Guitar Tricks Blog
Posted: November 1, 2013

How to Toughen Up Your Fingertips

Here are tips to help with callus building. Keep in mind that although these tips may be useful to developing nice, thick calluses, none of them can substitute for actual playing.

If you have tips, let us know in the comments! 

1. Increase your guitar's playability.

The higher the action the more force is required to press down the strings. Luckily, just about any guitar's action can be adjusted. Take your instrument to your local music shop and ask them to check the action. If your action is too high, you'll be amazed at how much easier it is to play once you get it adjusted. 

2. Keep your nails trimmed.

It's much easier to build calluses with shorter nails. Long nails not only make it hard to develop calluses, they make it hard to get a good sound as well.

3. Get the right strings.

Guitar strings are available in a variety of gauges. Light gauge strings are easier to play than medium or heavy gauge strings, and they'll cause less finger soreness. Medium or heavy gauge strings will initially hurt more, but they should give you some nice, thick calluses pretty quickly. 

3. Learn on a steel string acoustic guitar.

The thinking here is if you learn to play on a steel string acoustic, it'll be easier to play the electric, not vice versa. Learn the differences between common types of guitars here.

Electric guitars are generally the easiest to play: the strings are thinner, the "action" (again, distance from the strings to the neck) is low and therefore they are easier to press down. 

4. Don't press on the strings so hard.

Beginners have a tendency to press down on the strings too hard. Relax your fingers, and press down just hard enough to make sure the string firmly contacts the fret.

The greatest danger from using too much pressure is developing tendonitis, which will force you to stop playing the guitar altogether until you completely recover. 

5. Don't play with wet fingers.

Calluses will soften up after being immersed in water while doing things like washing dishes, swimming, and bathing, or right after you have applied hand lotion.

If your hands feel wrinkled and your fingertips are still soft after being in water, wait till your hands are dry and your calluses feel hard again before playing. 

6. Refrain from biting, picking, or shaving off your hard-earned calluses.

You'll be right back where you started from otherwise and will have to start the process all over again. Sounds like common sense, I know, but you'd be surprised how tempting it gets to gnaw those buggers off, most especially when they are wet and soft from having been in water. 

7. Soak your fingers in apple cider vinegar.

Just soak your fingertips in apple cider vinegar for about 30 seconds before and after playing. Lightly icing your fingertips before and after playing can also help alleviate soreness. Topical anesthetic products containing benzocaine—toothache creams, for example—can also be applied before and after playing.

Some guitarists use a spot of Super Glue on tender tips as a makeshift callus. You have to be careful though that your fingers don't stick together or to the fretboard, where it can damage the finish. And should you go and develop a split in your finger, try using New-Skin® or some other liquid bandage to help close it. 

8. Use Rubbing alcohol.

A tip that supposedly comes direct from Eric Clapton is to rub your fingertips with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol three times a day for a week or two for a beginner or someone who hasn't played for a while. This will dry out the skin and help calluses build quicker.

Wipe your fingertips with a cotton pad soaked in rubbing alcohol, or use alcohol wipes, which health care providers use to clean your skin before giving you a shot. 

9. Use Pocket gadgets.

Some guitarists like to keep an old credit card in their pocket to help harden and maintain calluses while they pass time waiting in a bank line or riding a bus. Hold the card across the palm of the hand and press each finger in turn into the opposite edge. Some people simply dig their thumbnail into their fingertips a lot, right where the string hits the tip. 

10. Persevere.

Everyone who takes up the guitar has to deal with sore fingers in the beginning and every time they come back to their instrument after some time away. But in the end, it's so worth a little pain. So press on. Keep playing regularly. Learn to embrace the pain, knowing it will pass. Don't let sore fingertips stand between you and your dream of playing guitar. Don't give up, toughen up. 

And finally, remember that you've worked hard for your calluses. Keep them the same way you earned them—practice, practice, and more practice—and your tips will serve you a lifetime. 

In the 2009 documentary film It Might Get Loud, Jack White performs "Blue Veins" with The Raconteurs, literally playing until his fingers bleed. Not only does the clip leave me in awe of White's immense talent, it also reminds me of all the bellyaching I'd done over sore fingertips when I first took up the guitar (and the subsequent times I neglected my instrument and had to start the whole process over again—and again and again).

By the way, when you first get a guitar, remember to set it up correctly. I could hardly get through a half-hour practice in those early days without having to break every five minutes to nurse my tender, wounded digits where the strings had cut into them. And I let everyone within earshot know that not only was it hard to learn to play guitar, but it hurt too

Calluses are built gradually, over a period of time and with commitment. They help to increase your pleasure in playing by desensitizing your fingers to pain, allowing you to play longer and better. Calluses are the difference between the players and the pretenders. They are your battle scars, your badge of honor as a guitarist.

Blisters or cuts can make it almost impossible to play...

The most effective way to build calluses is through good old-fashioned practice. The type of practice we're talking here, however, isn't playing for three hours straight and then not playing again for days. If you try to play for several hours a day when you're brand new to the guitar or returning to your instrument after a lengthy absence, you may end up with a blister or two instead of a callus. Blisters or cuts can make it almost impossible to play, and they're slow to heal too, so don't overdo it.

What you want to do is to play in shorter bursts of time, several times a day, many times a week. Your fingertips will hurt a bit at first, but you don't want to avoid the soreness. Again, it's the only surefire way to build calluses. You can expect a decrease in fingertip sensitivity with time. And once you've got those babies good and tough, keep them that way by playing your guitar daily, even if only for a few minutes. As long as you continue to play faithfully, you'll maintain your calluses and never have to worry about sore fingers again.

 

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