Learning the guitar as a beginner has many inherent challenges from the very start.
For one, you are asking the new guitar student to teach their brain how to tell their fingers to contort in very strange and unnatural ways that they have never before even remotely contemplated. And the finger strength needed for many chords has not been developed yet.
On top of that you add the rather significant pain factor associated with pressing metal strings against metal frets with tender finger tips. And we haven’t even thought about the dreaded F barre chord yet.
Because of these challenges, it’s easy to understand why so many beginning guitarist, give up before they can play their first chord progression.
I would like to share a method that has kept many aspiring future guitarist from giving up on learning guitar. I think it will be valuable for anyone who is about to begin their journey, or who may have tried to learn guitar in the past, but were not willing to endure the pain.
The following advice assumes that the student will be learning on a steel string acoustic guitar.
First thing we need to do is create our own custom FINGER FRIENDLY set of strings for our acoustic steel string guitar. To do that we will need two sets of strings.
First set is a "Silk and Steel" set - such as the Martin M130 or M1400 standard gauge strings. The wound strings have a thin layer of nylon fiber that acts as a padding or cushion around the steel core – making these strings much more forgiving to play. Also, because they have less metal per string (nylon as part of the core) they tune to pitch with less tension making them easier to fret with less pressure.
Silk and Steel guitar string
But we will need a second set - because even though the wound stings are padded, the unwound plain steel strings are just as brutal on tender fingers as the guitar’s original strings.
So to get the other two strings for our custom set we need the least expensive electric guitar strings in the lightest possible gauge (ultra light or super light) which will have a high e string of .008 inch diameter and a b string of .011 inch diameter. These two plain steel unwound strings are very thin compared to the .0115 and .014 inch diameter of the silk and steel string set.
You need electric strings to get the two steel strings, because acoustic strings don’t come in those ultra light gauges. The two unwound (plain steel) strings we need, are made of the same material on either acoustic or electric sets. What’s different about electric strings is the wound strings are wound in nickel so the magnetic pickups will work better with them. You do NOT want to put the wound strings from an electric set on an acoustic guitar – because the tone will not be as pleasing as wound strings made for acoustic. So unless you also have an electric guitar, give the other four strings from the electric set to someone you know who owns an electric guitar – or recycle them.
Remove the existing strings from your acoustic guitar and replace them with the four wound strings from the silk and steel set and the two very thin plain steel strings from the electric guitar set. This gives you a custom set of steel strings that will tune up with less tension and be way more comfortable and less painful to play.
On some guitars, the very thin electric plain strings may be a little too close to the frets to avoid some buzzing (because the nut slots will be bigger than the string), but don't worry about that right now - we are just learning - and a little string buzz won't be so noticeable when a beginning student is struggling just to make a note. This custom set is for temporary use, to permit less painful practice during the beginning stages of learning to play notes and form chords.
They will still have enough metal (unlike nylon strings) and require enough tension to slowly build calluses, while minimizing the pain to a tolerable level. It’s like training for a marathon and starting out running a mile per day and gradually working your way up as you build stamina and endurance.
They won’t sound as good as a regular set of strings, but trust me, a student just learning to play is happy to get any semblance of a note to ring out as they press down on those strings. So until the student is ready to perform in front of an audience, the way the strings SOUND is far less important than their ability to press them down hard enough just to make a note (other than the sound of plucking a muted string).
Soon the student will starts to build some callouses, and gain some success forming some chords and changing chords and begin to gain a sense of satisfaction with their progress and a feeling that they actually CAN learn to make music with a guitar. And - since practice is now far less painful, they are likely to progress much faster than they otherwise would – because they will spend more time practicing.
Before long the student will be ready to switch to a regular set of light acoustic strings.
Along with the advice of installing the custom set of easy to play strings, it is important to encourage moderation in practice in the beginning. Start with short 15 minute practice periods spaced out during the day, so that the skin on the fingers (and muscles) will have time to recover from the stress before any damage is done. Gradually increase these practice sessions a few minutes every few days until you can comfortably practice 30 minutes at a time.
Here is another thought. If a new guitar is to be purchased, a shorter scale acoustic guitar such as a Taylor GS Mini (Around $499 US new and $300 used) will be easier to play because the shorter strings will require less tension to tune.
Learning to play guitar is not easy. So taking as much pain out of the process is an important compromise to make in the beginning, to increase the likelihood of success in the long run.
I sincerely hope this will help many beginning guitar students get past the painful beginning to become lifelong guitar playing enthusiast. Best of luck - and don't give up! You can do it!