Guitar Calluses - How to Toughen Your Fingertips for Guitar

Guitar Calluses: How to Toughen Your Fingertips for Guitar

When you watch videos of your favorite guitar players, you always notice something about their hands. No, not how deftly their fingertips move across the guitar, plucking strings at the speed of light. Instead, it’s the hardened, callused look of their fingers. Do you need guitar calluses to play well and if so, how do you get them?

So, how do you build calluses for playing guitar?

Guitar calluses are recommended to lessen finger pain as you play guitar. You can develop guitar calluses in the following ways:

  • Practice often but in short bursts
  • Play a steel-string acoustic guitar
  • Increase your string gauge thickness
  • Up your guitar’s action
  • Don’t leave your fingernails long
  • Use rubbing alcohol

If you’re on the quest for guitar calluses, this is the article for you. In it, I’ll explain more about the benefits of calluses for guitars, expand on how to get them, and tell you how to reduce hand pain from playing guitar in the meantime.

Let’s get started. 

What Are Guitar Calluses and Why Are They Beneficial?

Unless you’re a hand model, you probably don’t have baby soft fingers. Still, yours likely aren’t hardened enough to handle the rigors of playing guitar, at least not yet. 

When you play guitar using your fingertips instead of a pick, the pressure and friction caused by the strings irritate your fingertips. This sounds painful, and it is, but only at first. By playing repeatedly over time, you develop guitar calluses.

A callus is toughened skin on the body, such as on your feet from constant walking. Guitar calluses are on your fingertips. Since the skin is thicker here, when you play, you eventually feel very little and then no pain caused by the pressure and friction when fingertips meet the guitar string. 

Without pain, you can take your practice sessions further and even evolve into playing shows without coming away with sore hands. 

Are Your Fingers Hurting from Guitar?

You have a jam-packed schedule that sees you going here, there, and everywhere. If you end the day with painful hands, how do you know whether it was your guitar that caused them or something else?

You can use a process of elimination here. Think about all the activities you engage in with your hands throughout any given day. If you truly can’t remember every last thing you do, then I’d recommend starting a physical or digital journal for a few days to track your activities. 

Unless you’re washing your hands all the time, working around sources of heat or cold, or doing other strenuous hand activities, then you can probably point towards your guitar as the source of your hand pain. 

Here’s another easy way to tell if it’s your acoustic or electric guitar that’s making your hands hurt. Go about your daily routine the same as you always do, but this time, skip the guitar practice for a day. Do your hands hurt at the end of the day?

You might want to repeat the experiment for a second day and then see again whether your hands hurt. Then, on the third day, reintroduce the guitar to your routine. If your hands hurt after the third day, then yes, you have your guitar to blame. 

How Long Does It Take to Build Guitar Calluses?

Hand pain is no fun, but if you want guitar calluses, you’re going to have to suffer through the pain at first to get them. By skipping guitar practice for too long, all you’re doing is allowing the skin on your hands to heal from the friction and pressure. The next time you play, you’re starting all over again with building the calluses.

Okay, so you know you need patience, but exactly how much patience? I’d recommend giving it seven to 10 days for the calluses to begin forming and a month for them to finish. Up until then, your hands will hurt, sorry. Once you play continuously for about a week, most of that sharp, stinging pain disappears. These daily sessions don’t even have to be very long for you to reap the benefits.

At 10 days in, the pain isn’t totally gone, but maybe you feel more of an ache rather than an apparent sting. It’s still a little difficult to play, but nowhere near as hard as it was in the beginning. 

If you can continue to tough it out, then within about a month, you’ll be rewarded with your very own guitar calluses. You shouldn’t feel any pain at this point unless you overplay.

Keep in mind that certain habits between practice sessions can backtrack your progress so you have to start rebuilding your calluses from scratch. Here are some behaviors to avoid:

  • Don’t peel too much skin: It’s normal for a bit of skin to come off your fingertips from time to time once they become callused. If it’s been at least a month since you’ve started building your guitar calluses, then this skin should reveal another layer of thickened skin. Still, to protect your calluses, avoid the urge to peel too much skin. Let it come off on its own, as it will with time. 
  • Avoid using superglue: Putting glue on your fingertips and letting it dry may harken back to your childhood school days, but it’s not a smart idea. Some people recommend this as a way of creating “fake calluses,” but this hinders your ability to build real calluses. You could rip your skin off depending on the type of glue you use. You may also gunk up your guitar. 
  • Leave your hands relatively dry: Since guitar calluses are dry skin, putting lotion on your hands can soften up the calluses in no time. Skip the lotion as much as you can. At the very least, avoid getting it on your fingertips.
  • Do the wash with gloves on: Like lotion can soften those hard calluses, so too can prolonged water exposure. Keep your showers or baths short. If you have to wash the dishes, always wear latex gloves to protect your fingertips. When you go to the beach or pool, make sure you try to keep your hands out of the water as much as you can. 

How to Build Calluses to Toughen Up Your Fingertips for Guitar

You know how long you’ll have to wait to have guitar calluses, how painful the journey may be, and how to preserve your calluses. Now you’re curious, how do you get started growing this hardened skin on your fingertips?

To answer that, here are more detailed steps from the info I shared in the intro. 

Engage in Short but Frequent Practice Sessions

Especially at the beginning of your guitar callus journey, you might not be able to bear practicing guitar for more than 10 or 15 minutes in a day. That’s okay. As I mentioned before, the amount of time you dedicate to your lessons isn’t quite as important as sticking with them every day.

In the first week or so, that will mean playing through sometimes intense pain. Keep reading, as later on, I’ll share some of my favorite tips for lessening finger pain from the guitar without ruining the progress of your developing calluses. 

Play on a Steel-Stringed Acoustic Guitar

Since you want to develop calluses, I’d recommend ditching the electric guitar for now. The pliable, thin strings may feel much better on your fingers, but they’re not sufficient enough for calluses to form. 

Stick to acoustic guitar for the next month, and not just any acoustic guitar, but one with steel strings. These thicker, heavier strings require more out of your fingers to play. 

As an added tip, make sure you’re not pressing down too hard on the strings. This increases your risk of tendonitis. If you think developing guitar calluses is painful, tendonitis can be far more so. Unlike calluses, which can disappear with time, tendonitis might not. 

Increase the Action on Your Guitar

If you’re new to the guitar, you might not quite understand what guitar action is. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, but here’s a recap for you. Guitar strings sit on a fretboard, but the height they sit can be different depending on how you set it. That height is the action.

Your guitar action can be higher or lower. A lower action means the strings are practically making contact with the fretboard, which can result in a buzzing sound when you touch the strings. If the guitar action is too high, you may have difficulty playing.

Normally, I wouldn’t advocate for an uncomfortably high guitar action, but when building calluses, I do. You don’t want to be able to play easily, as that doesn’t allow the thick skin on your fingertips to build up. So for a while, grin and bear it as best you can with a higher guitar action. Once you have your guitar calluses, it will have all been worth it. 

Trim Your Fingernails Before Playing

This tip goes for both men and women. You don’t want long fingernails when playing guitar for a few reasons. For one, your long nails could accidentally hit the fretboard, scratching it. Your nails also reduce how much of your fingertips make contact with a string, which may lessen the friction and pressure you need to form a callus. 

Advanced playing techniques, such as sliding your fingers across the fretboard, can also rip your nails. That would be quite painful, so please trim them before you play. Also, avoid fake nails when playing guitar, as they definitely don’t work either. 

Use Rubbing Alcohol to Dry out Your Fingertips

If your hands just don’t feel dry enough, that’s okay. Eric Clapton himself advises for using isopropyl alcohol, or common rubbing alcohol, on each of your fingertips. Just take a cotton ball and apply to your fingers, repeating this thrice daily. After one to two weeks, you might have the calluses that would otherwise take a month to develop. 

Alternately, you can try apple cider vinegar. Fill a shallow bowl with the stuff and then put our fingertips in the bowl. Keep them there for 30 seconds, take them out, dab them dry, and get to playing. When you’re done with guitar practice for the day, repeat the apple cider vinegar soak again. 

How to Reduce Finger Pain from Guitar

Here’s what I know you’ve been waiting for. You’re aware the results of callused fingertips are so worth it to improve your guitar playing, but getting there is super hard! Your hands hurt something fierce to the point of distraction. How do you lessen the pain so you can focus?

Here’s what I recommend.

Ice Your Fingertips

Ice is a reliable pain treatment that you can use until your hands build up that extra skin. When you wrap up with your daily guitar practice, plunk your fingertips in a shallow ice bath or drape an ice-filled cloth over both hands. 

Use Benzocaine 

Benzocaine is an anesthetic that’s typically found in oral pain medications like Orajel. Besides toothaches, benzocaine treatments also come in handy for reducing your fingertip pain. You can apply the stuff ahead of your guitar practice, but make sure rub it in so your fingers aren’t slick or slippery. Reapply when you’re done playing for the day.

Take Long Breaks

If your goal is to play guitar for 40 minutes a day when developing calluses, that doesn’t necessarily have to mean 40 consecutive minutes. You can play in 10-minute bursts, taking a break for an hour in between. This gives you plenty of time for your hands to stop hurting so you can get back to the guitar. 

Conclusion 

Guitar calluses make longer practice and play sessions possible since you’re not in pain. To develop these calluses though, you do have to suffer some. It can take upwards of a month for the calluses to form. The key is to keep at it and practice every day, even if it hurts. Take breaks, use benzocaine-based medications, or ice your fingers in between practice sessions so you can stick with the daily playing schedule. Soon enough, you’ll have your own guitar calluses! 

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