Playing Guitar Without Tension

Hand Tension

In my younger days I played a lot of fast noodly stuff, aggressive rock or classical playing where my muscles and tendons were tortured for hours on end. I had some issues with tendonitis, a ganglion cyst, which caused all sorts of pain when playing, so I started focusing on ways to help it. I looked for ways to reduce the tension in my hands and arms while I played, and by sheer necessity I greatly reduced the pain and vastly increased my endurance.

Bad Guitar Habits

Something I’ve noticed in the last few years is that my technique has changed, mostly due to the type of music I play. I still play a little fast noodly stuff, but most of my gigs these days are rock & roll and country, where 90% of the time you’re playing rhythm guitar, and the solos are more listener-friendly, just solid ‘fit-the-song’ type stuff. All well and good, but that style of playing causes me to let my focus on technique slip, and bad habits develop.

Finding a Fix

I tried all sorts of things to help alleviate the pain when playing, from different hand positions, sitting positions, etc… I was told about Alexander Technique, which isn’t just for musicians, but many practice for it’s benefits to posture and proper alignment of the body. I am not a big disciplined routine kind of person, so I just had to plow my own way, taking bits and pieces and discovering my own way to fix my problem.

Follow the path

One thing I got from every relaxation approach was that tension doesn’t always necessarily originate in the place you think is the problem. For guitarists, that’s the hands and arms. But, the problem isn’t always directly related to how you wiggle your fingers…it could be starting in your head, your neck, back, shoulders, etc… It is amazing how your body can hold stress and tension while your mind is focusing on something (like playing guitar…) Whether it’s clenching your teeth, tensing your shoulders or arms, or simply holding the guitar wrong, just being aware of the origin and following the chain of tension can help fix bad habits.

Start with breathing

Grab a metronome or drum machine, set it to a comfortable tempo, and practice playing something easy like a scale or lick, while paying strict attention to:

First – Your Breathing. Should be nice and even…Don’t hold it! Lots of people do this.

Second – Your Jaw muscles. (don’t clench!)

Third – Your Shoulders & Back. Relax them, don’t hold one shoulder higher than the other, etc…

Fourth – Your Elbows – They are a common place to hold tension when picking.

Fifth – Your Wrists/Hands.
Press only as hard as you need to fret the notes
Don’t strangle the neck with your thumb
Make sure you are not holding your wrist (on either hand) in an unnatural position/angle.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of all of this is to get you to think about the many places you could be creating counter-productive tension, and eliminating it. Bad habits can effect your tone, your timing, and your stamina. Not to mention you can create serious problems like tendonitus, carpal tunnel syndrome or worse. It is truly possible to play virtually tension-free, and with a little practice it comes pretty easy. But, if you’re like me and slip into bad habits easily, things can slide downhill pretty fast. Keep things loose and relaxed and you will play better, guaranteed!