Many students experience discomfort, or even pain, in their fingertips after playing. In this blog post, we try to break down the common causes for this, why and if you should be concerned and where to go from there.
Why do I have pain in my fingertips after playing?
When past students have asked me this question, I often reply with a comparison between guitar playing and going to the gym. After lifting some heavy weights or doing some hard exercise, your muscles will inevitably ache - this shows you that there is some development going on - i.e muscle gain. When playing the guitar, we are training multiple parts of our bodies, including our fingertips, to control what is essentially an inanimate object. This is similar to going to the gym - you are building up a tolerance to a certain point.
However, it is important to understand that actual pain, or visible injuries such as cuts or grazes, should not be ignored. Put simply, some discomfort is to be expected initially, but it should not continue past the first couple of weeks of playing (or if you’ve taken a lengthy break from playing).
Other causes for experiencing finger pain when playing could be the fact that your strings need replacing. If you have worn, or even rusted, metal strings on your guitar you will experience tone, playability and tuning issues as well as a significant degree of pain. You may also like to try a lighter gauge of string. Older strings may feel ok playing single notes or chords, but bending may be an issue.
I have also seen a poor guitar set-up be the cause of discomfort; if the action (string height) is too great, then you would need to apply more pressure with your fingers than usual. The latter two reasons should be fairly obvious to even a beginner; even an amateur guitarist can visibly see these problems.
I recall an older student I was teaching a few years ago. I believe this student was approximately 65 years old and had suffered with arthritis in her hands for many years. In conjunction with her doctor, we devised a series of stretches and warm-ups for her hands that help alleviate some issues that were present. In fact, playing the guitar assisted in her dealing with the condition anyway! Please note, this particular anecdote is specific to overall hand pain rather than that of the fingertips.
What should I do?
Let’s first discuss the case of having strings in need of replacement. The most obvious remedy here is to replace the strings, something any guitar playing should be able to do. You can learn to do this using a YouTube video or a book, but I learned by having someone physically show me, and then supervise while I did it again myself so they could help in the case of any mishaps. Lighter gauge strings could also help, or even the brand of strings, but this is something I would not recommend a beginner explore straight away - as long as the strings are new, clean and stay in tune you should be fine.
For a guitar set-up, it’s quite common for basic adjustments to be done by intermediate and above guitarists themselves. However, beginners or those who are not confident should take their guitar to a luthier or recommended repair person. In Japan, it is my experience that almost every guitar store has an in-house team of repair staff who are all highly skilled and have a quick turnaround. I have learned the hard way that if you are not confident with taking on a repair job yourself, don’t. Always take it to a professional in that case! It should be noted that a poor set-up will also cause the guitar to slip out of tune frequently, and the intonation could be inaccurate.
On the subject of general discomfort when playing, try to do a few things. First, identify how long you have been playing in that particular session. Even as a seasoned professional, I know that if I play for a few hours or more in one sitting then I would inevitably feel some discomfort.
If you have been playing in total for only a couple of weeks, then your fingers may still need to develop calluses on the tips. This is where the skin becomes a bit tougher and more resistant to the friction of the strings etc. The same holds true when, as mentioned before, you have taken a significant break from playing - something I have experienced when going on holiday and not having access to a guitar whilst I was away!
Steps to take in order to avoid discomfort (and some you shouldn’t!).
I have recently come across some products, usually from cheap online retailers like Wish or Temu, that act like a thimble for all of your finger tips. The idea is that you put a small rubber cap on each of your finger tips to stop any pain - DO NOT DO THIS! Any guitar teacher will vehemently advocate for the ban of such a product. Whilst it may protect your fingers, you are unable to learn some fine motor skills, control the guitar dynamically and feel the strings properly. It’s almost like chopping your legs off so you don’t get blisters from a new pair of shoes. Yes, it works. But at what cost?
I also once heard a story of a guitar player who coated the tips of his fingers with super glue before every show, creating a barrier similar to that of the rubber tips as mentioned above. I shouldn’t need to explain how much of a silly idea this is!
The following ideas would all be good suggestions to alleviate discomfort. First and foremost, keep practicing regularly - allow your fingers to develop naturally. I would also recommend cleaning your strings after every use. You can purchase products especially designed for this purpose, but the same effect could be similarly achieved with a quick wipe from a clean cloth - fingers sweat and this, combined with other natural oils from your skin, can be corrosive for guitar strings.
Some guitarists like to use coated strings. Popular brands would be Elixir or NYXL from D’Addario. Personally, I use the ‘Optiweb’ strings from Elixir - they have a coating that works, but doesn’t feel like it’s actually there. Other products from the same company, or other companies, have a coating that feels too ‘obvious’ - a distinct barrier between my finger and the strings, if you will.
It is also recommended to take a physical break from playing, within reason of course. Practicing one recurring legato line for one hour consistently may also have some negative effects. I would suggest, in this specific case, 15 minutes followed by a 5 minute break - studies have shown that this also aids in the retention of information also.
One other piece of advice would be to consider your technique. If you are playing something with incorrect technique, usually as a result of improper instruction, self tuition or YouTube videos, then you could work on rectifying that issue with the help of a competent teacher. Of course, you may not know this would be an issue without it being identified by said instructor.
In conclusion, some discomfort is normal. A lot of discomfort is uncommon and, if there’s significant pain, there is something very wrong and it should be fixed with some of the ideas we discussed earlier. You are the best judge of your own body, so if you think you can push through some mild difficulties, then I would suggest you do so. However, I have seen less enthused students use this as an excuse to stop playing - these particular students clearly didn’t have the passion to play the guitar properly!
Learning to play the guitar is an experience that I hold close to my heart. The line “Life’s a journey, not a destination” from Aerosmith’s 1994 hit ‘Amazing’ is something I like to apply to learning the guitar - enjoy the process and everything that accompanies it. Alternatively, you could heed the wise words of wisdom from the great Japanese guitarist Tomo Fujita which are “Don’t worry, don’t compare, don’t expect too fast and be kind to yourself”.