Manual labor and guitar playing

Greetings, all. I’m an avid outdoorsperson. My garden is like a small farm - food, flowers, trees, bamboos, etc. I expand it every year and also have multiple “landscaping” projects. I planted ~600 trees this past winter (reforestation), as I have the past several winters. Unless it’s ridiculously cold or windy, I spend several hours outside doing things with my hands every day.

Then I come in and play guitar. Well, I started in October. The things I do demand a lot of my hands, and the guitar piece is the kindest among them. So far, I haven’t had many occasions where I felt like my guitar abilities were hindered by the other things I’d done during the day. On some days, a couple of fingers (3 & 4) don’t want to go quite as far as they should sometimes. I don’t have any pain (unless my trigger finger locks up).

Are there others here who (ab)use their hands extensively? If so, are there ways that you try to mitigate the demands? I always stretch and warm up before playing, and I think that helps a lot. I also try to be very mindful now about what I’m doing outside and not do things that I think might hinder my guitar playing.

I know it’s ultimately about choices and priorities, but I’m not ready to stop doing anything if I don’t have to.


I box, but it hurts more the wrists than the fingers. I used to do other martial arts, and I only felt some impact on my playing while doing judo, where they rip their clothes off your grip - this was making the fingers stiff, and sometimes even traumatized.
I think, if you’re not a professional guitarist, don’t sweat it too much. If something really impacts your playing - it is probably not healthy anyway.

I remember, somebody asked Tatyana Ryzhkova, a classical guitar player, what she does if she breaks a nail, and she said - I don’t break nails, I don’t even open doors with my right hand :slight_smile: .
But it is quite an extreme approach.


Hi Bob… not an outdoorsman … but I work in warehousing and distribution for an aftermarket auto parts supplier. I’m regularly lugging warranty returned bus and truck calipers around daily, along with body panels, axle beams, subframes … you name it … if it goes on, or under, a bus or truck chassis, I’ve got my precious hands on it.

There’s a two edged sword, here. On the one side, I’ve got some grip, due to the strength that builds up from this kind of work … But on the flipside, I’m damn careful not to get my fingers or hands trapped anywhere, caught on any edges, or any muscles and tendons otherwise strained, cos I’ll be buggered if I’m not picking a guitar up any night of the week.

Regardless how careful, though … it does take some toll on the hands … and there are ways to mitigate the stiffness that comes from doing a shift in such an envoironment. Your warm ups and stretches are one. I always play lightly for ten or fifteen minutes … and then stop to lightly stretch my wrists, forearms and fingers. When I say lightly, I mean I push them until the muscles stretch out a good few times and I can really feel it. Then, let them relax, hang loose, and shake them out. Then I’ll resume playing again … just as lightly. but check my fluidity.

Even after that first twenty minutes, though … I’m far from warmed up for what I want to play. It’s not unusual for me to play for two to four hours some nights, if I’m hooked on playing; so it could take anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour before I’m in the groove, if you will. The trick is to gradually build fluidity up comfortably, while consciously relaxing and flowing into it.

I also use O’Keefe’s hand cream … which is basically formulated to keep bricklayers hands from turning into props from The Walking Dead. Don’t be afraid to moisturise your hands. Obviously not right before playing … cos it’s nasty playing when you have … and don’t worry about your callouses getting soft. Remember, once you’ve been playing long enough, your fingers are conditioned right down to the bone, not just the skin.

You have the right of it already, mind … stretch and warm up properly … just don’t worry if you have to do it a little longer to achieve fluidity in your playing.

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What is the source of your concern? I can see trouble with skin abrasions, muscle fatigue, even joint abuse causing stiffness or aches. Maybe it could be any of those from one time the next.

I was destroying a corrugated box the other day and managed to slice the side of my fretting finger 1. There is no way I will be able to play a barre chord until it is healed since the string wants to be pressed right along the slice. For this, it is temporary, and I. just need to wait and do something different. Finger-style it is for a few days.

I also have noticed that when I go out and weed the garden before playing, I fatigue my hand muscles. If I massage and stretch them for a bit, it helps a lot, but I don’t have the endurance to play as long as other days. I just need to keep my time short and come back a few hours later.

Then there are days like today. I got out of bed and couldn’t hit a series of correct notes no matter how slow I played. Everything was off. This usually means that I need to wait for tomorrow to expect anything to change, so I do something like research songs, transcribe since it takes no dexterity, or just work on something not related.

The last thing is something that few consider. If you have trouble after consuming foods that you can link to the problem, then look at what they are doing to your body. Good examples are alcohol and caffeine. They dehydrate you and you need to replenish the fluids in your joints and tissues to get reach back, regain finger-tip padding, and even keep your back from aching while sitting with the guitar. A reduction in electrolytes can cause muscle cramps and may make a finger “lock up”.


I won’t even cut up the Sunday roast lamb for the wife anymore.

“Anyone would think you’re a brain surgeon” she says.

" Brain surgeon. Pfftt. I’m a guitar player madam".
I love watchin her eyes roll. :nerd_face::rofl:

Cheers, Shane


Thank you all. These are great replies. I’m glad to know others do encounter this challenge.

@Alexeyd, wrists are definitely a part of it for me. My biggest source of discomfort when playing is definitely my fretting wrist. That’s improving as I continue to explore positions/angles of pretty much everything, but after a full day of digging/hauling/sawing, that wrist can already be a bit sore when I start playing.

@Wishbone71, great to meet you. I’m glad you’ve returned. You hit on a lot of aspects of my situation. Like you, I have considerable hand/arm/core strength from my activities, but yeah, I have to really watch what I’m doing. I wear gloves most of the time, but I’ve gone through those with sharp tools on occasion. For all the reasons you gave, my warmup is quite long, too (30-45 minutes). As a beginner, I can easily fill that time with worthwhile exercises to improve my fundamentals. And I do moisturize (not right before playing). If I didn’t, my hands would fall to dust.

@sequences, yep, all of the above, varying with the day’s activities. Fatiguing your hand muscles by weeding is a great example. This time of year, I’m weeding for an hour or more every day, but I’m also shoveling dirt/compost/mulch/rocks, tightening fences, wielding a chainsaw… Could be anything - for several hours. Every day. So my hands are definitely tired. Great points, too, about hydration. I drink a lot of water, but it’s impossible for me to keep up while I’m outside for hours. So I’m usually a bit behind when I come in. I appreciate that reminder.

@sclay, I like your strategy. I may adopt it myself one day.

I’m 60, and my hands show signs of the abuse I’ve given them. I really expected my trigger fingers, Depuytren’s contracture, left wrist badly broken at age 18, and hints of arthritis to be a show-stopper for me learning guitar. It really hasn’t been, and I’m hoping to keep that train a’rolling. But it’s also hard to imagine giving up doing the things I’ve loved to do for decades.

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Try having nails for fingerstyle or classical…I gave up. Flesh only. I couldn’t even zip up my pants without damaging a nail on the zipper. I don’t know how people do it. I am even left handed playing righty so the nails were on my non-dominant hand.


I gave that up pretty quickly, too. I also don’t see how people do it.

I’ve done a lifetime of manual work and my hands are fine for playing guitar. My fingers are as nimble as ever, although the cold slows them down these days. That’s an age thing (64) and they’re ok once I get them warmed up again.

I certainly don’t shy away from working with my hands thinking it will harm my guitar playing. Quite the opposite!

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Well I guess those original blues players spent their lives in manual labour and it didn’t do their playing any harm!

My other passion is Powerlifting and Olympic lifting. These beat up hands pretty good - I use a grip on the bar called ‘hook grip’ where you place your thumb under the fingers and the weight of the bar is sitting pretty much on your thumb. I’ve developed some serious callouses on my hands and thumbs over the years doing this, but it has never really affected my playing. Actually I think using the hands in a different way might be a good thing, a bit of balance to the very specific guitar related movements and grips.

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I definitely have slower, fatigued hands on deadlift day. Although I’m sure overall the grip strength helps barre chords.

Gym, at least, is relatively clean.


@BurnsRhythm, it definitely falls into the “everybody’s anatomy is different” bin. Some folks win the genetic lottery. My family history includes both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis. I clearly have some of the former.

@mathsjunky, I had the same thought about the old bluesmen, but then I thought about all of the selection biases. We only know of the ones whose playing was unharmed. How many of the ones we know died before age 60? How many continued doing manual labor and playing guitar beyond 60? I suspect that percentage becomes quite small. Also, see “genetic lottery” above.

@jkahn and @mathsjunky, I also do strength (free weights) training in the winter to keep in shape, though surely nothing as heavy as you two. That does affect my muscles, joints, and tendons both positively and negatively as you’ve described. Still, for me anyway, it’s very different from the tighter grip involved in a lot of the things I do daily. Those are the ones that really get my hands - tensioning cords/ropes/fences, pinching/pulling weeds, and the like.

One strategy I’ve adopted in recent years is rotating tasks frequently so that I’m switching the demands on my body every couple of hours. While that helps significantly, it also means that things don’t get “finished” on the day they’re begun, which is maddening for a completionist. But we adapt.


I’m sure you are right, actually my comment was perhaps a little flippant considering the tremendous hardship those folk went through.

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I’ll second the stretching and hand moisturizer suggestions. I also find that if my hands are really beat up and feeling stiff and sore using voltaren gel (a topical NSAID) helps as well.

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I also spend a lot of time gardening and growing vegetables. But it doesn’t seem to have any bad impact on my fingers and hands. Instead I find that after a long afternoon outside I am too tired to play guitar overall as the concentration is gone. Maybe something to do with getting older and loosing overall fitness. For now a little less gardening, or fewer of the tiring things like lugging compost around. Or on weekends first playing guitar and then outside.

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I have spent the last 40+ years doing activities that require a lot of finger and hand strength. At age 70 I can really feal it in my hands and the finger flexibility has taken a hit, not to mention the dreaded trigger fingers.
Some things have been very helpful regarding minimizing finger fatigue and stiffness:
1/8 - 1/4 tsp tumeric in my coffee (half-caf) every morning
Finger and forearm stretches
Menthol, eucalyptus and CBD oil infused hand cream before bed at night
Playing guitar every day, starting with the finger gyms or scales
I find playing guitar on a daily basis actually helps a lot. When I go without playing for a few days my fingers take some time to loosen up and not cramp

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That’s very interesting, @ChasetheDream. I’ve wondered if playing guitar has helped my hands in general, and here you are saying that’s your experience, too. Maybe it’s not the actual playing but the whole regime that is benefiting us. Playing guitar is good for you!

I’m also getting turmeric (and cucurmin) in daily supplements and doing similar night-time hand cream. It sounds like we’ve arrived at very similar strategies.

By the way, in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I spent 6 years at IU Bloomington, not far from you. I definitely miss the ease of gardening there. Just plunk it in the ground, and it grows like crazy. Here (western Washington State), I have to pamper plants daily, and then summer is over before it started.

I was actually working at IU Bloomington while you were there. Small world! My wife, Linnea, operates a greenhouse so there is a connection of sorts there also.
Playing guitar has become a large part of my life and I am loving every minute!

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Well, I just spent a chunk of my day putting a new pump in a washer.

I can say two things.

One, as a neurologist, everyone should be thankful I am not a neurosurgeon :man_facepalming:t3:

Two, now my right thumb is too sore to play for a bit.

The sacrifices we make.