Calluses! Every serious guitarist will need to build them. But what a pain they can be to get! One thing is for sure, when you first start to learn guitar, the fingertips on your fretting hand will hurt. They will hurt so much that, if the playing bug hasn’t bit deep enough, you will seriously consider quitting.
Chances are your fingers hurt like hell as you read this. But...before you think of quitting, or putting the guitar back in its case until your fingers have healed...remember that that the pain will go away eventually...and it's all part of the process.
And if it’s any consolation, which it probably isn’t, remember that you are not alone. Other learner guitarists are nursing their fingers too, doing anything they can to soothe them.
What Exactly Are Calluses?
Calluses are patches of hardened skin that result from constant friction. They can form on any part of the skin. But the most common can be found on your hands and feet.
Walk barefoot for a while and you will start to notice that the skin under your feet starts to harden. The same happens to your fingers when you play guitar.
These calluses have the important job of masking the pain that comes from playing guitar for extended periods. The most pain will be felt on the fretting fingers, which have to constantly press the strings against the fretboard as you play.
Everyone will suggest their own ways of dealing with this pain, including wearing fake calluses and others, which we will discuss. But the hard truth is, to get the calluses you almost need that pain.
Remember, all guitarists have to go through this pain. It’s your rite of passage...and the only way to master the guitar is to build those calluses that can numb the pain away.
How To Deal With Sore Fingers
As you build your calluses, there may come a time when the pain becomes too much to bear. The first thing to know is that it does not have to get to this. Healthy practice habits dictate that you know when to give your fingers a rest.
It’s no use practicing until your fingers bleed because it will only mean you won’t be able to practice for a while, which isn’t good.
Yet it is easier said than done, especially since you are a learner. You may not know what is normal pain and what isn’t. Generally, if the discomfort you feel descends into actual pain you should know it is time to rest those fingers.
Still, it is important to point out why it gets so painful for some people. For most learners it is down to poor technique. For some, this may mean pressing down on the fretboard harder than you have to.
Firstly, try to reduce the tension in your hands. With time you will realize you don’t press down on those strings as hard. You will find even that a gentle and accurate press down on the strings will still get you the tune you are looking for.
Numbing The Pain
There is no doubt - pushing through the pain is the fastest way to building those all-important calluses. But there is nothing wrong with wanting to ease the pain when it gets a little too much. Here are a few remedies you may find helpful:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Toothache creams
Looking at these, you will notice that some, like ice and apple cider vinegar, won’t necessarily treat the pain. They will numb the fingers to the point where you won’t feel the pain. If the numbness lasts as long as the pain, then the remedy will have worked.
Benzocaine, on the other hand, is a local anaesthetic known for its pain relief properties. Note also that it won’t treat the pain, rather it removes the feeling for some time. The same applies for toothache creams, which you have to rub over the sore fingertips.
How To Ease Pain And Still Grow Your Calluses
We are generally agreed that you need calluses to prevent pain on all those practice hours you will surely have to rake up. We should also agree that you ought to do so in a way that does not cause you unnecessary pain.
There are, in fact, several ways to do this. Some have to do with the instrument itself, and some don’t necessarily require the instrument. Let’s look at that for a moment;
1. Adjust the action on your guitar
Acoustic guitars are made with a higher action - the space between the strings and the fret board. It takes more pressure to fret these guitars, which increases pain and the likelihood of cuts and blisters. You can have the action lowered, at least until your calluses have developed.
2. Choose light gauge strings
Heavy gauge steel guitar strings, like those used on bass guitars, are the toughest to fret. Go down to a guitar repair shop and have them replace your strings with lighter ones.
You can switch back to the heavier gauge strings after you have built your calluses. But if you can brave the pain, heavier gauge strings will help you build calluses faster.
3. Practice with an electric or classical guitar
Electric guitars have lighter gauge strings as well as a lower action, which makes them easier to play than acoustic guitars. While it is tougher to learn with acoustic guitars, they will toughen your fingers and build calluses faster than electric guitars.
You can keep an electrical or classical guitar (with nylon strings that are easier to play) to practice with when your fingers get sore.
4. Use other callus building tools
It turns out you can build calluses even without the guitar. Some people tap on hard surfaces. Others keep an old credit card in their pocket, which they use to press against their fingertips as they would with guitar strings. Rock climbing gear shops also have specialist tools for toughening your fingers.
How To Preserve Your Calluses
For all the pain you go through building them, calluses are sadly not permanent. Put your guitar aside for a while and they will slowly wear off. The pain will return when you pick the guitar up again. You will need to build the calluses again.
Needless to mention, playing consistently is the only way to keep you calluses. In the beginning, however, those calluses are not as tough and may need a bit more care.
It will help to keep your hands as dry as possible as any moisture will soften the calluses and cause them to peel off.
1. Use Isopropyl/Rubbing alcohol to keep your fingers dry
Rubbing alcohol - the medical kind - will help to keep your fingers dry. This makes your fingers less sensitive to pain. Preferably, apply before you start playing to remove all moisture. Isopropyl works especially well for people whose hands tend to sweat a lot.
2. Wear rubber gloves when working with water
Gloves help to maintain those calluses, but trying to avoid water entirely isn’t very practical.
An option is to wear tight fitting rubber gloves that will keep your hands dry. You may also want to keep the gloves on hand if you are one who fancies a swim every now and then.
Consistent, Regular Practice
After all the tricks and remedies, regular, consistent practice is the only viable way to build calluses and eliminate the finger soreness learner guitarists go through. Know when to rest and give your fingers time to recover.
But, remember, resting for too long in between practice sessions will make it that much longer to build calluses. If you practice regularly enough, your fingers should start to feel less painful after ten or so days. The pain will slowly wear off as you play more, until you can’t feel it anymore.
About the Author: Joseph Evans
My name is Joseph Evans and I am a guitar playing, freelance writing, online teaching music lover based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in a musical family naturally lead to obtaining my Bachelor of Music (BM) in Composition & Music Theory degree, after which I taught and traveled my way across Europe for 7 years before returning back home to settle in beautiful Seattle. On a typical day, you would find me playing my guitar, pottering around in the vegetable garden, going on long hikes, reading and/or writing.