Why am I getting hand cramps when playing guitar? Hand cramps are a normal occurrence that gets better in time as you get used to playing the guitar. Warming up the hands and fingers, using lighter strings, observing proper posture and finger placement, and training your hands are some of the effective ways to manage hand cramps.
It started as a minor discomfort in your hand while playing guitar. No biggie, you thought as you continue to fret and strum.
After a while, your muscles and nerves tense up; the stiffness and cramping are getting hard to ignore at this point. But then, stopping is not an option—you’re in the middle of a performance.
By the end of the set, the pain has radiated from your fingers, palm, and wrist, to your arms.
Hand cramps, fatigue, and soreness are common issues that bother guitarists, especially for beginners who are not yet fully accustomed to playing.
Hand cramps usually affect the fretting hand or the left hand. It also usually occurs while playing barre chords.
While practice makes perfect, too much of it can lead to hand cramps. In some cases, the fingers may even bleed from playing guitar!
Why does this happen? How do we soothe the pain and how can we prevent it from happening again next time? Read on.
Reasons You Get Hand Cramps Playing Guitar
There are many factors at play when cramps happen as you play.
Sometimes, it could even be a combination of these factors.
- The Strings. When cramps happen, the strings usually take the blame. And why so? Strings that contribute to cramps are the heavy or high-gauge ones; the strings’ tension plays a part, as well. High tension and high-gauge strings put extra work on your fingers and this can lead to soreness and stiffening.
- Barre Chords. Playing with your fingers firmly planted down on strings across the fingerboard can lead to cramps. When you play the guitar in general, your fingers and hands are forming shapes and doing movements that are out of the usual; you don’t use your hands this way for any other activity.
- Playing for extended periods. Playing for extended times can put a lot of strain on your muscles and tendons which affects normal blood flow to your hands. It’s no rocket science that cramping is a common symptom of overuse of muscles—you know it too well from playing sports, working out in the gym, or taking a long walk. Meanwhile, hampered blood flow in your hands can result in tingling and numbness.
- No or improper stretching and warm up before playing. We’re not talking about stretching and warming up your guitar here—we’re referring to your hands. Come to think of it: if an instrument like a guitar, which is composed of mechanical parts, needs stretching or warm up, why do you think the hands need it, too? Your hands are composed of muscles, tendons, nerves, and phalanges that perform digital gymnastics when you play the guitar. They all work together to allow you to control your guitar and make music.
- Your position. How are you sitting or standing as you play? It could be your posture or how you position your guitar. There is a proper way to do these; in addition, there is also a proper way of finger placement. We will discuss these in the next subtopic…
Prevent and Correct: Tips and Tricks
While it’s nice to alleviate an already hurting hand, it would be even better to prevent it from happening in the first place! After all, prevention is so much better than cure, right?
Let’s look at some ways we can prevent and correct hand cramps when playing guitar:
1. Warm Up Your Hands and Fingers
This is an essential step that should not be taken for granted! Just as your body needs to warm up before working out, or your voice before singing, your hands and fingers need it too before playing a musical instrument such as a guitar. There are many ways to do it.
You can wiggle your hands and fingers, rolling your wrists clockwise and then counterclockwise and bending your fingers as far back as you comfortably could and holding that position for a few seconds. Stretch your thumb back and then forward toward the palm.
Play your guitar leisurely for a few minutes with simple chords and easy techniques. Then, gradually pick up the pace until you’re playing as normal.
2. Observe Proper Finger Placement
Don’t place your fingers dead-center between the frets, place them near to the fret closest to the bridge. This reduces the amount of force required to break barre chords.
When playing notes or chords, practice arching each finger; this prevents your fingertips from touching other strings and altering the sound.
You should see to it that both your index and little fingers point inward if you have one finger on the same string on consecutive frets.
3. Mind Your Posture
It’s essential to give attention to how the rest of your body reacts when reaching for challenging hand forms. Take a deep breath and relax your shoulders, try to keep your head as straight and forward-facing as possible. Instead of looking directly at the fretboard, you should be able to locate the strings by using your muscle memory. To work the guitar into a natural position and feel, hold it at a 45-degree angle and maintain a relaxed posture.
4. Hold the Guitar Properly
Your thumb should be stationed to the back of the neck’s center and not protruding out from the fretboard. It should look straight along the guitar’s back. Keep your arms and wrists angled comfortably, with the joints from your fingers and wrists naturally rounded.
5. Hold the Strings Close to the Fret
By holding the string close to the fret, as opposed to the standard practice of holding the fingers in the middle of the fretboard, you will need less force to push down, and it will be easier for your fingers.
6. Practice Your Technique
Do not underestimate the power of practice routine on guitar to improve playing technique. This will eventually help you establish a good playing rhythm and develop a comfortable position that will work for you.
7. Consider Using Lighter Strings
The strings may be causing pain and strain for your fingers, which can radiate to your wrists and arms. Consider experimenting with lighter strings and see if it will make a difference to your hands without sacrificing so much of the sound you are aiming for.
8. Guitar Fingers and Gloves Can Save You
Finger caps and guitar gloves help you play pain-free; this is great for situations when you can really use comfort. But don’t be too reliant on these, because hardened skin develops only by playing naturally with bare hands and fingers. The hardened skin, or the callus, helps reduce friction and pain when playing and protects against soreness.
9. Take a Break
Your hands do need breaks once in a while; take a five-minute pause from playing. Have some water, wiggle your hands, stretch your arms, and get the circulation going.
10. Train Your Hands
When you start to get cramps in your fingers, relax your grip and try to play for a little longer. See if the cramps will go away. Don’t strive to be a hero about it; just try the technique and gradually extend your sessions. You’ll grow those muscles over time and be able to play without cramping.
Here is a useful video for professional tips on reducing hand cramps when playing guitar:
The key takeaway here is to not let the pain stop you. There are plenty of ways to manage hand cramps when playing guitar, as we have outlined above; don’t be discouraged when it happens. Some aspiring guitarists may put learning the instrument on the backburner because of the pain associated with playing the guitar.
With continuous practice, hand cramps and soreness will get better over time!
Most importantly, learn how to listen to your body and know your limits. Your safety and wellness should come first before anything else; don’t let yourself suffer in any pain or cause unnecessary injury. Stop when you need to, take a break, and then, try one more time when you’re ready! Good luck!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.