Just about every beginning guitar student of mine has remarked that his or her fingers hurt playing guitar for a few days. Sometimes even potential students who haven’t even picked up a guitar say they’re concerned about the pain that comes during early stages of guitar playing. Other people I run into tell me they started playing guitar way back when, but couldn’t get past the pain and eventually quit. There is no denying it: when you first start playing guitar, your fingertips are going to hurt. In this post, I will address the inevitable discomfort and share with you what you can do about it. Here is a brief checklist that will help you avoid making the problem worse and motivate you to stay encouraged when practice is more torture than fun.
1. Pace yourself
Playing less is really okay! It’s the first helpful step when your fingers hurt playing guitar.
In Bryan Adams’s 1980s hit “Summer of 69,” he sang:
“Got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five-and-dime
Played it ’til my fingers bled,
Was the summer of ’69.”
Bryan Adams’ fingers may have bled from his constant guitar playing, but yours don’t have to. A lot of beginners are so excited about starting guitar that they tend to overdo it. They will play for two hours one afternoon, and the next day their fingers hurt so much they can’t even touch the guitar. Your fingertips are sensitive; for most functions in life, that’s a good thing! When you’re first starting out, don’t overdo it. Make sure you are pacing your practice time. In the first couple weeks, just 15-20 minutes a day is the right amount of time to begin developing callouses on your fingertips. Do not go over 30 minutes per day in the first week or two or your fingers will be be shot. What is true for most areas of life is true with guitar. If you’re doing weight training or running, you have to start small and gradually increase the amount of weight you’re lifting or the number of miles you run. If you don’t, you can seriously injure yourself. Finger training, development and conditioning are no different. Enthusiasm is good; wisdom is better.
Sidenote: If you like our taste in songs, check out our blog post about Five Beginner Guitar Songs You Can Play Right Now
2. Give your fingers a break
Varying your practice is the second helpful tip for when your fingers hurt playing guitar.
Even within a 20-minute practice session, you don’t have to press the strings with your fingers the entire time. In addition to practicing chords and notes, you can practice your strumming patterns without using your fingertips at all. How? By muting the strings with your hand. When you do that, you don’t have to press anything. With the strings muted, you can give your fingers a much-needed breather and give full attention to developing your strumming patterns. If you spend five minutes practicing chords, then five minutes practicing strumming patterns, revert back to playing notes for five minutes and end with five minutes of strumming, you will increase your guitar playing ability and save your fingers.
Technique adjustment might be a third helpful step for when your fingers hurt playing guitar.
If your fingers still hurt after 1-2 months, do some troubleshooting. First, check your technique. Are you squeezing more than you need to when you play the note? It’s easy to do that because you want to strike a clean note and weakly pressing the strings compromises the sound quality. But if you over-squeeze the strings, the fingers on your fretting hand will become unnecessarily sore.
Next, do a self-assessment. Review your practice history over the past week. Have you practiced a little each day, or did you overload on one or two days? If you are practicing consistently, in reasonable amounts of time, you will develop callouses. Overloading only works against good finger conditioning.
Finally, go for lighter-gauge strings. Do you know what kind of strings are on your guitar? There is no reason to use anything other than light-gauge, custom light-gauge or even extra light-gauge strings, and coated strings are even better. If you have not been using light-gauge strings, you will notice a huge difference right away once you switch. Also, check the action on the guitar. The action is the distance between the strings and the frets. If the distance is too high, you need more pressure to make the strings meet the fret.
4. Stay encouraged
Recognize that the greatest guitarists–no matter who you can think of or name–have all gone through the extreme discomfort you are experiencing. Our fingertips are not used to pushing down on metal wires! It’s very normal. If you’re experiencing discomfort, you’re probably doing everything right, so don’t despair. Given enough time, it will pass and your smarting fingertips will be a distant memory.
5. Keep the vision before you
Sometimes, when your fingers are hurting and you’re playing simple, uninspiring drills, you can get stuck physically and mentally. But keep the vision before you. You’re not always going to be playing “Hot Cross Buns” at 60 beats per minute. Project ahead. What are you aiming for? Consistent practice and gradual improvement will help your confidence grow. Once that happens, it won’t be long before you can play everything you want to play.
One more piece of advice: while the Internet is good for many things, it is also a fountain of misinformation and goofy remedies. Avoid “simple tips and tricks” aimed at reducing or eliminating the pain that comes from developing callouses. By following the checklist above, you will get through the inevitable discomfort without losing your enthusiasm for playing guitar. Just ask Bryan Adams!