I am currently learning guitar with Justin Guitar’s beginner course and my fingertips are sensitive to the touch. They feel bruised, I have blisters and they are red.
I have done enough reading to understand that calluses will eventually form and this is an important part of learning the guitar. However, is there anything I can do to ease the pain and how do I toughen up my fingers?
So I spent a few hours researching to come up with the most comprehensive list I could find on dealing with this pain often felt by guitar beginners. This way we can all hopefully find some small piece of advice that will work for us and keep us playing.
If you are more of a visual person I condensed these down in to 18 Tips here:
Otherwise read on for more detail:
1. Your Fingertips Will Hurt
Understand that when you first start to learn guitar your fingertips will hurt. This will happen for a few weeks before the calluses form. You are abusing your fingers by putting the fleshy part of your fingers on thin steel wire. However your body will adapt and a callus will form you just have to be mindful of when and when not to stop.
2. Lighter Gauge Strings
When you purchase your first guitar ask the guitar shop to put on light gauge strings. These are typically ‘11’s’ or ‘Lighter Gauge Strings’ or ’10’s’ which are extra light. Typically a new guitar will come with thicker gauge strings so ask at your
3. Trim Your Finger Nails
Not only will this prevent your fingers from forming calluses quickly but it will also cause inconsistency in your playing. Trim down the fingernails on your hand that presses down on the strings, your ‘fretting’ hand, the hand that is on the fretboard. If your nails are preventing your fingertips going all the way down to press on the string then they need trimming. Trim them down to the point where it is your fingertips that are on the string and they are forming the chord or playing the note.
4. Don’t Quit Playing When It Hurts A Little
Don’t take a day or two off when beginning to learn, play past the pain barrier for a short while. Your fingers will likely turn red and feel like they are swelling a little. They will be sensitive to the touch which will become obvious just by touching each one with your thumb and applying a little pressure.
5. Play Little And Often If You Feel Pain
Play little and often, try 5 to 10 mins but a few times over the course of a day. This is certainly what I did in the early part of my guitar journey which I document on YouTube, check out my Guitar Journey page here to see how I get on. This will help break up any feeling of pain but will also continue to develop the skill that you need in the early days. Consistency is the key to forming a habit, so you have to perservere.
6. Stop Playing When Blisters Appear
When the blisters come this is when you need to stop playing. The blister will become the callus. So in order for this to happen you will need to let them heal. Once they do you will be left with little pads on your fingers which are the calluses and are what you will need to play guitar.
7. Don’t Let The Blisters Heal All The Way
If you let the blisters heal all the way you will be starting again. The blisters are what become the calluses. So don’t wait more than a few days before playing again. If you take a week or more off in these early stages you will be interfering with the habit that you are trying to create. Just let them heal a little to the point that the pain is bearable when you press down on the string.
8. Avoid Soaking Your Hands In Water
If you go swimming a lot, like to take a lot of baths or do the dishes quite a bit for example, then you will need to slow down with this for a few weeks. Your fingers need to form layers of calluses and these are just dead skin. If you submerge your fingers in water for long periods of time then this will soften the skin on your fingers and it will likely peel off quickly.
9. Do Not Play Guitar Immediately After Having Your Fingertips In Water
So you may have just had a shower and are itching to get straight in to playing guitar. Wait 10 minutes or so, so that
10. Care For Your Calluses
Sounds weird but you have to look after your calluses, try to avoid them drying out. By using a small amount of moisturizer this wont soften them too much and will prevent them flaking off. When your calluses become very dry they can flake off really easy, and the flaking will get worse when you are playing the guitar with dry fingers.
11. Do Not Peel Calluses
If you have a callus coming off, do not peel it off. The best thing to do is just trim them. You can use some nail trimmers just to trim the edges. Over time your calluses will build up layers and layers of thick dead skin. If you then get a callus that is flaking off and you try to peel it off that will hurt because you will peel off way more than you should.
12. Stimulate Your Fingers When You Are Not Playing
When you do not have the opportunity to play and are busy doing other things you can still stimulate the ends of the fingertips. You can do this by using the edge of a credit card and pressing your
Alternatively you can use a Finger Exerciser that has a callus builder, the one I use is excellent and has a removable pad and you can use it for many different exercises, like open chord practice, barre chords, finger picking and many others. Read about it here and different exercises you can do with it in my review here Best Guitar Finger Exercise Tool.
13. Rubbing Alcohol
Eric Clapton supposedly used to rub his fingertips with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. You could try doing this three times a day for a week or so as a beginner or as someone who hasn’t played in a while. Rubbing alcohol should dry out the skin and help calluses build quicker.
Use a cotton pad soaked in rubbing alcohol and wipe your fingertips, or use alcohol wipes, which health care providers use to clean your skin before giving you a shot.
Some people use this as a method to keep on playing when their fingers hurt. Not sure I would recommend this but here is what you can do:
Put a small amount of superglue ( a drop will do) on foil or something plastic and roll all four fingertips from your fret hand in the glue. After approximately 5 minutes this will dry. You can then use an emory board to smooth down the edges as the glue will start to breakdown after a few hours of playing.
15. Finger Placement On The Fret board
Making sure that your finger is closer to the front fret i.e. next to the fret closest to the sound hole is important. If you get this right you will find that there is less pressure required than if you have your finger towards the back fret.
16. Pressing Too Hard On The String
If you follow item 15 then press down on a string in between two frets and closest to the fret that is nearer to the sound hole. Now play that string and slowly ease of the pressure of the finger until you
17. Try Playing Scales As Well As Chords
By breaking up your practice
Playing the scales means that your fingers are always pressing down, so around half the time they are getting relief. This way you are still practicing but also giving your fingers some respite
18. Guitar Setup
Often the action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) of a cheap guitar is high. Whether this down to the construction of the guitar or that it needs a proper setup from a guitar technician or a luthier will need to be determined. If you are not sure if you need a setup or wonder what goes in to a professional guitar setup you can read my article here What Is A Professional Guitar Setup And Do You Need One?
Take it to your local guitar shop and ask if the action can be lowered. Just be aware that sometimes this can’t be achieved and if the action is lowered can then create fret buzz, but talk to them and see if there is anything that they can do.
19. Light Pain On The Back Of The Hand
If you have light pain on the back of the hand particularly around the knuckles then it is very likely that your grip is too hard. So see item 15 and 16 above. However it could also be your thumb placement so try moving this around to see if provides any relief.
20. Try A Finger Strengthener
If you are away from the guitar for long periods of time, like going to work each day then this can be a great option. The Finger strengthener I used whilst building calluses and still use at work for practising guitar finger strength is surprisingly very good. Read about it here and different exercises you can do with it in my review here Best Guitar Finger Exercise Tool.
21. Try An Alternate Position
Instead of using the casual position/folk position where the guitar is resting on your right leg (if you are right-handed, opposite if you are left handed) then try using a classical guitar position.
We talk all about different guitar postures and hand position in our post here, Guitar Posture & Hand Position For Beginners [A Helpful Illustrated Guide] if you want to get in to the detail.
By changing position it can provide relief on your wrist and hand, provide easy sighting of the fret board and generally be a lot more comfortable.