Today I’m going to explain why playing the ukulele hurts your fingers. I’ll also give you some tips to help cope with finger pain.
I play both ukulele and guitar and I can tell you that playing the guitar is way more painful on the fingers at first. That said, both ukes and guitars will hurt your fingers in the beginning – and this is perfectly normal!
Let’s jump right in!
Playing Ukulele Will Hurt Your Fingers
Let’s start with a quick summary:
When you first start playing the ukulele, fretting will hurt your fingers. Your hands and fingers must develop strength and dexterity. Your sensitive fingertips must form hard calluses, which takes time. Muscle pain, cramps, aches, and blisters are common but temporary. Pain lessens with practice and eventually stops.
Now, I’ll explain how this works in a little more detail.
Reason 1: Your Hand Must Develop Strength
Playing the ukulele requires holding your hand and fingers in an awkward position for long periods of time. It also requires the fingers to bend and apply pressure in ways they are not yet accustomed to.
When you first start playing the ukulele, your hand and finger muscles will get tired easily. The muscles, joints, and tendons in your hands must adjust to the new physical task you’ve given them.
This first results in fatigue – your fingers may become shaky and stop cooperating with you. If you push it too far, it can result in hand cramps, aches, or even wrist and finger numbness from irritated nerves. While a little pain is normal, you don’t want to cause lasting harm to your hand!
Think of this like training for a marathon. Much like you can’t run the full 26 miles on the first day of training, you can’t expect your hand to hold and fret a ukulele for too long in the beginning.
Reason 2: Your Fingers Must Develop Dexterity
Just holding a ukulele is hard for your hand at first. Add to that the fact that your fingers must accurately press and hold tight strings and stretch to form chords and you’re giving your hand a real workout!
Learning to fret notes and form chords takes considerable finger dexterity, that is, physical strength and flexibility. At first, your fingers may feel stiff and uncooperative. Some, especially the pinky finger, are not used to the level of physical activity you are asking of them.
Your fingers may seem to rebel by not going where you tell them to – or staying there once you’ve finally managed to place them correctly on the fretboard.
In addition to being extremely frustrating, a lack of finger dexterity can result in joint and muscle pain at first.
For this I’ll use a gymnastics metaphor. You can’t do the splits your first time out. You must train carefully to avoid injury. Playing the uke is kind of like asking your fingers to do the splits.
Reason 3: Your Fingertips Must Build Calluses
When you first start playing the ukulele, your fingertips are soft and tender. They aren’t used to smashing a hard string against wood at all, let alone for an entire practice session. And fingertips are very delicate and sensitive due to their many nerve endings!
Playing the ukulele will hurt your fingertips in the beginning. Your body reacts to your playing the uke in the same way it would an injury – but luckily, it adapts quickly!
While fretting notes and chords, your fingers may throb with pain. They may appear red and swollen, often with visible indentations from the strings, and may even feel warm to the touch.
Eventually, blisters might form. While it seems crazy, this is actually a good thing! Over time, blisters transition to calluses as your fingers learn how to deal with the trauma of fretting. Your fingertips slowly become hardened and less sensitive.
Once calluses form, you will experience no pain at all! You’ll also be able to play for long periods of time with no discomfort. After that, it’s just a matter of maintaining them by playing frequently.
Reason 4: You’re Pressing the Strings Too Hard
While building hand strength, finger dexterity, and calluses are all inescapable aspects of ukulele playing, other things can also cause finger pain – and they are completely avoidable!
Fretting is a challenge in the beginning, as it’s hard to keep untrained fingers in position. As a result, many new ukulele players press too hard on the strings when fretting notes and chords. This puts greater stress on your fingers and makes for an even more painful playing experience.
As you practice, learn to press the strings just hard enough to get the desired note to sound clearly without buzzing. There’s no need to press any harder!
Reason 5: Your Ukulele’s Action May Be Too High
Sometimes your finger pain has nothing to do with you at all. Many ukuleles, especially less expensive models, do not come properly set up. As a result, some have high action.
Action just refers to how far away the strings are from the fretboard. The higher the action, the harder it is to press the strings down. For this reason, low action is better – especially for new players.
To test your ukulele’s action, take a look at the string height from the fifth fret to where the neck joins the body. The strings should clear the metal fret markers but not be so far off the fretboard you can slide a pinky fingertip beneath them.
Luckily, there are ways to adjust the action. You can do this yourself, but it’s usually best to take your ukulele to a professional luthier for an adjustment.
Ukulele Hurts Fingers Less Than Guitar
Let’s start with another quick summary:
Learning the ukulele is less painful on the fingers than learning the guitar. Ukuleles have softer strings with less tension that are easier to fret. They have thinner and shorter necks that require less finger stretching. They also have fewer strings so less finger dexterity is required to form chords.
Now, I’ll explain how this works in a little more detail.
Reason 1: Ukuleles Have Softer and Thinner Strings
Most guitars are strung with metal strings, while ukuleles are strung with softer materials like nylon.
Ukulele strings are much gentler on a beginner’s fingers. While you will still experience some discomfort when learning the ukulele, it is nowhere near the pain of smashing your tender newbie fingers against thick metal guitar strings!
Guitar strings are also higher gauge, meaning the strings are thicker in diameter. The thicker the string, the harder it is to press. And the harder you have to press, the more it will hurt.
Reason 2: Ukuleles Have Thinner and Shorter Necks
Guitars have very thick and wide necks compared to ukuleles of all sizes. They are also longer, which means the frets are bigger – and the notes are farther apart. All of this means even more stretching for your hand and your fingers much stretch greater distances to form chords.
Playing the ukulele requires much less hand and finger stretching than playing the guitar. It won’t be painless, but guitars cause way more hand cramping in the beginning.
Reason 3: Ukulele Strings Have Less Tension
Guitars have longer necks and thicker strings. They also have metal strings. All of this causes them to have higher tension in their strings – which makes the strings much harder to push down.
Due to their lower tension, it doesn’t take as much pressure to fret ukulele strings compared to guitar strings. Less pressure means less work for your fingers – and less fingertip and joint pain!
Reason 4: Ukuleles Have Fewer Strings
Guitars have six strings while ukuleles only have four. And you only have four fretting fingers to work with no matter what. So, when it comes to learning chords as a beginner, less is more!
Playing the ukulele requires less finger dexterity than playing the guitar. You have to fret fewer strings to produce chords and the frets are much closer together.
You will still have to develop dexterity, but learning to fret more strings at once on a guitar makes it that much more painful initially.
How to Stop Your Fingers from Hurting While Playing Ukulele
While building hand strength, finger dexterity, and calluses is always going to be hard work, there are a few tricks that can lessen the hurt. Check out these six pain-reducing tips!
Tip 1: Stretch Your Hand and Fingers Before Playing
Treat your hand and fingers like any muscle you are working out and stretch them first!
A quick, easy stretch is to hold your arm straight out with your fretting hand’s palm facing away from you. Then, gently pull each finger back towards your body using your other hand.
Ukulele Mate walks you through four stretches in this video:
Stretching before you play can reduce the strain on muscles and joints and result in less pain during play.
Tip 2: Warm Up Before Playing
Before you dive into a rigorous practice session, take a few minutes to warm up first. Many players use this time to run through scales or build finger dexterity by repeating simple note sequences.
Check out this video by Ukulele Tricks for a five-minute warmup routine:
And Rob MacKillop shows you some good finger dexterity-building exercises in this video:
Taking just a few minutes to warm up will ease your fingers into your practice session which will result in less finger pain during play. As a bonus, it will also build your dexterity and music theory knowledge!
Tip 3: Don’t Overdo It
Many players feel like they need to play through the pain to get good. While it’s true that some discomfort is part of the learning process, much like fatigue is a normal part of a good workout, pain can also be a warning that you are overdoing it.
Playing through wrist and joint pain, for example, can lead to bigger issues and even permanent damage. Likewise, if you play with an open blister, you can develop an infection.
It’s best to start slow and ease into it. Make sure you are giving your body time to heal and adapt. If you are in pain, take a break and allow your hand and fingers to rest. Try dividing a one-hour playing session into four fifteen-minute blocks throughout the day.
Tip 4: Play Frequently
It’s much better to play a little each day than to play for two hours once a month. This is true for callus development as much as learning!
Consistent playing is key for developing fingertip calluses. And once you have calluses, you won’t have as much pain in your fingertips.
If you take too much time off from your ukulele, your calluses will disappear. So, make sure you keep playing.
Tip 5: Take Care of Your Calluses
Once you start forming calluses, you’ll have to keep them healthy. If they become rough, use a file to smooth them out. Do not peel them off.
Also, avoid playing when your hands are wet or right after applying lotion as this can slough calluses off. If you lose them, you’ll have to start all over!
Tip 6: Use Finger Strengthening Devices
You can build fretting hand strength and dexterity even when you aren’t playing!
Stress balls, gyro balls, and hand exercisers are all great options to speed up hand strength development and reduce finger pain when playing. The best part is these devices are small and can be used just about anywhere.
Check out this popular D’Addario hand exerciser on Amazon (FYI: we may get a commission on these if you buy through our link at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting Fret Folks!).
When Fingers Will Get Used to Ukulele (How Long It Takes)
The good news is the painful part of ukulele playing is always temporary.
With regular playing, ukulele finger pain typically diminishes after a period of 2-4 weeks. By then, your muscles, ligaments, and joints will have adjusted to your new hobby and your fingertips will have started forming calluses.
All of this translates to a painless playing experience.
If you stop playing for several weeks or longer you will begin to lose calluses and finger dexterity – so make sure you keep strumming that uke!