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Walking the Wires: Love Your Fingers

Appreciating the magic phalanges that make the music

I recently had a conversation with my buddy Dean Farley (Signal Chain columnist), about fingerstyle playing. He was on vacation in Boston and said he and his buddies instituted a “fingers only” policy for the entire time he was there. He noted that after a few hours he felt his fingers get really light, found himself playing stuff way faster than he could with a pick, and found textures he’d either forgotten or never imagined. He wondered if that was my experience as well, and I had to think about it.

While I am equally comfortable with picks or fingers, probably 85 percent of the music I write and perform is fingerstyle—yes, even with a Telecaster. With students, I start working on weaning them off picks as early as possible, and they soon discover that they have more control, more access to textures, more freedom to get all pushy and syncopated, and that when they play “chord melodies” as opposed to single-note stuff it sounds so much fuller that they often never look back.

So let’s take a closer look at those magic fingers, and talk some about how to keep them in the best shape possible.

Fingers–A Portrait
Since they’re right in front of me, I’ll talk a little about my fingers. They’re long for my hands, and lean, and a little beat-up looking. Today, they’re red and chapped because it’s been cold and I can’t find my gloves. The nails on my left hand are clipped close, while the nails on my right hand are longer–though not terribly long–sort of like a modified French manicure, with the nails left wide all the way out, but rounded off on the edges at the tips to glide across the strings easily. The nails are pink with white tips, and they’re a little shiny.

The ends of the fingers on my left hand are flattened out from 42 years of playing guitar. There are faint permanent grooves in the middle of the tough but surprisingly pliable calluses. The callus extends down the index finger past the big knuckle in the middle. It’s not as hard as the calluses on the ends, but it’s definitely there.

Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes used to be a great believer in the power of hands to communicate. They are chatty little appendages, that’s for sure. We check out hands to see if someone is a hard worker, how much attention they pay to grooming, whether they wear a wedding ring. And when we see someone with short nails on the left and long on the right, we know immediately that we’re with our own kind.

In poetry we find reams of verbiage regarding hands, how they move, how they look, how they feel, what they do, from work to comfort to making love to playing guitar. They’re quite powerful images on their own, our hands, but fingers are frequently a little edgier, more sensual, sometimes purely erotic. When someone touches with a hand, it can be a firm pat on the back, or a parental caress. But when someone touches with fingers, it’s often much more personal than that. If I sing a song in which “your” hand brushes “my” cheek, it can be a simple romantic gesture. But if I change “hand” to “fingers,” suddenly there’s a whole new level of intimacy, and as a songwriter, I have to decide if I want to push that boundary. And I usually do, ‘cause that’s just how I roll.

The Care and Feeding of Your Fingers
In the December 2009 issue of PG I did a mini-feature on nail care called “Winterizing Your Fingernails,” in which I talked a lot about how to survive the winter with those precious nails intact. So to carry on from that impulse, let’s talk a little about fingers and how to keep them happy.

Yes, it’s cold and flu season, so you must wash your hands often, but use cool water some of the time. It isn’t as good as hot water at killin’ germs, but is far less drying. Here’s the double-edged sword of frequent hand-washing: it kills cold and flu germs to keep you healthier, but if you wash your hands too much, it can cause your skin to crack and bleed, making you susceptible to other opportunistic infections, as well as giving cold and flu germs an even easier way to get into your bloodstream. Here’s where the hand sanitizer/moisturizer combination comes in handy once in a while, too. Nothing beats soap and warm water, but you don’t have to wash until it hurts.

Moisturizer on it’s own is essential. I have been liking Gold Bond Ultimate Healing hand creme lately. It isn’t greasy, really works fast, and doesn’t overpower you with a girlie scent. I sang the praises of Bag Balm as well in my previous article about nail care. If your hands get really, really bad, slime on the Bag Balm, cover with some cheap gloves you’ll never need to wear again and go to bed for the night. Next morning, voila: beautiful hands.

Doing dishes isn’t really all that bad for your hands, unless you use really hot water and lots of abrasives. Sorry. You can wear rubber gloves, or better yet, as soon as you are done and your hands are still a little damp, seal that moisture in with a good coat of some intensive moisturizer.

My son and I both get really nasty, painful calluses building up under and pushing against our fingernails on the left hand. No matter how many times that happens, or how used to it you get, that sharp, stabbing pain stops you mid-riff every time. It makes your whole hand hurt. The only thing you can do is try to work some Neosporin or some other ointment in under the nail and cover with bandages. It’ll hurt for three or four days, and then it’ll be okay.

And of course, eating right, drinking plenty of water, getting exercise, and making sure you know where your gloves are build the foundation of healthy, flexible, strong hands that let you play without pain. The fingertips are loaded with nerve endings; it’s part of what makes us human, part of what allows us to play guitar, touch somebody we love with all the force of our hearts behind it, and do the dishes. Don’t take those wonderful, magical phalanges for granted.