How to Build Guitar Calluses – Quick & Effective Steps

When you’re just beginning to play guitar, it is likely that you have experienced an unpleasant burning sensation in the tips of your fingers after or during your session.

Over time, your fingertips will harden and form what are known as ‘calluses’: hardened skin, which won’t hurt anymore.

They form naturally, and you can’t make them instantly make them appear, but there are some techniques to speed up their forming, so here are some practical tips to help grow your calluses faster.

What are Guitar Calluses?

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

If you’re just taking up the instrument, or you’ve had a long break and just coming back, you’ll notice the tips of your fingers have become very soft. When you press strings down on the fretboard, the constant pressure and friction will cause the skin on them to get slightly damaged. The body responds by triggering more skin calluses to build up in this area, which in turn helps to reduce the friction and pain whilst you play notes.

This may make learning guitar seem unappealing, however, once you’ve got them, pressing the strings is usually pain-free and no issue at all. They’re a good thing.

How to Speed Up Their Growth

Play Little and Often

The first on our list is by far the most practical.

Try 10-20-minute sessions initially. Not only will this help your hands develop calluses gradually, but it’s also 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? For a start, organize a decent practice routine that helps you stick to a regular schedule. You should also incorporate a proper warm-up exercise to limber up beforehand.

Bends and Vibrato

Bending strings is like a workout for your fingertips, as you have to apply extra force to make the strings move the greater distance. So, next time you practice make sure you try to include either some vibrato or big bends.

Use a Steel String Acoustic Guitar

Many beginners choose to learn using an electric guitar with low action and light gauge strings, which is understandable seeing as it makes playing easier initially. The problem is learning this way doesn’t promote callus formation too well and it’ll take way longer for them to form.

Instead, try to learn using an acoustic with steel strings, this way the instrument’s action will be higher and the strings will be tougher, so your fingers will build up the extra layer of skin faster, after applying the extra force and pressure.

Use Heavy Gauge Strings / Raise Your Action

When you first start out learning the guitar, it can be tempting to use thinner strings that are more pliable, however, in reality, a set of these can actually be pretty sharp and cut your fingers before you have any callusing. To get around the issue, try and go with a set of medium or heavy gauge versions, these have rounded edges and are tougher to handle, so they’ll promote skin formation rather than cutting into them.

Having 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

If you ever look at an experienced guitarist’s hands, you’ll notice straight away that they don’t have long nails on their chord playing hand. The reason for this is that having long nails prevents you from pressing the guitar strings down properly and getting the notes to ring out. Long nails will also stop your fingertips actually touching the fretboard, so you’re less likely to build up any extra skin quickly. To get around this, make sure you cut your nails regularly, using nail clippers and avoid chewing them as this creates an uneven surface and nail overhangs that may cause painful tears whilst you play.

Drying with Rubbing Alcohol

Before a session, a piece of advice which 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.

Some Less Orthodox Ways

There are numerous hacks you can try out too (we don’t recommend any of them, but we thought we’d mention them anyway). For example, some say to try applying apple cider vinegar for 30 seconds before and after playing to relief the pain. Or pressing an ice pack against them before and after to reduce any pain and soreness too.

If you have a look in your local chemist, there are usually topical anesthetics that can help numb any pain too, just make sure they contain benzocaine, which is the relieving ingredient responsible. Some even say to try dotting a small amount of super glue onto your fingers to create artificial calluses. Just be careful to let them dry properly before playing as you don’t want to become stuck to your guitar. We don’t suggest you do this, but each to their own.

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 Them Once They’re Formed?

Don’t Jam with Softened Hands

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, so instead you should use rubbing alcohol, (as we mentioned earlier) as a drying agent before you pick up your instrument.

Don’t Press Down Too Hard

Try to practice for short periods of time without applying too much force. If you don’t, you’re at risk of developing tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, which is more painful and serious than a few sore fingers. Overuse may even mean your hands become blistered or that the calluses become worn away before becoming properly established.

Don’t Pick at, Bite, or Shave Them Down

All of us have to admit we love picking at annoying bits of skin on our hands or face, 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, so it’s extremely counterproductive.

Rub Your Them Down During Down Time

If for some reason you’re away from your instrument for a week or so, perhaps on holiday or visiting family, there are some handy tricks to keep your treasured bits of hard skin in shape. For example, 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.

What to Do if They Start Peeling Off?

It’s unlikely that a callus will fall off unless you’ve been pretty heavy handed, but if you’re unlucky enough to experience this, luckily there are ways to reduce the pain and repair the damage. For example, you can try swapping your steel strings for softer nylon versions, which are easier to handle. You can also try a lighter gauge set on an electric guitar if playing an acoustic is getting too much for your hands. Another way around this issue is to lower your tuning by a whole step from EADGBE to DGCFAD, this will make the tension lower, so you don’t need to apply as much pressure whilst pressing the strings down onto the fretboard.

Summary

Overall, the process of building up calluses takes a little time and practice, but the most important thing to do is to practice for short durations at regular intervals throughout the day. The worst thing you can do is try using an acoustic with steel strings for five hours at a time, this will leave your fingers very sore and potentially blistered up so that you can’t play at all. Be patient and it’ll all be worth it after a month or so.

How did you get on after a couple of weeks? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Roz

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she's not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.