We may all be unique in our own way, in the face that we show the world, in the personality that accompanies it, and especially, we like to think, in the way we play the guitar and think about music. However, it is doubtless that at some point or other, all guitarists have had their fingers hurt from guitar. This is perfectly natural but can be rather distressing, as any pain is bound to be, when the digits at the ends of your hands are throbbing and torn like napkins at the end of a meal strewn with anxiety.
The mere fact of this being such a universal feeling among guitarists doesn’t go much of the way to easing the pain, however. Try as we might, thinking about all of the other guitarists out there whose fingers also hurt from playing and feel malformed and abused in this very moment, comforting as it may be, doesn’t do much to ease the pain, nor to instigate any preventative.
In fact, it is thinking like this, thinking that encourages aspiring musicians to neglect the severity of injuries sustained in the field and in their respective studies, that can result in lifelong conditions that not only affect your ability to play the guitar, but also your ability to function day to day. I wish not to engage in fearmongering, though I must attempt to impart how severe some of these conditions and their instances can be, and how severely they can affect musicians such as yourself.
Fingers Hurt from Guitar: Why?
In order to best prevent or ease pain accrued from playing the guitar, it is first important to understand why and how this pain has come about. Though there are a panoply of different reasons, they almost all boil down to one of the following two.
However, as at every step of this guide I would recommend thinking intelligently and keeping tabs on your various ailments; if you are afflicted with a serious condition, like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome etc, then it is far better to assess this early on than to ignore it, only to realise later that it has been afflicting you and that now there is less that can be done about it. This is, of course, a worst case scenario, though it is very important to take these things seriously.
That being said, and as mentioned previously, the pain will almost always boil down to one of the following two reasons:
Strain on the Fingertips: Callouses and Soft Tissues
This first cause is ubiquitous with the territory, the same occurring in the study of all string instruments to some extent, though there is a particular severity to the kind of strain on the fingertips of guitarists, especially those learning and starting out on a steel string acoustic. These strings are usually a higher tension and thickness, resulting in a less than comfortable experience for beginners, who might equate the feeling to a tight tope act barefoot on a length of chicken wire.
At the root of why this comes about is a central tenet of exercise. Any biologist, personal trainer, fitness instructor, or otherwise steadfast enthusiast for exercise will be able to tell you how muscle growth works. Muscles are strained and torn and, when given the right amount of rest time and nurture, grow and multiply so that, slowly and at an intelligent pace, muscles grow and are emboldened in their definition. However, if too much strain is put on the muscles and they are not given enough time to rest and repair, those muscles are likely to sustain a serious short- or long-term injury.
The same is very much true for the development of callouses on the fingertips. You most certainly want to be exercising your fingertips and exposing them to the roughness of the strings against the fretboard: how else will they strengthen into the calloused digits that you so require? On the other hand, you don’t want to be repeatedly exercising your digits even when they are in obvious pain, ignoring the signals that your body is sending you that perhaps you have been playing too much, too fast, too soon.
The key, then, is to practise intensely and intelligently, giving the fingertips regular breaks in which to build up strength and callous themselves against future encounters with the guitar strings. Ignoring this advice, soldiering on and toughing out the pain, is the main reason that the tips of the fingers hurt from guitar, ending up torn or swollen or engorged with blisters. At this point you will have to wait for them to fully heal over, which could take a week or two, when if you had practised intelligently you would have been able to keep on playing and strengthening.
The Art of Finger Pressure: Less is More
This is a key reason for any pain that is sustained or is otherwise being felt in other places in the hand and arm. This is such a common issue and logically makes a lot of sense. It can be easy, especially when starting out on the guitar, to feel like the more muscle and energy you exert, the more expressive and powerful your performances will be. Nervousness and anxiety, both rampant in those early days of guitar study, make the muscles tense and incompatible with logic and the conscious mind.
This heaviness in our playing can get in the way of so many things in guitar, and it is often very disheartening to see our favourite guitarists and musicians fluttering up and down the fretboard, nimbly flying like a bird with ease and style. It’s almost as though they’re not exerting themselves at all, at least not in terms of strain on the fretboard.
Well, surprise! They’re not! The key to mastering such nimble and dexterous runs up and down the fretboard, without getting our fingers hurt from guitar, is just that: finding the perfect balance between too much and too little pressure.
If you can see the string literally bending into the fretboard and lowering itself beneath the level of the fret line, your fingers completely yellow or white from over exertion and lack of blood, your arms throbbing and aching only from playing a few melodies, then you’re almost certainly exerting too much!
- Pick any note on any string, though the low E string works best for demonstration purposes.
- Fret this note as you usually would, exerting the same amount of pressure as usual.
- Now, slowly reduce the amount of pressure you are exerting on the string.
- Keep doing this until the note no longer becomes clear or begins to buzz.
- Then, add enough pressure that the note is clear again.
- Here you should have found this perfect middle ground for yourself, the optimum amount of pressure to exert on each note. If you can master this and practise it into your routine intelligently, you’ll be well on your way to smooth, swift, and slick runs, up and down and all around the fretboard.
Poor Technique: Aches, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Beyond
Ignoring pain is no joke and can cause serious harm, in both the long- and short-term. There is such a culture in the guitar community, among rock musicians in particular, of ignoring pain if their fingers hurt from guitar, told to toughen up and be bold and other such pseudo-masculine chest-beating rubbish. Being sensitive simply to what your body has to say will save you time and even, in the worst case scenario, being able to play the guitar at all.
Sore fingers hurt from guitar (and fingertips) isn’t too much of an issue, at least to begin with. However, if these pains persist, and if they eventually exert influence on other parts of the body – the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, or spine – then this could certainly be a sign of a serious issue and ought to be treated as one.
One of the beauties of the guitar is certainly that, coming from less of a classical tradition than a violin for example, it encourages each user to approach it however they feel and/or see fit. I personally am all for experimentation and self discovery. However, there are incorrect ways to play the guitar, ways that we might term ‘poor technique’. There is no one way to do things, but we might consider it poor technique if you were to ignore your body’s signals that are trying to tell you that it is not comfortable, and which I would hope are self evident.
One of the more severe results of ignoring these signals in the long-term is something called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This affects the action of the wrist and can thus be fatal to any life long ambitions of being a musician or simply maintaining guitar playing as a hobby.
Pain Prevention 101: Methods to Employ, and to Avoid
Since pain is such a personal thing, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding this concept, let alone how many methods there are that go firmly against the science and logic of the fingertips. Below, you will find some that work a treat, and others not so much, all of which you would be doing yourself a favour in following.
1. Avoid: Soft Plastic Finger Protectors
This might be baffling to some, but there are such things as finger protectors – little plastic sheaths that you place on each finger to protect them from the burgeoning of pain in the fingertips.
This might seem all well and good initially, bypassing one of the main contentious points of pain for any aspiring guitarist, but in bypassing this pain, said guitarist will be preventing themselves from progressing and gaining any strength in their fingertips’ callouses.
This is not to mention the fact that, by their awkward and clunky shape, they get in the way of playing properly and can encourage poor technique. Furthermore, a lack of sensitivity in the fingertips is fostered by their being unable to immediately touch and feel the fretboard.
2. Avoid: Sandpaper
As soon as you take a second to examine the logic here, it quickly melts away. Using sandpaper to strengthen the fingertips by wearing the surface of them down? Think about it for a second.
The aim is to strengthen and stimulate your fingertips’ callouses through sequenced exercise and rest, so what good will it be to sand down and away and progress you might already have made?
3. Avoid: Superglue
This is a technique that actually finds some real world use, in musical spheres as well as among laborers who might have sawed through a bit of nail. The idea is that the cut or gap is filled with the super glue, which bonds itself to the body and acts as though nothing has taken place.
There is some truth to this solution, in that the glue can, once lathered onto the fingertips, prevent them from cracking open or immediately wearing out. As a short-term or more immediate fix it really does work, but not if you’re attempting to develop the callouses at the end of your fingertips, only serving to lengthen the amount of time it might take overall.
4. Employ: Bank Card
The thickness and relative strength of just about any plastic bank card you have lying around provides a pretty useful tool with which to strengthen and flex the callouses of the fingertips if you are away from the guitar for an extended period and don’t want to lose any immediate progress that you might have made.
As with any practise measure, you don’t want to do overdo it, as you can very much cause some of the same injuries detailed above with this technique, albeit to lesser extents. Simply pressing the fingers down on the credit card as though on a guitar string at points intelligently spaced-out throughout the day will be of great use to any one seeking stronger callouses.
5. Employ: Rubbing Alcohol
Since you want your fingertips to be as dry as possible in the developing of callouses, a useful tip to those starting out who want to fast-track this early phase of callous development would be to use rubbing alcohol. Dabbing the fretting fingertips with a cotton ball soaked in it will dry out the tips, allowing them to better strengthen in the face of the strings.
This isn’t a long-term solution however, and shouldn’t be overly relied upon. Always making sure your hands are as dry as possible before playing will ensure that these pains don’t occur, as the fingers are far more likely to hurt and tear from guitar if they are moist and unprotected.
As long as you’re respecting yourself and your body’s signals, you will be well on your way to where you want to be as a musician. The body is constantly emitting feelings and sensory impressions, it can be hard to know which ones to trust and which to prioritise over others.
This is something that comes with time and knowing the self better in all contexts, so I would encourage to begin how you see fit, practising this and your guitar learning intelligently with regard to yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, both physically and mentally.
FAQs Fingers Hurt From Guitar
If the joints of the fingers themselves are hurting from guitar, this is likely a symptom of over exerting oneself, particularly if you are just starting out. If the pain persists, then I would think this a sign that you are either using too much pressure on the strings, or perhaps there may be some underlying condition, all of which is worth considering and taking seriously.
Quick techniques to relieve pain in the moment would be to do with drying the tips of the fingers that hurt from guitar with rubbing alcohol, so that said tips are better equipped to toughen themselves against the strings. If the fingers are cramping from over exertion, a quick fix presents itself by simply shaking out the hands as though drying them. More preparatory measures might involve using a bank card of some kind to flex the callouses against when not around the guitar.
Certainly to begin with, yes, though you must keep tabs on these pains and ignore hyper-masculine stereotypes to ignore them. If they continue each time you play, then it is certainly worth investigating yourself or with the help of a doctor, as this might be a sign of over exerting the muscles, or of some other underlying condition.