Having hard time fretting even after 1+ year of practice

Hi there,
I decided to ask for advice and help as I don’t understand if I am doing something wrong or not. Anyways, I have been practicing guitar and following Justin’s courses since April 2021., so more than a year. I am now at grade 3 of his courses. First half of the year I used Ibanez acoustic guitar which was actually starter pack. It was quite cheap for around 100€, but it wasn’t too bad to play on. Before Christmas I bought new one, LAG T70A which was twice that price. It sounds great and action is low. When I checked it with string action gauge results were as follows:

Action on high E string (thinnest) @ 12th fret = 1.5 mm
Action on low E string (thickest) @ 12th fret = 2.2 mm

Action on high E string (thinnest) @ 1st fret = 0.6 mm
Action on low E string (thickest) @ 1st fret = 0.5 mm

So basically as I checked online it’s considered low action. Strings I use are D’Addario Phospor Bronze 11s and 80/20 11s (custom light size). Even after more than year of almost every day practice for ~1h (except weekends) I still find it very hard to fret the chords. My fingers really hurt after more than 30 minutes of playing. My fingertips do have callouses and I am fretting quite close to fret with solid technique. Yet, the pain is really huge and I feel like fighting strings to just push them to fret. F chord is still extremely hard. Not fingering or switching so much, but pressing it hard enough to avoid muted/buzzing strings.

I won’t even mention fingerstyle guitar. It feels extremely difficult. Strings feel soooo stiff to my fingers as if I am trying to push some iron bars (okay, maybe exaggerating but I am really frustrated) . At .11 gauge strings I have been using pull-offs (flick-offs) are basically impossible for me to do and hammer-ons are quite difficult too. I feel I really need to smash finger on string to get some sound.

So I am confused. I read online they recommend actually gauge .12 strings for fingerstyle on acoustic guitar, yet I struggle a lot on .11s; also by all accounts my action seems to be quite low yet I still struggle with pressing strings. I do not have any physical ailments or problems with hands. Truth be told I am geeky person so not really much muscle mass, but I don’t think you need to be wrestler to play guitar :smiley: . Can you please tell me if I am doing something wrong or is this just how guitar is? Should I go to thinnest strings for acoustic guitar which can be bought? I’m even considering buying silk and steel strings…

Please advise. Thanks!

Hi Andrija,

Let me ask the obvious first: have you had your guitars set up for the correct neck relief and action height? You shouldn’t exert a great amount of force and cause yourself pain to be able to fret strings.

I think you should take your guitars to a luthier for a setup so that they will become more comfortable to play.

Hi Andrija
Your post really confuses me. How can you possibly be at Grade 3, ie. almost intermediate level, if you are having the issues quoted?
Something here does not add up.

Is it possible you are pressing too hard on the strings with your fretting hand? I know I press much more lightly now than when I started.

@SkyBlue Without seeing you play it is hard to give you any real answers. A properly set up guitar shouldn’t make your fingers hurt after a year and shouldn’t take much pressure to play chords.
I think Tony is correct when asking if your pressing to hard.

Try this, fret a chord any chord will do but don’t press on the strings just touch them. Pluck one of the strings and as you do lightly add more pressure to the string. when you get a clean note that is how much pressure you need.

Hi there, I’m also Grade 3, playing about 8 months. My fingers have not hurt for a long time. I can play for hours just fine. My hand aches if I’m doing strength type playing (eg lots of barre chords on 12 gauge acoustic).

Your upgraded acoustic is still a very cheap built to a price one. It might seem low action but what about nut height? That has a big impact. I would recommend tuning to Eb, and putting a capo on the first fret. Eliminates nut height, see what that is like.

Also, how often do you play? Your hands need to keep rebuilding calluses and build strength. Make sure you play every day.

Also consider an electric like Justin recommends at the beginning of grade 1. Way easier to play and will help.

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Yeah man, it confuses me too…!

To answer all other questions about action and set up, as I mentioned in my first post the action is very low. Also, even though it is still cheap guitar I don’t think it isn’t set up properly. What I do to check guitar nut height is I fret the thickest and thinnest string at 3rd fret and check the gap between these strings and 1st fret. Surprisingly gap is very very small! It’s almost touching the 1st fret and you can maybe just put hair or two between. So by all means I don’t think it’s nut problem. If I lower it any more strings would buzz on first fret.

@tony and stitch Yeah, I guess you are right. After paying attention to pressure I exert on strings when fretting I did found out I press way too hard. That probably explains fingers hurting so bad so fast. Any remedy for that to rewire myself from pressing too hard? I found out that if song is hectic and has lots of chord changes that I tend to press much harder than when song is simple and has fewer chords and changes.

One thing though still bugs me. Doing fingerstyle on .11 gauge strings is still very very hard and it’s almost impossible to get proper flick off. I’m trying to learn this piece BRAVEHEART MEETS CLASSICAL GUITAR - YouTube Aside from it being difficult technically to play (which with practice won’t be a problem) and being written for classical guitar I found it very difficult to do flick offs and even hammer ons sound quite dull. Mind you, I don’t like letting my nails grow, but that shouldn’t be problem with flick offs and hammer ons. I feel like I am fighting the strings. They feel heavy/hard and I don’t thing it’s related to pressing too hard?

That piece you linked to is quite advanced, way too advanced for someone who has played one year. I haven’t done Justin’s course (I did the old one), but that piece with lots of barre chords, hammer-on and flick-offs while in the barre, etc, well I’m just wondering if that’s too much for someone who has completed Grade 2.

What other fingerstyle songs have you learned?

Regarding your problem with hammer-ons, are you proficient with the exercises in this Grade 2 lesson:

The hammer-ons in this Braveheart piece are more demanding: often using the pinky that needs to stretch out while barring the chord. Not easy! You may want to find something more approachable for now and come back to this piece later on.

Nothing wrong with setting a long-term goal of playing this song classical style. However, after 1 year of guitar (which, in most cases, is much less than 1 year of net playing time), don’t expect you’ll be able to play it in a flash.

If you encounter a song that feels “hectic”, then try to play it slower so that you can familiarize yourself with the changes and play them accurately. There’s no point in practicing something sloppily.

Justin has several lessons on technique, e.g. clean perfect chords, perfect and/or fast changes, hammer-ons, flick-offs, etc. that you will find useful.

It’s also good to see you were interested and motivated to get to grade 3, but as others mentioned in other discussions, you will want to spend more and more time on each lesson/module as you progress in the beginner course, and you will have to consolidate your previous learnings as well. So, no need to rush ahead.

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The easing of finger pain, comes with time. If your fingers still hurt after just over a year of playing and you say you have callouses then I’d suggest fretting with excessive pressure, which you later suggest may be the case.

I’d also consider JK’s question about frequency and duration of playing. I think if you are playing regularly (4-5 times per week) for 30 minutes then I would expect that excessive pressure to fret would be more likely to cause finger tiredness than pain on the finger tips.

Unless the action is high as per JK’s further suggestion. If you have not had the action and setup checked by a luthier maybe it is worth doing, just to make sure.

As for the rest, I do appreciate that we all learn at our own pace, especially if we have had prior learning before commencing with Justin’s programme. That said, I think 12 months can be considered a fairly short time period, depending of course on duration and frequency of practice, and dependent on time taken to consolidate, as per Justin’s suggestions.

I suggest you post some video recordings playing some of the grade 1 songs in #record-yourself-progress-performance:audio-video-of-you-playing. By doing so you will receive feedback to help you assess progress and perhaps highlight some faults or bad habits you may have picked up. It is the one weakness of online self-study that you don’t receive feedback to confirm correctness, correct flaws.


Good question. For me it only came with time. I’m confident if you try some exercises to concentrate on pressing more lightly it would make a difference. I’ve been playing for over 10 years and on some new songs or new chords I still find myself initially pressing much harder than I should.

With the measurements you’ve posted about your guitar’s action, I wouldn’t be overly worried about taking it to a luthier (not that it would hurt to). One of the luthiers I go to always pulls out his ruler to measure just like you’ve done.

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