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I've been practicing guitar casually for a few months, without a tutor or teacher. I'm starting to be able to play chord progressions slowly, but after ten or fifteen minutes, I feel pain in my fingering hand, especially the forefinger and knuckles.

Edit for clarification: The flesh of my fingertips is rarely sore; it's more like joint pain, for instance in the hand near the bases of the fingers. My guitar is an approx. 35-year-old Ovation Legend; when I had it serviced & restringed they knew a beginner would be playing it. I don't think any parts have been replaced. It looks exactly like this one:

https://reverb.com/item/8212067-1974-ovation-legend-model-1117-4-acoustic-guitar-natural-finish-orig-hard-case

I'm interested in bottleneck slide, so I'm going to try that and see if it's less painful.

But what are my other choices? I've heard an acoustic with nylon strings, and electric guitars, are easier. I'm also interested in pretty much any stringed instrument you can imagine. Before I start renting & buying things, though, are any of these likely to be easier on the fingering hand?

Another data point is that I'm in my late 30s and work with computers for a living, so I type a lot and probably my hands are wearing out faster than normal.

  • If your long-term aim is to play electric guitar, then move to electric now. There's no point in struggling with an acoustic guitar and losing your motivation. Try out an electric with a wide neck and shorter scale (so something Gibson-y rather than Fender-y) set up to have low action, and see how you get on. – Your Uncle Bob Jan 11 at 5:22
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    Several of the answers home in on the fact your fingertips are painful. I didn't read that into the question. Perhaps you can specify more clearly where the pain is? – Tim Jan 11 at 14:26
  • Good point @Tim, it's definitely joint pain; my calluses have come along nicely : ] Edit incoming. – tex Jan 11 at 18:07
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Sounds like the strings are too tight. A couple of reasons. The action is too high, meaning you need to press too far and too hard to get a clean sound. The strings are of a heavy gauge, meaning they're tighter than they need to be, answer here is to change them for lighter gauge strings, which will pull up to pitch without needing so much tension. The other alternative here is to tune the whole guitar down by a tone, maybe a tone and a half. It won't be in concert pitch then, but probably that's not so important at this stage.

The neck relief may be a contributary factor to the strings' height, so get that checked out, too. Also consider swapping the wound third string for a plain one - possibly until you're a bit happier with the way the guitar behaves.

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As you say, nylon strings are easier on the fingers. Try a classical guitar. Or an electric with very light strings.

  • This is why I hate guitar. The only type I liked playing was a classical with a 'finger spaced' (IDK the proper term) fret board. – Mazura Jan 11 at 2:16
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It does hurt when you are starting out, and more so if you don't stretch your hands, fingers before you play, or when you practice once in a while without being consistent. Look up some exercises and warm-ups for your fingering hand, your picking hand (arm stretches) and a good posture. And be consistent with practice, even if it is 10 minutes a day. Good luck!

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Endurance comes with practice, so you have to exercise for a long period to get a good stamina.

Adjustments may also help:

  1. Configure your guitar's anchor rod. Look here. Bad config may be the problem.
  2. Adjust your string height (if possible, because on acoustic guitars it's often not).

Nylon strings are easier than steel, but they also have a completely different sound and give more artifacts during recording. Try a smaller gauge (like .009, less is not recommended). Electric guitar might be an option because it gives much more flexible adjustment options, meaning that you can push strings as much towards the fretboard as you need, until you feel comfortable.

For bottleneck: from personal experience, you shouldn't use strings whose gauge is less than .011, because then you get a lot of artifacts from touches (when bottle touches and leaves the string), which cause fuzzy sound.

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    Use care when adjusting a truss rod though. The truss rod should not be used to adjust the action (height of the strings off the fretboard). The truss rod is used to counteract the string tension bending the neck, to keep the neck straight. Unfortunately over time, acoustic guitars do sometimes tend to fold in on themselves a bit over the years due to string tension, the truss rod usually isnt the solution for this. – element11 Jan 10 at 21:05
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A lot of answers are talking about guitar setup. It's likely you need one, especially since cheaper guitars (which I assume you're playing if you're starting out) aren't as well made, so the action (string height) is not as low.

This is a difficult stage of learning guitar. If you push through, you'll get to a point where you can play any guitar for reasonable amounts of time with minimal pain.

There are a few options:

  • Work to improve technique

    It's not always raw strength, but technique and finger placement that make playing guitar easier. One of the best tips I read was to use the elbow of the right arm as a sort of cantilever to (gently) pull against the fretting hand. Especially useful for barre chords to the point where I can ring out a full barre without touching the back of the neck.

  • Bring your guitar to a luthier

    An old, cheap, or abused guitar will be harder to play. You don't mention what you play but I assume it has a high action, probably needs fret work, and may even be at end-of-life or in neck reset territory. A lot of those jobs (neck reset and refret) are likely more expensive than the guitar will ever be worth, so keep that in mind. Asking for a "restring and a mild setup", which you shouldn't pay more than 75USD for, will do wonders if done by the right person. One of the answers suggests touching the truss rod (anchor rod). Do not do this. Frequently the truss rod isn't the source of the issue, and in the wrong hands can do more harm than good.

  • Buy a guitar that suits your playing style.

    This is where consideration of commitment to the hobby/career is necessary. Work with a salesperson to pick out the right guitar for you. If you're not ready to care for an all-solid-wood guitar, don't drop the money on it (care tips below). Personally, I prefer a higher action on guitars, whereas one of my friends works to get his as low as he possibly can. If you're walking into a guitar store with the promise of spending money, a salesperson should work to give you exactly what suits you.

Care tips

  • An expensive guitar will move, and after about a month in your home, may require a setup anyways (just as yours currently probably does). This is due to acclimation to the environment.
  • An expensive guitar needs to be between 30 and 45% relative humidity. This isn't an issue in some parts of the world, but in damp or dry places, it can be.
  • An expensive guitar is not a toy. Of course, this is up to your discretion, but I would certainly never goof off on one of Mark Hatcher's greta series (75k$ if I remember correctly).
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I know that painful fingers can deter a lot of beginner guitarists, so I started out with a concert ukulele with a 24 inch frett board. It creates a fuller sound than the soprano, and the nylon strings will build up my calluses while causing less pain. Plus ukuleles are very cheap. I got an incredible one for only $60 from Ranch. Once I am adept at ukulele and have the calluses, I plan to switch to guitar.

  • The OP's problems are not callouses, but joint pain. That apart, I personally don't believe callouses should form, or be necessary, to play guitar. Well set up, with good action and sensible playing, they shouldn't form. – Tim Jan 11 at 8:17
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"I [...] work with computers for a living"

There you have your problem, right there: The resistance of a computer keyboard is nothing compared to the resistance of a guitar string. Unless you have been doing something that actually trained the strength of your fingers beforehand, I'd say, it is to be expected that you get sore hands quickly when you start playing the guitar.

That said, training can, and does improve your finger strength. So, just keep trying. Play as long as your fingers are putting up with the stress, stop when they get sore, and recommence when they've regenerated. The longer you do this, the longer the playing sessions can become.

Learning to play the guitar when you've only used a keyboard before, is akin to starting to ride a bike when you've only driven a car before. You start with a few kilometers, you add some kilometers to your daily tours when you feel you're up to the challenge, and only years later will you be able to ride 50km without feeling steamrollered afterwards. You cannot skip this training phase, and you cannot squeeze it into a month. It simply takes its time and repeated exercise.

Also, try to stick with the easy fingered chords at first. Like E, A, D. You can play many songs with just these three chords. You can add their moll variants immediately, but don't start with G or H7 before you are comfortable with E, A, and D. Do not even try to begin with barre chords until you've mastered all the simple open chords. barre chords take a lot more strength. For E, A, and D you need to press down three strings, for barre chords you need to press down six strings with a single finger, and also need to press down two or three strings at another place. The force required is quite enormous, and will be quite some challenge even when all the open chords are already easy to you.

  • This answer overemphasizes the role of strength. Sure, some strength is needed, but mostly it is stamina that must be developed. If you are pressing down all six strings for barre chords, you aren't playing them correctly. Typically only two or three strings need to be pressed with the barre, as the other strings are fretted by other fingers. Technique trumps strength. – David Bowling Jan 10 at 22:30
  • @DavidBowling I somewhat disagree - "correctly" is in the eye of the beholder. For me, it's easiest to always (or at least *usually) press all 6 strings with my barre finger. Then I never have to worry about what my barre finger is doing. To each their own. – only_pro Jan 10 at 22:49
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    There are no barre chords which need one finger to press all the strings. The barre finger presses usually 3, sometimes 4 only. – Tim Jan 11 at 8:19
  • @Tim Well, the 6-string barree is what I learned to use. Maybe my teacher was stupid teaching me like this, but he did. Of course, I'm no professional, and I guess that any professional worth their salt have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to make their life easier, which I simply have never come into touch with, or had the energy to actually learn. To those of us, who only know the basics, well, we don't profit from those tricks. Tricks or no, the fact is that you must have strong fingers to successfully play a barree, and you won't get strong fingers by playing with a computer keyboard. – cmaster Jan 11 at 23:35
  • @DavidBowling What I meant with strength is both the ability to press down those strings, and the ability to do that repeatedly over the course of a song, exercise session, or act. When you start playing the guitar, your muscles will be working pretty much at the top of their ability, and quickly grow weary. When you train your fingers, those muscles will grow, getting stronger. And those stronger muscles won't be working at the top of their ability anymore, and thus not get weary so quickly. The differentiating factor is indeed the strength of the muscles. – cmaster Jan 11 at 23:44
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I've played very high guage strings (high-tension: pain!) and low gauge strings (thin and sharp: pain!) and don't feel that, but saw my son drive himself to tears on a when I tried to teach him to play on a classical guitar.

My guess is that you are fretting too hard. It's a common thing; it is another part of the instrument you must learn. It truly is a no-benefit thing: it gives you pain, it slows you down and it pulls your notes sharp.

Fret a note, pick it over again and lessen tension until it mutes out and you just get the thunk, then add a little more: this much is how hard you should fret. And if you still have pain at that point, you have other problems.

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If you have had it restrung did you also have the action adjusted? If so it sounds like you are just squeezing too hard. The best thing you could do for yourself is start lessons. I have a new student who has been trying to teach themselves for a years or so. Their grip was so tight it was causing the notes to pitch bend.

(1) You only need enough force to stop the string from buzzing against the fret rather than push the string all the way to the fret board wood.

(2) Keep your thumb behind the finger on the back of the neck, not over the edge of the neck.

(3) The wrist of the fingering hand should not bent too much outward, and not at all inward.

There are other possible sources of pain. Pain and/or stiffness in the thumb and index joints could be a symptom of carpel tunnel syndrome. If this is happening you need to stop and find some way to adjust your playing to avoid that. Again, lessons would help. Especially if this was not happening until you started playing. If you have that due to other activities then get it addressed, see a doctor get cortisone shots, wear a brace when not playing.

The classical is NOT "easier" than the steel string acoustic, it's different and there is a new set of issues. Your statements seem to indicate that (1) your guitar is not completely set up properly (lighter gauge string and lower action might help), and that you are not playing it correctly. Stop long enough to let your joint pain heal and try again with some adjustments.

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