Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Callus Maintenance?

Hey everyone. This is Heff. I’m looking for some pro callus maintenance tips…mine are always shredded, and hook everything I touch…including small children and the wife. I’ve tried using an emery board, but it only lasts for a second when you’re always playing. How do I condition them to be smooth, but hard?

Also, I have this permanent rut in my first 3 fingers…Ben says that’s good. But after years of downward pulloffs it seems they’re oriented one way and, now that I’m working on the upward kind, they catch the string and…I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s more of a ringing pluck than a snappy sound…it’s just not a good sound. Suggestions? Bondo, implants, amputation?

Thanks guys.

I keep a set of small nail clippers on my keychain and clip off the rough spots as needed. The ruts will change in time as you start working on different patterns. It might take a while since it sounds like you have well established callouses.

Hi Brian.

Just a light brush with emery board every once in a while works for me.

You mention the rut’s. I can recall a time when my fingers had deep rut’s and were very painful to touch, on occasion they would bleed and I would need to rest up for a few days. I put it down to inexperience and pressing the strings way too hard.

As a beginner I was encouraged to use light strings to help me play pull-off’s and bends more efficiently.

Back then I was practicing about 12 hours a day, Yes 12 hours a day, that was not a typo. I had recently retired and had a lot of time on my hands and I was obsessed with learning to play the banjo before I met my maker.

I had read somewhere you needed to put in 10,000 hours of practice before you started to sound like a banjo player and since I was a late starter I had a lot of catching up to do. The constant action of playing hammer-on’s slides and pulloff’s cut deeply into my finger tips.

When I bought my Stelling it came with medium/ heavy gauge strings. I learned not to press down so heavily on the strings and over time the rut’s faded away. My finger muscles grew stronger and adjusted to the heaver strings especially on bends and chokes. To be honest I had forgotten all about the pain I went through until I read your post.

So take from that what you will. I am not suggesting that light strings contributed to my pain and suffering but it has crossed my mind.

Thanks man.

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Thanks Archie. I have considered that 13’s are too heavy for my fingers (though not at all a beginner). I much prefer 10’s on my guitar, but get so much more vibration out of the top with these. Even so, I can hardly hear myself at a jam. Seems a shame to work so hard only to have your part buried when it’s time to shine.

13s!? Holy cow! I thought I was going thick with 12s.

Stelling Medium/ Heavies .010, .012, .015, .024, .010

Hi Heff,

Permanent ruts in your fingertips eh?

Some years ago, I developed a technique for relaxing the left hand so that the fingers and tips would not take too much abuse. In fact, this technique helps you play faster and allows your hands to relax the longer you play. It is called “touch technique” and here is how you would practice.

Pick a scale or line of music that you regularly practice. Allow your left hand fingers to play so lightly on the strings that none of the strings rings clearly. In other words, you would touch the strings so lightly that you get a muted sound from each note played. Practice this until all notes played are muted with none ringing clearly. Then practice the same notes pressing down only hard enough to get the notes to sound clearly (no harder!).

If you do this regularly, you should find that your finger tips will not be so badly abused nor will you have permanent ruts.

As a side note, I play 3+ hours per day (. 013 to .056 strings) and you would be hard pressed to SEE any calluses on my fingers. If you felt them, you would feel that the skin is thicker, but there is no discoloration or tears to speak of.

One other suggestion, use Aloe (pure Aloe is the best) on your fingertips after long playing sessions to speed healing. Put a blob on each fingertip and allow it to stay there till it dries (usually a out 20 minutes).

Good luck!


I’ll probably get hammered with disagreement for this, but it’s how I see it.

I don’t think string thickness has a thing to do with ruts, soreness or calluses. I believe it’s how often and how much you play to harden your fingertips. Like Mike, I don’t have calluses either but my left fingertips are way harder than my right. Tap your fingers on the kitchen table and you’ll hear a noticable difference. It’s the same as walking barefoot in gravel. Kids that go barefoot in the summer all the time don’t think twice about it, but anyone that wears shoes all the time couldn’t take two steps without screaming in pain (like me).

The reason lighter strings seem easier on the fingers is because there is less tension, making them easier to fret. I like Mike’s excercise above. Only fret hard enough to get clear notes. This will also keep you from sharpening the note that is fretted.

I too use .013 - .056 guitar strings and on Mandolin, I use J-75’s. They’re like logging cables, but sound great and are no problem at all.

I say put the heavier strings on, play and get used to them. It won’t take long. Another huge, huge factor is your set-up. It doesn’t matter what gauge strings you have on any instrument (except square neck dobro), high action will destroy your fingers.

So, make sure your instrument is set up correctly, put heavier strings on (they will sound much better) and play, play, play!

Hope someone agrees with me on this and I hope it helps someone!


Nah - I don’t think you’ll get hammered - I think we’re all just built different from one another and have both physiological differences as well as playing technique. I’m kind of like you.

I’ve been playing now for 35 years or so. Sometimes, even in the past few years, I’ve gone a couple months without playing at all. During those times, my left hand fingertips definitely get softer. But one or two sessions, and the (permanent?) pads seems to come right back. If I haven’t played for a while, my fingers might hurt after an hour or so, but the next day - all good. So I definitely think there’s some permanence to the left fingertip pads that develop over time.

For Heff…

With that as context, I suspect that someone who plays all the time and has both ruts and shedding skin has 1) Not yet developed those permanent “pads” that I think jw11 is referencing and that I have too. If you have been playing a long time and still get the ruts and cuts, I wonder if maybe you’re just fretting too hard?

The reason I suspect fretting too hard is not meant as a slight, but a real consideration. Sometimes I even catch myself just working too hard - left hand thumb gets tired because I get a death grip on the guitar - especially when chording a lot, and the middle left knuckle gets sore (but that’s also due to getting old!). When I’m teaching my son (11) I correct him a lot, “You don’t need to squeeze the string against the fretboard so hard - you don’t need to kill it! Just get the string to rest across the fret wire enough to make the tone.”

All that to say, have you tried doing some exercises where you run through scales and such practicing a lighter touch?

I agree with Bredfan about possibly fretting too hard.

I remember a Steve Kaufman clinic I went to a long time ago where he taught exactly that (not fretting too hard). It was the first day of the clinic near the beginning. He said to attack the strings with your pick very hard and notice how hard you fret. Then he had us strike the strings very lightly with your pick and notice how much lighter you fret. We went back and forth like this for awhile. He then told is to play hard with your right hand but fret gently as if you were still using a light attack with your pick. At first, it seemed impossible! It’s a natural reaction that the left hand will have a stronger approach if your right hand also has a strong approach or vica-versa. You have to train yourself to do what doesn’t feel natural. We see this in many other aspects in learning to play any instrument. It all kinda goes hand in hand. Ha! I just made a funny!..

Anyway, focus on what your right hand is doing. Try lightening up your attack if you think maybe it’s too strong and see if that helps. Also, put your brain to work and try to keep the same left hand pressure on the strings while changing the amount of right hand attack you give to your strings. Doesn’t matter what instrument you play or if you finger pick or flat pick. This is something we all should work on because it is a challenge. You will need to fret a little harder when you play harder since the strings will vibrate more, but still… only enough to get clear notes.

Good luck, hope this helps.


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Thanks Doc.
I literally just heard the same thing from my son’s Ron Block banjo DVD.
Guess I’ll give it a go.

Thanks for the input!

Could be fretting too hard. The action, for me, is way too high.
The neck is too wide for my stubby hand too @ 1 3/4" nut width. I keep pinching the nerve of my fret hand (left) index finger reaching for those G runs and pull offs, then can’t play for about 2 days. It shoots pain up my finger just to lightly touch the skin…but man, that guitar sounds good!
I KNOW I need a different one, but I just can’t sell it yet. I just bought it in December.

I’ve been playing for a month or so and I got these calluses on my fingertips and I was told not to try picking it off, but of course I did and it hurt like hell. I put some Bepanthenol and it took me a week to start playing again. Now I use Carrier Oils to soften the fingertips, it helps so far.


Hey Sofia! Which oils do you use?

Check out Sofia’s link. Lots of options there. I just use a drop of my wife’s hand lotion and my fingertips maintain the calluses in a excellent manner, smooth, no splitting, no catching on things, etc.

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I lost my pinky callus the other day. I didn’t want to, but a butcher knife stole her from me, along with a quarter inch of flesh! Took me 2 weeks to get to where I could play again!

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I don’t use any oils. From time to time I do brush the tips lightly with an emery board just to lift off the top layer of loose skin. If I am away from the banjo for a long period I usually find I need to suffer a few days of pain until a new callus grows.

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