Guitar Calluses – What They Are & How to Build Them

As enjoyable as it is, playing the guitar can be a painful affair.

While most of what you read about when it comes to guitar playing are the amazing guitar solos, less is spoken about the pain beginner guitarists have to endure with sore fingers.

But, fear not! This is completely natural and a ‘rite of passage’ for guitar players. You need to work through the pain and build what are known as calluses.

In this article, we show you what calluses are, why they’re important, and some tips and tricks for how to build guitar calluses and reduce the pain.

What are Guitar Calluses?

Regardless of your guitar playing style, playing guitar entails pressing your fingers against strings. If you’re just starting out, the tips of your fingers will be soft.

This pressing down of strings causes mild irritation of the skin on the ends of your fingers. The body responds by toughening up your fingertips to reduce friction and pain.

These hardened fingertips are known as ‘calluses’: in other words, hardened skin on your fingertips.

Calluses are a protective mechanism our body uses to reduce the soreness and finger pain we experience whilst pressing down guitar strings.

This may make learning guitar seem unappealing (hardened ends of your fingers…yuk!). However, once you’ve got them, pressing the strings is usually pain-free and no issue at all, and they really don’t look too bad.

Techniques for Quickly Building Fingertip Calluses

They form naturally, but are there any tips for making the process of developing calluses a little less painful?

Well, there are some bizarre methods out there such as dipping your fingertips in apple cider vinegar for 30 seconds before and after playing to reduce the pain, pressing your fingers against an ice pack, or even adding a small dot of super glue onto your fingers to create artificial finger calluses.

Don’t do any of the above. So what do you suggest? Let’s take a look…

Play Little and Often

The best way to build calluses is simply to play little and often.

Try ten to twenty minute sessions initially. Not only will this help to develop calluses on your fingers, but it’s a great way to learn as you’re far more likely to improve from short regular bursts of activity than long sessions every now and then.

Additionally, if you jam for longer, you’re putting yourself at risk of developing blisters rather instead.

So how do you make sure you play regularly? Simple. Organize a decent practice routine [LINK] that helps you stick to a regular schedule.

Sidenote: you should also incorporate a proper warm-up exercise to limber up before your practice session too.

Careful with That Axe, Eugene

Electric guitars and great and all, but they don’t help to develop calluses. That’s because they are typically setup with low action and light gauge strings. This makes playing easier but doesn’t promote callus formation too well. Note: light gauge strings can actually be sharp and cut your fingers before you have any callusing.

If you can, try learning with a steel-string acoustic guitar. With higher action and heavy gauge strings, your fingers will build up the extra layer of skin faster.

If you want to stick with the electric (I don’t blame you), go with a set of medium or heavy gauge strings. These have rounded edges and are tougher to handle, so they’ll promote skin formation rather than cutting into them.

A higher action makes it more difficult to press the strings down too, which in turn speeds up the rate that skin builds up to combat the extra pressure being applied to your fingertips. You can take your guitar to any music shop to have the action adjusted and it shouldn’t take long, just remember it will cost you a little bit of extra cash.

Keep Your Nails Trimmed

Look at a guitar players hands and you’ll notice they don’t have long nails on their fretting hand. The reason is simple: long nails make it awkward to press the guitar strings down properly.

It also affects your ability to build calluses. So make sure you cut your nails regularly, using nail clippers. Avoid chewing them too, as this creates an uneven nail surface.

Drying with Rubbing Alcohol

Before a session, a piece of advice that has been long credited to Eric Clapton is rubbing Isopropyl alcohol on the tips of your digits. According to the story, Eric Clapton advised beginners to use rubbing alcohol or cotton wool to dry out their fingertips before they played.

Whether the tale is true or not, the reason this may work is the lack of moisture actually promotes callus formation, so an extra layer should build up quicker.

How Long Does it Take?

Overall, the entire process will take around a month, but the stages involved go as follows:

  • Week 1: Your fingertips will likely feel pretty tender and sore at this stage, so make sure you practice regularly for short periods of time. For example, you could try practicing for 5 minutes on three occasions during the day, and doing some music theory or rhythm practice with your other hand in the meantime. Why not do some rhythm exercises with your strumming hand as well.
  • Week 2: As they’re starting to form, the pain of playing should be getting slightly less now, but you’ll still be feeling a little uncomfortable when you apply pressure to the thicker strings.
  • After 1 Month: By now you shouldn’t feel much pain if any, and they should be fully formed. You may see some of the excess skin peeling away at the top, but don’t worry, this is just the old layer giving way to the new, extra-tough callus!

How to Look After Your Guitar Finger Calluses

So you have well-formed calluses on your fingers. Great job. How do you keep them that way?

First, never play the guitar after you’ve had a bath, shower, or just washed your hands, as the skin around your fingertips will be softer and more prone to being damaged or worn away. The same applies to hand creams and moisturizers too.

Many of us love a good old picking of the fingers, but in reality, it’s not a good idea. Resist the urge to file them down using a nail file or a lady’s foot peeler, this will remove all the skin that you’ve worked so hard to build up.

If for some reason you’re away from your instrument for a week, some players rub their tips along the numbers of their credit cards or press them against the points on a hairbrush. You could even ask for some tips from rock-climbing or weightlifting societies, as they rely on callus formation to carry out their activities.

If you’re at risk of losing your guitar calluses (they’re starting to peel off), try swapping your steel strings for softer nylon strings which are easier on your fingertips. Also, try a lighter gauge set on an electric guitar if playing an acoustic is getting too much for your hands.

You can also lower your tuning (from EADGBE to DGCFAD, for example). By lowering the tension, you don’t need to apply so much pressure while fretting the strings.

Summary

Finger pain for beginners is no laughing matter, and the process of building up calluses for the beginner takes a little time and patience.

To get calluses faster you need to practice for short durations at regular intervals, ideally a few times a day a few minutes at a time). Over time your guitar will be easier to play.

Don’t keep playing a steel string acoustic guitar for long periods either. This will leave your fingers incredibly sore (and potentially blistered up) so that you can’t play at all. If you can, mix it up with an electric guitar.

Good luck!

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