If you are a beginner guitar player, you have probably noticed that the ends of your fingers get sore and red after you play for a while or even start to bleed. Over time, the skin on your fingers will form calluses, strengthening and thickening in the places where they make contact with the guitar strings. But does this common occurrence help you play guitar better?
Yes, calluses help you play guitar better. Not only do they help make guitar playing easier and less painful, but they also assist in improving the tone of your instrument.
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5 Ways Calluses Help With Your Guitar Playing
Below, we will cover five reasons why calluses can help you play the guitar, in addition to how to form and take care of newly-formed calluses to avoid infection and pain as you practice.
Calluses Desensitize Your Fingers To Pain
Developing calluses are not just a response to a wound (like a scar)—they are an intentional mechanism of the body to protect you and help your body function better and more safely in the ways you are routinely using it. Therefore, the skin in areas of repeated use—like your fingertips when you play guitar routinely—will become stronger over time.
So while guitar playing can be painful when you first start, you shouldn’t give up or expect this pain to last! With consistent practice, your body will realize that it needs to build up more resistance.
The body’s natural protective response to the repeated pressure and friction of your fingertips on the strings will result in the development of calluses, which will desensitize your fingers to any pain you felt at first.
So, don’t give up if playing guitar seems a little painful at first! Once calluses have developed, you will no longer feel a thing when pressing down the strings.
Calluses Make Guitar Playing Easier
Calluses not only make guitar playing painless, but they also improve your playing by making it easier to press down the strings.
Thick metal guitar strings take some pressure to sound clearly against a fretboard. Fingertips without calluses are relatively soft, so it takes more effort to press the strings down enough to make them sound with uncalloused fingers.
The tougher surface of callused fingertips makes it much easier to depress the string of a guitar solidly enough to sound, requiring less pressure and effort from the fingers.
Calluses Allow You To Practice For Longer
Because of the pain and the effort required of playing guitar with “soft” fingertips, you may find that your practice times early on have to be relatively short.
Even with a short practice, you may be discouraged the following day to find that your fingertips are incredibly sore or even have shallow cuts. And, early on, you may find that if you take a few days off from practice, it is even more painful to start again.
However, calluses also solve this problem. The more your calluses develop with regular playing, the more you will be able to practice for long periods without any pain.
Guitar players with strong and fully developed calluses can practice for any amount of time without injuring their fingertips. If you take a little bit of time and patience to fully develop your calluses, you won't even have to think about how much time you are practicing every day and whether your fingers will hurt the next morning.
Calluses Help You Create A More Precise Sound
When pressing down a guitar’s string, the note sound comes from the contact between the string and the metal fret on the fretboard. Thus, the sound of the “note” is not actually coming directly from the touch of the fingertip and the string on a guitar.
However, callused fingers still contribute to the tone and sound of a guitar. Because calluses help fingers press strings down more fully and smoothly, callused fingers are much more easily able to create a solid note while not applying too much pressure or strain to the string. This affects the tone of the note, making it ring out more clearly and precisely.
In addition to the most obvious calluses on your left hand (or right, for left-handed guitarists) that make contact with the fretboard, calluses may form on the right hand of guitar players who consistently pick with their fingers rather than a guitar pick.
For guitarists who prefer to finger-pick, calluses are even more significant to their playing tone, as the fingers of the picking hand make consistent contact with the strings. On this hand, calluses will make the tone much louder, stronger, and more precise for guitarists who pick by hand.
Calluses Help You Slide Across The Strings More Effectively
In many styles of guitar playing, “sliding” is an integral part of the sound. Sliding involves slipping your finger or fingers along a string—across the metal frets—while the string is still sounding. If you think that sounds painful as a beginning guitarist, you are probably correct!
Sliding is something that strong calluses make much easier and less painful. Without calluses, it can actually be challenging to get the correct sound, as a softer fingertip may be unable to press down the string while sliding across multiple frets.
So if you want to learn how to “slide” while playing guitar, be sure to take it easy while your calluses are first forming. Once the calluses have developed correctly, you’ll be able to practice slides as much as you want!
How Long Do Calluses Take To Form?
The length of time that calluses take to form depends on several factors, including how thin and soft the skin on your fingertips was, to begin with, how often and for how long you practice, the type of guitar and strings you are using, and even what kind of music you are regularly playing.
Callus formation will take between 2 to 4 weeks to form fully, with regular guitar practice.
After this period, however, calluses will continue to strengthen over years of play but can also deteriorate if you go a while without playing the guitar. It is essential to pay attention to your own body and how playing guitar feels to determine when you have fully formed calluses and safely extend your practice time.
How To Form Calluses Quickly And Safely With A Guitar
While it is important not to push your fingers too far when starting as a guitarist, to avoid injury to your fingertips, there are ways that you can help your calluses to develop both quickly and safely as a beginner player.
Here are just a few best practices for forming calluses:
Practice Regularly, But For Short Amounts Of Time
The key to callus formation is, of course, a lot of practice. However, creating healthy calluses is a balance of slight injury to the skin and allowing it to heal. Thus, for guitar players just starting out, practicing around 15 minutes at a time, 3-4 times a day, is a very great way to begin.
As your fingers toughen up over days and weeks, you might eventually change this to 45 minutes to an hour at one time each day. Be attentive to how your fingertips are feeling, and don’t push through extreme pain to keep practicing.
While some discomfort is inevitable, if your fingers feel like you are causing them serious injury, then you probably are. Pushing yourself too far is not the fastest way to form strong and healthy calluses.
Use Other Objects To Apply Pressure To Your Fingertips
Even when you are not practicing, you can use other thin objects to get your fingers accustomed to the sensation of guitar strings.
An item like a credit card can be pressed to fingertips throughout the day; this will help your fingers acclimate to the feeling of thin guitar strings and promote callus development in that area without causing injury from too much practice on rough strings.
Some guitarists regularly carry an object like this around with them and press it against their fingertips when waiting in lines or doing some other task that doesn’t require their hands—this is an excellent way to keep up with calluses when you don’t have the chance to practice.
Apply Rubbing Alcohol To Your Fingertips Regularly
Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol has a drying effect that can help dry out the skin on your fingertips, causing calluses to form more quickly.
With a cotton ball or a cloth, spread some rubbing alcohol over the ends of your fingertips three times a day for the first couple of weeks that you are playing guitar. You can also use an alcohol wipe to do this, which may be easier if you are on the go.
Soak Your Fingers In Apple Cider Vinegar
One way to help your calluses develop and strengthen is to soak your fingertips in apple cider vinegar both before and after practice. Pour out a small amount of vinegar into a small container and soak your fingers for around 30 seconds before and after practicing. This will help alleviate some of the soreness and aid in the development of calluses.
Use Glue Or Tape To Cover Calluses And Continue Playing
Many new guitarists use this trick to get in more practice time without damaging their fingertips. You can use glue or tape to form a “makeshift callus” on your fingertips while continuing to practice.
If your fingers are getting too sore from playing, add a dot of glue on each fingertip, or wrap a couple of layers of clear tape over the tips to create a firm surface to continue practicing.
Note: Be sure to never apply a substance like glue to the fingertips if there is a cut or open wound on the finger from playing.
Start With An Acoustic Guitar
An acoustic guitar with steel strings is an excellent way to get your fingers used to the pressure and roughness of a guitar’s strings and develop calluses quickly. While electric guitars may be a little easier to play, the trade-off is much slower callus development. If you want to develop strong calluses in a short amount of time, this a good guitar to start with.
Use Thick-Gauge Strings When You Start Playing
Guitar strings come in all different gauges, or thicknesses. When you first start out, it is a good idea to use thicker-gauge strings, if forming healthy calluses is your primary concern.
While some recommend using lighter gauge strings for beginners—as they are easier to press down and so it can be easier to learn chords on them—thicker gauge guitar strings will rub against your fingers and cause friction across a wider part of the fingertip.
This will promote callus development and will also be less likely to result in cuts to the fingertips than a thinner string.
While it can be frustrating and uncomfortable to form calluses as a beginning guitar player, the most important part is to trust the process and not give up!
Every guitar player had to start out in the same way, and once you’ve formed the calluses, you can keep them forever with regular and consistent practice.
What To Avoid When Forming Calluses With A Guitar
While developing calluses as you play, make sure you avoid doing the following to ensure they form safely and without injury:
Do Not Take Long Breaks Between Practices
The key to forming healthy calluses is consistency, and so it is essential to avoid taking long breaks, or erratic breaks, from guitar playing when you first start out if you want calluses to form quickly.
Practicing for just 15 minutes or so every day will keep your calluses forming, while taking a few days off may start the process all over again. Remember that you need to be sending the signal to your body that it should invest the work into forming calluses on your fingers, or it will keep getting hurt.
Do Not Neglect The Healing Process
However, it is crucial to take your time when forming calluses and allow the skin to heal as they develop.
While it is something that every new guitarist experiences and is a necessary step of learning to play the instrument, you should keep in mind that the pain you are feeling in your fingertips is a real injury and trauma to the skin of your fingertips, and you should allow them time to heal.
Playing too much on injured fingers, once the top layer of skin has worn away, or there is a cut in the skin, is not only extremely painful—it can actually do permanent damage to the tissue, skin, nerves, and blood vessels in your fingertips. You could even permanently damage or lose feeling in your fingertips.
Do Not Play With Blisters Or Cuts
Another thing to watch out for while forming calluses is blisters or cuts. These are commonly formed when a beginning guitar player plays for too long at one time. Developing calluses is a delicate balance, and playing with blisters or cuts on your fingers is almost impossible and is not good for your fingers.
Pay attention to the surface of your skin as you practice, and pause your practicing for a day or so at the first sign of a blister or a cut.
How To Care For Your Calluses Properly
While calluses can last forever after being formed the first time, they don’t necessarily last forever. Fortunately, the upkeep for calluses is quite simple, and it’s the same thing as it takes to form them: consistent practice.
Even very thick and well-formed calluses can start to go away after a week or so of not playing. After a month of inactivity, even the most resilient calluses will usually be completely gone. Remember the pain you went through the first time, and keep practicing consistently, even if that’s just once every week or two.
Another important note is not to pick or bite at your calluses. This is especially true while they are first forming, but picking off a callus can start the whole process over, leaving you with a tender fingertip that is painful to play with until a new callus forms. Fight the temptation, and leave your calluses alone as much as you can!
Playing guitar with wet fingers is another way to harm them, as being saturated by water (such as from taking a shower, swimming, or doing the dishes) softens calluses temporarily. If your fingers are wrinkled from water or very wet, wait a few minutes until your hands are completely dry before picking up your guitar.
Do Calluses Help You Play Guitar? Conclusion
Calluses take several weeks to develop and take a bit of patience and consistent dedication to form in a healthy and strong way. However, properly formed calluses make guitar playing easier and pain-free, allow you to practice for more extended periods, improve the tone of your playing, and make it easier to utilize certain techniques such as sliding.
With patient practicing in the first weeks and regular guitar playing moving forward, you can form calluses that will last for the rest of your life—and play better because of it.
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