by Professor String

Playing Guitar with a Hand or Finger Injury



“When he smashed his finger, shit squirted out the end of it!” – That was something I once overheard a band member mention to someone at a local concert. Apparently, their lead guitarist severely injured his finger while setting down an extremely heavy speaker cabinet. Ouch! Nothing is more frustrating than having a hand or finger injury for a guitarist. If you have been playing for a number of years, at some point you experienced a minor (or major) injury that made playing difficult or impossible. The smallest paper cut in the right spot can be highly irritating and have a huge impact on your playing performance. Having a steel string continuously digging into a cut does not help matters.

We spend countless hours practicing and perfecting our sound. Yet when it comes to hand health, the topic seldom draws serious attention by musicians. In some respects, many guitarist take if for granted that they can get their fingers perform without any concerns. As humans, we sometimes ask for a lot from our hands. Everything from changing sparkplugs on a hot engine, chopping vegetables, typing, and hammering nails are all dependent on having good hand dexterity. No single guitarist appreciates having a good set of fingers like Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath or jazz greats Johnny Smith and Jimmy Bruno. These gentlemen are legends in the guitar world, yet they all had to deal with less than perfect hand health. Tony lost a couple of finger tips early in life as a machinist. Johnny Smith lost some of his finger’s tip in a freak accident on a plane involving a seat. Jimmy Bruno got the grand daddy of hand problems: Bi-Lateral Carpal Tunnel. For those of you keeping track at home, that means he had the crippling carpal tunnel in both hands. Fortunately a successful surgery helped Bruno get back on track. Not everyone else has that good fortune. There is another well known guitar legend that has crippling arthritis. His ability to play guitar has almost completely deceased. Yet, his name remains on many guitar headstocks. His situation is not an injury, but rather a medical condition. Who is it? We are talking about Les Paul.

I have had many readers ask if there has been anything done by string makers to help hand health. As of this writing, the answer is: No, not specifically. If somebody was focusing a string design on hand health, the product marketing would be reflective of it. This raises the question of what could be done in string designs to help with hand health. If you think about it for a moment, our hands are in contact with the string more so than any other part of the instrument. You would think this would be focal point to address hand health in a product’s design. Frankly, there are number of reasons why string designs are not marketed, designed and touted as having health benefits. The topic is beyond the scope of this article. However, if we think like the typical string company, our thoughts on “healing strings” might be complete waste of time. In short, if the majority of the company’s revenue is coming from a customer base of young men less than 25 years old, then hand health is not at the top of the list. If the customer is not concerned about attaining optimum hand health, then they will not buy a product that delivers it.” At a younger age, particularly in men, there is a feeling (health wise) of invincibility and being tough minded. The last thing you want to be labeled by your buddies is a candy ass sissy who is concerned about sensitive skin and delicate fingernails. You can almost hear the attitude of, “I’m sixteen. Hand health is not an issue at my age. Arthritis is for older people like grandpa. My hands work great.” If you are over 40 years old reading this article, this might be a flashback to your earlier days. Do you have this same attitude today? If you have learned anything in life, you probably don’t have this attitude anymore. As you sit there and look at your not-so-young-anymore hands, some of you might be thinking, “I really wish I had not been so naive and narrow minded back then.” Don’t worry. Some of the effects of aging (and sheer hand abuse!) can be reversed as we will see in the coming paragraph.

The first thing we need to consider for hand health is prevention. This means focusing on things that can keep are hands in good shape. Our society has so many things that place burden on the common hand. If you are under 20, then there is a good chance you do texting, electronic gaming, send email, post on mySpace or YouTube. That’s a ton of finger activity! Many physical therapist claim we are in the midst of watching a slow train wreck happen, causing an up-rise in cumulative trauma issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tennis elbow, and trigger finger. As musicians, we must be mindful of how we are using are hands on a daily basis and take care of them.

Hand exercising myths and workouts
There is a bunch of mixed data about what kind of exercise should be done for guitarist hands. Sure there are things like hand springs to squeeze and dumbbells to do wrist curls, but this can be overkill. Worse yet, some of these exercises can cause permanent injury. For the guitarist, we want hand strength, but more importantly we want limber fingers for fast precise movement. Finger movement actually has very little to do with strength. You can have a very strong grip, but poor finger dexterity and stretch. There are simple exercises that can be done with the hand. The idea is to do exercises that will not over-exert the hand and fingers, but stretch the fingers gently. One of the best holistic exercises I have seen is the following:
1. Stand natural with both hands by your side.
2. Take both hands and open them up and wide as they will go. This means the tip of the thumb will be at its farthest distance from the tip of the pinkie finger.
3. Hold this position and count to seven.
4. Now, make a fist with both hands
5. Hold this position and count to seven.
6. Repeat steps 2, 3, 4, and 5 for a few more times.

Many small local bands often rely upon band members to move the equipment. If you are a musician who gigs on a regular basis, at some point, you have had to move equipment. As one guitarist put it, “I actually play for free, but I get paid to move heavy amps, guitar cases, and speaker equipment.” During the time of set-up, your hands are most vulnerable to getting cut, smashed, or pinched. Keep thick leather gloves with you for moving heavy things like speaker cabinets. Keep mechanics gloves, with micro grip, with you for doing things like plugging in cables, propping up amps, closing cases…etc. These gloves can do wonders for preserving your skin before the show begins. Many drummers have started using these gloves for playing!

Skin Care
If you use lotion, use it lightly and sparingly. Calluses are supposed to be hard, but the problem starts when they become too dry and crack. This is particularly true in the winter month when snow is flying. A very thing application of lotion can help this condition.

Avoid direct contact with harsh cleaners or things with isopropyl alcohol. These chemicals do nothing to improve skin. They are made to remove dirt and just about anything else. If you do a lot of cleaning, or work in the cleaning business, wear gloves to minimize your exposure. The idea is to keep your skin preserved and avoid dry skin that causes cracked skin.

While we are on the topic of cracked skin, the end result is not much different than getting a mild cut. Many players who get cuts and dry skin splits often keep emergency super glue, or liquid bandage in a zip lock bag in their case. This is a quick fix that can get you through a gig and can withstand having string pressure on it without opening up the cut further.

High Sodium = Poor Finger Performance
Americans have some of the worst dietary habits in the world. Look no further than the U.S. statistics on obesity. What does this mean for a guitarist or bassist? Plenty. Our diet has a profound effect on hand joints, muscles, and blood circulation through the fingers. As a player at any age, you should be mindful of your intake of the ingredients that make up processed food: Salt, fat, and sugar. The average daily recommend amount of sodium/salt in our diets should be about 1500mg. The average American consumes about five times this amount. Salt triggers the body’s system to retain water. In turn, we carry extra water weight just about everywhere in our bodies. This includes the fingers. In fact, this extra water has been known to contribute to joint stiffness. Obviously, joint stiffness is going to have an impact on your hand and finger performance. Again, be mindful of your dietary intake.

Final Thought
Hopefully, some of the things we have discussed will help you in your playing ability. It goes without saying; your hands are the most vital part of any musical instrument. Take care of them.


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About The Author


Professor StringTM is a leading expert in the musical string business. He leads a development group that specializes in guitar and bass string research for musicians. You can visit their site at