Starting to learn how to play the guitar is quite the challenge. Not only do you have to learn how to play, but starting out is also quite painful.
Guitar strings can cut into a beginner’s fingers. This often makes beginners stop before they really get anywhere.
But why does it hurt so much initially, and is there a way to prevent or at least reduce this pain?
Table of Contents
- Why Do My Fingertips Hurt from Playing?
- Why This is a Good Thing
- Reducing Fingertip Pain
Why Do My Fingertips Hurt from Playing?
The short answer is that your fingertips aren’t used to the constant pressure of pushing down on a metal string. The string effectively causes damage to the soft tissue of your fingertips.
Steel strings are much harder on your fingers than nylon strings. Meaning steel strings are not only going to hurt more but for longer. It’s a similar story with pure nickel strings. Thicker gauge strings will also be harsher on your fingers than thinner gauge.
Why This is a Good Thing
As the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.”
And in terms of guitar strings, what you are gaining are calluses.
These calluses form from the skin that is constantly being damaged and repairing itself. After a while, this will have happened so much that the skin hardens, forming calluses.
The reason why we want calluses to form is that it makes playing easier. Once you have developed a hard enough callus on your fingers, you will notice that playing doesn’t hurt or doesn’t hurt as easily anymore.
This means that you can play harder and longer without pain and the risk of skin tearing.
Reducing Fingertip Pain
While the pain caused by playing guitar, in the beginning, is unavoidable, there are things that you can do to reduce it. And, more importantly, to speed up the process of forming calluses while also looking after the health of your fingers.
Trim Your Fingernails
The first tip is to keep your fingernails short. Long nails can not only make it harder to play but can actually make calluses take longer to former.
Longer nails prevent your fingertips from being able to make correct contact with the strings, as well as pressing down hard enough. Make sure that the nails of your fretting hand (the hand pressing the notes) are short enough to avoid making contact with the string or fretboard.
Use Lighter Strings
Lighter gauge strings are a great way for beginners to get used to playing guitar. They aren’t as harsh on fingers and are a bit easier to play.
Calluses won’t form as quickly on lighter strings but will form a bit more gradually. This allows you to play for a bit longer before it becomes too painful, and the pain won’t linger as long.
Play in Short Bursts
You can also avoid a lot of pain by playing for short periods. Your fingers won’t hurt as much after 10 minutes as they would after 20.
More importantly, playing for shorter periods will allow you to spread your playing throughout the day. In other words, 10 minutes, 4 times a day.
This will actually give your fingers less time to fully repair, resulting in calluses forming a bit faster.
Play Through the Pain
Even if you are playing in shorts bursts throughout the day, you should still push it a little bit. Don’t stop playing the moment your fingers start to hurt.
You should try to keep playing a little bit through the pain. If your fingers start to hurt, keep playing for another minute.
This isn’t going to help form calluses faster, but it will make you more comfortable with the pain. Eventually, it should hurt less each time, allowing you to play for longer each time.
Being able to play for longer will, eventually, promote faster callus formation.
Beware of Blisters
Be careful of forming blisters. Blisters are, of course, going to make it harder to play. Your fingertips are going to be much more sense if they have blisters. Having blisters are going to prevent you from playing for longer periods.
But blisters don’t just hurt, they can actually make you start from square one. This happens when blisters burst or tear.
When this happens, they reveal the softer tissue underneath. This softer tissue is similar to how your fingertips were before you started playing guitar. That means that you will have to start from scratch to form calluses on this ‘new’ skin.
So, be careful not to play while you have blisters, but make sure you don’t accidentally tear, burst, or remove the blistered skin.
Don’t Let Blisters Heal Completely
This also doesn’t mean that you should let blisters heal all the way. Blisters are essentially what calluses are formed from.
Let your blisters heal for about a day or so before you start playing again. Once the blister has hardened a bit and the pain bearable enough, play again.
Letting blisters heal completely can also soften the skin too much. This can set back your progress just as much.
Avoid Playing with Wet Fingers
Because when calluses become wet, the skin softens and becomes more sensitive. Avoid playing guitar after doing something that makes your hands wet.
Washing dishes, swimming, applying hand lotion, anything that softens the skin on your fingertips. This won’t cause calluses to go away but will make your fingers more sensitive.
Apple Cider Vinegar and Rubbing Alcohol
You can also dry out your fingertips with either apple cider vinegar or rubbing alcohol. Simply lightly soak your fingers in apple cider vinegar for 30 seconds before and after playing. Or you can apply some rubbing alcohol with a cotton swab.
This will dry out your fingertips, making them less sensitive while playing. Both of these methods also reportedly help to promote callus formation.
You can also use alcohol wipes, toothache cream, or any topical anesthetic that contains benzocaine.
Strengthen Your Fingertips While Not Playing Guitar
You can keep strengthening your fingertips, even while you aren’t playing guitar. You just have to press on your fingertips the way a guitar string would.
You can use anything that is a similar width to a guitar string. The best and easiest, however, is usually a bank card.
Most people have one either in their wallet or somewhere at home. They are also roughly the same width.
They are a good way to simulate the pressure of a guitar string without causing as much pain. So, you can easily continue to wear down your fingertips while you aren’t playing.
Stick With It
Ultimately, you just have to stick with it. Calluses take around four weeks to form completely.
Once you get through this initial period, playing guitar just becomes easier and, more importantly, fun.
Forming calluses is a painful but important part of every guitarist’s journey. It is something that every guitarist will go through, regardless of who they are or what type of music they play.
And while starting out, learning guitar does hurt, keeping the tips in this article in mind can make it much more bearable. And eventually, you will have calluses thick enough that pain will be a thing of the past.