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Quite a few times I read on this site about calluses. How they are an important part of being a guitarist. How they help one's playing, how they really can't be avoided.

Fair enough, when I started learning at age 11, I developed terrible things on my fretting fingertips. Due mainly to having a guitar that had an action far too high for even slide playing, and strings far tighter than I've ever used since, but also due to pressing too hard, as most beginners do.

However, after learning how to set up guitars properly, and discovering lighter strings, although playing and teaching just about every day, haven't had a callus in 50 years. Lighter strings on guitar, but on bass, going down to low B .130s, so maybe the gauge isn't that relevant.

I feel that calluses are counter-productive, in that there's less feeling in fingertips, and hammering on and pulling off is more effectively done using real skin.

So, are they something most players get, and put up with, why do they materialise, are they useful things to have? I can't remember any of my students having them. And - are they of relevance to string bassists (or any other string players)?

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  • 5
    I wouldn’t say they are necessary but it’s hard not to have them at all and they’ve never hindered my playing. What would you or anyone reading this do differently depending on the answer to this question? You play just fine without callouses, I play just fine with them. So it doesn’t seem to matter much either way. May 27 at 8:12
  • 3
    I've never really worked with a callous guitarist. I've seen some capricious vocalists, cruel drummers & apathetic bassists, even once an unsympathetic trombonist … but never a callous guitarist :P (Sorry, couldn't resist;)
    – Tetsujin
    May 27 at 9:29
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    * callus -- unless you intend to be a callous performer May 27 at 15:23
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    @CarlWitthoft - having consulted learned English dictionaries, we both appear to be correct. I am writing from an British English perspective. Other nations may differ.
    – Tim
    May 27 at 15:26
  • 3
    @Tim: Fellow Brit here: even in the UK "callus" is the normal spelling for the "hard skin" meaning (see, for example, here, here - both British dictionaries.
    – psmears
    May 28 at 14:51
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I don’t have full calluses, but my fingertips are definitely harder when I play regularly than when I go for a couple of months without playing.

I find the harder skin really helps hammer-ons be precise and sharp, and they don’t seem to take away from sensitivity.

I guess it shouldn’t matter much either way - you obviously do fine without any, I have harder skin, others have calluses. People seem to play fine :-)

13

I'm a full time guitarist. When I was young I couldn't afford good instruments, so my guitars fought me all the time, and I had really thick calluses - if I tapped my fingertips against a glass you would have thought they were metal from the sound.

Now I have good instruments that are properly maintained, so even though I play for hours every single day my calluses are barely noticeable.

In my view, calluses are useful to a degree: your fingertips have to get a clear sound from a fretted note. The softer your fingertips are, the harder you'll have to press to do that. And that means more tension in your hand, and tension is counter-productive for speed and accuracy.

Having some callus can be useful if you need to play an instrument that isn't in good shape, has higher string tension, or has rougher windings - a few months ago I played bass for a night, and I ended up with blisters on two of my fingers, because I needed to use more pressure than my fingers were used to for about three hours straight.

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  • I find this very interesting. It might be considered a separate question but this answer comes close enough to answering it so I'll just post it as a comment: is development of pronounced calluses on the fingertips indicative of a bad setup or applying too much pressure? Or excessively long practice sessions? Specifically for electric guitar playing? I've played violin for a long time and never came close to getting calluses or even hardened fingertips from it. Violin strings have a rather low action and tension (I think) compared to guitar strings. Maybe that's desirable in a guitar as well?
    – G_H
    May 28 at 5:52
  • @G_H Violins are played with bows rather than your fingertips, aren't they?
    – nick012000
    May 28 at 6:41
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    @nick012000 The calluses form on the fingertips of the fretting hand with guitar, due to pressing down the strings and sliding over them. Not the picking hand. Although maybe if you play fingerplucking style instead of using a guitar pick you also develop calluses on that hand. With the violin you'd use the same hand for pressing down the strings as you would for guitar, while the other hand bows or picks.
    – G_H
    May 28 at 6:46
  • @G_H calluses tend to be harder for acoustic players than electric, because they use thicker strings. To my hands violin strings seem very "soft" compared to guitar strings.
    – Tom Serb
    May 28 at 13:25
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    @G_H Calluses on the thumb of the picking hand are relatively common, and while playing a bass guitar, I've had harder skin on my picking thumb than any of the fingers on the fretting hand. YMMV, of course :)
    – Luaan
    May 28 at 18:58
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My perspective being an upright and electric bassist as well as a guitarist is this, and it is a bit more related to bass, which has been the instrument I have played most for the last 2 decades or so (4 decades, who am I kidding?):

When I was much younger I played harder and with higher action. I did have visible calluses on most if not all of my left and right hand fingers. They did not hinder my play in any way, if anything they helped since they offered some protection against the constant pressure and friction I was generating.

As I matured and realized my bass didn’t need to be heard acoustically over a drum set by the back row of a venue, my playing became more refined. I dug in less and lowered my action some to facilitate fast technical and upper register playing. It is very important to me to draw sound out of an instrument and not rely on an amp for my fundamental tone so I still play physically but more controlled.

The result over the years is that my “visible” calluses have pretty much vanished. One aside which may or may not be relevant is that I put a very small amount of petroleum jelly on my fingertips when I play. This may or may not contribute to the appearance of the calluses, I have been doing it for literally decades so I can’t say for sure. I can say I NEVER get cuts from dryness on my fingertips and I live in the desert.

Back to the topic at hand, the reason I say “visible” is because if one plays a string instrument there definitely will be some toughening and or hardening of the skin below the surface over time. I don’t know if that fits the definition of calluses or not but I have that for sure. I believe this tough under the surface skin is absolutely necessary and is even better than calluses because it helps prevent blisters and pain but doesn’t add potential friction from a thick layer of dead skin on the fingertips.

I also believe that as individuals calluses are something that some of us will get and some won’t. I don’t believe they either help or hurt. It is something we cannot A/B to see the difference. How way we play and how our instruments are set up will play a role but it is not something we can control without a conscious effort to change the way we play. We will either have them or we won’t.

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I climb rocks and play viola and guitar. No matter how much I neglect any of these things, I have little finger-tip callouses.

When I started on viola, I bled. As my geometry changed, my fingers got stronger and more nimble and I gained an intuitive sense of the (left hand) finger pressure needed for good tone.

The guitar is a different beast! Picking an electric guitar with really loose strings or strumming a classical guitar doesn't compare to finger picking a steel string acoustic with a high bridge.

When I play consistently for a month, the callouses get noticeable for a bit and then disappear except where they are needed (the callouses on my fingertips and my "Barre finger" end up a bit bigger).

I also climb. I mention this because chalk (required for most climbers) causes my callouses to get thick and painfully tear off. Everybody's hands have a different moisture level. Big, painful callouses may mean your skin is dry. I also mention this because my callous pattern changed drastically as I improved. My bad technique strained my skin.

Callouses are the skin's reaction to repeated stress. We should set young players up for success with well-adjusted instruments. Players should practice in the physically easiest way possible. Players should listen to their body to avoid injury and rest.

Callouses are as necessary as coughs. It's better to not get sick and you can clear your throat in less damaging ways, but sometimes we all breathe a little water. You'll never get rid of all callouses and it's probably not helpful to ask somebody to try.

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  • Climbing rocks is hard enough by itself. Playing viola and guitar as well? Having four arms would help a bit, maybe..?
    – Tim
    May 28 at 17:56
  • @Tim 6 by my count. But I am not good enough to do these things in parallel. :-)
    – user121330
    May 30 at 23:51
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You will develop what you need for the style you play. I have been a working guitarist for several decades. Every teacher I had would say that you should expect to develop calluses. Clearly if you over play or have a bad set up you might develop more than you really need but that is exactly what you get for the set up you have. I think there are certain styles and techniques that will cause callus development. One example for me is playing blues (real blues, not bluesy jazz or rock). If I bend high and hard those fingers will get callused. Classical causes callus development. Many guitarists here will assert that you don't need them but will describe their set up and style and clearly if you have gauge 8 strings with low action and use all four fingers to bend one note you are avoiding the actions that might causes callus development. But this is a personal choice and not a matter of right or wrong, true or false. Your question "are they really a necessity for guitarists" is not answerable. It depends on style, set up, and technique.

I would also say that when my classical playing develops a different callus than my electric playing. They two sometimes compete with each other.

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