Take the 2-minute tour ×
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Recently I played my acoustic guitar after a couple months of only playing my classical guitar. My fingers have softened considerably compared to when I was playing the acoustic regularly, and it was painful for the tips of my fingers on my left (chording) hand.

Is there anything I can do to permanently toughen up my fingers? If not, is there any other way to keep them tough besides playing regularly? Are there things I should avoid doing that can weaken or damage my calluses?

I'm particularly interested in first-hand experience; if you propose a method, how did it help you and what was the timeframe of your results?

share|improve this question
    
Not sure how this should be tagged ... fingers, hand (existing), physical-aspects, something else? Help me out here. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 15:30
2  
@MatthewRead, conditioning comes to mind, but hrmm. –  Rebecca Chernoff Apr 29 '11 at 16:06
1  
@Rebecca, perhaps body? There definitely should be some tag about the physical conditioning and maintenance aspect of being a musician... perhaps I'll take this to meta. –  NReilingh Apr 29 '11 at 16:27
7  
"first-hand experience" lol. –  NReilingh Apr 29 '11 at 16:46
    
@NReilingh Haha. Should have said "left-hand experience". Shun the lefties and their right-hand callouses. @RebeccaChernoff I like that much better. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 17:05

11 Answers 11

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I think regularly playing and practice is the only thing that will really work. The toughness you refer to is really just calluses from use. For guitar, they end up in very particular places. If you work heavily with your hands, you may develop sufficient calluses anyway, but if you're sitting at a desk, there really isn't a way to get them without playing. To keep them, you have to keep playing.

You certainly can lose them while still playing though. I'm relatively careful not to get my hands thoroughly wet within 30 minutes of playing. This means not picking up a guitar after a shower, doing the dishes, or taking an acoustic to the pool. Picking up a guitar while your hands are still wet will shred your calluses very quickly.

share|improve this answer
    
Yeah, I definitely can't play guitar within a couple hours of a shower. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 15:53
    
@matthew, I find 30 minutes is usually enough time. Might depend on how thick your calluses are though. –  yossarian Apr 29 '11 at 16:10
1  
Callus thickness is probably a factor. Can't say I've ever noticed a "wet hands" problem. Then again, I do a lot of bending on 011-052 strings tuned to E. –  Faza May 19 '11 at 1:24

This may be what you're looking for, if the idea of building guitar-related skills without touching a guitar isn't a complete turn-off for you (some people hate that kind of thing).

You may have heard of the Gripmaster hand exerciser. There is a company that makes an accessory that replaces the finger buttons with an impression of raised strings.

Callus Builder Caps

By the same company, this keychain allows you to just mash your fingers into something shaped like guitar strings to build calluses.

In my experience with the Gripmaster version, you'll certainly feel the burn, and you get the added benefit of finger strength exercise. You can use it in a car, at a desk, etc. Not very expensive, either.

share|improve this answer
1  
It could even be self-made with a piece of wood and parts of a broken guitar string. –  ogerard Apr 29 '11 at 17:18
    
Does this actually work? I kind of feel like calluses are built up with bends and fretting / releasing strings. If the "strings" are static (i.e. you're always pushing on the grip), will it really build calluses? –  yossarian Apr 29 '11 at 19:03
    
@ogerard Possibly, but it might be too flat--this accessory raises up the lines quite a bit. @yossarian, this extra elevation on the "strings" causes your skin to flex around them, which builds the callous. –  NReilingh Apr 29 '11 at 19:39
3  
While everyone has their reasons, the downvote on this answer is very probably inappropriate. It answers my question very well, and I will definitely consider trying it. During the private beta especially, be very careful how you use your votes. Upvote good content. Don't assume the "guitar hero sucks because it's not really playing music" mentality (I am assuming that is the cause for the vote). –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 20:15

I am not the only one to say that, but when you are building calluses, you should try to avoid prolonged contact of your fingers with water too soon before practice (for instance taking a bath, swimming, ...). This should not be an excuse not to wash the dishes, but to use gloves. One important benefit of being careful with this is that this way the strings will not attack and wound the soft part of your fingertips and build grooves on them, but just harden the extern part.

You can use a little soft (and not too rich in urea) hydrating cream on your fingertips after practice to avoid creating blisters which are painful, ugly and dangerous.

About timeframe: I have seen first hand how much it varies between two people. I have started learning cello the same week than a very good friend the same age and we practiced together small duos. Three weeks later, I already had stable calluses (most noticeable at the auricular finger and the side of the index) that I kept without trying but my friend never developed any significant one before two years of practice.

share|improve this answer
1  
Thanks, but I think this should be a comment and not an answer since it addresses prevention of weakening rather than active toughening. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 17:13
    
You may be right. Writing comments is not as pleasant as writing answers. Would you suggest me to delete this answer and add it as one or two comments somewhere ? –  ogerard Apr 29 '11 at 17:16
1  
You know what, I think I'm just going to expand my question. This information should really be all together. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 17:45

Something to consider is if the guitar is hurting your hands then perhaps the action is too high on your acoustic. I own all different types of guitars--classical, electric, acoustic, etcetera--and I don't typically have a huge issue when I switch between them. In fact, I hadn't played my acoustic guitar in around two months until last week and I had little difficulty. It could definitely be a difference in physiology, but consider taking your acoustic into a qualified luthier for a look-see, or if you are DIY kinda guy take another look at your action. Alternatively, you can drop the gauge of your strings to a lighter set and consequently produce less tension on the neck and strings, which will make the instrument slightly easier to play. Note that changing the string gauge will likely require a set up along with the standard tonal implications of using lighter strings.

Usually I have found that my callouses don't really go anywhere regardless of how long I go without playing. Maybe there's something else you are doing that breaks the calluses down? Some people also nervously bite their fingernails and calluses, so I'd try to avoid that if it's a problem with you.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks for the thought, my action is fine though. The pain was not major and I definitely attribute it to my fingers becoming less callused. –  Matthew Read Apr 29 '11 at 20:20
1  
Hmm as for callus breakdown, it just seems to happen naturally. I know every year I get callused palms from raking leaves, and by Christmas they're gone completely. –  Matthew Read Apr 30 '11 at 16:26
    
Interesting. Thanks for sharing! –  Jduv Apr 30 '11 at 17:08
1  
Calluses will appear not to go away when you go without playing. They never go away entirely. But, in my case, their condition is very poor after a long absence from the instrument. When I pick up the instrument after an absence, the calluses feel great for about one minute. Then they are broken up and useless. –  Kaz Jan 30 '13 at 18:10

I have used the thumbnail on my left hand, and a ring of keys to good effect. Just poke gently at your fingertips with your thumbnail, or a key in your pocket. Gently.

From the Wikipedia article:

...calluses can occur anywhere on the body as a reaction to moderate, constant "grinding" pressure. It is the natural reaction of the palmar or plantar skin. Too much friction occurring too fast for the skin to develop a protective callus will cause blisters instead.

You don't need anything fancy. After all, you're trying to emulate the effect of pushing a wire against some wood. It's not rocket surgery.

share|improve this answer
1  
That makes sense. And if I could give another +1 for "rocket surgery" I would :P –  Matthew Read May 1 '11 at 3:12

Something that can help toughen up the fingers a bit is the regular application of surgical spirit. I've used it in the past to get through particularly tough weeks of playing after a time away from the bass.

But really, the best thing is to let them form naturally, and keep them there! I've also found just wrapping an old string around a block of wood and doing a bit of fake fingering on that from time to time can help with this process if you can't get to your instrument!

share|improve this answer

I had a similar issue after about 10 years of playing, when my callouses turned into "pads". My fingertips had no traction and would slip off my flatwound strings if it was any kind of stretch or jump.

So what finally worked was to take a razor blade and lightly scratch a crosshatch across the surface layer of skin. I should scarcely need to mention that such an operation should be performed with the utmost care: clean hands, clean blade (I had one of those extendable ones where you could snap-off and expose a new tip), good light, "elbow room" (don't nobody gonna bump into you). I needed to touch it up about once or twice a week as the skin healed over.

This was necessary for about a year, IIRC. At that point the pads softened enough that my tips now have a "springy" surface. I can press it with a string or a fingernail and it yields quite readily; and I can then watch as the indentation fades like footprints in the sand.

share|improve this answer

I haven't tried it yet, but I was thinking of lightly rubbing my fingertips with some very fine sandpaper each day. Of course, not enough to hurt or cause redness/bleeding.

share|improve this answer
1  
Well, you can be the one to test that one out. I don't feel like sanding the skin off my fingers. :P –  American Luke Nov 4 '12 at 22:22
    
That might be a good alternative to my razor blade technique for adding traction to hard pads, but for developing the calluses, the thumbnail/key seems like the best: it mimicks the action of pressing on strings. I'd give you +1 if you narrow this to "for roughing up the surface" rather than building the callus. –  luser droog Nov 17 '12 at 2:06

I've only just started the guitar but I've played the violin for 13 years and although my calluses were never very tough I used to use a guitar pick and just press it into my finger as if it was the string. easy to do if you're in a lesson (school) or work. My skin never really got very tough, (even at 17 I have babyish hands) but it helped me learn to ignore any pain caused. don't know if this is any help :)

share|improve this answer

I use an emery board and file my fingers where they toughen up against the strings. Each time I do this the callous gets tougher. It also helps to keep them smooth for better fret work. No pieces of callous catching the strings.

share|improve this answer

Soaking the fingertips in rubbing alcohol worked for me. I stuck one finger at a time into the bottle for a few seconds before I started playing. After awhile you won't need to do it unless you don't play for a good while.

share|improve this answer
1  
That is a truly awful idea. If your fingers aren't ready to play something the pain is a very clear indicator. By numbing that pain you're risking seriously damaging your fingers in the long run, and in the short run risking massive blisters that will take longer to heal. It's like numbing your mouth so you can drink boiling water: The solution is not to ignore the body's signals, it's to not drink a scalding hot glass of throat blisters. –  Alexander Troup Sep 2 '13 at 14:42

protected by Matthew Read May 21 at 3:58

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.