My Fingers Hurt: A Beginner Guitarist’s Guide to Calluses
Every new guitar player will have to go through the experience of some finger pain as they develop calluses on their fingers. I recommend working through the pain as long as you can endure it. However, guitar is supposed to be FUN and it’s not fun for most people if it hurts. Rather than taking a break from playing altogether, there are some things you can do to keep practicing without grinding your finger tips to little nubs. In fact, there are some great benefits to not using your left hand while practicing. Let’s explore…
What is a callus? Do I want them?
A callus is just a hardened part of flesh that has become thickened through repeated exposure to friction. Calluses can develop through all sorts of hobbies from martial arts to bowling. While your skin is first getting used to the guitar, it will feel unpleasant, BUT you do want them!
First of all, having a callus will help you play your guitar for much longer. As the skin hardens, you’ll no longer be aware of the tiny metal wire that you are repeatedly pushing down. They’ll also help you sound better! I’m not suggesting that your skin type affects your tone, but that hardness in your fingers helps the string make better contact against the fret, which DOES eliminate a lot of that annoying buzz. Also, as the callus develops, it will aid finger strength for playing some trickier chords; like barre chords for example.
How do I minimize the pain?
Here are just a few recommendations:
1. Put lighter strings on your guitar. Some folks will recommend the opposite. These people are typically not trained guitar teachers, but instead long-time players that don’t remember how hard it is to learn the guitar.
2. Have your teacher inspect your guitar for any playability issues.
3. Practice for shorter bursts more often. Try several ten-minutes practice sessions throughout the day rather than one long session. This is a good habit to develop for all skill levels.
4. Practice a light touch. Most students, regardless of skill level, are squeezing their guitar too hard. Experiment with the absolute least amount of squeeze you can apply and still get a clear sound out of your instrument.
5. Wait 20-30 minutes after long exposure to water. If you just got out of the shower or were doing dishes, your skin is going to be far more sensitive.
6. Consider NuSkin (medical-grade super glue) if the pain is preventing you from playing altogether today. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you already have a blister on your finger for the simple fact that you will never really develop the callus if you keep slathering muck over your finger tips.
I didn’t do the stuff above. What can I do when my fingers hurt too much to play guitar today?
Early on in the learning process, your fingers are going to start to hurt. As mentioned earlier, you can minimize the pain by using lighter gauge strings. If you’ve already done this, or can’t do this immediately, the next step would be to practice the left-hand fingering without applying pressure. It will take hundreds to thousands of repetitions in your hands to learn a new chord or memorize a section of a song, so you can go through the motions without applying much force while still reaping benefits.
Next focus on the rhythm of the song. Very often students will try to put together the left and the right hands WAY too soon and they hope things will just come together with enough practice. The reality is you need to learn the rhythm in both hands separately. Make sure you can pick the rhythm accurately and repeatedly. Then, without picking the guitar, switch to the left hand. Very lightly tap the left-hand fingerings to rhythm of your song. You should hear light patting to the same rhythm you were strumming in the right hand just a moment ago,
Now practice the right-hand movements in isolation. As a guitar teacher, I see beginning students struggle to trust their right-hand day in and day out. I always ask them:
“How many different places can your right hand possibly be?”
The answer is 6.
“How many possible places can your left hand be?”
The answer is 6 times the number of frets, roughly 120 on the average guitar.
“If you absolutely MUST look at one of your hands, which one do you think it should be?”
I’m not sure why beginners want to stare at their right hand so much, but they all do. Then they wind up doing what I call The Beginner’s Triangle: Look at the page in front of them, look at the left hand, look at the right hand, then pluck. Then they repeat until dizzy.
So when that left hand is hurting, let’s take a moment and start to memorize how the right hand is supposed to feel. Take extra special attention to notice how it feels in the wrist and forearm to cross from one string to the next. Bounce back and forth between 2 strings while focusing on the feeling. The do it with your eyes closed.
Make sure the following is happening in your pick:
1. Only your thumb and index finger are touching the pick
2. Your right hand is making contact somewhere on the guitar (not free-floating above the strings)
3. Your pick movements are gliding across the string, rather than “popping” the string from underneath
4. Your pick movements are all down strokes
5. The down movement is small and toward the floor or next lowest string
6. The movement is light, gentle, and controlled
7. Rhythms and timing of string changes should be precise
The last step I’ll recommend here would be to play through your music with just the right hand and a gentle left hand (touch the string, no squeezing).
Overall, making sure your guitar is optimized for playability is crucial and can prevent a lot of pain and frustration. Remember, guitar is hard enough as a beginner, we don’t want additional roadblocks and hurdles by grabbing an instrument that is hard to play. Understand that developing calluses is normal and can take a few weeks to develop. The good news is that once you get through this part in your learning, guitar gets a heck of a lot easier!
About the author:
Eric Dieter is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher in Lancaster, PA. He has appeared on dozens of international albums as a session guitar player and tours with the synth-pop band Hudson K and prog-rock band Hiding Scarlet. Eric has studied guitar at Millersville University and Berklee College of Music. Additionally, he holds a degree in psychology and certifications in behavioral health and hypnosis, making him uniquely qualified to train the minds of young musicians. Contact Eric if you are looking for guitar lessons in Lancaster, PA.