Perhaps some of you got guitars for Christmas, Hanukkah or that unfortunate holiday birthday at least grandma didn’t forget.
If so, your fingers must hurt like hell by now.
Unless you’ve made your way as an accident-prone electrician or a particularly terrible sewer, your soft hands just don’t have calluses in the right spots to cope with the pressure those strings exert back up into your digits. Especially true if you’re starting with a top-of-the-line (or bottom) acoustic guitar.
I can tell you that you’re not alone. But the best advice I can give is just keep playing.
Play often. Play every single day. Keep playing if they bleed. Clean your instrument thoroughly and play it the next day, too.
Your fingers will hurt. This is going to happen. And eventually – maybe within 2-3 weeks – they will go numb. When I started playing in the dorms on a state-of-the-art Martin acoustic (not mine), the tip of every finger on my left hand went completely numb for beyond a month.
I’m not saying la-de-dah, deal with it (I am), because it was a bitch for me, too (all this means is that I empathize). I was in college, writing papers and trying to type, take notes and unsnap bras (never got any better at that one). I had also just gotten the cartilage of my left ear pierced. Imagine washing your hair with fingers you can’t feel and a throbbing red ear waiting to remind you of what you’d just done to it. Then imagine being reminded again while toweling off.
But the numbness in your fingers will subside… mostly. You want the very tips of your fingers to become impervious to pain. When my cranky cat (hope she’s not reading this) bites into the tip of my left pointer finger, I can feel it a little, but it takes a lot longer for it to hurt than on my right hand. You can see how this might help when sliding up and down strings only millimeters in width (also with the cats and if I ever decide to take up sewing).
So here’s where I stress – again – that to keep the calluses (and your chops) up, there is not one single more important thing to do than to just pick the instrument up and practice it – EVERY DAY.
You don’t need to lay out a hardcore jam every single time – run through a scale, play a tune you’ve been covering and then jam around over a song that just came on the radio. You’re done.
It’s easy to play guitar, but to be a GOOD guitarist you must be obsessed. Keeping the guitar close and picking it up every day is a good habit to get into (I may have mentioned before that my girlfriend, L., calls a certain guitar my “other girlfriend.”)
Doing this will not only keep your calluses up, but will also keep your fingers' muscle-memory in-tact.
Dizzy Gillespie (trumpeter, but still..) once said: “If I lay off the horn for a day, I know it; if I lay off the horn for two days, my peers know it; if I lay off the horn for three days, the whole world knows it.”
Even through all this, you may encounter a problem or two later.
My calluses started to crack this autumn because of a dry skin/ doing-a-lot-of-dishes-to-be-a-nice-guy combo. Add that to the fact that I just purchased a new acoustic guitar and I had myself some pain (and thanks L., but no, I’m not putting crazy glue on my hands).
I put some salve with a band-aid over the afflicted fingers overnight a few times and just kept playing.
If you can’t get over this pain (or the buzzing/tickling feeling in your fingers, as some complain about), get yourself a “classical” guitar – the tops three strings are nylon. These are older-style guitars without a cutout on the body (other than that, they look like acoustic guitars).
You could also just go straight for an electric guitar. The action (space between the strings and fretboard) will be much lower. Couple this with the fact that you can also turn the volume up and you’ll find that you don’t need to press down quite as hard.
Even if you stick to these tips, you may one day find yourself at a friend's house thousands of miles away with your fingers bleeding. To that I leave you with three words that actually describe a thing that happened to my buddy and bassist: duck tape claw.