I have been practicing guitar (classic, electric) for years. But I cannot get a clean sound when playing melodies or chords. Often notes do not sound at all.

To get a clean sound I have to press so hard that my fingers and my hand hurt. This should not be so hard. I am missing some big point. So I can play only some chords, and even those do not sound clean. How should I correct this?

  • You sound like you have more than one guitar - but is it possible that they are both very badly set up? A high action at the nut can make it very painful and difficult to play some chords. – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 6 '19 at 7:41
  • you're probably pressing too hard, if your hands hurt. Also I would get its action and neck relief checked as it sounds like the neck is out of alignment (either over or under bow). – bigbadmouse Aug 6 '19 at 7:42
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    How about measuring the string height at the first and twelfth fret and posting the figures here. This might tell us something about the problem. You'd need to measure from the top of the fret to bottom of the string on the first and sixth strings. – PeterJ Aug 6 '19 at 9:37
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    Nothing will help you more than having a teacher who can see your technique in person and help you adjust it in real time. – Todd Wilcox Aug 6 '19 at 13:31
  • I agree with Todd and please see my answer. A good teacher should be able to evaluate your action and make a recommendation whether or not to take it in. Even if the action if perfect it can still be difficult to finger chords clean if your technique is bad. – ggcg Aug 6 '19 at 15:31

It is possible that your guitar(s) are not adjusted well and this is causing (or forcing) you to over do it to get things to work. But that isn't the only possible cause. Some chords can simply be difficult to finger properly, especially on the classical. I am helping a beginner student through this right now. Assuming your guitar is not the issue here are a few things that could be causing the issue.

  1. Fingers are not behind the fret. In theory we should be pressing the string just behind the fret rather than in the middle of the space between frets. Sometimes we grab a chord form for which that is too difficult and sacrifice proper form. Unfortunately if the finger is set too far back from the fret the string can buzz against the fret. This will not only cause some buzzing but rapid loss of energy and that note will die fast and may not be heard.

  2. Another finger is in the way causing a note to be damped. This is a common problem. When you play with proper classical form you should be on your finger tip and have clearance for the other strings. This helps with two things (1) resonance of the open strings which is desired for volume and (2) allows you to play melody notes on open strings if called for. Many classic clascial guitar pieces require you to hold down an open string chord (say C maj) and emphasize the open G or even finger the B (maj 7) with your pinky while maintaining the C on the B string. This is tough, the second finger can dampen the open G and the pinky on the B of the G string can kill the C on the B string if improperly placed. This just takes slow practice keeping proper form.

  3. Transitioning between guitars. As a follow up to 2, when you practice on an electric and then pick up a classical or vice verse everything feels different, the neck thickness, possibly the fret spacing. I play both electric and classical and my advice is that you need to treat each as a separate instrument each requiring independent practice schedules. Your electric skills will not transition to classical. You may find that some chords are simply easier to play on one than the other. If this is the case you are practicing asymmetrically. Devote a little more time to the "other" instrument.

  4. As for hand pain or fatigue be sure that you are really using proper hand form, thumb behind the second finger somewhere in the middle of he back of the neck. This is especially important for classical as the neck is very fat. On some electrics you can let the thumb creep up. If your hand posture is cramped you are making life difficult for yourself. You will not be able to hold the chord form without exerting more force and this will lead to fatigue even if the set up and action are in good shape.

  5. Frustration. If you think you are fingering a chord properly and don't hear what you expect a natural reaction is to simply squeeze harder in an attempt to "force" those notes out. It is a perfectly natural reaction but a useless one. if something is preventing a note from being heard squeeze will not likely correct it but just make it worse or the same. So you are exhausting yourself for nothing. You first need to be able to diagnose the problem (e.g. bad form, fat fingering an open string etc) and simply correct it with gentle movements rather than bearing down with all your might. This will eventually train you to nail the chord form correctly and eliminate the bad habit of squeezing.

  6. For bar chords 2 common problems are (1) having a string slide into some crease in your finger and thus not getting pressed down. As before, squeezing harder may not help and you are only exhausting yourself. Try adjusting the placement of your bar finger or rolling it slightly to the outside so the outer edge presses on the strings. (2) Not having a true bar in the first place. The index finger should really be stiff almost to the point of being bent back a little. Once you get the correct posture you will find you can hold a bar on the classical and play scales up and down with the other 3 fingers.

  7. You don't really know the chords. Before you can play smoothly you have to know exactly how the chord should be played. Even if you've played for years if you haven't devoted time to basic technique and form exercises you may have picked up some bad habits that are preventing you from move past this. I suspect that may be an issue. The classical posture can feel awkward at first but it is really superior for optimal playing both the sense of speed and cleanliness (or accuracy).

  8. Squeezing too hard. You only need to press strings down behind the fret until you get a clean tone and do not hear any buzzing. Many self taught guitarists think that you need to press the string until it hits the wood on the finger board. This is completely wrong. You will bend them slightly out of tune, cause wear on the frets and strings, and most importantly cause fatigue in your hands. There is no need for scalloped fingerboards. By definition (or by construction) they are already scalloped (unless the frets have been filed too far). You should be able to get a slip of paper under your finger and still get a good sound. If you are doing this then you are preventing yourself from (1) developing speed (you need to let go as fast as you place to play fast), (2) being comfortable, (3) playing with good tone and in tune. Also, once you get into the habit of squeezing too hard it makes transitions from one chord to the other very difficult. You may start out okay and get into a train wreck as a result of fast fatigue from squeezing.

As you point out it shouldn't be that hard to do and you are correct. Considering all that I've offered (and there may be more to add) you may benefit from taking lessons if you don't already. If you do and your instructor can't help you find another. A good instructor should be able to isolate what's happening in one session and give you exercises to help correct it. Once you get proper form mastered and your ax set up correctly it should feel like nothing.

  • "There is no need for scalloped fingerboards" -- I thought that the whole point of scalloped fingerboards was to facilitate microtones; maybe there is an abuse of scalloped fingerboards that I am unaware of ... ;) – ex nihilo Aug 6 '19 at 15:51
  • Maybe, but one can do that w/o them. – ggcg Aug 6 '19 at 15:58
  • @DavidBowling (found this quote on a blog) "The fretboard is carved out in between the frets in order to reduce friction between the pads of the guitarist's fingers and the fretboard. With a scalloped fretboard guitar, the pads of the guitarist's fingers touch only the strings, and not the fretboard. This facilitates note-bending techniques." This is not necessary with a properly set up ax and good techniques. – ggcg Aug 6 '19 at 23:25

You need to get to a guitar shop and try out several guitars. They will (hopefully!) have been set up quite well. With a reasonable action and maybe not-too-heavy strings.

If you find they're better to play than your own guitars, then the problem probably lies with the latter. At that point, you need to either get them set up to be more playable, or take the plunge and purchase one of the guitars you tried out that felt and sounded good.

If those in the shop sound like yours, then the problem lies with you. Going to a teacher is an obvious first stage, if only for a couple of lessons. They will see almost immediately where the problems lie.

As far as the problem itself is concerned, there are several factors. But without seeing the guitars and you playing them, there are too many diverse reasons to offer remedies here.

  • Where I live, unfortunately guitars in shops are almost all set up dreadfully.... – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 6 '19 at 8:00
  • @topomorto - Where? I'm surprised they sell any guitars if that's the case! – Tim Aug 6 '19 at 8:40
  • Smalltown England. ("Is it a crime to want something else?", etc...) – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 6 '19 at 10:13
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    @topomorto - I'd respectfully suggest that OP visits a BIG town - maybe a long day out. – Tim Aug 6 '19 at 10:15

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