The hidden price of tension and what to do about it.

Do you know how many times my previous guitar and bass teachers told me about tension?


Zero.


I only recently started considering how excess tension might be hampering my playing.


The trickiest thing with excess tension is that we often don’t even know that it’s happening. This means that we need some strategies to become aware of any over effort in our body.


Just to be clear, a certain amount of pressure in hands and fingers when playing the guitar is required. However, excessive rigidity in the wrong places is a common issue which can keep us from playing faster and with more feeling.


For example, intense rhythm guitar playing requires power from the picking hand. In order to get that, the wrist and fingers of the picking hand have to be engaged and activate. However, rhythm playing sounds and feels better when the fretting hand is relaxed.


Here’s another example: When you are picking, the motion and energy comes from your wrist. When you are strumming, the majority of the motion and energy comes from your elbow.


Once you’ve determined how much pressure to use for different types of guitar playing, you can move on to investigate the source of unnecessary tension.


1. Check your posture.


We as humans have such deeply ingrained ways of sitting and standing and when you add a guitar to these bad habits, it can be a recipe for disaster.


Do you play standing up or seated?


Either way, you should be using a guitar strap. Read my love letter to guitar straps for my argument on why you should use a guitar strap every time you play.


How are you holding your guitar?


Check out this post about thumb position for more tips on holding your hands and your guitar in the most effective way.


Are you viewing music/TAB on an electronic device like a computer, phone, or tablet?


Notice how you're holding your head and using your eyes. Sometimes you can catch yourself straining your eyes or jutting your head forward and this can lead to unwanted tension in your neck and shoulders.


2. Try progressive relaxation.


There’s a technique used in yoga and meditation called progressive relaxation. In this technique, you scan your body with your awareness and systematically relax the muscles not needed for the task at hand. You can do this while you are playing guitar and it will help you identify strain in your body.


First, take a scale or riff you’re working on and slow it down.


Close your eyes and focus on one area of the body at a time.


Start by feeling your hands and as you exhale, relax them so you are using just enough effort to produce the sounds.


Next move your attention to your forearms. Exhale and relax them as you are playing.


Now focus on your shoulders. Exhale and relax them as you are playing.


Continue doing this with your neck, your back, and so on, for all the parts of your body.


Work from your hands up your arms and then down your back. If you start tensing up, stop and try again.


3. Practice tension-free scales.


I learned this exercise from a guitar workshop I recently attending and it made a big difference for me.


First, choose a scale. Let’s pick A minor pentatonic.


Second, set a metronome at 60 bpm.


Next, start with pattern 1, descending from the high e-string, 4 notes at a time.


Play a note on the first metronome click, rest on the second click, play the next note on the third click, rest on the fourth, and repeat.


The rests are the most important part. On the rests, say the word relax and consciously relax your arm, shoulder, back...anywhere that you have identified as an area where you tend to hold extra tension.


Here’s what it would look like beginning on the high e-string playing A minor pentatonic, pattern 1, 4 notes at a time, starting with C on the 8th fret:


“C, relax, A, relax, G, relax, E, relax”, repeat…


Banish unwanted tension and your guitar playing will improve.


Becoming more aware of which techniques require which types of pressure and which muscles it should come from will greatly improve your guitar playing. This new awareness will help you notice and eliminate unnecessary tension.


Getting rid of unnecessary rigidity helps you avoid repetitive stress injuries and improves your speed, accuracy, and fluidity on the guitar.


To begin or continue your journey as a guitar player, contact us to schedule your free introductory session to see how we can help you reach your goals!