How to Care for Your Hands, Your Most Important Piece of Gear

Your hands are the most important parts of your guitar rig. However, few guitarists take the time to ensure that their wrists, hands and fingers are kept in good shape. Anything from dry weather to an improper or non-existent warm up can take a toll on your digits, and in some cases even lead to chronic pain or long-term injury. Fortunately, taking care of your hands takes only minutes a day.

Care for Your Calluses

Most guitar players have worked hard to develop their calluses but, unfortunately, calluses are especially susceptible to dryness, cracking and peeling. Filing your calluses can prevent the rough edges from catching on the strings and causing further damage. When filing, only remove the troublesome pieces of skin that stick out or cause problems. Your objective is not to remove a large amount of skin. Avoid filing aggressively or with an overly-rough file or emery board.

"Filing your calluses can prevent the rough edges from catching on the strings and causing further damage."

In the case that your calluses crack, one of the best tried-and-true solutions is superglue. Cyanoacrylates such as superglue have been used for a variety of purposes, including sealing wounds during and after surgery. Superglue can be used to seal a relatively small wound, such as a crack on the tip of the finger, while it heals. It can also be used to ease general finger soreness in the early stages of playing.

Trim Your Nails

While fingernails can be a useful tool for fingerstyle guitar playing, long, protruding fingernails can make fretting difficult. Ideally, the nails on your fretting hand should not extend past the fingertip.

When trimming your nails, make sure to use nail clippers, a file, or a device made specifically for that purpose. Biting or ripping them off can lead to ingrown nails, infections and other unpleasant side-effects, which could make guitar playing painful. Trim off only what is necessary and try to leave a little bit of white on the tip of the nail. Trimming off too much can expose the super-sensitive nail bed, which can also make playing uncomfortable.

Stretch and Warm Up Before You Play

You wouldn’t squat without doing a warm-up or run a marathon without stretching, so why play with cold hands? Just like your biceps or calves, your hand and finger muscles need an opportunity to loosen up and increase blood flow. Stretching and warming up has several benefits. Personally, I find that the more time I spend stretching and warming up my fingers, wrists and thumbs, the better my practice sessions and performances tend to be. Not only this, but a proper warm-up can help minimize the chance of injury to the hand.

"Start out very slowly and begin to pick up speed as you feel your fingers loosen up."

When stretching, pay special attention to each muscle and take your time. It isn’t uncommon for me to spend as much as five minutes stretching before I begin to play. Make a fist and then slowly open it up and unroll your fingers until they are fully extended. Pull back on each finger individually, and give your thumbs a good stretch and massage before you begin to play. Slowly bend your wrists forward and backward until you feel a pleasant tension in your forearms. When you’re finally ready to warm up, play through some of your favorite etudes, but start out very slowly and begin to pick up speed as you feel your fingers loosen up.

Exercise Your Fingers

By using a stress ball or finger exerciser, such as the Planet Waves Varigrip, you can help maintain and build muscle. This can help you gain fretting speed and control, improve picking accuracy and further minimize the chances of injury due to long and particularly taxing performances. Even when you’re away from your instrument, resistance-training of this kind can be very beneficial to your playing.

Moisturize Your Hands

While dry skin can be unsightly and annoying, it can also lead to pain and discomfort. Both cracking and peeling skin can cause problems for guitarists -- cracked and bleeding hands can be painful to play with, and peeling skin may cause you to lose your hard-earned calluses.

The solution to chronically dry skin is to ensure that your hands are adequately moisturized. The easiest way to do this is to apply lotion to your hands at least twice a day, or as often as they need it. Dry weather, hot water, chlorine, genetics and countless other factors can lead to hand dryness; even simply washing your hands or using hand sanitizer can rob your hands of the moisture that they need. There really isn’t any way to over moisturize your hands, but applying lotion before picking up your guitar might not be a good idea. Don’t be afraid to use it frequently.


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