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How to Combat Hand and Finger Pain When Learning Guitar

There’s no doubt about it… playing guitar is a blast. There is nothing better then seeing — and hearing — yourself progress as you work through notes, and then chords, and then, finally, songs. There is, however, one unpleasant reality that comes with the territory for beginners, and that reality is hand and, more specifically, finger pain. How to Combat Finger PainWhile it’s virtually impossible to avoid all discomfort, there are several things you can do to get through it and get on with playing like a rock star. 

First and foremost, you need to remember to warm up. Beginners expect the pain of calluses when they are learning, but often are surprised at the hand, and even arm pain that they experience in the first few months of playing. This is to be expected. Remember that there are a multitude of bones, tendons and muscles involved in moving your fingers around, so you’ll want to get them warmed up before you start shredding. There are a wealth of resources, like JamPlay, out there that feature great warm-ups for beginners. An exercise like this one from our YouTube channel will help to wake up those guitar-playing muscles and prepare them for the even the most rigorous practice session or performance.

Another way to ensure that you’re being kind to your hands is to simply check your strings. As simple as it sounds, it can make a HUGE difference when you sit down to play. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Check the Action: Action on a guitar is simply the space between the fretboard and the strings… the farther the strings are from the fretboard, the higher the action. The higher the action, the more force is required to press down on the strings. SeeWarming Up To Alleviate Pain where we’re going here? By having the action on your guitar lowered, you’ll make it easier to play, with less strain on your fingers.  The good news is  any guitar’s action can be adjusted at your local music store. A good rule of thumb is to set the action at about 1/16″ at the 1st fret and 3/16″ at the 12th fret. Once the action is adjusted you’ll be amazed at how much easier playing becomes.
  • Make Sure You Have The Right Strings: Guitar strings come in different gauges (diameters). Light gauge strings are much easier to play than medium or heavy gauge strings, helping to alleviate some of the pain in your fingers.
  • Don’t Press Too Hard: It is common for beginners to press down on the strings too hard… remember, you don’t have to try so hard. Relax your fingers and press down just hard enough to make sure the string firmly contacts the fret. How do you know if you are pressing too hard? Simple. Fret a chord or string as you normally would and then let off the pressure just a little bit. Does it sound the same, or even better? If so, you’re probably pressing too hard, which can make your fingers ache.

(NOTE: Want to MASTER barre chords once and for all? Get JamPlay’s Barre Chord Cheat Sheet here for free!)

The last tip we have for you involves practice. Odds are that, as you grow more and more excited about learning, you’re going to want to play more often. That’s great! Practice to fight painBy playing regularly, you’ll be building the calluses on your fingers, which, in turn, will protect your fingertips from soreness. The trick here is not to practice too much. If you dive in and don’t give your fingers time to adjust, you may end up with blisters instead of calluses, which will need to heal before you can continue playing.

The truth of the matter is that your fingers are going to hurt, but it’ s going to be worth it. Don’t get discouraged and definitely don’t use it as an excuse to quit. Remember that you started playing guitar in the first place because you love music, plain and simple. The discomfort of these first few months will pass, but in the meantime, follow these tips, keep playing and pushing through, and use the pain to motivate you to persevere and move to your next stage of playing: the pain-free one! Good luck!

 
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10 Comments  comments 

10 Responses

  1. Mark

    If I have to play an (occasion) gig, on guitar, and I haven’t been playing often enuf to keep the calluses on my fingertips nice and thick-which will prevent Pain from playing several sets in an evening, I’ve found that coating my fingertips with ‘New Skin’, liquid bandage, makes ALL the difference in the world! I apply Several coats of the stuff, letting each coat dry for a minute or two before re-coating. Even though I use fairly thick, Medium-gauge strings on my large acoustic guitar (Dreadnought) I no longer have the Miserable pain I had experienced in years past – and now don’t have to resort to either having to Soak my callouses in a solution of Alum in water a day or two prior to the gig…OR, like happened one night, reach for the Duct tape to cover my, almost bleeding, fingertips During a performance! And the ‘New Skin’ doesn’t appear to dull the sensitivity of the fingertips to the point that you lose the ability to feel what your are doing on the strings, so the quality of your playing does not seem to suffer. I Love this stuff, and now keep a small bottle of it in my guitar case so as not to be caught without it! (I think that most dept. Store Pharmacy sections carry ‘New Skin’; there seems to be a number of other, like products, available these days, but I’ve (so far) only tried New Skin).

  2. Roy

    Krazy glue on the fingertips will help as long as the fingers are not glued together.

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  5. J. D. Mayfield

    Despite following all of the tips for playing I can only play for about an hour at a time without finger pain. I am an advanced player but can no longer gig. Can sit in for a few songs and that is about it. Being 73 years old may be the explanation although I am athletic otherwise. Won’t give up playing though. J.D. Mayfield, DMD

  6. GME

    Years ago when I was playing in a band, I began having very bad cramping and pain in the meat of my thumb when playing barre chords. Keeping that index finger barred for an hour or so at a time 4 times every night required far more endurance than my hand has ever been able to handle.

    It’s been nearly 40 years now, and even after not playing for a few weeks at a time here and there through the years, that pain always comes back when I play barre chords. I’ve continued studying and playing lead through the years and gaining strength in my fingers, but I’ve never been able to find a solution for the pain I feel when I play barre chords. It’s as if something became inflamed and never was able to completely heal.

    This article seems to focus more on strengthening the fingers, but I need a solution for making that meaty party of my thumb stronger and impervious to pain when supporting the index finger barred across the fretboard for at least the amount of time it takes to play a whole song, or perhaps when jamming.

    I’ve tried massaging that part of my hand; I’ve tried changing positions of my thumb while barring; I’ve tried barring with very light pressure; I’ve tried pulling the index finger onto the fretboard attempting to relieve any pressure on the thumb at all; I’ve tried classical guitar barre exercises where you press and release the index finger with every strum while strumming quarter note rhythms; and yet the pain recurs when I play song that have barre chords in it, progressively getting worse, to the point that not uncommonly I can’t even play through more than half the song before the pain becomes too great to continue.

    Has anyone else experienced this…? Has anyone found a solution for this…?

    • Neil Burnett

      Me too. I am currently not playing in order to get rid of the thumb pain. I believe the answer will be in relearning fretting hand technique. My problem is almost certainly caused by pushing too hard with the thumb. I have read that one should use the weight of the arm and muscles as far back as the shoulders and back instead of thumb pressure. Makes sense to me, but sounds hard to do without a competent teacher.

    • Naprosyn takes down the swelling. Do stretching exercises and practice difficult pieces for no more than 25 minutes till your u get stronger. Always stretch before and after you play. Shoulder shrugs and sliding your arms up and Down a wall are great.

    • GME

      After nearly 45 years, I’ve finally found a solution – magnetic therapy.

      I bought a bunch of hard drive magnets off of eBay, then positioned them over the area that was causing such excruciating pain, holding them in place with rubber bands at night before going to bed. I’ve read about the healing power of magnets before but was never moved to go ahead and do this before. However, after a few nights of doing this (about 2 weeks, actually), I found I had no pain at all when playing guitar using barre chords.

      Naprosyn did nothing. Artificial calluses had no effect as it had nothing to do with the fingertips, but rather with the pressure exerted between the index finger and thumb. But magnets allowed the healing to occur, and I am now pain free when I barre chords as a result.

      I did this a few months ago, and have never felt the pain that had plagued me for so long come back again. If it does ever recur again, I’ll certainly go back to this method again to deal with it.

      It cost me around $10 for the magnets, and about $2 for the rubber bands, and the relief is, for all I can tell, totally complete. Wish I had tried this solution years ago. It’s cheap, and after a couple of weeks of sleeping with the magnets in place in various locations over the meat of my thumb (it shifted as the healing progressed), I am now totally pain free when I play barre chords now. Amazingly effective.

  7. Try the artificial calluses. You won’t have to worry about how to keep your natural calluses always on the fingertips when you want to play.

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