Ouch! Why do my fingers hurt? Don’t worry, you’re in good company! Your tinder fingertips are suddenly pushing down on metal wires, and this doesn’t feel great. Every beginning guitar student of mine has remarked that his or her fingers hurt when they first start playing. Sometimes, potential students who haven’t even picked up a guitar say they’re concerned about the discomfort that comes during early stages of guitar playing.
But here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be tough! Below is a brief checklist that will help you avoid making the problem worse and motivate you to stay encouraged in the first couple weeks of playing.
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 guitar, not so much.
Make sure to pace your practice time. In the first couple weeks, I wouldn’t do more than 20 or 30 minutes a day. This is plenty to begin developing callouses on your fingertips. 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. Finger training, development and conditioning are no different.
2. Give your fingers a break
Varying your practice will also help when your fingers hurt playing guitar.
You don’t have to press the strings with your fingers the entire time you practice. In addition to practicing chords and notes, you can practice your strumming patterns without using your fretting-hand fingers 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 on that hand 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 as they build calluses.
Technique adjustment might be a third helpful step.
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? If not, you won’t develop calluses. Or did you overload on one or two days? Remember, a little-a lot. With consistent practice you’ll soon be able to play as long as you want. But overloading in the early stages 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 can also help). 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 this discomfort. 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. In a few short weeks it will pass, and your sore fingertips will be a nothing but a faint 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. Think 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!