When I started playing my acoustic(at an early age) I tuned the guitar just by matching notes. Like, matching the note of 5th fret of 6th string to open fret of 5th string and so on.

I didn't used any standard source to tune my guitar, as a result the tension I tuned then was way low then the standard one. It was for a long time.

Now when I started playing guitar(started taking some formal lessons) using standard tune/tension(E3, A3, D4, B4, G4, E5), it was pretty hard for me to adjust with this high tension.

I though its just a matter of time to get used to with it. But the more I play the more I realize I want to go back to the old ways. I want to reduce the tension of the string. Low tension give me more flexibility and freedom. This standard tension doesn't suit me at all. High tension is taking the fun away from me.

Now the question is :

  • What kind of problem I will be facing if I reduce the tension of the strings? (notice that I used to play guitar just by reading tabs in the old days, but now I am relearning everything by taking some formal lessons)

  • How the low tension strings are gonna affect my guitar life? It would be great if, I can work around the issues while retaining low tension.

EDIT : I want to play finger style guitar. Similar to Sungha Jung.


7 Answers 7


From this and your other questions, it seems you're confused about pitch, tension, string gauge and tone.

Pitch is a function of:

  • the gauge of the string (thinner = higher pitch)
  • the tension of the string (more tension = higher pitch)
  • the length of the string (shorter = higher pitch)

Let's assume the length of your instrument is fixed and not something you can modify. What's left that you can adjust is the string gauge (by replacing the strings) and the tension (by tuning).

Thinner Strings

If you replace your strings with thinner ones, and tune to standard tuning, it will be at a lower tension than if you'd used thicker strings. This may be what you want

Same strings, lower pitch

If you don't replace your strings, but reduce the tension anyway, you will be playing at a lower pitch. It will also have an effect on the timbre of the sound, and the feeling of the strings.

The more you reduce the tension, the less like a "normal" guitar the instrument will sound. It will become quieter and the attack of the sound will become weaker. Treble tones will die away more quickly. At a certain looseness, the vibrating strings will start to knock into the fretboard or each other. Of course, if you go loose enough, the string will be completely slack and you'll be unable to pluck it!

But let's assume you've not gone to such extremes, and you're just tuning your guitar a few tones flat compared to the standard:

If you're playing solo, there aren't really many disadvantages. The sound your making is subtly different to what people may expect from a guitar (maybe in a good way), but everything harmonises and sounds OK.

If you attempt to play along to a recording, following a chord sheet someone else has written, and attempt to use standard chord shapes, you'll hit trouble.

Say you're tuned a tone lower than standard. The chord sheet says "D", so you fret xx0232 - it's not going to fit with the recording. You're going to need to play an "E" shape 022100 in order to harmonise with the recording. Even then, if the recording is of a musician strumming "standard" chord shapes, you will be playing a different inversion of the chord to them. It's up to you whether that matters to you.

One disadvantage you have here is that many rock/folk musicians choose a key that's easy to play in. For example, lots of rock/folk songs are played in E, so you spend most of the time playing easy E and A chords with open strings. In your flat tuning, you will need to make barred F# and B shapes to play along. Even if you don't find barre chords difficult, it leaves fewer fingers free to add twiddly bits.

There are two ways to deal with this:

First way: Scrub out all the names on your chord dictionary (whether that's on paper or in your mind!) and replace them with the chords you're actually playing in your preferred tuning. So, if you're tuning a tone flat, cross off "D" from the xx0232 shape on your standard chord dictionary, and write "C" instead; replace "E" with "D", "C" with "Bb" and so on.

This way, you retain the one-step translation a guitarist usually does when reading chord sheets -- I see "G", I play this shape. Just that you'll be playing a different shape to what someone in standard tuning would.

Second way: Retain the standard set of letters-to-shapes in your chord dictionary, but do the transposition in your head as you play.

This way, you don't have to relearn the names of chords, but you have to do the extra work as you read music. 'The sheet says "C", so I must play a "D" shape.'

Of course, rather than doing it in your head on the fly, you can mark the names of the shapes on the sheet before beginning. Also many songs have a limited number of chords, so you can just get the set of shapes you're going to need worked out before you begin.

If you're not playing chords, but rather playing a melody, you have a similar issue. If you're tuned a tone flat, then you must play every note two frets higher, to get the same note. Sometimes, though, that's no longer the rational way to play the melody -- you have different open strings available -- so you'll end up playing different fingerings to what someone on standard tuning would use.

If you're playing with other people, all of the issues relating to playing along to a recording remain. There is a further issue of communication. If you tell your accompanist you're singing a song in the key of D - you'd better not open with a xx0232 shape that's really a C chord. The polite thing to do is to take into account your tuning, and always adjust so that what you tell them is correct in their world of tuning, not yours.

Finally, there's always the option of a capo. If you tune a tone flat, and put a capo on the second fret, you still have loose strings, but you're back to standard pitch.

If all of this seems confusing -- well, that's one disadvantage of not going with the standard.

  • Tuning town two fret and using a 2nd-fret capo will make it easier to play songs like "Amazed" which work best tuned down a one fret (just put the capo on 1st fret instead of second). It also allows for the possibility of putting using a partial capo which doesn't hit the low "E". You'll have to use an extra finger on "E" chords to fret the 6th string, but in exchange for that you'll be able to play six-string D chords which sound much better than the wimpy four-string ones that are more common and can sound even better if the fourth string is fretted on the fourth fret.
    – supercat
    May 10, 2016 at 17:35

There are concerns that arise from playing with low tension, but none of these are necessarily real problems.

  • The lower the tension the easier the guitar gets out of tune; in particular, if you exert too much pressure you may quickly bend up the strings without meaning to. You should listen carefully if that happens or not, but even if it does happen you can try to improve your technique so that it doesn't.
  • With higher tension, the strings respond faster and give a more focused, powerful sound. While this technically seems advantageous, it doesn't guarantee a better overall result, it depends on what you're aiming at: a tight rhythm guitar or rather a more freely played lead guitar.
  • The strings will oscillate with a bigger amplitude when they have low tension. That means they may often strike the fretboard, resulting in side-noises. This can be fixed by making the bridge higher.
  • Some necks that are set up to work with high tension may bend "backwards" when you lower the tension, resulting in a convex fretboard, which also makes side-noises more like. This problem should be solvable by lowering the tension of the truss rod in the neck.

Tuning is just one of the parameters governing the string tension, the other two being the scale of the guitar and the string gauge. If you like low tension, consider getting lighter strings or a guitar with shorter scale. .010 is medium gauge, perhaps .009 or even .008 would be better for you. And have you ever played a Les Paul?

Oh, I didn't realize this was about acoustic guitar. In that case one completely different idea: maybe the perfect instrument for you is actually a classical guitar rather than a steelstring one? I personally never dug western guitar, in part because its high string tension makes it difficult to play anything more subtle then a strumming rythm pattern. But western guitar is also particularly dependent on the high tension, because any noises caused by the strings hitting the fretboard is much better audible than on electric guitars.
Classical guitar, on the other hand, is designed for lower tension in the first place, and not only that makes it somewhat softer to play but also strings themselves. Thanks to the elasticity, they're largely unsusceptive for accidental bendings, and they sound less annoying when they hit the fretboard even when played very loudly – in fact, e.g. flamenco guitar often makes use of this sound.
Obviously, a classical guitar cannot be as loud as a high-tension western guitar, and it also doesn't sound as bright as, for instance, Sunga Jung. But that doesn't mean it sounds dull, it's just different – fingerstyle technique like Sunga Jung's definitely works very well on a classical guitar.

However, if you've played tuned-down western guitar for years and it's just your thing, don't feel urged to change your style just because it's unusual! It's good to have a unique style, you just should always listen to it carefully yourself to see if it does not sound e.g. out of tune and you just didn't realize. Also, you should occasionally try something else – again: I'd recommend you try a good classical guitar.

  • "Les Paul" No. I haven't played electric much. In fact I would like to play more acoustic finger style stuff. Something like Sungha Jung. I'm kinda a little worried about what joe-lewis said, that I need to stick to standard tension to be able to recognize and play with others, which contradicts with @dr-mayhem. I have played with low tension for about 4-5 years, and now jumping to standard tension is proving really difficult for me. Dec 16, 2011 at 3:17
  • @lefthandroundabout - iamcreasy has said on other pages that he's strongly motivated to learn steel-strung acoustic guitar, not nylon-strung classical guitar; just his preference. It should be noted that by lowering the tension on a steel-strung instrument, you're getting closer to the kind of sound a nylon strung guitar would make.
    – slim
    Dec 16, 2011 at 13:15
  • 1
    What is it about the Les Paul that makes it worth mentioning here? Shorter scale? Something else?
    – slim
    Dec 16, 2011 at 15:24
  • 1
    @slim: Well, classical guitar is just another suggestion I'm making here, as one general item of the list of lower-tension alternatives to a standard western guitar. The OP will decide himself whether to give it a try! — I shouldn't say lowering the tension on a steel-strung instrument gets its sound closer to that of a nylonstring guitar. That's a bit like saying "by lowering the chili content of a mexican dish you're getting closer to the kind of taste french cuisine has." — As for the Les Paul, yes, it was the shorter scale I had in mind. Dec 17, 2011 at 0:27

The simple answer is that you will not face a problem - many artists use odd (ie non-standard) string gauges and tensions. In fact some use these specifically for the different tonal qualities they get. Use whatever you like to use would be my message.

Of course if you want to borrow someone else's guitar you may have a problem as it is likely to be standard setup.

Low tension strings should not affect your guitar's life - you may get more paint or fretboard wear, but that isn't a major issue.

  • Is it gonna cause issue, when I am jamming with someone who's string tension is not as same as mine? Dec 15, 2011 at 22:23
  • No - as long as your strings are tuned to the correct notes. What you find is using low tension strings means the attack can sound different, and string bends can be more pronounced.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 15, 2011 at 23:48
  • Thank you! I was wondering if I am the only one who finds standard tuning is a high tension setup to be comfortable with? or it is just a common way of doing thing that if someone find it hard then just loosen it up? Dec 16, 2011 at 0:41
  • You can only use a looser tension and keep the correct tuning if you use a different gauge of string. However there is nothing to say your strings have to be tuned in standard E. Have a look at my question on 7 string tunings - I wasn't sure what would work best: music.stackexchange.com/q/3196/104
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 16, 2011 at 8:43

I recommend you purchase lighter gauge strings and play at concert pitch. Lite gauge strings are very flexible and in my opinion aren't at all difficult to negotiate. As a full disclaimer: I use heavy gauge guitar strings and also play classical double bass, so anything less than that feels flexible to me. But the point is that with diligent practice you will acquire the finger strength to be able to play comfortably in a proper tuning. I personally like heavy gauge strings because they have a much stronger tone, but I do appreciate the feel of lighter gauge strings whenever I come across them.

When learning to play, you're not only playing the instrument but also training your ear. You might come across instances where you'd like to perform with others, or play along with a recording, in which case being a half step or two flat would be a problem in coordination.

Try this: Put on a heavy tension set of strings. Live with it for two weeks. Practice at least 1 hour a day, better to do 2 or 3. Then put on a light gauge set. You will be completely happy with the feel of the light gauge strings after that.

  • What is "concert pitch" ? I am using .010 gauge, can is be considered lite? What is "classical double bass"? Dec 16, 2011 at 1:46
  • @iamcreasy "concert pitch" means "correct" pitch (ie. in-tune with a Tuner or a reliable "reference pitch"). 10s are considered light on an acoustic guitar, but only "medium" on an electric (9s or 8s would be considered light). Dec 16, 2011 at 3:29
  • Concert pitch is where the A is tuned to 440Hz. Essentially the default tuning you'd get with a digital tuner, pitch pipe, or tuning fork. A double bass is also known as a string bass, bass viol, contrabass, or bull fiddle, and is basically the big honkin' string instrument found behind the cellos in an orchestra or thumpin' away on the bass line in a jazz, bluegrass, or klezmer band.
    – Joe Lewis
    Dec 16, 2011 at 3:54
  • 1
    There is a difference here between pitch and tone. In order to play with others, @iamcreasy needs to be in tune but not necessarily standard tuning, and there is no real need to use 'standard' tension strings. I use different tunings on some of my 6 string guitars - but all are in concert pitch, so all I need to do is play in different places on the neck. I do this for tonal qualities, and to make certain chord shapes work better
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 16, 2011 at 8:46

I tried to give you some simple answers given my experience

What kind of problem I will be facing if I reduce the tension of the strings? 
(notice that I used to play guitar just by reading tabs in the old days, 
but now I am relearning everything by taking some formal lessons)
  1. Speed: if you're a speed picker, you may have problems with low tension string because the string would be "less sensitive", in addition, string vibrate with a higher amplitude and longer time.
  2. String Buzz: you may get string buzz which means string may touch the frets when you are picking it a little harder.
How the low tension strings are gonna affect my guitar life? 
It would be great if, I can work around the issues while retaining low tension.
  1. Low tension string would better a guitar life compared with high tension string; so you shouldn't have problems. Low tension string gives less pressure on the overall mechanical parts on the guitar (e.g. neck, spring hook, bridge)

One option would be to use a "Baritone" Tuning. This is much like the tuning method you describe doing already (tuning the strings relative to each other but at a lower overall pitch). But if you go the extra step of deciding what "concert note" to start from, you can use that knowledge to compensate for the difference and still play with others (by transposing in your head).

A simple Baritone Tuning is B-E-A-D-F♯-B. It's standard tuning with every string dropped down a fourth. With 10s this should be quite slack (ie. low-tension). You can play all the standard chord shapes, but the names have changed. An "E shape" is now a "B chord"; "A shape" -> "E chord"; D -> A. Everything sounds a fourth lower. So to play a particular concert note ("F" for example) you have to fret the note a fourth higher (the real "F" you want is where "B♭" would normally be).

The advantage of this Baritone Tuning is it simplifies the translation step (from slim's way 2, above). Everything is just up a string.

If you drop all the strings a whole-step, to D-G-C-F-A-D, it actually puts the guitar into the key of B♭. You could then read the same music as a B♭ instrument (IIRC, trumpet, tenor sax, clarinet) without having to transpose. Or to read C music, everything's normal, just up two frets.

My own exploration of the Baritone tunings started with trying to find that dark tone where the strings start to rattle. I found that my E string vibrated most freely tuned down a major third to C. I then followed the intervals from the open G tuning (DGDGBD) producing CFCFAC. I still have a fondness for it. Deep and dark and sour and growling.

Having found the tuning, I then sought out the most enormous guitar strings I could find. This appears to be Thomastik-Infeld George Benson 14s.


I’m a long time guitar player and there are no unusual problems that arise from playing with lower tension acoustic strings. For example Straight up Strings makes a set of phosphor bronze medium tension strings (.012 - .053) that fhey recommend for larger body guitars like dreadnoughts with a total tension of 146.5 lbs. This compares to Elixir’s phosphor bronze nanoweb light coated set that has a total tension of 162 (.012 - .053). In terms of sound I’d characterization the straight up set as intermediate in power and projection between a set of light Elixir phosphor bronze and medium elixir phosphor bronzes. I have pretty good finger strength but I’d never use a Dreadnought (e,g. Taylor x10 series) for anything else but rhythm and strumming with medium strings (like Taylor recommends) with lower tension strings I think these guitars have the projection for strumming but also become more suitable for fingerpicking and more delicate playing. Newtone also makes a set of “vintage” low tension strings but I haven’t tried them.

Also you might have to make a truss rod/neck adjustment when changing string gauges though my experience has been that it seems to be required more often when you are moving from lower to higher tension strings. Nonetheless a really good professional setup might make your guitar even more playable. Hope this helps.

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