Sore fingers is a reality when learning to play the guitar. Heck, sore fingers is a reality for seasoned veterans who have sanded their calluses down to the bone from 5 straight nights of three to four hour shows. The biggest difference facing the beginner is that sore fingers can be very discouraging.
I see it with acoustic students all the time. It is quite frustrating and defeating to have blistered fingers while you are trying to practice. The soreness makes it all the more difficult to fret chords and get good clean sounds from the strings. It can feel like you aren’t making any progress, or even worse – going backwards.
Keep on reading to find out why your fingers are sore and then the recommendations we have based on your style or intended style of play.
Are Your Fingers Sore From Playing Guitar?
You may have reasoned that those metal wires called strings are the things that are causing this pain to your digits. The reason is quite simple. A rigid wire under tension with a very small diameter is being forced against your flesh. Yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark.
Eventually, your finger gets fed up with being subjected to this abuse and calluses soon replace the blisters and form a formidable armor which not only makes your finger more resilient, but it also makes the notes sound a lot crisper.
Can Strings Cut Your Fingers?
The chances of you cutting yourself on strings during the course of your practice sessions are actually very slim.
The only time in 25 years I ever drew blood on my fretting hand was during a long acoustic performance in February of 2019 after an unprecedented full month off. My calluses were not up to snuff and I play with pretty thick acoustic strings.
Blood flowed after the second hour of repeatedly pinching the side of my fingertip against the corner of my fingernail – a place where a callus would have normally been if I was in better shape.
For that performance, I probably would have been better off to temporarily move to a lighter string while I rebuilt my calluses. But what string would I have used?
What Are The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings For Sore Fingers?
There are several factors that go into deciding what kind of strings are best for you: Gauge, material, and winding.
String gauge refers to the thickness of the string, measured in thousandths of an inch. For example, a typical high E string on an acoustic guitar is .012”.
There are several gauge types. The main ones are Extra Light, Regular Light, Medium, Heavy. There are also hybrid combinations such as Custom Light, Light-Medium (combining lights on high strings, mediums on the low), Medium-Light (just the reverse of Light-Medium), and Heavy-Medium.
For our purposes, we don’t need to get into all the variants.
Here’s a list of the four most popular gauges for reference, going in the order E-B-G-D-A-E:
|Regular Light (Default for acoustic)||.012||.016||.024||.032||.042||.053|
When talking about the gauge of a pack of strings, one typically refers to either the type or the gauge of the first string. The string packs that are the most popular are the “Regular Lights” which are also called “Twelves” since the first string is .012”.
IMPORTANT: When making large changes in string gauge, you will need to have the guitar properly set up by a professional repair tech or luthier.
The difference in string thickness directly affects the tension relationship between the neck and the strings. The truss rod in the neck will need to be adjusted to accommodate the change in string tension. Otherwise, you are bound to have issues with the action (string height).
If you want to know more on this and if you want to learn how to do it yourself then you can read our article here, How To Do Your Own Guitar Setup (Step by Step Guide).
Switching to a lighter string may cause buzzing due to the neck tension being greater than the string tension, thus pulling the strings closer to the fretboard.
String materials vary from nylon to all different types of metal. Each of these not only determines how the strings feel under your fingers, but also how they sound.
These found on classical guitars. These are quite soft and are associated with classical, flamenco, and other finger-picking styles as opposed to singer-songwriter, rock, and other genres that rely on strumming and use of a pick.
Classical guitars may also have either a silver-plated copper wrapping around the nylon core of the low strings, or what’s known as “gold strings” which an 80/20 bronze wrapped around the low strings.
Now this will be the most common string type for the average guitar player. For steel-string acoustics, the most common materials are 80/20 bronze, phosphor bronze, and silk & steel. The material type found on a pack of strings actually refers to the material that is wrapped around the steel core of the string.
This material is 80% copper and 20% zinc and is by far the most popular choice for the typical guitarist. It’s affordable and produces a bright tone. The reason that it is a cheaper option is it corrodes quite easily and quickly. The lifespan is typically about two to four weeks for the average hobbyist.
These are basically 80/20 bronze with phosphor added to help fend off oxidation. They are a bit more expensive, but last longer. Although they aren’t quite as bright, it’s not that much of a trade-off making it the more popular choice for performers.
Silk & Steel
Around the core of these strings is a combination of a silver-plated copper wrap and either silk or nylon filament depending on the brand. The soft feel and sound of this string type is popular among folk artists and those who use smaller-bodied guitars. These are also a great option for beginners.
Winding refers to the profile of the wrap wire on a guitar string. This affects both the tone and the feel. Just know almost all acoustic guitar strings will be round wound. The other two types are relatively unique to electric guitar and bass.
Roundwound is the most common string winding and likely what you may be most familiar with. This is the winding that has the ribbed texture and you get the most noise on this type of string when sliding your hand across the neck. The round winding gives the string its brightness.
The half-round technique involves slightly grinding down a round wound string. This gives the string a slightly smoother surface and warms the tone a bit. However, some of the brightness of a typical round wound string is retained.
Flatwound strings use a flat ribbon wire wrapping that produces a completely smooth surface. It’s also a very warm, vintage tone that is most popular among jazz guitarists but can be used just fine with blues or rock.
How To Make Guitar Strings Easier To Press Down
This is relatively simple. If your strings are hard to press down, string type may not be your issue. Look at the distance of the strings from the fretboard. If those strings are more than 5/64” on the high string or 7/64” on the low string (at the 12th fret), you should probably get that adjusted.
A good setup from a professional goes a long way. It’s typically between $50-$75 depending on your market and it is money well spent. You can ask a guitar tech or luthier at your local guitar shop.
If you want to know what is involved and what you may need to know before you get a setup done on your guitar then read our article here What Is A Professional Guitar Setup And Do You Need One?
Guitar String Recommendations
Okay, now that you have more of an understanding of the guitar strings, let’s look at some recommendations. I will base these recommendations on style of play.
Rock/Blues (Aggressive Strumming)
The .011 gauge (Ernie Ball) is lighter than the standard light string, but not so light that you risk breaking a string every 5 minutes. The .010 gauge (D’Addario) may require a little more finesse, but as long as you don’t strum like an over-caffeinated Dave Matthews, you should be okay.
Rock/Singer-Songwriter/Blues (Moderate Strumming)
Silk and steel strings, although popular among folk players, are quite versatile in terms of playing style. If you are a little heavy-handed, you might want to opt for the custom light gauge.
If you are learning jazz guitar, you need a particular type of string to really get that jazz sound. They can be hard to find for acoustics and are expensive, but a good flat wound acoustic guitar string is worth the comfort for playing jazz.
What Are The Softest Guitar Strings You Can Get For A Beginner?
The softest strings are nylon, but you typically use these strings with a particular type of bridge (classical bridge) that allows the strings to be tied instead of being held in place with a bridge pin. Some manufacturers such as Ernie Ball have made Nylon Ball End Guitar Strings (click here to check price on Amazon), but it is still not recommended for strumming as the pick can cause the strings to fray. If you are finger picker, then these may be the string for you.
Some beginner players make the mistake of using nickel strings which are typically used for electric. Nickel is very soft, but if you use pure nickel on an acoustic, you have to beef up the gauge up to a .014 to maintain proper tension and tone.
That leaves silk and steel as per those previously mentioned. They provide the best balance of comfort and sound and will inspire you to keep going! In my opinion, this will be the best type of string for the majority of you out there who are learning to play the guitar and are being haunted by sore fingers.