Guitar Calluses and Finger Pain

Posted on September 4, 2023

As you play the guitar, you’ll not only notice your skills getting better, there might also be something strange happening to your fingers. If the skin on your fingertips has turned hard, you have developed so-called guitar calluses. Congratulations! This is a sign that you’ve practiced hard to improve your playing.

However, the downside of your fingers developing calluses is the pain and discomfort you might feel when playing guitar. Luckily, with appropriate care and treatment, you can get over the pain and continue playing your guitar while wearing your impressive battle scars.

Why do my fingers develop calluses?

As you play the guitar, the tips of your fretting hand’s fingers will develop calluses over time. This is nothing to worry about, as developing calluses on your fingers is a completely normal part of playing the guitar. Essentially, guitar calluses are formed when the skin on your fingertips is hardened as a result of friction caused by the strings of your guitar.

So how can you develop guitar calluses on your fingers? In most cases, the age-old wisdom “No pain, no gain” is unhelpful at best, dangerous at worst. However, there’s a kernel of truth to it when learning to play the guitar. The only way to build guitar calluses is by playing and sticking through the discomfort.

Do I need finger calluses to play guitar?

Although calluses on your fingers may feel and look unnerving, they still serve a purpose and can help with your playing. Think of it like this: Which is easier, pressing strings down with a hard layer on your finger or just the soft fleshy part of your finger? If your fingers are not aching as you practice, you can dedicate more time to playing. Certain guitar-playing techniques can also be easier to execute with calluses on your fingers.

Many beginners who pick up a steel-stringed guitar for the first time know how uncomfortable or even painful playing can be when your fingers aren’t used to it yet. Holding down chord shapes for long periods of time in particular can be a challenge if your fingers ache. Once your fingers develop calluses, the hard skin on your fingertips will actually ease the discomfort of playing. This is simply the result of the skin on the tips of your fingers getting thicker over time.

How long does it take to build guitar calluses?

The time it takes to develop guitar calluses depends on how much you play and how often. This depends on a lot of factors, such as the type and gauge of your strings. For instance, thicker acoustic guitar strings help you develop calluses faster than thinner ones.

If you practice every day consistently and dedicate more time to playing, then your calluses will appear much quicker. In fact, very short practice sessions may not even be enough to develop calluses in the first place. Generally speaking, it takes about a month before you can expect to develop calluses on your fingertips.

There are also individual differences. Some people may not develop calluses no matter how much they practice playing the guitar. But are guitar calluses permanent? If you want to keep your guitar calluses after you’ve gone through great effort (and pain) to get them, you also have to keep playing to maintain your calluses. Otherwise, they’ll fade away over time.

Playing guitar with finger pain

Some discomfort and finger pain is to be expected when you start playing the guitar. Luckily, there are ways to make practicing guitar more enjoyable and less painful:

  • Take things slowly. Increase the time you spend playing and practicing little by little. Take extra care, especially if you’re a beginner or haven’t played in a while. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, and you’ll notice your fingers naturally get used to playing over time.
  • Don’t press the strings too hard. A lighter touch on the strings can help ease some of the discomfort you feel while playing. Your fingers may get fatigued if you apply too much pressure. Pressing too hard or too lightly can also affect how cleanly individual notes ring out.
  • Warm up and stretch before playing. Like a gym workout, your practice sessions when playing an instrument should also begin with a light warm-up to prepare your body. Stretch your fingers gently and rotate your wrists to ready your muscles and get the blood flowing.
  • Take breaks. When you get into the flow of playing, it can be difficult to put your guitar down. Just remember that continuous playing can tire out your fingers and make them sore. To prevent this, shake and stretch your hands every now and then or stand up to roll your shoulders.
  • Don’t force yourself to play. If it hurts to play, it might not be the smartest idea to just push through the pain. By giving your body enough time to heal and recover, you can prevent more severe injuries that could force you to put playing on hold for even longer.
  • Don’t pick your fingertips. Once your fingers start developing calluses, it’s important to leave them alone so as not to irritate the skin or cause even more pain.

How to develop guitar calluses

There’s no way to avoid it: You need to play guitar to develop finger calluses. However, some things can speed up the process. To build calluses on your fingers, try doing the following things:

Use thicker guitar strings

The heavier gauge of guitar strings can help to form calluses faster. Similarly, use lighter guitar strings if your fingers are aching too much to play or the discomfort gets in the way of your playing.

Check that your playing technique is on point

In most cases, you want to play individual strings with the tips of your fretting hand’s fingers. Make sure that you’re applying pressure on the strings with the right part of your finger. The only time you want to use some other part is when playing barre chords.

Cut your fingernails

Long fingernails can make it much harder to play, so make sure to trim them. This way the nails on your fretting hand don’t get in the way of playing.

Adjust your guitar’s action

The term “action” refers to how close the guitar strings are to the fretboard, or the height of the guitar strings. Higher action means that you need to put more effort into pressing the strings down against the guitar fretboard. A higher action can help to build calluses, whereas a lower action can help if you have to exert excessive force to play.

Use rubbing alcohol

This piece of advice may sound extreme, but it comes from none other than Eric Clapton. Supposedly, applying small amounts of rubbing alcohol on your fingertips dries them out and helps build calluses faster. Try at your own risk!

Take care of your fingers

Some discomfort is to be expected, but playing shouldn’t feel like torture. Stop playing if you notice open wounds or serious irritation on your fingers.

Play guitar without finger pain

Whether you’re still a beginner starting off on your guitar-playing journey or you already have some hours of practice under your belt, you can improve your skills with Yousician. Just like developing calluses on your fingers, learning to play the guitar takes time, patience, and plenty of practice. Make learning to play the guitar more fun and motivating with Yousician’s interactive online guitar lessons.

Play along with our guitar lessons and drills to level up your guitar skills, or explore the vast library of songs to learn your favorite songs. Yousician is perfect for both acoustic and electric guitar. Try Yousician for free and get started!

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