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Last Updated: Dec 11, 2017
In another blog post I talked about switching to ultra-light guitar strings to help alleviate finger and hand pain. That sparked emails from readers asking if I have any other hand-saving tips. In fact, yes, there are a few other things you can do to make playing guitar less painful.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so when it comes to hand pain that is the result of a medical condition (arthritis, repetitive strain injury, etc), I can’t guarantee that the suggestions in this article will eliminate your pain. But, they just might. Or, at the very least, they may reduce your pain to a manageable level.
1. Lower your action (string height)
I’m always amazed when I pick up someone’s guitar and discover that their strings are a mile above the fretboard. I can barely press the strings down, and I’m an experienced player! Even more amazing, they have no idea that it’s a problem, and that it could be better. If you’re finding it extremely painful to play your guitar, one of the most important things you can do is lower your action (string height). Don’t attempt this yourself unless you know what you’re doing. Take your guitar to a qualified guitar tech or repairperson and tell them you’d like “the lowest action possible without causing string buzz.” If you’d like to learn more about action (string height) or guitar setups, I wrote a couple articles for you:
- “Action! A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding String Height”
- “Guitar Setups. What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One”
2. Use lighter strings
Another thing I commonly recommend to people suffering with excessive finger or hand pain is to use the lightest guitar strings in existence. However, they’re a little difficult to find because the string manufacturers don’t advertise them. So, I compiled a definitive list of all the lightest electric and acoustic guitar strings for you in this article:
You don’t have to stick with them permanently, but at least give them a try. Once your finger or hand pain subsides, you can move up to heavier strings if you’d like. I, however, now use ultra light strings exclusively on my acoustic guitar–and I absolutely love them. I suffer from arthritis in my fretting hand, and these strings have helped immensely.
3. Press closer to the fret
This is one of the most common technique mistakes I see: Pressing as close to the metal fret as possible (without muting the note) requires less downward pressure than if you press down somewhere in the middle of the fret. Not only is this just good fretting technique, it translates into less finger and hand soreness. You’ll be able to play longer before having to take a break–a necessity if you’re trying to play through full songs.
4. Warm up
Because of my arthritis, I now have to warm up first whenever I set down to play guitar. If the pain you feel in your hand is in the tendons, joints, or muscles, then you should be warming up before you play (after you’ve seen a doctor, of course). If you’re not yet having these kinds of symptoms, warm up anyway. It’ll help you prevent injury in the future. Essentially, your “warmup” can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you’re playing very slowly and carefully at first, and playing things that aren’t too taxing on your joints, tendons, and muscles. Keep yourself playing at a very slow speed for 10-15 minutes, and resist the urge to speed up and start jamming. Only after 10-15 minutes of taking it slow and easy should you begin to increase speed and difficulty. You’ll feel the difference, and you’ll play much better if you warm up first.
Okay, admittedly this one’s a case of “do what I say, not what I do.” To be honest, I rarely stretch before I play, even though I’ve been advised to do so by doctors and other guitarists.
Fact is, spending just 2-3 minutes carefully stretching your fingers, wrists, forearms, and even shoulders before playing guitar is a very good idea, especially if you’re dealing with a medical condition that interferes with your playing. It’s also a good idea to occasionally stop and stretch during your guitar practice.
Here’s an excellent how-to article on stretching: Keep it Loose: Stretches for Guitarists
6. Try finger caps
Firstly, I’ve neither tried these nor am I endorsing them, and I wouldn’t normally advocate putting something on your fingers. However, there are some (rare) medical conditions that may prevent some people from playing guitar, because they bruise easily. If you’re one of those trying to manage such a medical condition, finger caps like these may finally allow you to play guitar. If you try (or have tried) them, please let me know in the comments below.
I can’t even begin to guess how many ex-guitarists I’ve met over the years who tell me they gave up guitar due to finger or hand pain. Some quit while they were still learning–before they could really get very far. Others were more experienced players who eventually quit because they developed arthritis or some other medical condition. It’s a real shame–I hate hearing that hand pain caused someone to give up the guitar. However, you do have options, and I hope that something (or a combination of things) from this article help you get back to playing. Of course, if you have pain in your hands that will not go away, it’s time to visit a doctor.
Are you currently suffering from hand or finger pain when you play guitar, and have you tried anything to alleviate it? Let me know in the comments section down below.