There’s nothing like winter to dry out hands, especially up here in the Chicago area. Right now it’s about fourteen degrees, which isn’t too bad so far as cold goes in this area. The frigid weather brings different challenges for musicians, not the least of which is the cracking skin that often accompanies the drying hands. It’s a real pain when it involves fingertips, which all to frequently it does. Right now I have a deep crack running from the corner of middle left middle fingernail almost to the center of the tip of the finger. This provides a definite challenge playing my guitar, and I’m pretty certain that I left a good DNA stamp on my Martin last night while rehearsing. I also have some deep cracks on the tip of my right thumb that developed during rehearsal Thursday down in my basement where it might be sixty degrees Fahrenheit. They’re not quite as much of a hassle from a playing perspective, but they are a literal pain.
I’ve tried copious use of various hand lotions, but really dislike ones that leave a slick residue on my fingers. I hate sludgy feel on my guitar necks and strings that some of these products leave. Regardless of what I’ve tried, every winter it’s the same story, performance after performance and rehearsal after rehearsal, trying to find a sweet spot on some injured fingertip that won’t light up my world when it hits the string. If I manage to make it for a while in the clear, as soon as I trim my nails on my left hand I’m in for another round of cracking. They often start so small that I don’t even realize that they’re there, until I start finding blood smears on my sheet music, or sometimes on the instrument itself.
The aspirin I take everyday slows the clotting process down as well, which in turn does nothing to aid in recovery. Most of the cracks run in line with the finger, so each time the fingertip comes down on the string, if I haven’t lodged the string in the crack it has reopened from the pressure on the fingertip. It’s at its worst when I’m playing steel string guitars with the narrower strings at higher tension. The nylon still provokes the cracks, but with the bass I can play flatter which helps with muting anyway. I can at least hit more of the finger pad itself rather then always striking on the tip. Plus the strings are wide enough that they won’t possibly snag on the edges of the crack and pull it wider. Yeah, another plus for going low!
Regardless of how religious I am with the hand lotions, it still happens every winter, and I have yet to find a way to really prevent it aside from moving to Florida or somewhere else warm for the winter. When I do go to Florida or Arizona for a week or so, and escape the chafing cold, my hands feel entirely different. The skin is more supple, and the cracks that were present finally start to heal, but as soon as they’ve gained some ground it’s back to the cold northern snowfields. Before long it’s back to fresh splits and cracks, leaking blood and connective fluid as the body fights to rebuild and the cycle continues.
I’ve encountered this difficulty for most of my adult life here in the mid-west and on the east coast. Ironically enough, the eight years I spent in the arid southwest were spent predominately crack free despite not even running a humidifier in our apartments. My strings stayed fresh much longer there as well, despite the heat and regardless of how many outdoor gigs I played. Here the strings gunk up faster, and the skin is challenged by the cold. I’m sure that someone out there can provide scientifically deduced reasons for all of this, and I could, no doubt, do the research on the why’s myself, but my actual concern in this is how to circumvent the problem entirely.
Even caring for the injuries themselves becomes an exercise in frustration. Most of the time when dealing with a cut the first thought is to put a Band-Aid on it, but playing with bandaged fingers isn’t a workable solution as the bandages inhibit movement and negatively affect tone production. Superglue is something that I’ve tried in the past, and while it can provide some assistance I’m not so certain about the sanitariness of the fix. I’ve purchased and used antiseptic adhesive that is designed for this. It works somewhat, needs to be applied frequently, smells horrid, and peels off fairly quickly. It can help get you through a gig and sometimes helps keep the gap closed to speed healing. What I’d really like, however, is to find a reliable way to avoid the entire injury to begin with that doesn’t involve moving to another part of the country.