Every beginner guitarist will quickly reach the stage where their fingers feel like they have been stabbed by a thousand pins and dipped in vinegar. This is an unfortunate side-effect of consistently pressing against the guitar strings with our sensitive finger tips, and is something all guitarists must push through to continue learning the instrument.
If you are completely new to guitar, then you will likely experience stinging and tenderness after just a short period of playing. This can often put people off learning all together, however it is important to realise that this stage will eventually pass and you will be able to continue to work towards rock-stardom unhindered by pesky finger pain.
How quickly you start to experience finger tip pain depends on two main factors. Firstly, the thickness, or gauge, of the strings is one of the main causes of tender finger tips – the thicker the strings, the more tension they create and the quicker you will start to feel the burn.
Secondly, the action of the guitar can often be one of the main culprits for causing sore fingers. The action is the distance between the guitar strings and the fretboard. The higher the action, the greater the distance, and the more pressure is required to properly fret the notes on the strings.
Acoustic steel strung guitars tend to have the highest string gauge and action. Electric guitars can vary, but generally have a lower action and lighter gauge strings, and so are easier to play. Classical acoustic guitars have strings made of nylon rather than steel, and so this type of guitar will also give you less trouble in the finger pain department.
How Can I Reduce Finger Pain Whilst Learning?
The only sure-fire way to stop your fingers from hurting is to practice! By consistently practicing, we will eventually build up calluses on our fingertips. These are toughened, thicker areas of skin which can cope with the pressure we need to exert on the strings in order to play. Calluses are the holy grail for beginner guitarists, and can take several weeks or months to fully develop to a stage where we no longer experience stingy fingers.
At the very beginning stages, it’s better to play in short, frequent bursts of 10-20 minutes (or as long as you can put up with the tenderness), and take breaks to let your fingers recover. If your fingers are too sore, then just give it a break for the day and see how you feel in a day or two. The important thing is not to give up, and to make sure you pick up your guitar as soon as you feel like you’ve recovered!
If sore fingers are really putting you off, then you could try replacing your guitar strings with a lighter (thinner) gauge to see if this alleviates the pain. You can then work up to a heavier gauge of string as your calluses develop. If you have an electric guitar, you can also adjust the action at the bridge. This can be quite simple to do, but it is something we will cover in a later lesson as it depends on the type of guitar you own, and the type of bridge fitted to the guitar.
Choosing a String Gauge
Electric guitar string gauges are generally categorised as Extra Light, Light, Regular, Medium and Heavy, though the actual gauge of the strings for each of these categories can sometimes vary depend on the string manufacturer. The gauge is the diameter in inches for each string, so a high E string on a set of light gauge electric guitar strings would be 0.009 inches in diameter. You may have heard other musicians referring to their strings as a “set of 9’s”, so now you know where this comes from!
Acoustic guitar string gauges are generally categorised as Extra Light, Custom Light, Light, Medium and Heavy. Strings on the acoustic are thicker than those on the electric, and so a set of strings on an acoustic (e.g. extra light, medium, heavy, etc.) are not the same as the equivalent set on an electric guitar.
The table below shows the string measurements for the different gauges of guitar strings on electric and acoustic guitars:
|String Gauge||Low E||A||D||G||B||High E|
|Extra Light (8’s)||0.038||0.030||0.021||0.015||0.010||0.008|
|String Gauge||Low E||A||D||G||B||High E|
|Extra Light (10’s)||0.046||0.039||0.030||0.023||0.014||0.010|
|Custom Light (11’s)||0.052||0.042||0.032||0.023||0.015||0.011|
Most people describe a set of strings according to the size of the high E string (i.e. “a set of 9’s”), so when you go into a guitar shop to buy a set of strings, you’re best asking for them in this way, as this removes any confusion!
For an electric guitar, you would ask for:
- Extra light: A set of 8’s
- Light: A set of 9’s
- Regular: A set of 10’s
- Medium: A set of 11’s
- Heavy: A set of 12’s
For an acoustic guitar, you would ask for:
- Extra light: A set of 10’s
- Light: A set of 11’s
- Regular: A set of 12’s
- Medium: A set of 13’s
- Heavy: A set of 14’s
It’s also useful to know the individual string sizes as shown in the table above, as you will probably find that some strings snap more frequently than others (curse you top E string!), and you may find yourself looking to buy individual strings rather than full sets each time.
Which Strings Should I Use?
The type of strings you use is entirely down to personal preference. Thicker (heavier gauge) strings produce a deeper sound with more sustain, so if this is the sound you prefer, you may wish to go for a higher gauge (e.g. 10’s or 11’s on the electric; 12’s or 13’s on the acoustic). The heavier the string gauge, the harder you will have to work and things like bending strings become increasingly difficult as you increase in thickness. Most guitarists use either 9’s or 10’s on the electric, or 11’s or 12’s on the acoustic.
For beginners, a lighter gauge is probably the best place to start so that the pain barrier doesn’t become too much of an obstacle. A set of 9’s on the electric and 11’s on the acoustic are a great starting point. You will probably find that you wish to experiment with different strings as you advance, which is exactly what you should do!