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?


11 Answers 11


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.

  • 2
    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.
    – user321
    May 19, 2011 at 1:24

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.


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.

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    It could even be self-made with a piece of wood and parts of a broken guitar string.
    – ogerard
    Apr 29, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 at 19:39

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.


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.

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    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, 2013 at 18:10

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.


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!


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.

  • I can't believe you advocate this sort of procedure! Does it still stand nearly 8 yrs on? I haven't had callouses in the last 50 yrs, playing guitar and bass! Well set up instruments and playing them well should mean no callouses form in the first place!
    – Tim
    Jan 10, 2020 at 17:38
  • Well, I haven't felt any need to do this sort of thing recently. Perhaps the potential danger outweighs any potential benefit. It's certainly not for beginners, but just something that I found useful during a specific point in my progress. A better option for hard pads might be some kind of astringent lotion like witchhazel or Husker's lotion. Jan 13, 2020 at 8:40

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.


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 :)


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.

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    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. Sep 2, 2013 at 14:42