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6 Ways to Avoid Guitar Finger Pain

In the sports world, and this also influences the rest of the world, there is a glorified notion of pain and struggle. There seems to be some sort of implied honor in pushing through pain, as if pain were noble.

In truth, pain is unnecessary. And hello: it hurts.

Pain is unnecessary, and it hurts.

And in guitar, working through pain can lead to much more severe problems very quickly.

So here are some tips on preventing finger pain on guitar, and changes you can make should you encounter any discomfort.

1. Notice Finger Pain Early

Often we don’t even notice some discomfort until it’s already acute.

One of the best practices you can instill in your practice is one of constant awareness.

The more aware you are of your bodily sensations, the more likely you’ll be to notice any discomfort early. With this information you can choose how to best react to it.

2. Slow Down

If you are playing fast (and fast is fast for you, according to your current abilities), you won’t have time to notice the small details of your playing.

One prior teacher of mine would say, “Speed kills, awareness cures.” Very wise, and very correct.

Speed kills, awareness cures.

It takes discipline and personal awareness to slow down. And often, you’ll think that it’s more difficult to play slowly than it is to play quickly. But this is simply because you don’t have time to notice all the mistakes when playing quickly.

There are myriad reasons to slow your practice down, and avoiding physical pain (hands, wrists, shoulders, back) is a big one.

3. Use Good Technique

Next, you’ll avoid loads of problems, progress more quickly, sound better, and enjoy music more if you commit to learning, practicing, and playing with good classical guitar technique.

Of course stretching and warming up prior to and after your practice is also a good idea (and it feels good).

It’s very easy to want to skip this step and focus on learning pieces only. Pieces are wonderful, but a balanced practice is best.

Your technique practice is an investment in your lifelong musical enjoyment.

While there are differing opinions in the details of classical guitar technique, any skilled player will tell you that they have spent consistent time perfecting their movements and habits.

If you want to both play beautifully and avoid pain, injury, and repetitive motion conditions (like carpal tunnel or tendonitis), make guitar technique part of your daily work.

4. Train Ease into Your Playing

One of the best things you can do for your long term growth and abilities is to practice being easeful on the guitar.

This doesn’t mean flacid, limp or lazy.

Easefulness refers moving with freedom in the joints, and the appropriate amount of muscle tension. This includes the hands and arms, but also the entire body: face, legs, neck, toes, tongue, all of it.

The Norm: Training in Tension

If you don’t train this in intentionally, you’ll likely train in excess tension.

When you first learn a piece, and there are stretches, barres, or otherwise strenuous or tricky spots, it’s very easy to use more force than necessary.

If you don’t train intentionally, you’ll likely create excess tension.

The slow tempo, the mental struggle to find the notes, and any habits we’ve created over our lifetime related to concentration and focus (like furrowing eyebrows, tightening lips, lifting shoulders, etc.) will become part of the “muscle-memory” of the piece.

The entire repeated visual, auditory and kenisthetic experience of learning a piece inform how we’ll play it, and what long-term habits we strengthen.

Intentional Time for Easeful Playing

Suggestion: When you decide to learn a piece, learn it slowly and intentionally (such as using the 7-step process).

As you learn the notes and repeat the moves, keep the final goal of ease in mind.

Take the time up front to associate ease and intention with the piece. Later, as you get up to speed, you’ll still have the memory of the piece being easy (or at least easeful) and you’ll reduce the stress and tension that would have arisen.

As you learn the notes and repeat the moves, keep the final goal of ease in mind.

Note: For pieces you currently play, you may have to slow down, or be less expressive in order to keep freedom in your joints and avoid excess muscle tension. – That’s alright. This is a practice technique. When you actually perform, just focus on the music and play your best.

5. Play Easier Pieces (for practice)

One aspect of advancing our skills is constantly playing more and more challenging music.

If you don’t challenge yourself, you won’t get better. If you don’t stretch, you won’t move forward. Appropriate challenge is one of the main ingredients of deliberate practice.

That said, this doesn’t mean that everything you play has to be at the edge of your ability.

You can use easier pieces as tools for specific objectives.

Also, it’s very common for players to wrongly gauge their ability, and choose music that’s too difficult for their current technical skills.

Hint: If you dismiss this out of hand, let that be a red flag in itself. Playing music that’s too difficult is extremely common, and you’re not automatically immune. Just consider the possibility and objectively weigh the facts.

Benefits of Easy Music

You can increase all sorts of skills by having a few easier pieces in your practice routine that you use for specific practice purposes.

Creating ease in your playing is purpose. If you have an easier piece that you know is “just a practice piece”, you can give yourself permission to slow down and practice that particular skill (here, maintaining ease).

You’d be amazed at how challenging easy pieces can be when you bring high musical standards

You can also stretch your ability to play beautifully with easier pieces. Without the distraction of all the notes and physical challenges, you’re left with just your musical ideas.

You’d be amazed at how challenging easy pieces can be when you bring high musical standards to them, any/or make the goal appropriately challenging. (Warning: this can be brutal on the ego!)

6. Most Important: Stop Immediately if you Feel Pain

It can be easy to feel a little pain (or nerviness, twinginess) and just dig in a little more. “I’ll just finish this phrase.” or “I must be building muscle!”

The best and safest action you can take is to immediately stop and take your hands off the guitar.

Shake them a little, or even better, just let them hang by your side.

This is not the time for a deep-tissue massage or an aggressive stretch. For some reason, it seems like the thing to do just then, but it’s not. Less is more.

After you stop for a moment, analyze what caused the pain.

Was is a specific spot in the music? Was your hand out of position after a shift or chord?

The best and safest action you can take is to immediately stop and take your hands off the guitar.

As you form the habit of stopping, relaxing the arms and hands, then noticing exactly what actions caused the discomfort, you increase the chances of noticing early warnings in the future.

You become more self-aware and notice finer and finer details. And that’s what playing beautifully is all about.

How about you?

Have you ever used any of the above techniques successfully? What’s working for you now? Share your answer in the comments!



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5 Responses to 6 Ways to Avoid Guitar Finger Pain

  1. Pete September 24, 2016 at 5:56 am #

    I’ve been plagued by RSI in my forearms. The image of the splintered wood is exactly how it feels when it’s bad.
    I think it has 2 causes
    1 too much tension in fingers arms and mind.
    2 Playing with effort and determination without watching the clock.

    When I am pain free I get over enthusiastic and within about a week the pain will return.Often it is very hard to stop!

  2. Patrick May 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm #

    to play slowly a new piece is really the key, whithout tension ; thanks Allen for these six ways practice, very usefull indeed, patrick

    • Allen May 11, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

      Thanks Patrick, I agree!

  3. John May 7, 2016 at 3:34 am #

    I stop and do a few stretch exercises every fifteen minutes. This means my hour of practice is split into four fifteen minute parts, with breaks for exercise (and a coffee!) in the middle – and it also means that the pain I used to get in my left hand no longer occurs!

    Reducing the tension when I’m learning a new piece is something I’m working on – I find that my left hand is gripping the neck of the guitar far too tightly, and it’s proving to be a difficult habit to break…

    • Allen May 7, 2016 at 6:40 pm #

      Nice work, John, That sounds like some great habits you’ve got!

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