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As a musician, I come from a mostly vocal and piano background, but I was gifted a decent acoustic guitar many years ago and haven't really gotten into learning it due to practicing being rather unpleasant on the fingertips. While I could just suck it up and keep practicing until I develop calluses, I happen to like having sensitivity in my fingertips. It comes in handy when working with small screws and other hobby and work related activities outside of music.

Maybe some will think this is incredibly weak of me, but can anyone recommend any special gloves or other ways to avoid developing calluses that won't completely get in the way of learning guitar technique?

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Tony Iommi plays with thimbles on the tips on two of his fingers on his fretting hand. Wouldn't recommend the approach, but there it is... –  Ian C. Jul 7 '11 at 19:24
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@Ian He is also missing the tips of those fingers. Wouldn't recommend that approach either. –  Rein Henrichs Jul 7 '11 at 20:02
    
I'm going to say you should just rely on your right hand for super sensitivity to small screws. Almost nothing else will be harmed by fingertip calluses. –  Matthew Read Jul 7 '11 at 20:36
    
@Rein Just shave a little off the top, can't hurt..much... right? :) –  Ian C. Jul 8 '11 at 0:36
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I agree with Matthew. I have callouses sufficient for long guitar sessions, and I have not found my fingertips to be significantly less sensitive. It's tougher skin, so it doesn't get injured by the strings -- but it still has plenty of nerve endings in it. –  slim Sep 21 '11 at 14:52
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10 Answers 10

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There are two factors at work when you play that contribute to calluses: the amount of force you have to put on a string to fret a note (and it's a combination of string tension and string height that determines how much force you have to use) and the abrasive surface of the string (the thicker the string the more surface area it has rubbing against your finger tips, wearing them down).

You can adjust these parameters to some degree, but really there's not a whole lot you can do to avoid the callus build-up completely. At some point, yea, you'll just have to play through the buildup phase.

I'll argue that string tension and string height are the biggest contributing factors to sore finger tips. So how do you tackle those two variables?

Make sure your guitar is setup properly for the string gauge you use. Take it to a shop, tell them what brand and what gauge you like to use, and have them set it up for the lowest possible action. Then, whenever you change your strings, be certain to use the exact same brand and gauge you told the shop to use. This will ensure the setup stays consistent for as long as possible. A guitar, set up properly with low action, will require minimal downward force to fret a note. Less force, less pain.

Switch to a lighter string gauge. This both lower the tension on the strings and the surface area. As light as you can stand without feeling like your tone is suffering or you're breaking strings frequently. A switch to lighter gauge strings might need to be done in concert with a setup as the guitar's setup will shift if you change the string gauge you're using.

Drop your tuning. There are limits to how far you can drop your open string tuning before you need to increase the string gauge to keep a proper amount of tension on your strings. But most guitars will tolerate a half step drop in tuning (from low to high that would be: Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb on your open strings) without requiring much in the way of a setup tweak or a string gauge change. You can even try a full step drop in tuning (D G C F A D) -- your guitar might tolerate it without a setup.

If none of the above approaches work for you, you could switch to a style of guitar that naturally has strings that are under less tension: guitars that sport nylon strings intended for classical or flamenco styles.

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Couple of warnings about reducing the tension. (1) it affects the sound. It's up to you whether you like it or not. (2) looser strings are easier to bend - great - but also easier to bend accidentally. Chords can sound off when a beginner is learning, because of lateral movement of a loose string. Especially barres. –  slim Sep 21 '11 at 14:55
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The last paragraph says it all. If you can't live with heavy calluses, play classical guitar, not steel-string acoustic or electric guitar. Look for a "crossover" nylon-string instrument if you want something that has the feel and playability of a steel-string acoustic but sounds like a classical guitar. –  Wheat Williams Sep 8 '12 at 12:31
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I found this at http://www.acousticguitarforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=158043

Cheap and works 85%: Red Tory Finger caps. These are rubber finger caps. I cut off the end so that they fit from the finger tip to the first joint. I use size 13, 12 in a pinch. 13s are a bit loose, 12s are a bit tight. Story of my life. Anyway, the link is: http://www.toryinc.com/. Email them and he will send you a free sample package of all sizes. Great outfit. $5 a dozen. I use these every minute I play. Steel string, nylon, acoustic, electric. If they ceased to exist I don't know what I would do.

Looks like this might work for you.

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There are coated guitar strings which are friendlier to fingers and resist corrosion better.

According to some these strings don't have quite the same "tone" as regular metal strings, though. It's probably a good idea to demo them in the store first to see what you think before buying.

It is an option, however! There are lots of coated string varieties to choose from.

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In my experience these don't help. You still build calluses from pressing on the strings, even if sliding around affects your fingers less. Nylon strings might help more, but if they're even made for the lower strings I doubt they'd sound any good. –  Matthew Read Jul 7 '11 at 13:14
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Coated strings last much longer than uncoated ones (because the coating prevents rusting and corrosion). They are more expensive but can save you money because you change them less frequently. They also produce a lot less finger noise when you play them, which many players like. However, I agree, playing coated strings makes little or no difference in the degree of calluses on your fingertips. You still get them. –  Wheat Williams Sep 8 '12 at 12:25
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I've never seen any kind of mechanical contraption for protecting your fingertips, and if your guitar is made for steel (vs. nylon) strings, the softer nylons are not an option if you care at all about tone. You can minimize callus buildup, but not avoid it, by using lighter gauge strings. This will also affect tone. Detuning the guitar will also help some (and also affect tone). However, the mechanics of fretting a tensioned wire pretty much guarantees some degree of callus build-up.

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I recommend trying a product like LiquidSkin. This products forms a protective layer on your skin to prevent swelling. The manufacturer's site mentions that it is intended for musicians as well as athletes.

http://www.newskinproducts.com/products/liquid_bandage.aspx

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Have you ever tried this? Did it work out for you? –  Ben Alpert Jul 12 '11 at 0:52
    
This would be a much better answer if you had used the product or could tell us something that's not "in the brochure", so to speak. –  neilfein Jul 12 '11 at 2:50
    
No, I have not tried it. I have only heard of its use among guitarists in my local classical guitar society. –  seanreads Jul 12 '11 at 3:14
    
I have tried using cyano-acrylate glue which is nearly the same thing as some of these products, except perhaps less flexible. It does work, but like your natural calluses, it breaks down. You will have to re-apply it frequently. I don't suspect that this method will prevent the formation of calluses or loss of sensitivity, however! It only supplements your natural calluses (and basically, you need calluses, to serve as a decent substrate for the material). –  Kaz Jan 30 '13 at 17:56
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The tension on classical guitars is lighter than steel-string guitars. Maybe try one and see if that help.

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Get a well fitted golf glove....works perfect.....been playing for 8 yrs....no callousness!

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Aside from gloves or fingertip gizmos, there are two other options: Slide guitar and lap steel.

  • Using a slide won't stop you from developing calluses, but it will mean you develop lighter calluses. However, this limits what you can play.

  • You could also switch to lap steel guitar. This is played by pressing a bar against the strings, not by fretting them. However, again, this means you can no longer play conventional guitar chords or runs.

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Calluses do indeed reduce your fingertip sensitivity, but calluses will eventually go away. The process will go faster if you take care not to overdo it and produce blisters (which waste those layers of skin you're building up). And don't pick at them!

When the calluses finally go (it may take a year or more), you're left with pads. The compacted layers of skin have grown over and pushed the pain-sensitive nerves deeper into the tissue. Pressure and touch sensitivity are quite normal at this stage (IIRC they are signalled by nerves that are deeper to begin with).


Alternatively, I've heard stories (from percussionists) that a traditional way to prevent calluses is to apply urine to the affected area as a salve. That's what I heard. FWIW. Nope, never tried it. I like Gloves-in-a-bottle, or for more intense hand treatment, petroleum jelly or a sticky pinch of lanolin.


Yet another option would be to electrify. Fit a magnetic pickup in the soundhole, and put medium gauge electric strings on it. These will be much easier on your fingers. And all these new retro-styled "pawn shop" amps! Snazzy!

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Having been a guitarist for over sixty years I can affirm that the only suitable way is to play. Round-wound strings may help beginners, but leaping in the deep end of the pool will train you to learn to swim much faster!

Go lightly at first, which is to say play only until the fingers become painful. Build your resistance by lengthening your playing time. I have experienced some pain when I switched for over eight years to an electric base; however, I re-learned so-to-speak by beginning playing my six string electric SRV American Fender again.

Patience is the principle virtue. As I recall, when I began playing I could only last about fifteen minutes without a break. Also, helpful is Finger-ease, (a spray applied to the fret board) product that is available at any music store selling guitars.

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