Way back in my college days when we’d have jam sessions in the dorm basement that sometimes went on for many hours I remember playing until my fingers bled. It seemed like some righteous passage or maybe the effects of too many beers had something to do with it, I can’t recall. In any case, as the years passed I learned to mitigate the pain to some extent, anyway. Correct technique had a lot to do with it. Arching the fingers on my left (fretting) hand and being sure to stay close to the frets resulted in not having to press down quite as hard to get clear, clean tone. To facilitate that, dropping and bending my wrist was essential and the “trick” of keeping the pad of my thumb parallel to my second finger regardless of where I was on the neck was a big help.
Barre chords were another matter of course. I tell my students that it’s likely the best they can hope for is that their percentage of success with those damn things will increase. Keeping the wrist bent, forearm dropped (don’t rest your forearm on your leg!) and the pad of your thumb centered behind the neck, directly beneath the barring finger is essential. It still hurts, but not as much as if you insist on using the “baseball bat grip” and try to choke that poor guitar neck into submission!
How about the other hand? Relaxation is the key. If you’re strumming with your thumb, brush the strings. Don’t tense up and bear down. If you aren’t getting enough volume and want to use a flat pick, hold it as loosely as possible. There are dozens of new pick designs with gripping surfaces or even holes in them to help you avoid dropping them. In fact, when I use standard flat picks such as the classic triangle ones from Fender I always drill a small hole through the center before use. This makes my grip more secure and allows my wrist and arm to relax, which is essential for fast playing. If you doubt this, put a pick between your thumb and index finger and squeeze. Feel what happens? Your whole arm tightens up, all the way to your shoulder. Playing fast becomes impossible.
And what about the rest of your body? Does your back and shoulder hurt after playing for while? Posture and the correct chair are very important. Don’t slouch! (gee, I think my mom used to say that!). If you’re going to stand and play, be sure to carefully adjust the length of your guitar strap for ease of playing. Low slung guitars look cool, but wouldn’t you rather sound cool? And again, stand up straight! OK, enough with the mom lecture.
Lastly, consider the guitar you’re playing. A student I had recently showed up for her first lesson with a very nice dreadnought size guitar that was altogether too big for her small frame. After a few lessons I had to break the news to her that the reason her shoulder hurt when she playing and she couldn’t arch her fingers correctly was not her fault. It was the fault of that huge guitar. She was committed to learning how to play and when she traded it in for a nice 000 size instrument things became much, much easier.
Yes, it does hurt to play the guitar. But with a combination of correct technique and the right instrument its possible – probably, even – that you will get past it. Just be thankful that we don’t have to lie on our backs when we play. Although it worked for the legendary bass player James Jamerson. Look it up!
Peace & good music,