One of the biggest misconceptions about learning and improving your guitar skills is the myth about sore fingers. Many guitarists are told or taught that sore fingers equals progress and that it is, in fact, a sign you are doing things correctly. In this post, I’ll explain why that is nonsense — and what you should do instead.
If you have calluses on your fingers, then you might have been misled into thinking that this is a good thing — and even that you should wear them like a badge of honour.
Many guitarists and poor teachers often encourage you to go through the pain barrier (as they don’t know any better, and they did this themselves), but as discussed in this post you must be wary of learning from others — as often they are wrong, and especially so in this case!
The Myth About Sore Fingers
I’ve had students come to me on their first lesson and tell me they are frustrated, but they’ll also tell me proudly that their calluses are starting to get hard and toughen up. They show me their fingers and they look sore as hell.
I quickly tell them that this is NOT a good thing. I actually don’t have hard calluses on my fingers myself. My fingertips are pretty much only as hard as they need to be, which is what you should aim for.
If your fingers look like the image at the top of this post, you are doing things wrongly!
It is a sign that your technique is letting you down, and that you are pressing much too hard.
Instead of playing through the soreness and pain, try this…
Take the Callus Test
Stop reading this for a minute and play your guitar as you normally do for just a minute or two. Don’t think too much about it — just play as you normally do and then come back.
Right, so you have just played for a few minutes. Now, take a look at your fingertips.
- Are there clear indentations in your fingers?
- Are there lines where your fingers press on the strings?
- Do your fingertips tingle or feel a little sore?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you have failed the callus test. You now need to make a big effort to work on the following…
Fix Your Technique and Play with Far Less Pain and Frustration
The simplest thing you can do to help is to… stop pressing so hard.
- So many guitarists lack the right technique and lack the ability to stretch their fingers and place them where they need to be.
- The fingers are then often in the wrong position, which means they need to press harder to make the string sound clear.
- Often the guitarist is frustrated and cannot move his or her fingers into the correct position, so the only thing they can think to do is to press harder.
- … And sometimes this works, and other times it doesn’t. Over time, this becomes a habit, and the discomfort and pain are something they get used to.
All of the above happened to me and it has happened to millions of others.
Instead of pressing so hard, every time you play, ask yourself:
“Am I pressing any harder than I need to in order to be able to fret the notes cleanly?”
If you believe the answer is yes, then remove a little bit of pressure and ask again. Rinse and repeat until each note you play is only fretted with the minimum amount of pressure required.
Applying more pressure than necessary is a fundamental flaw, and one that most guitarists aren’t even aware of. They expect they have to just press hard and slog it out.
But it shouldn’t be that way at all.
‘Minimum Pressure Required’
I talk about the ‘minimum pressure required’ technique along with other techniques that allow you to play with better basic technique in my course Ninja Chord Changes.
If you find that playing with less pressure makes the notes and chords buzz, then ensure you are playing using the classical with a strap position as this puts your hands in a better and much more relaxed place to play notes with less strain.
You should also use a capo to make playing chords easier. A capo means you can play higher up the neck where the frets are a little closer and where stretching to fret each chord is less awkward.
Once you can play the main chords with a capo on fret 5 with perfect clarity and minimum pressure, you can move it progressively down one fret at a time until you no longer need a capo.
This is much better than trying to force things with no capo — which only leads to bad habits.
Doing this will still lead to calluses — but not the sort of horrid, sore ones many guitarists are used to.
Your fingers will harden up just enough to fret the notes cleanly and efficiently, but no more.
Just remember to not try to be a hero and force your way to guitar happiness. Instead, use your brain, relax, and use the minimum amount of pressure needed.
It will save you lots of time and frustration and will allow you to truly enjoy your playing.