6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand and Finger Pain

6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand and Finger Pain

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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)

String Height or "Action"

String height or “action” is measured from the top of the metal fret to the bottom of the guitar string.

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:

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:

“Fingers Sore from Playing Guitar? Lighten Up!”

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 the guitar string closer to the fret will require less pressure. Less pressure = less pain. 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.

5. Stretch

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

Silicone finger caps, like these, may help guitarists who suffer with certain medical conditions

Silicone finger caps like these may help guitarists who suffer with certain medical conditions

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Question:

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.

26 replies
  1. Richard Porritt
    Richard Porritt says:

    I have osteoarthritis where the base of my thumb meet one of the wrist bones. So I have bone on bone grinding. There is surgical procedure that involves removing the small bone in the wrist and then bridging the gap that was left, with a small piece of tendon from the immediate area. I know this might sound gruesome to some, but this surgery apparently works very well according to those who have had it done. Since I am not ready to make that leap just yet, my orthopod provided me with the best brace ever, that allows me to play guitar and do most other things with a lot less pain. It’s not bulky and i like the fact that it’s mostly plastic and does not become saturated or smelly with water or sweat. Here is a link for the exact one the doctor provided. Not sure why its so expense online, he only charged me $60, but I have seen it as low as $75 on other sites. I have an average size hand, and use a size 3. Can also just search MetaGrip.

    Reply
  2. Alex
    Alex says:

    Great advice here. I would also add poor posture, ergonomics, and technique as potential issues.

    Your wrists should be straight or sightly curved. Some guitarists play with really bent wrists (I used to myself), and that can lead to carpal tunnel and other issues. Self-taught guitarists are more likely to learn to play with bent wrists, and will need to retrain themselves.

    Your fingers should be curved, liked you’re holding a clementine, even when fretting, and you should fret with the tip rather than the pad (the one exception being when you bar strings).

    Your fretting thumb should not exert pressure on the back of the neck. Some guitarists squeeze the neck with their thumb – particularly when playing bar chords or tense – and this will lead to thumb, joint, and tendon pain. Your thumb should be there just as an anchor point, exerting no pressure, and fretting should come from pulling your fingers into the neck with your arm.

    Lastly, you need to stay relaxed, from your hand to your arm to your shoulder. It’s natural to tense up – particularly when nervous or stressed such as when playing live or trying something difficult. People tense up when trying to play really fast, or playing a difficult section, and this is counter-productive. To play fast and play well we need to stay relaxed, and this will require constant monitoring and maintenance before it becomes second nature.

    Reply
  3. Ron Sepic
    Ron Sepic says:

    I’m 70 years old and have been told I have practically no cartilage between the bones in the fingers of my left hand. I’ve also been told that’s from arthritis and there’s really not much I can do to alleviate the pain. The doctor recommended wrapping my hand with KY tape at the joints of each finger. That’s very time consuming and restrictive. Can you recommend anything else? I notice the finger caps you mention. Where could I get those? I used to play professionally in my teens, 20s, 30s, and beyond and I guess time is catching up to me. Any suggestions appreciated.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Ron. In the article, there is a link to the silicone finger caps just below the picture in the description. But here is a direct link to them on Amazon for you: Silicone Finger Caps on Amazon. However, the finger caps will only help with fingertip pain. They won’t help alleviate the symptoms that are the result of your arthritis. Unfortunately, my experience with arthritis is limited (mine is bothersome, but not nearly as bad as yours… yet), so the suggestions I give in this post are about the best I have. If yours is more advanced (and it sounds like it is), you’d probably get better advice/help from a physical therapist, if possible. They can show you exercises to help improve mobility, and if you tell them that your ultimate goal is to be able to play guitar, they may even have specific exercises to target those types of motions.

      Reply
  4. John Cloyd
    John Cloyd says:

    After 54 years of playing I developed dyshidrotic eczema, so my callouses just fall off from time to time, leaving a raw bloody mess. I’m experimenting with Gorilla Tips (silicone) over nylon strings. There is some promise with this, I can play single notes as fast as I want with much less pain. You can’t slide at all, the tip will just stick to the string so I need to change how I switch chords. Next I plan to try to coat the silicone with Sally Hanson’s Hard as Nails to see if that would allow the fingers to slide at least a little, and am switching the #11 faltwounds on my archtop to Silk n Steel for a while..

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi John. Definitely keep me posted and, if you have time, come back and let me know how some of those experiments work out. That is definitely a drawback to the silicone fingertip covers–they make sliding difficult or impossible.

      Reply
    • Aaron Serivice
      Aaron Serivice says:

      Hi there John, I have experienced this sort of thing due to playing too much. My fingers would be destroyed after playing for 10 plus hours a day. One thing that really helped me was to apply super glue on my finger tips and carefully use a finger nail file to smooth it out. This has helped me tremendously. Best of luck to you.

      Reply
  5. momna
    momna says:

    my friend was told by a doctor he can no longer play guitar. its bad for him. (he has arthritis) are there any guitars that are especially for this? that he can still play? ( he is 17 )

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Momna. To my knowledge, there aren’t any guitars that are specially constructed for people with arthritis. I would recommend that your friend consult with a physical therapist who might be able to teach him stretching and warm-up exercises for his hands and fingers that might help. That, combined with a very low string height and very light strings might help your friend tolerate (but probably not eliminate) arthritis pain when playing guitar.

      Reply
  6. Jim
    Jim says:

    A recommendation … for tender fingertips … OralGel. Just put it on, let it dry, and play. I am currently dealing with significant pain in my second joint, first finger. And it frequently becomes disjointed as I sleep. I feel certain it is from holding my pic too tight (and being old). So far I haven’t found any perfect solution.

    Reply
  7. Sparky
    Sparky says:

    I started getting pain in the base of my thumb and wrist of my fretting hand. After a while I was losing feeling in my thumb. I really had to cut down my playing time because I was in so much pain even after warming up and stretching my wrist and fingers. I started searching for products to help with the pain, even tried wearing a brace on my fretting hand but it was very uncomfortable. I did find this product and wanted to share. It’s called a Sips-Grip, saw it on Facebook. I tried it and it actually helped. It’s actually quite simple, it fills the gap between my fretting hand and the guitar neck so I can hold the guitar neck with the palm of my hand and really not use my thumb at all. Just thought I’d share.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Very interesting. This is exactly why some people feel that fatter guitar necks are more comfortable and result in less pain/strain. A fatter neck fills that palm-gap a bit more, and this device seems to play on that principle by filling in the gap. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
    • Alex
      Alex says:

      Thumb pain the the fretting hand is pretty common, and often is a sign of poor technique and tensing.

      Many people will squeeze the guitar neck, using the thumb as a clamp to pull their fingers towards the neck to fret the strings, and this is wrong. It’s particularly common when learning bar chords, but can be seen whenever people tense up – because they’re nervous, because they’re stressed, because they’re struggling, etc. Your thumb is not designed to exert pressure that way, and this leads to pain in the thumb and thumb joint.

      The thumb is there to act as a guide and anchor, but not to exert any pressure on the neck. The pressure on the stings should come from the forearm – rather than pushing the strings into the neck with your fingers you should be pulling them into the neck with your arm. Picture a rock climber pulling themselves up on their finger tips, that’s the same technique and motion you’re looking for to fret the strings – the strength comes from your arm. You should be able to fret the strings without your thumb on the neck at all – pull your fingers towards the neck, pulling the strings towards the neck and the neck towards your body. Your wrist should be straight. This will also teach you proper hand position.

      Adopting this, you have to pay attention to your playing to make sure that there is no pressure or tension on your thumb. Your hand, arm, and shoulder should be relaxed. It’s natural to tense when we’re stressed – like when playing before an audience, or trying to play particularly fast, or a particularly challenging piece – and you have to periodically check up on your body to make sure that you’re staying relaxed. Your thumb should stay relaxed in a natural curve – roughly opposite your index finger.

      And, of course, this is on top of the advice given here about having low action, light stings, and pressing closer to the fret.

      Reply
  8. Aparajita
    Aparajita says:

    Thankyou for this article.
    My fingers always get bruised while playing guitar so, i am going to check out the finger caps.

    Reply
  9. Berr
    Berr says:

    I’ve been playing in an almost strictly-rhythm context for 30-ish years. Recently I got the bug to pick up some lead technique (got tired of friends of mine lording it over me). Took a very back-to-basics approach to learning, and I started by doing continuous, timed chromatic runs several times up and down the neck at increasing tempo, to improve my timing and left-hand accuracy.

    My problem is that, never having developed proper technique, I have a hard time bringing my pinky right down with the tip on the string behind the fret. At faster tempos, it almost always comes down along one side or the other (depending on how high up the neck I am). And this has caused chronic soreness in that last bit, the fleshy pad. So far the only thing that helps, temporarily, is to take a couple days off, but then I feel the loss-of-practice crunch.

    This doesn’t seem to fall under tendonitis, arthritis or muscle pain. It’s like a blunt-trauma injury or crush injury. Am I doomed to just continue feeling this forever? Is there a way I can constrain my pinky to coming down properly on the string?

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Berr! I have the exact same issue, and my pinky (particularly the fleshy side toward the outside of my hand) often screams at me when I play something that requires a lot of pinky action. There are a few songs I play that require an actual pinky slide upward, and that starts to absolutely KILL my pinky after a few minutes. However, when I start getting to that point, I stop. I don’t try to “push through the pain.”

      What you’re experiencing is actually pretty common since, for most people, the pinky naturally curves inward toward the palm of the hand. This makes it nearly impossible to bring the pinky down flat/straight onto a string–depending on what you’re playing. Since we’re all anatomically built this way, there’s not going to be much you can do to actually change the way your pinky is aligned or how it comes down on the fretboard. The fact is, it just naturally curves inward a bit, meaning you’re always going to come down on the side–usually the outside–instead of dead flat. So, you’re just going to have to build the calluses on those outside bits of your pinky.

      What I’d suggest (and this is what I do) is to not play to the point that you HAVE to take a couple days off. First off, let it heal up completely, if you haven’t already. Take as much time off as you need. After you’re digit has recovered, only play to the point that it JUST starts to become uncomfortable. Then stop. Don’t play again until your normal practice time the next day–which’ll give your pinky time to recover. Wash, rinse, repeat. Pay attention to how your pinky is feeling and only increase your practice time by a few minutes if you’re feeling pretty good. It’ll take time, but you’ll gradually find your pinky getting tougher and tougher, and you’ll gradually gain the ability to play longer and longer.

      A common mistake we guitarists make is to “play through the pain” and actually over-practice. Sometimes it’s because we’re simply having fun and don’t want to stop, other times we feel it’s some kind of right-of-passage. Whatever the reason, it’s a problem because when we hurt ourselves to the point that we can’t touch a guitar for days or weeks, it creates a significant setback in our progress as guitarists.

      It’s much better to practice for only 10-15 minutes EVERY DAY rather than practicing for a longer period, but sporadically and only a couple times per week. So, in summary, I can’t give any suggestions as to how you can change your pinky’s angle on the string, but I don’t think that’s your issue. I think you’re pushing it a bit, and need to gradually build up that pinky callus.

      Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Andrew. I think the idea came from Tony Iommi–who uses custom-made finger caps (made from leather, I believe). I guess it was only a matter of time before some entrepreneur ran with the idea. Now, these silicone caps are all over Amazon and Ebay.

      Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Dixie. I can’t recommend any vitamins, but there’s a cream that I use called Penetrex. I’ve often contemplated revising this article to include it, because I’ve had such success with it as a topical pain releiver. I love the stuff, but of course the usual disclaimer applies here: I’m not a doctor, and not qualified to give medical advice. Also, even though Penetrex works for me, I can’t guarantee it’ll work for you.

      That said, if you do try it, please let me know how it went. I’m pretty amazed with the stuff.

      Reply
  10. JohnnyO
    JohnnyO says:

    Hi – This is really interesting – I have been a semi – professional in New England and Texas for over 30 years and my hands are turning on me. Playing a 3 hour set is getting hard. Hand arthritis runs in my family and all the guitar playing can’t help. I’ll try the 10 gauge strings and try the stretching. I’ll check back and let you know how it is going.

    How about guitars? – I play mostly acoustic – a Gibson 185 EC now – Are there any easy playing acoustic guitars for working musicians. Thanks
    JohnnyOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hey JohnnyO!

      How “easy” an acoustic (or electric, for that matter) plays has far more to do with the string gauge and action than anything else. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to find a different guitar. Try the lighter strings, and be sure your guitar is set up for the lowest action possible (at the nut and bridge) without too much buzzing.

      Reply
  11. Kes
    Kes says:

    I was diagnosed some years ago with tendonitis in both hands/wrists and shoulders, before I started guitar lessons and I can’t take any medication for this (the result of over 25 years of working in administration and constant touch typing!) My tutor showed me some stretching exercises, which I found really useful for my hands and shoulders. One thing I have found helpful when my hands ache is using arnica cream – although you have to keep it away from minor scratches or cuts – as this seems to ease the aching very quickly.

    Although my doctor did advise me to rest my hands when the tendonitis flares up, I soon realised that this doesn’t work for me, in fact I tend to pick up some knitting or crochet as the movement seems to ease the pain.

    Reply
  12. Dave Hanna
    Dave Hanna says:

    I had problems with finger soreness so I tried the finger caps, they helped but want to stick to the strings when changing chords so it was a no win for me. Going to lighter strings next

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Dave, thanks for commenting!

      I suspected that that might be problem with finger caps of any kind. Tony Iommi somehow made them work, but of course that was after years of experimentation (and frustration, I’m sure) before landing on a custom-made solution that works for him. I think they may still be an okay option for total beginners, but as soon as someone starts playing faster and doing faster chord changes, cheap silicon finger caps will probably just get in the way.

      I’m going to research some more and see if there is a better solution (e.g. caps that are custom fitted and/or made from better materials).

      Reply

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