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I'm an early learner, 70 yrs old, have been 'practicing' for a couple of years on a steel string acoustic guitar, and I have arthritis in my thumb and finger joints. For instance, it's very hard to stretch my fingers from 1st fret(C) to 3rd(D) and get finger tips properly on the string; it hurts to do so. A C chord is very difficult.

I found that putting a capo on the 5th fret makes things easier: the C chord is easy; note C is an open string; and no problem going to D on the same string. Frets are closer together, and I can hold the neck without putting hurtful pressure on my left thumb. However, there's a slight problem hitting the B on the 4th string 9th fret (B that replaces open B on 2nd string), and I'm missing the 6th string E, F, & G, plus those chords.

I wonder if there will be more shortcomings as I progress.

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    Perhaps put lighter strings on there so you don't have to push that hard. Or even an electric guitar? However, putting a capo is obviously ok. There are no rules in music. Nov 28, 2014 at 10:53

11 Answers 11

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It is absolutely OK to use a capo. You will just need to check on the capo from time to time as the strings will wear grooves into the rubber. (This happens normally, but since you use a capo full time, it will happen more quickly.)

Given your arthritis, there are some additional things you could do to make playing easier on yourself. As others have mentioned, changing the string gauge to a lighter gauge can help. Here are some other thoughts:

  • Consider purchasing an electric guitar - they typically use much lighter gauge strings than acoustic, the neck is quite often smaller, and the strings are closer to the fretboard, which is called action. A guitar with low action will take less effort to push the strings down.
  • Try to stay away from traditional chord shapes, especially barre chords. Barre chords (especially on 12-string acoustics) are rough for people as it is; if your hands hurt, then stay away! (There are enough people out there playing barre chords anyway.)
  • I'd recommend learning and adapting chord shapes that use as many open strings as possible. This allows for a full sound while putting the least amount of pressure on your fingers.
  • Consider alternative instruments. It's awesome that you're learning guitar. Given your circumstance, it would be good to entertain the possibility of playing a different instrument instead, like a mandolin or lap-steel guitar. Now, you only may be interested in guitar and nothing else, which is fine. In the end, play what makes you happy, and figure out how to make it work for you. I saw a gentleman once play guitar with his feet because he had no arms - he made it work.

Hope that helps.

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    I'd add "look at alternate tunings" to that list. It can allow more open chords more easily for instance C-G-C-G-G-C is very nice and also crazy-easy to play many chords (or passable variations) with only 2 or 3 fingers.
    – Mr. Boy
    Nov 29, 2014 at 0:13
  • I don't have arthritis but I have flexible hands from years of piano playing and I can play a Bb major chord without it being a barre chord(besides, I have tried to play a barre chord, Bb major in particular, and all I get is a muted staccato, not a chord.
    – Caters
    Sep 3, 2018 at 3:27
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The use of a capo is fine if it helps ease the arthritis pain.

One thing to consider is the scale lenght of your current guitar (basically the length of the strings from nut to saddle). Most guitars are 25.5" or so. Some guitars are 24.75". I hesitate to call these "long scale" and "short scale" guitars because they're both within the range of 'standard'. However that 3/4 of an inch can make a huge difference in the feel of the guitar.

Shop around.

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    In addition to this suggestion, has the OP considered an electric guitar or a nylon stringed accoustic, which normally takes a lot less pressure to fret a note
    – CurlyPaul
    Nov 28, 2014 at 10:25
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    @CurlyPaul - The problem with nylon strung guitars is that the neck (and string spacing) is flatter wider than for electric. I play both and I find the classical guitar more of a strain. Dec 30, 2020 at 12:11
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There's absolutely nothing wrong playing with capo anyway up to 5th-7th fret if it suits you and you like the sound (it will be different obviously). It can be your style, your distinctive sound even. I personally think it can sound really nice playing some songs capoed on the 7th fret although many people say this is 'wrong'.

You could of course detune your guitar by one or two semitones to partly compensate the capo making everything higher.

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Perhaps you could use a children sized guitar. It will be easier to use the scale near the neck. The downside is that other end of the scale the space will be scarce.

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Well, I think there are definitely going to be some disadvantages. But it depends on what you want to play.

By the way, do I assume correct you want to play at the same tone height as normal style?

If all you want to play is chords, there shouldn't be too much problems. You don't lose chords, you just have to play them differently. For example the E,F and G chords you name, you would just have to play like the B, C and D are played normally. Basically what you would have to do for every chord is look at this: A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G# Take the chord you want to play, and go 5 steps (half tones) down or 7 up (which is the same). And then play it that way with the capo at 5th fret.

One annoying thing with this of course would be, if you want to learn something from someone else by looking at how he plays it, you have to do everything different.

Of course if you want to play more complex things, like classical music pieces, at the same tone height but at the 5th fret, that will become almost impossible. You don't have the low basses, and the fingering will be difficult/impossible, because it has been written for normal position. You can of course play them, but at higher tone. For a lot of pieces, this won't be a problem. But your range is smaller, which can be a problem for some pieces.

Actually I would also suggest you to buy a smaller guitar, and maybe some softer strings. Then everything stays the same as for a normal guitar. But if a smaller guitar is still painful, a capo in the 5th is a good solution. There will be some disadvantages, but a lot can be overcome in some way.

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  • I'm not really into chords, after a while they get pretty boring. I don't plan on playing in a band, and since I cant Nov 29, 2014 at 1:07
  • I can't sing. I want to learn some easy tunes to pick out, hopefully some more advanced tunes, for my own pleasure. I can plug away at "Spanish Romance" and an Irish tune "The Battle of Aughrim" with no capo. I'm still learning those songs, but I believe I get picking practice from them. Nov 29, 2014 at 1:40
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I suggest a 3/4 size guitar. They are tuned exactly as if at the 5th fret of a standard guitar.

The strings are tuned: A D G C E A

There are cheap ones and more expensive ones just like for normal guitars. If you have the money you could buy a cheap one to try first. I'm not sure where you live but my local store has every kind of guitar in 3/4 size: nylon, steel string, electric. https://www.gak.co.uk/Results?q=3%2F4%20guitar

The only problem you will have (and this applies if you use a capo at the 5th fret of a standard guitar) is that you will have to mentally convert your chord shapes if you wish to play along with chord symbols.

Example

C / Am / F / G7 /

will be played by you by using the chord shapes for

G / Em / C / D7 /

You will quickly adapt.


Why is a 3/4 guitar better than a normal guitar with capo?

  1. Guitar strings aren't parallel. They get wider towards the bridge. The open strings on a 3/4 guitar will be closer together than the capoed strings would be.

  2. The neck gets thicker as it nears the body. This also causes more stretching of the left hand.

  3. Keeping a capoed guitar in tune is much more difficult. The strings tend to stick under the capo and then move suddenly or gradually whilst playing.

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One thing to consider is that what a capo does is lower the action of your guitar so you physically don't have to work as hard. So other things to consider are lowering the action of your guitar, switching to lighter strings or switching to electric guitar which is much less physically demanding to play.

If fingering the chords is a problem, you might also consider open-tuning the guitar so that it's easy to finger the chords. You can also look at Django Rheinhart's playing. Django's fingering hand was terribly disfigured by fire so he only had two fully functioning fingers.

Another way of dealing with fingering is to learn to play closed chords with only two or three strings at a time and then learn to play these chords up and down the neck. But that's pretty advanced for a beginning player.

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As a musician and teacher I would discourage the use of a capo is beginners without joint or tendon issues. But since you are an adult learner and have arthritis I'd say go for it. You should do what you need to to have fun playing and learning. I would also suggest exploring alternate tuning with capo use as the combination can make sets of chords within a given key very easy to play.

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Well, if you are not going to use one third of the neck anyway, it may make sense to look for a smaller instrument altogether: I think there may be things like "tenor guitars" tuned somewhat higher (the entirely smaller ukuleles are played differently I think). If you are having "hurtful pressure on your left thumb" it may make sense to switch to nylon strings: steel strings tend to take more pressure. Also, the quality of the guitar is important: more expensive ones manage to have the strings closer to the fretboard, needing less strength for fretting the strings.

This is more an answer to your situation rather than to the question you are asking. But maybe it gives some additional venue to pursue. If you have an instrument store in your vicinity, checking through available options there might be more hands-on than a discussion here.

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  • The 'hurt' in my fretting thumb results from placing the thumb pad on the neck opposite the strings, as lessons suggest. This way finger tips can reach across strings, in a curved fashion, to get at the intended strings. Since I'm pushing upward with my thumb, my arthritic thumb joint soon begins to ache. I've thought about using a brace, of some kind, to hold my thumb erect. Nov 28, 2014 at 3:20
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    Alternatively, use a "3/4 scale" guitar.
    – supercat
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:04
  • "tenor guitars" No. These are pitched lower than standard guitars and have a longer scale length. They would make the problem worse! Dec 30, 2020 at 12:13
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I have a book that cost £5 in a discount book store. It shows all the different shapes and ways to play each chord on the guitar. There are usually a shed load.

I would suggest getting something like my book, either a book or a website that shows all the different ways to play each chord. Pick the ones that sound good and are easiest to play.

Reason why I suggest this is because its ok learning the song with a cappo 5th, but it will make it hard to sing along if it pushes out of reach of a normal voice. As a beginner I would suggest learning with a capo first as it can be easier. But then try exploring different shapes for the chords and playing in a key right for whoever is singing along.

I sometimes miss out a string or two on tricky chords, If I think the effort and chances of making a mistake are too high to justify playing it in the first place. (And it still sounds good). But you need a good musical ear for that.

You may even find this broadens your awareness of tonal quality of chords played differently and gives you an edge over other players.

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Considering a question like this, it's worth it to look back to one of the gods of guitar- Tony Iommi. He lost two fingertips in a metalworking accident and was barely able to play guitar, but worked around it by replacing them with prosthetic fingertips.

To make it easier for him to play, he downturned from E standard to C# standard (3 semitones), used lighter gauge strings (at the time, banjo strings, but now lighter gauge strings exist), and used his weaker fingers to fret chords instead of playing solos.

He played electric and acoustic, but remember that electric guitar is a lot easier to play.

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