If you’re new to the guitar and just started playing you may have heard of calluses. They’re unavoidable and every guitarist has had to go through the process of developing them.
It’s a pain (literally) but well worth putting the time and effort in. But if you aren’t sure how to build guitar calluses or what they do then we’re going in to cover every aspect of developing calluses.
What are Calluses?
Calluses are hard, thick patches of skin that appear mainly on your hands or feet. In guitar terms they develop on your fingertips and create pads that protect your fingers from pain when pushing down the strings.
The repeated pressure and stress of the strings on your fingertips causes the body to produce more keratin that builds up in the skin of the tips creating the thick, callus pads. This results in your fingertips becoming immune to the pain of the string digging into them.
Basically calluses allow you to play the guitar for prolonged periods without it hurting. That’s why calluses are so revered and those new guitarists who are just starting out want to develop calluses as quickly as possible.
Why Build Guitar Calluses
You may be wondering why you would want to purposefully hurt yourself in order to get your body to create something it wouldn’t naturally do. And in fairness you have a point.
The reason why guitarists build calluses though is because the alternatives just aren’t as good. You can try the other ways: taping your fingers or putting superglue on your fingertips, but they just don’t work as well.
So it’s easier to bite the bullet, go through the pain of building calluses like every guitarist has and in the long run it’ll save you any problems that might arise because you tried to take a shortcut.
How to Build Guitar Calluses
So, you’ve decided to push through and commit to getting calluses to improve your playing and stamina. Now the question is – how do you get guitar calluses?
Well there are some ways you can maximize the process.
There really is no getting around it – the best way to build up calluses for guitar is to practice playing regularly and consistently.
You’re going to need to have determination and persist for a while before it begins to feel completely comfortable holding the strings down.
Try playing in short bursts. It’s far better to play for 10 minutes 3 or 4 times every day then playing for an hour or two once or twice a week. Small and regular is far more effective than big chunks.
Use Heavier String Gauges
The reason some guitarists choose to use the lightest string gauges – 9s – is because they’re easier to play. There’s less tension for performing bends but the main reason they’re easier is because they require less pressure to hold them down. And so there is less pain.
But for building calluses 9s just aren’t going to cut it. And you don’t want to get comfortable only playing the lightest string gauges as it’ll restrict your playing as you grow.
It’s much better to start or experiment with thicker gauges to get used to the feeling. It will also build your calluses faster and help your fingers get comfortable with playing different types of strings.
And if in the future you want to try the lighter gauges you’ll find them unbelievably easy!
Play the Acoustic
If you’re learning the electric guitar then you may want to consider getting an acoustic to help build your calluses. Acoustic guitars have much thicker strings and higher action that makes it much harder to hold the strings down.
Playing an acoustic will definitely speed up the development of your calluses, as well as making the electric seem much easier to play when you come back to it!
Bending strings puts a bit more pressure and stress on your fingertips. You’ve probably noticed when playing that it hurts a bit more to bend. That’s exactly why it’s good to focus on it.
So practice bends. You don’t have to worry about hitting the right note or them sounding perfect. The goal is purely to work those calluses.
Raise the Action
If you don’t know what the action of your guitar is it’s the distance between the strings and the fretboard. Now it makes sense that the lower the action, so the nearer to the fretboard the strings are, the easier it is to hold the strings down. The same applies in reverse too – the higher the action the more difficult.
So having a higher action will definitely work your fingers more, hurt more and build calluses for guitar faster.
However, you shouldn’t necessarily rush off and raise your action. Whilst building calluses is important having a guitar that is comfortable and you enjoy playing is more so.
Raising the action will make playing more difficult, full stop. Even with the toughest calluses known to man you will still find playing a guitar with very high action hard and frustrating.
Personally I believe it’s better to learn and build calluses on a guitar that is setup well with a comfortable action rather than changing it purely so you can try and speed up the process. The time you save will be marginal and doesn’t feel worth it to me.
Cut your Fingernails
If you have long nails then you may have found them hitting the fretboard or strings as you play. This is going to make your playing sloppy but more importantly it’s going to slow down the speed your calluses build.
Your fingernails being long will absorb some of the friction and pressure from the strings that should be being applied to your fingertips.
So cut them back!
Be careful not to overdo it though and hurt the sensitive beds of your fingernail by overexposing them. Just keep the nails to a normal, sensible length. And if you feel them hitting the strings or fretboard then you know they need a trim.
If you’re super keen to get your calluses as fast as possible then you can utilize the time when you aren’t playing the guitar. Think outside the box and use every day items to replicate guitar strings.
The most commonly suggested way is to use the edge of a credit card and push it into your fingers. It works well because it has a thin edge that is similar to the feeling of a string.
Other items will do the job as well so look for anything you can find and throughout the day you can be working on building those calluses even if you aren’t able to actually play the guitar.
Exercises for Developing Calluses
Generally speaking it doesn’t matter how you play the guitar, just playing it will build calluses. However there are some specific exercises that may help you focus on your calluses and build them more thoroughly.
For example, it’s beneficial to have calluses all over the fingertips, not just centrally. If you develop a callus in just one spot then inevitably miss that spot when playing it’s going to hurt.
Over time you will naturally widen your callus as you play the guitar more and use your fingers at different angles for more complex chords and leads.
But you can take a few minutes at the end of each session or make it part of your practice routine to use the parts of your fingertips where the callus is least developed. Just find the spots that feel the least thick or are still sensitive and play a little on those.
You’ll find it builds a more full callus that bit quicker.
Use Rubbing Alcohol
This is a trick popularized by Eric Clapton. All you do is rub Isopropyl alcohol on your fingertips before playing.
The alcohol dries the fingertips which in theory should make the body produce even more keratin even quicker, making the calluses build faster.
You can give it a try if you like but there’s no real need (or evidence). Playing regularly is the tried and tested way that you can’t go wrong with.
Caring for and Maintaining your Calluses
We’ve looked at what you can do to help the callus building process now lets turn our attention to what you shouldn’t do.
If you’ve reached the stage of having hard and full calluses you will want to maintain them so they serve you well as you progress with your playing. Here are some tips to keep them in good shape and what to avoid doing.
Picking, Peeling or Biting Calluses
Temptation may get the better of you but try to resist picking at your calluses! If you do you’ll just be putting yourself right back at the start again.
They may look ugly and feel weird but you will get used to them quickly. It’s best to do all you can to just ignore them.
Playing with Wet Hands
Water may be essential for cleaning but it’s a nightmare when playing the guitar. Feel your fingers and fingertips directly after getting them wet – you’ll find the skin is much softer.
That softer skin includes your calluses. If you start playing with your hands and fingers still wet or even just damp you will ruin your calluses and undo all the hard work you’ve put in.
The hard strings will dig into that now soft flesh from the dampness and the hard calluses will be shredded and wrecked.
So make sure your hands are completely dry before playing.
Pressing too Hard
You actually need to press down the strings on the guitar a lot less than you might think. If you’re a beginner then you may find yourself really putting a lot of pressure on the strings.
Try to relax and consciously work on pushing down only as much as is absolutely necessary.
If you continuously push too hard you’re going to tire your hand and fingers much faster and even potentially develop problems (carpal tunnel, tendonitis etc.).
How Long Will it Take?
How long is a piece of string? Unfortunately there is no one, single answer. It will depend on many different factors – how often and how long you play, how high your pain tolerance is, how thick the skin on your fingers is to begin with, the strings you use etc.
The one thing that is for sure though is that the more you play then the quicker your calluses will develop. If you’re looking for a rough idea then after 10 or so days you should be noticing much less pain when playing. By 4 weeks you should have fully formed, thick calluses protecting your fingertips from the harsh strings.
Avoiding Fingertip Pain
If your fingers are really hurting then the first thing to do is stop playing. There is definitely going to be discomfort and some pain but if it gets really bad listen to your body and have a break.
To help with the pain you can try these measures:
- In-between practice sessions or playing try soaking your fingertips in apple cider vinegar. It should then heal quicker.
- Use some mild pain killer like Ibuprofen.
- If you get swollen fingertips then use cold compresses to help reduce it.
- Don’t play through pain. Take breaks and rest when your body tells you to.
Building calluses hurts. There’s no getting away from it. But it’s important that you persist.
With time and dedication you will find the pain subsides and playing the guitar becomes a breeze (your technique may still need some work though!)
It’s worth the discomfort of those few weeks in the long run and your reward will be years of painless shredding.