and there are various types of steel string.
Here are some of the more well-known materials:
- 80/20 Bronze:
This is the most common acoustic guitar string material. It’s 80% copper, 20% zinc, and provides a bright, crisp sound. Lighter gauge 80/20 strings are the cheapest option and provide decent comfort without compromising your callus building.
- Phosphor Bronze:
A slightly more expensive option is phosphor bronze which just adds phosphor to the 80/20 bronze. This additive delays oxidation, thereby increasing the lifespan of the string. They are slightly warmer in tone than the 80/20s.
- Coated Strings:
Even more expensive is the coated string. Typically phosphor bronze, there can be a polymer coating added over the string to even further it’s lifespan – up to three times that of the average string. Depending on the brand and type of coating, these strings will range in tone from warm, to big and full with a good balance of brightness. They are also 3 to 4 times the price of the average set.
Nickel is typically the choice for electric guitars. Some strings may be pure nickel while other brands may be an 8% nickel-plated steel such as for the archtop guitar. Yes, these are soft, flexible, and comfortable, but they are not designed for the typical acoustic guitar. If you put a set of these on your typical flat-top steel-string guitar, the result will be a thin, tinny-sounding guitar that is not likely to be pleasant to you.
- Silk and Steel:
Okay, now we’re talking. These are steel strings with a layer of silk either in the outer wrapping, or between the wrapping and the core. The silk is most often a very thin nylon filament and this string type is what is recommended most to beginners for their comfort. Although some brightness is lost and they tend to be a bit quieter, they still sound great and the small loss of power is certainly worth the trade-off.
Nylon strings are those found on a classical guitar. They are single core of nylon filament not unlike fishing line. The high strings are usually much thicker than a steel string; they have to be in order to maintain tension and not break. Even though the high E string is around a .028 (compare to a .012 regular light steel string), it is very soft material.
Most of these strings require a classical bridge since the strings tie on instead of being held in place by a bridge pin. However, there are some nylon strings out there that have ball ends on them that can be installed on a normal bridge. However, I recommend the average player who uses a pick not to use these strings as the pick can cause the strings to fray and break.
These produce a very soft and warm sound as they are designed for a particular style of play. If you are finger picker, then this may be the most comfortable option.
Clean The Fretboard
Over time, human oils and dirt can collect on the fingerboard and frets. It’s important to clean the fretboard regularly to keep the frets free of debris. Excessive buildup on the fretboard can interfere with the string’s contact of the fret and produce an out-of-tune note. You should wipe down the neck and strings after every session. You also want to make sure to clean the underside of the strings!
Every couple of months or so, I recommend an intensive cleaning and that you condition the fretboard. This is a fairly simple task and involves guitar-specific lemon oil and either .0000 steel wool or some kind of micro-mesh polishing pad. Only do this to an unfinished fingerboard such as ebony or rosewood, which is most acoustic guitars. If your guitar has something like a finished maple neck, then there is no need to condition the fingerboard as it is already sealed. In fact, doing this to a finished neck could damage the fretboard.
Simply spray on the lemon oil, rub-down the fretboard, and frets with the extra fine .0000 steel wool or slightly abrasive polishing pad. This removes stubborn gunk and works the lemon oil into the exposed wood to seal it. This protects the neck from expansion and contraction due to temperature and humidity changes. Wipe away the excess and put on the new strings.
Not only does this process clean the fretboard, but it also polishes the frets. Polished frets are much smoother and allow the fingers to glide much easier, thus making for a much more comfortable playing experience.
Tighten Loose Tuners
Tuners that are loose can cause intonation problems which can definitely affect your morale. When you play out of tune, you just sound bad no matter who you are.
Tighten any loose mounting screws and the screw on the edge of the peg. The screw on the edge of the peg determines the turning action of the tuner. Don’t make it so tight that you can’t turn it easily, but don’t make it so loose that it spins too freely or wiggles.
If your tuners are gummed up, being pulled out of tune by the strings, or tightening the screws doesn’t sure them up, they may need to be replaced which is not typically an expensive ordeal. It can be easy to do it yourself if you buy tuners with the exact same measurements so the screw holes line up. Otherwise, you will need the assistance of a luthier or repair tech.
Setting Up Your Guitar
Part of owning a guitar is making necessary adjustments periodically. How frequent these adjustments are made are going to be based on what kind of weather you live in and how much you play.
For example, I live in a part of the world that experiences all four seasons. Cold, dry winters along with incredibly muggy summers mean that I have to do a full set up on my guitars at least once a year, sometimes twice. The temperature and humidity changes are just too extreme and I play in a lot of different environments.
Some aspects of a set up can be done by those willing to learn, we have written a step by step article on how to set up a guitar here if you want to do it yourself, How To Do Your Own Guitar Setup (Step by Step Guide).
Otherwise, it’s not very expensive to take your guitar to your local shop for $50-$75 for a solid set up. It’s well worth the time and/or money to have this done to make your guitar play comfortably and sound great.
If you are wondering what is involved in a professional setup then we have a full breakdown on that in our article here, What Is A Professional Guitar Setup And Why You Need One, it is important to read this as the guitar tech may ask you some questions you will want to know the answers to before you go and save yourself a second trip.
Having the guitar play in tune is critical. If your intonation is off, the open string may be in tune, but the fretted notes might be out of tune. If an acoustic guitar is experiencing intonation issues, the likely culprit is the bridge. The saddle may need to be filed or there is an issue with the compensation.
Compensation refers to the angle of the saddle. A guitar’s saddle is not likely to be perfectly straight, but have a slight angle to it. This accounts for the thickness of the strings and effectively makes the strings on the bass side longer than the strings on the treble side.
This is probably the most important aspect of the guitar in relation to comfort and playability. Action, or string height, is determined by multiple factors. Here is a great video by the fine folks at StewMac on how to do this yourself.
Below is a basic summary of how an action is adjusted on an acoustic guitar.
- Neck Straightness
Most guitars have a metal rod that sits in a channel inside the neck under the fretboard. This metal rod is there to counteract the tension of the strings pulling on the neck. To loosen the truss rod is to allow the strings to pull on the neck and give it a forward bow. Tightening the truss rod pulls against the strings and brings the neck back.
Having a very slight forward bow is actually typical of most manufacturers’ specifications. This forward bow is called “relief”. However, too much relief can result in a very high action which is decidedly uncomfortable to play. Too much back bow will pull the strings too close to the frets and cause them to buzz and take the life out of the tone.
A lot of players including myself prefer a dead straight neck, but you should work with your local tech to decide if you prefer a straight neck, or one with a bit of relief. If you have switched strings from a larger gauge to a smaller one, a neck adjustment is going to be needed to accommodate the change in string tension.
- The Saddle
The saddle is the piece of material that sits in a channel on top of the bridge where the strings come to rest. The important thing here is that the saddle is radiused. It needs to have a curvature in it that matches, or is close to, the curvature of the neck.
If the saddle does not have much of a curve to it, then the middle strings will sit too close to the frets and cause buzzing. If the saddle is just overall too low, then it will need to be shimmed or replaced.
Too much curvature or a saddle that has not been sanded down enough will cause the strings to be further away. If your neck is straight, but the strings progressively higher up the neck, this could be the cause. There are other, more serious phenomena that can cause this, but this is an easy and cheap one to check first. Taking off some of the material with sandpaper and a radius block will do the trick.
- The Nut
String height at the nut is also a factor in the guitar’s action. If the string is too far away from the first fret, then the nut will need to be filed down. The easiest way to do this is to get the appropriate size files for the individual strings and file down the individual slots.
If the strings are too close to the first fret, then the nut is too low and will need to be shimmed. A shim will last a while, but it should be known that a nut that is older and worn down eventually needs to be replaced just like a saddle that sits too low.
Learning to do these things yourself will greatly benefit you as a guitar player in terms of being able to set up a guitar just the way you want it, and it will save you money. However, some of the techniques such as sanding and filing of the nut and saddle may take some practice. Don’t let the first time you try this be on a collectible 1960s Gibson.
Working on frets is a meticulous and time-consuming process that takes skill and patience. This is not recommended for the faint of heart as one little mistake could cost you hundreds of dollars. This type of work is a guitar shop’s bread and butter for a good reason. Techs spend many hours under the tutelage of a master to learn how to do fretwork right.
With that said, if you have a junker lying around, it could be very rewarding to learn to do this yourself if you are so inclined. Just please practice on junk, not on your prized six-string or the only guitar you have.
One of the most annoying and painful experiences is to have sharp fret ends. Cheaper guitars that did not get the five-star treatment at the factory may have this problem. Running your hand up and down the neck against sharp frets can draw blood. Luckily, to have these filed down is fairly easy for a repair shop and is inexpensive.
This process involves using a beveling file to make the fret ends flush with the neck, and a fret end dressing file to round off the edges for added comfort. It’s the dressing part that really requires some skill and finesse.
Now, maybe your guitar is a little worse for wear with pitted, uneven, or flattened frets. Perhaps some are even coming unseated. Every guitar eventually needs a fret job or what is referred to as a “fret level, crown, and polish”.
The fret level, crown, and polish (also called a fret dressing), involves using a radiused sanding beam to sand the frets down until they are level with each other. What’s left are frets with flat tops. Frets should be rounded with a single point of contact for the string to play in tune and not buzz. The crowning process reshapes the fret to its desired round form. The fret ends are also dressed to get rid of the sharp ends created by the leveling.
After all that is done, the frets are polished to a brilliant shine with a virtually frictionless surface. As you can imagine, this is a tedious and time-consuming endeavor. Not only that but after the frets have gone through this, the guitar needs a setup to account for the fact that the frets are now a touch lower after being leveled.
A fret dressing, which usually includes a setup since it is absolutely necessary, runs in the neighborhood of $150-$200.
Let us not forget the other side of the equation which is the strumming or picking side. The kind of pick you use can make a huge difference in the comfort of your rhythm hand. Most beginning acoustic strummers don’t really think about the material or the thickness of the pick they are using. Pick girth is typically measured in millimeters and ranges from nearly paper-thin to darn near as thick as a flapjack.
There are also different shapes and sizes. There is the standard pick most are used to which makes use of one of the three ends for the strumming, a much larger triangular pick like the Fender 346 size, and the smaller jazz pick with a finer tip. You will want to buy variety packs and experiment with the shapes and various thicknesses to see which ones you like best.
Just like strings, picks are also made from a variety of materials. Plastic, nylon, celluloid, and various synthetic materials. Once upon a time, there were guitar picks made of tortoiseshell, but that particular trade has been illegal worldwide since the early-mid 1970s. Now, there are a ton of synthetic shell materials to choose from that actually sound better and won’t land you in prison.
Other pick varieties play around with different grip features. Some are textured where the thumb is placed while others might just use a more grippy coating. Some players may prefer a pick that doesn’t grip so well so they can easily manipulate the pick’s position for different sounds and playing techniques.
You may gravitate to a different pick type depending on your overall playing style, or switch between picks to match the sound and feel of a particular song. There’s no right or wrong here; it’s completely up to you and it can be quite fun to experiment with all the different picks out there.
If you are the type that is not comfortable with a pick, I won’t yell at you. Some beginners just find it awkward and choose to forego the pick altogether. However, I would encourage you to practice with a pick in the beginning season of your playing to get a feel for it and give yourself adequate time to try and adapt. If after a time, you decide you don’t want to play with a pick, that’s your choice. Heck, it worked out for Jeff Beck.
If you play a style that is conducive to fingers such as the finger-style musings of artists like Don Ross and Andy McKee, then you may want to consider using acrylic fingernails and a thumb pick. Classical guitarists often just grow out their fingernails and file them in a particular way.
Hopefully, this gives you some great information to help you make your acoustic guitar easier to play. Some of it is basic, some elements take a little work, and a few things are best left to a professional. When in doubt, just stop by your local shop and have the guitar evaluated. Most techs are happy to help guide you in taking the necessary steps to make your guitar fit your unique needs.