By Katie Sanakai for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer.
Calluses are the #1 reason why beginner guitar players quit! It’s the biggest hurdle for guitarists just starting out. So understanding calluses a bit more will help you overcome the issue. A callus or calluses simply refer to the skin that gets thicker as a result of pressure, friction, or repetitive motion. When you play a stringed instrument, you will develop calluses on the fingers that touch the fretboard and possibly on your strumming hand, like the side of your right thumb (depending on your picking style).
As you learn to play, while you take in-person or online guitar lessons and increase the amount you play, you will experience tenderness on the tips of your fingers. It doesn’t matter what instrument- steel-string guitars, nylon classical or ukuleles, even the classical strings like violin or harp. This is a normal part of learning to play and the tenderness isn’t anything to worry about. If you only play occasionally, as in once a week, you will probably feel tenderness after each time you play because you aren’t actively building up your calluses. If you play every day, your calluses will grow faster, and you will have less tenderness.
Calluses are normal.
We get them on any part of our body that undergoes regular wear and tear. They form on the side of your feet or toes from your shoes, they form with repetitive motions like lifting weights or even the way you hold a pencil. So don’t think of them as anything strange or undesirable- they are normal!
Next, as you pick up guitar, ukulele, or any other stringed instrument, you’ll be building calluses as you play. There are no special steps to take or exercises to do. The more you play, the tougher your fingers will get in terms of thick calluses. If you take a break from playing for a while, you’ll notice more tenderness as you pick up your instrument again and rebuild your calluses.
Calluses look like a bit of dry skin on the tips of your fingertips. The skin is a bit thicker, a bit rougher to the touch, and a bit lighter than the skin around it. Other than a bit of roughness, calluses shouldn’t interfere in any way with daily life.
What is the right kind of pain?
As you build calluses or increase your playing time, you will feel a sore, tingly feeling in your hands after you are done playing. The pressure you use on your fingertips to play guitar is not common to many activities of daily living, so this makes sense, just like any muscle you are newly exercising would be sore. This pain from playing should be confined to the fingertips, though.
Pain below the wrist could indicate a repetitive motion injury like carpal tunnel syndrome. If you have pain in your mid-hand, that could be related to your tendons, which are also being asked to do more than their usual activity. Many guitarists use gentle finger stretches to get their hands ready for playing. So soreness and tingling on your fingering hand are to be expected, but please consult a doctor for pain or numbness that occurs in other locations.
My fingers are sore, what should I do?
Just take a break! If you played for an hour, you will find that your fingers may stay sore for several hours after. It is normal for the soreness to last longer than the time you spent on the activity. You will find that while you are playing, you often don’t notice the discomfort, because your brain is focused on the chord changes and strumming. It’s when you stop playing and your brain has less to think about that you notice the sensations. If you’re uncomfortable, stop and take a break and you can pick your instrument up a little later that day or the following day.
What maintenance do I need for my hands as a string player?
More important than your calluses are your nails- it is important for you or any string students to keep the nails clipped on your fingering hand, so you can put adequate pressure on the string and finger chords appropriately. There is nothing special to do with a callus- don’t pick at it, just let it be. You can apply any moisturizer you would use on your hands (vitamin E is great for your skin) but don’t put it on right before you play! Apply it before bed instead.
No pain, no gain?
Ok, you shouldn’t have to be in pain, but remember that if you want to learn to play any instrument, you will need to endure some mild discomfort. After playing a brass instrument, your lips are sore, and the same is true for guitarists and their fingers. However, it is really important to pay attention to your body and where you are holding tension. If you play with a strap standing up, check out the height of the strap and see if it can be adjusted to a more comfortable (usually higher) level. If you play a classical guitar or ukulele, think about your posture and if you might need a stool for your feet. Building resilience while you practice is a good skill, but holding tension in your body for hours as you play may lead to stiffness and muscle tension. Think about aligning your body with your shoulders and hips stacked for the most comfort and sustainability. Instead of bending your neck or head to the instrument, bring the instrument to you.
Are there any tricks to building calluses?
Some players say that steel-string instruments, particularly the wider, wound strings at the bottom of the guitar will build your calluses faster, but honestly, the best way to go about building and keeping calluses (that will reduce tenderness as you play) is just to play the instrument you love on a regular schedule. Make time every day or every other day to play. Set a reminder, budget time for yourself, make it fun, play some easy guitar songs, and involve your family and friends, the same way you would if you wanted to build any other habit into your schedule.