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About 3 or 4 months ago I started teaching myself to play steel string acoustic guitar using free online lessons. Because I am not working with a tutor in person, I have to be more careful about developing bad habits.

Obviously beginners will have pain in the tips of their fingers as callouses are developed, but recently after starting to practice more often, the middle knuckle on the index finger of my fretting hand has started to feel sore. It feels almost like it is bruised and there is light soreness if I curl the finger closed. It does not appear to be swollen and I don't feel anything if I just leave it extended, but I am worried my technique may be off, because I am 19, and I didn't think I would experience this. My other knuckles feel fine. I just don't want to play through it if I am hurting my hands.

I believe it is from playing chords like Dm and C where the first finger has to press fairly hard, and for the C chord where the knuckle has to be at an angle in order to get a clean note. I was also starting to attempt to play the F bar chord (trying for 5 min or so a day) which definitely strains the first finger I would think.

I also have never had my guitar setup, I am having it setup now while waiting for the soreness to go away in hopes it will be easier to play. It is a $200 level Fender so the action shouldn't be that bad, but it was mail ordered and I think it has a fairly high action for a beginner (about 3mm at 12 fret of low E).

Until recently I was practicing 45 minutes to and hour a day straight (6 days a week), but recently I had been playing or practicing for closer to an hour and a half and possibly more from all the times I pick it up during the day and play for 10 minutes.

Is it normal for beginners to have sore knuckles or should I be concerned my technique is off?

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***** DISCLAIMER *****

I am not a doctor and this response in not meant to be medical advice. See a doctor if it does not clear up.

My 2 cents:

Having played guitar for ~45 years and having had some issues with various hand injuries I would say that the specific feeling in the middle finger knuckle you are describing reminds my of a pinched nerve. I get this in my right hand knuckle when either my trigger finger or carpel tunnel acts up. For me this is usually due to programming (typing) for extended periods without my wrist brace, or over practicing classical (though if I had the trigger finger surgery I would have that problem).

"soreness" can be the result of natural evolution of getting used to the new activity. It would be wrong to tell a first time weight lifter that their muscles should not feel sore the next day. If you had said your forearm feels puffy I'd be inclined to think that was your muscles getting used to holding down the strings. And, as you have said, sore finger tips are normal until you get calluses. But the specific thing you describe does not sound normal. Especially since it crept up later. Since you are self taught there is no way to tell if you are playing correctly or if your guitar is set up correctly. No one can post a complete left hand lesson here. In my opinion you should invest in lessons from a professional guitarist who will be able to help you correct bad habits before they cause problems.

Here are a few things that MIGHT be happening:

  1. Your guitar may have high action. If the action is too high you will over compensate by squeezing too hard and that will cause stress in the hand, wrist, and firearm.

  2. You are emulating bad habits of rock stars. Case in point, Jimmy Page's over extended left thumb and inward bent wrist. This is a common problem for self taught guitarists. This type of hand posture can cause, carpel tunnel, pinched nerves in the wrist, cysts that pinch nerves, tendonitis, just to name a few problems.

  3. You may be getting this problems from some other activity such typing with bent wrists. That did it for me. In this case the guitar is not the problem but the additional activity is exacerbating the problem making it more obvious.

  4. You may be too excited to play, and play better, and hence over practicing. In a perfect world, if your posture is perfect the amount of practice would not cause pain like you describe, just exhaustion.

  5. You really do have a bruise on your knuckle and don't know how you got it, bumped it against something, breaking wood in a martial arts class, etc.

In a nut shell, without any additional info, it sounds to me like a pinched nerve and likely caused by poor hand posture. Make sure your action is good, and that you are getting good lesson material with correct hand posture. If it gets worse or does not get better see a doctor.

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Even if you want to learn by yourself, or can't afford tuition, it's a good idea to take even just a single 1-hour lesson once in a while, just to get some feedback on your technique.

If that's not at all possible, then closely examine how the online tutor plays the chords, and try to mimic it exactly, even if it feels more difficult than the technique you've developed yourself; there's probably a good reason why he plays it like that. (Although everyone's hands are different, and some fingering positions may just not work for everyone.)

For single notes, make sure to keep the finger slightly curved instead of having some joints completely stretched. For bar chords, press the middle of the finger down, instead of pressing hard with the fingertip; a slight sideways roll may also help to lessen the pressure on the joints.

The string action won't make much difference if you're playing at the low end of the neck (unless the nut isn't cut properly, but a Squier Affinity should be decent enough quality not to have such problems).

If your fingers are a bit sore, cut down on the practice time for a while, and try to improve your technique. If it gets really painful, stop playing for a few days and see a doctor if the pain doesn't go away; then, get some lessons. If all else fails, switch to the electric guitar; they are easier on the fingers.

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