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This is a common problem and solving it will ultimately lead to a much higher success rate for beginning guitar students. So I wanted to share the information here on Music and Theory.

Many of my beginning guitar students start out on their journey with great enthusiasm. But soon, the steel strings against un-calloused fingers begins to take a painful toll – ultimately leading them to decide that learning to play guitar is not so important after all!

Most beginning guitar students start with an acoustic steel string guitar. It has a narrower neck than a nylon string classical allowing untrained fingers to reach chords like G, and is lighter than an electric and requires no separate amplifier.

What can a beginning guitar student do to minimize the pain associated with practicing on their instrument - until they develop callouses?

  • What can a beginning guitar student do to minimize the pain associated with practicing on their instrument - until they develop callouses - They should constantly keep in mind the old maxim: No pain, No Gain. - Then the pain becomes a positive rather than a negative. – Stinkfoot Mar 8 '18 at 4:44
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    @Stinkfoot I completely agree but so many aspiring guitar players I have seen have a low tolerance for pain relative to their desire to learn the instrument so they give up. My thoughts are that if there is a way they can make enough progress and see tangible rewards in the form of getting to a point when they can actually make music on their guitar - before they become overwhelmed by the pain and give up, then perhaps the desire to learn will reach a point where they will in fact be willing to tolerate a little pain in the interest of gain. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 8 '18 at 17:32
  • 1
    they can make enough progress and see tangible rewards - Agreed: Before you can deal with the pain, you have to feel the gain. I just loved to play - the sound was enough gain for me, even if it was just noise at first. LOL – Stinkfoot Mar 8 '18 at 18:32
  • @Stinkfoot - I re-learned the instrument after a 20 year break and was more passionate and serious about learning the 2nd go around. I played till fingers were literally bleeding then put super glue on to seal the cuts because bandaids muted the strings and got in the way. But most folks won't tolerate that much pain and keep pushing through. I knew from previous experience that the callouses would come so I just kept going. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 10 '18 at 22:15
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    @Stinkfoot 10-4 on the NewSkin. I'm familiar. Good idea to keep some handy. I could be wrong but I think it's just super glue in a different package with a higher price tag. That's my theory which is why I just used super glue. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 12 '18 at 18:14

17 Answers 17

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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 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 callouses, 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 life long guitar playing enthusiast. Best of luck - and don't give up! You can do it!

  • 4
    Nylon strings are great. I started with a classical guitar before getting an acoustic, and it was definitely helpful to get my fingers broken in on the former first. – Matthew Read Feb 15 '15 at 2:34
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    I agree. Nylon are the easiest. But many of the beginning students I have taught have been either female or kids or both and the neck width of a classical guitar would make reaching a G chord very difficult. So we put more forgiving strings on a folk guitar. Thanks for your attention and comment. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 15 '15 at 4:49
  • I think we had an acoustic guitar at home, but my father put nylon strings there saying: "It does not sound as great, but at least fingers do not hurt." For me as a beginner the sound still sounded very attractive. After I learnt to play my first 3 chord song, I became enthusiastic enough to play the guitar with the metal strings even despite the pain. And once one knows how to play some songs and can switch the chords, the hard skin can develop within a day or two and so the actual pain does not last that long after all. – Dávid Natingga Mar 30 '16 at 23:55
  • @DávidTóth I totally agree. The idea is to ignite the fire. Once you get past the initial pain and learn to play that first song, the passion helps numb the pain from then on. I think the custom silk and steel set with super light plain steel strings I describe in this answer may not be quite as easy on tender fingers as nylon strings, but they sound better to me. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 31 '16 at 3:05
  • How did you manage to vote your own answer as the best?! – Tim Aug 17 '16 at 22:53
19

To add to these great answers, I only have one suggestion - climbers chalk

Moisture in the hands leads to blisters. Chalk alleviates moisture build up in the hands and helps to build callouses.

Some notable guitar players who use chalk before every show: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, etc. Chalk is a great when you haven't played in a while and don't want to ruin your hands. Additionally, it doesn't damage the guitar/string as you can simply wipe it off of the wood with a towel.

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    Interesting. I will have to try that sometime. Plus 1 – Rockin Cowboy Feb 17 '15 at 23:14
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Practice, practice, practice. Callouses do not form otherwise. Play until you can't bear it any more. Do this every day. Just get it over with. It will pay off in the end, I promise.

In the meantime, there are ways of maximizing your practice time while your fingers develop into battle-hardened.

  1. Play lower strings more often. Note these are thicker than the higher-note ones, and will not dig into your fingers as sharply. So when your fingers start getting tired, depending on your style of playing (i.e. fingerstyle vs strumming), switch to practicing lower-octave scales or strum chords which predominantly favor those strings (e.g. E, G, C).

  2. Take short breaks during your practice sessions. Give your fingers a chance to stop throbbing, but get right back at it as soon as possible.

  3. Simulate pain throughout the day when not playing the guitar. Dig your thumbnail into the tips of your fingers so as to mimic the guitar string. This can be done successfully one-handed, though to maximize the effect, you will need to use your other hand occasionally to make perpendicular gridlines as well.

  4. Finally, do not pick off your callouses. Resist the temptation to help your skin "shed" itself as your callouses form.

  • Play through it and don't pick callouses are probably the two most important bits in there: as our percussion instructor would say when we were learning 4 mallet technique in band camp, "it either hurts for these two weeks or it'll hurt keep hurting all season". – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 3:06
  • Been playing for a while and still do #3... lol. Proud of my calousses, which are now embedded and not as visible. Will have to look into the climber's chalk thing. – blusician Jul 20 '16 at 3:25
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For me, what @Rob said is crucial:

stop before it hurts

If you overdo the practice before you can take it, the next day you'll be unable to play. And if you don't keep practicing regularly, you're more likely to not play the next day, and then another, and then a week after you're back at spot 0.

Practice as much as you can without discomfort, then pick up the guitar as soon as you can again. That way the callouses will build reasonably fast without the terrible discomfort.

10

What worked for me a long time ago, was to keep a small cup of denatured alcohol near my practice area. Before and after playing, dip the fretting hand fingers for a minute, then blow them dry. Alcohol dries the forming callouses, allowing them to harden. Possibly similar to the climber's chalk idea. I hadn't heard of that.

If you have a nitrocellulose lacquer finish on the guitar, avoid spilling alcohol on it, as it will damage the finish. Easy to avoid, just take care.

Another easy thing: don't take a shower, or wash your hands, right before playing. Water, especially warm water, softens callouses.

Also, set up the guitar for low action. Like it should be set up anyway, but student guitars are often badly in need of a good setup.

Finally, the most important thing: play some every day. Just keep playing. The pain won't last long. Nothing about learning guitar happens quickly. Callouses are the easy part. Take your time, settle in for a lifelong journey. It's more journey than destination.

  • 1
    Plus one for "It's more the journey than the destination". Interesting about alcohol. Never thought about that. Might try that next time I take an extended break from playing and start losing my callouses. – Rockin Cowboy Jan 6 '16 at 4:12
  • A lot of us benefit from taking the alcohol internally. It stops the pain... – Tim Jul 20 '16 at 9:12
8

Tell them:

  1. Practice 10-15 min 2x/day (they don't know a lot to play yet, and their fingers will hurt if they play more. As they learn more and their calluses develop, they can play more.
  2. Stop before it hurts
  3. Make it fun
  4. Set goals
  5. Reward yourself for reaching goals
  6. Balance "technique" and "fun"
  7. Have them record themselves & e-mail it to you
  8. (if a child) their parents shouldn't have to ask them to play, they should have to ask them to stop playing.

good luck.

8

One thing I want to add is, that even a beginner should start with a decent instrument. A 100$ guitar from a discounter or a no name company will not help.

I started that way, with an 100$ acoustic guitar with steel string. I didn't want to pay much because I didn't know whether playing guitar is someting I would like. So I struggled with this one, the strings were so high above the fretboard that it took ridiculous amounts of pressure to form any chord. And yes, it hurt.. a lot... but everyone told me it would be normal because my fingers have to develop strength and callouses. So I accepted that as the hard ways of learning guitar... until I had a better guitar in my hands. It wasn''t even that expensive, around 300$ but the strings were way lower on the fretboard and it was so easy to play.

I know it's hard to accept that you have to spend a decent amount of money on a guitar, but in the end it's worth it. I spend those 100$ for my first guitar completely unnecessary. Also it really helps to not be told the pain is a perfectly normal thing. A guitar beginner should always have some guidance, either a teacher or a fellow guitar player with some experience. Or at least, go to a music store and buy something together with an employee there, he can tell you what is good for a beginner.

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    I totally agree. Better quality and properly set up guitar will not only be easier to play but will provide more positive feedback in terms of the sounds you can get from it. Beginning guitarist need all the positive reinforcement they can get to keep them inspired as they get past the many hurdles that they must confront in the very beginning. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 5 '16 at 4:26
  • I have to point out that employees in the music store may be paid on commission from their sales and may not be the best person to ask, because they have a vested interest in selling what they have in stock, not necessarily the solution to your pain. I had much better results in getting my guitar set up to play with the best action on the fret board. There's much less pain in my finger tips. – skinny peacock Feb 23 '18 at 16:08
  • @skinnypeacock: That can be true, of course. You need a little luck, but there really are people out there that really want to help you instead of just selling you the most expensive crap they have. But both of our statements are true. The thing that helps is setting up your guitar, but on a very cheap, crappy guitar, you can setup all you want, it will only help to a certain point if the quality is low. – Matthias Nicklisch Feb 26 '18 at 8:15
  • he can tell you what is good for a beginner IMO the notion of a "beginner's instrument" is bogus. As you pointed out, everyone should play on a good instrument. The only question is how much are you willing to spend and still feel comfortable about it, given that you might decide you don't really want to play. Often having a very good instrument inspires a beginner to play better, to 'live up to the instrument', etc. – Stinkfoot Mar 8 '18 at 4:42
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This is such a great question! I have been playing guitar for 20 years but travel often, and tend to lose all my callouses after only a couple weeks away. So it is not only beginners who must suffer finger pain; I do it several times a year. Here are some successful techniques I have used to ease my way back into playing pain-free:

  1. Put a capo on the second fret. This is the easiest and quickest way to lower action on a guitar, and doesnt require a professional setup. An extra benefit for beginners is that a capo also shortens the scale, bringing frets closer together.

  2. To reduce string tension, drop the tuning by a whole step. When you add a capo at the second fret, the guitar will play at standard pitch, but with lower action and less tension.

  3. Use lower tension strings like Silk & Steel, or ball-end nylon strings, or even extra-lite electric guitar strings (or the very clever combination of Silk and electric guitar strings that Rockin Cowboy suggests).

  4. Though it may be a little late if your student shows up to his first lesson with an acoustic steel string guitar, suggest that students start learning on an electric guitar. Playable instruments with amps are cheaper than playable acoustics, they last forever and are easy to resell if the student discontinues. And they are way easier on your fingers. After a long trip I often play only my tele for a couple weeks until my fingertips start to toughen a little.

  • Excellent answer (+1). All techniques I have recommended as well. Too bad this is such an old question that not as many current users will see your excellent and concise answer and give you the upvotes this answer deserves. But it will be available for future readers who have a similar issue and this answer pops up in their search results. Good job! – Rockin Cowboy Aug 19 '16 at 17:42
7

I learnt on a combination of electric guitar and nylon-string guitar.

Electric guitar : I tried very thin strings, size 08 which helped with lowering the tension of the string, so even though they're thinner, they cut into my fingers less.

Nylon string guitars : The strings are much thicker and don't hurt as much. I de-tuned it by quite a lot so that I could still bend the strings (I was learning from recordings of Mr Hendrix). This also lowered the tension, so has a double effect. It might also work on a steel string guitar.

If your students are playing acoustic steel-string guitar, I think thet's probably the most abrasive combination on the fingers as the strings are usually thicker & so quite tight. Playing a nylon string now and then would still train for the chord shapes etc but hurt less.

There's also the act of running your fingers up the string while changing chords, which can end up using the wound strings as a file on your finger. You might be able to get around this with round-wound strings, although I'm not sure whether these are available for acoustic guitars.

So in a nutshell:

  • Try de-tuning the guitar - less tension = less cutting on the fingers. Not too much though as it's easy to squeeze the strings out of tune.
  • Try lighter gauge strings
  • Try a nylon string guitar
  • If possible try round wound strings

I think others have answered wisely too, especially "stop before it hurts".

6

Here's my fifty cents...

When I started learning 8 finger tapping (both hands on the fretboard) I had to go through the pain again, so I searched on the net about tricks on how to develop callouses faster and what I found is Eric Clapton's tip on it.

He said: dip your fingers in alcohol, as it will dry out the fingers. So I tried that, within a week i had decent enough callouses, not crazy strong or anything like that, but it made it bearable for me to keep tapping that axe :)

I did it as many times a day as I felt necessary and kept playing... 3 or more.

  • I've been unable to source this claim about Clapton. Do you know where you had found this? – Mathieu K. Dec 3 '16 at 14:32
  • Been tapping for years - still no callouses. What am I doing wrong? I thought the alcohol was more for internal use. – Tim Nov 12 at 12:04
4

I am surprised no one has mentioned RockTips.

Although it is a superglue (as mentioned in Tim Burnett - Bassist's answer), it is formulated with a medical glue that washes off with soap and water. Once I found it I bought some for friends to try and they give rave it reviews.

I recently moved move 11s to 12s on my fan fret guitar and the tension in the strings at standard tuning is enormous (well it feels like it anyway after the 11s) so I have gone straight for the RockTips bottle to help me through the first week or two.

  • I have tried super glue but was not aware of this product. Might be worth a try. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 29 '17 at 20:08
3

from experience the best way is to just keep playing on top of the blisters, don't pop them, they eventually become callouses. When I started playing steel string At school I didn't have a pick so I just kept playing and I had to learn to strum with my nails So I didn't get the dreaded blister on the tip of my thumb. My first guitar was a nylon string so I guess I had some callouses before the steel string but it was still hard. Shorter practice times helped to stop the blisters, using better guitars with the strings closer to the fretboard helped a lot as well. The first time I played an electric guitar I was really surprised at how much easier it was to use because of the lighter gauge strings I noticed that my fingers would slide a lot easier. Overall: - a better guitar helps though I think a beginner guitar student should use a cheaper guitar to build strength. - lighter gauge strings - I saw other answers that say to buy different types of strings but that is costly. - like others have said try to keep dry fingers - lastly I have found that if someone really wants to play the guitar they will get over the discomfort.

  • "just keep playing on top of the blisters, don't pop them" - Your blisters do not bust when you continue playing on top of them?? – Tim Burnett - Bassist Dec 4 at 21:29
1

Just can't understand callouses, or the need for them. I play guitar and bass, and set up my instruments to play without causing callouses. The only time I had them was at about 12 yrs old, learning on an acoustic with an awful action. as soon as I got a half decent guitar, and set it up - no callouses. I use .008- .046 on guitar, and down to .120 on 5 string bass, if that's any bearing on the situation.

I've taught for nearly 50 yrs, and it's not been an issue with most pupils. I'm curious as to why they're needed, as hard skin is the last thing I need on either hand, especially fretting fingers.Just returned from a 4 hr solid bass playing gig - no marks on fingers, no pain. Please help me understand callouses.

  • Bass has wider strings to spread out the contact force over a wider area which reduces the overall irritation to the fingertips. And while setting up your guitars with super light strings as you suggests is one way to reduce the tension and thereby mitigate the stress to fingers, not everyone likes the sound or feel of super light strings on acoustic guitar. Callouses will enable you to play heavier strings. I have not met any guitar players who don't have callouses on their fretting fingers personally. If I don't play every day - mine go away - but then my fingers hurt when I play. – Rockin Cowboy Aug 19 '16 at 17:50
  • Perhaps it's like other ailments, some succumb, some don't. Perhaps I'm lucky, or something... I'm not only on about acoustics - I play electrics as well, and am happy with a slightly more trebly sound. After all, that's what the tone pots on the amps can sort out. – Tim Aug 19 '16 at 19:41
  • Well maybe starting on light strings and working up to heavier ones might help. A light action would also reduce the impact stress, as would the nylon strings. – Eric O Dec 15 '16 at 20:56
  • If you use 8s I'm not surprised! I'm just surprised you can stand to use 8s. I prefer 11s on electric or 12s when I'm on my game. – Todd Wilcox Apr 24 '18 at 15:34
  • @ToddWilcox - what doesn't surprise you about me using .008s? And why should you be surprised if I can stand .008s? You prefer .011/.012 on electrics. What bearing does that have to me preferring .008s? – Tim Jul 7 at 10:28
1

I had a problem with pain from playing too much one week at a mandolin symposium. Advice from the head honcho: ibuprofen.

Of course,as has been mentioned: DO NOT OVERDO IT.

  • The pain I speak of in this topic is topical pain vs. muscle over use pain. anti inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen will relieve muscle pain caused by over use of the muscles by playing too much. But not so much for pain caused by sharp strings cutting into your un-calloused finger tips. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 5 '16 at 4:23
  • @RockinCowboy I feel your pain ;) Seriously, while ibuprofen may actually help a little, and there is a topical variety, I'll have to go with what Unknown said in the previous response: you just have to power through it. In my experience it takes about three weeks. – Eric O Dec 15 '16 at 20:10
  • The problem is, many beginning guitarists give up because of the pain. "Power through it" is one approach, but my recommendation for newbies is to gradually build up the strength and the callouses. Nobody likes pain and it should not be the reason an otherwise capable aspiring guitarist fails to realize their potential. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 15 '16 at 20:43
  • @RockinCowboy Agreed. The pain may be so off-putting that people quit a potentially wonderful pastime. "Power through it" is intended to mean, "Accept that there will be pain at first, but keep going because it's worth it." Your gradual approach is good advice. No one is suggesting bleeding fingers. :{ – Eric O Dec 15 '16 at 20:53
  • I did the power through it routine when I took up guitar again after a 20 year layoff. And I did in fact have bleeding fingers. I used super glue to glue the cuts back together so I could keep powering through. But I had experienced the reward and joy of playing in a previous life so it did not deter me the way it might the average person taking up guitar for the first time. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 17 '16 at 0:35
1

I have been in and out of guitar for years, but this time been at it long enough to know that I am here to stay;-) I have attained a critical mass of understanding that I feel quite at home with one in my hands now. Back when I would play for three months here, a year, there and a few weeks off and on... I went through this pain. However, three years ago, when I decided to get serious and play until I could speak it, I picked up a used Yamaha classical and played that for the first couple weeks. I also played an electric with super small gauge Elixir strings. Once I got past the buildup, I went back to the Marting and jammed on that. Fingers still get raw, especially during song writing or recording, but lasts a lot longer.

Start out with an electric or gut string classical... just pick up a cheap anything and mix that practice up with a steel string acoustic.

1

I don't know about beginners, but when I start to tear my fingertips, I play slide guitar. No reason not to teach beginners a little slide.

0

Great question and advice on strings herein. I'd like to add that sometimes one needs an immediate solution.

When the stinging has become too overwhelming to even touch the strings, or worse yet a blister has busted and tender finger meat is shredding against wound steel, two little words have saved my life in the past when the show must go on - super glue.

Dab just a drop to the area of the fingertip that's affected (let it dry.) Just this slight layer of added buffer can allow one to keep playing without the loss of dexterity. If you're really rocking, it'll wear away quick, though. And, it's going to ruin your strings.... But, you won't have to stop the show or practice.

  • 1
    I've tried it and yes it works. But I don't recommend that beginners practice until their fingers bleed. That's only for the pros - lol. – Rockin Cowboy Aug 30 '16 at 2:22

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