Don’t wear yourself out! Avoiding unnecessary injuries when playing guitar

I’m talking primarily about left hand technique here today and avoiding stresses and strains which can lead to injuries and ultimately enforced time away from the guitar. Boo! I’ve been through, and still going through one might argue, a technique change in the left hand to keep me fit and healthy in my playing. I talk from the one time painful voice of experience and know all to well the vital importance of being aware and observing for ourselves what’s happening with our bodies when playing.

So, on with the show

Are you relaxed all through the whole of your left arm when you’re practicing?

Shoulder, upper arm, forearm, hand, thumb, fingers? Really? Are you? What about that left shoulder saying hello to the left earlobe…. Ah huh…

Right, now that’s sorted there should be no bad or unhelpful tension in there, only good tension.

Good tension is that which helps you remain upright essentially, keeps your left arm in the position it needs to be, creates flexibility and aids easy, fluid movements, which in turn help create beautiful sounds and beautiful music.

Bad tension is that which constricts movement, reduces flexibility, causes pain and cramps in the short-term, and building up potentially more serious issues such as repetitive strain injuries over time. Not to mention it also creates strained, tense and thin sounds and ultimately holds back the music from its full potential.

Tendonitis, strains and other injuries are NOT an inevitability when playing the guitar.

Some things to think about in your next practice session

Do you find yourself pressing harder with your left hand fingers the louder you play with your right hand?

This used to be quite a significant issue for me and I’ll be first to admit that this bad habit can still have a tendency to creep back in if I’m not observant and aware of exactly how my left had feels whilst practicing. Just being aware of how things feel is a considerable first step in correcting them and making sure you’re not storing up trouble for later on.

Make sure you’re pressing down with your left hand fingers with only as much pressure as you need to make the notes sound without buzzing. Have a little play around with this, make a little exercise of it, and see how little pressure you really need from the left hand and fingers to make a note sound.

Be aware of how your left hand feels and any early warning signs of a potential issue. There shouldn’t be any pain when playing, nor any tingling or pins and needles sensations or numbness in the left wrist, hand or fingers.

How does your left thumb feel when playing? And after playing? The meat of the ball of the thumb should be relaxed and soft to the touch when not playing. If you find this wee bit of your anatomy sore or even cramping during playing, firstly stop before you do yourself an injury! Secondly, don’t ignore it – I can promise you it won’t go away of its own accord if you carry on using the same actions day in, day out. This is the perfect time to take a moment, stop and reassess exactly what is going on and address the technical issue, perhaps with a teacher.

And don’t try so hard!
Sometimes the mere fact of stretching so far or pressing so hard for that barre, reaching so hard for that stretch across the frets can be our undoing. We build these things up in our mind to be Everests of the guitar – huge peaks of virtually insurmountable difficulty, that can only be overcome by trying harder and pressing on through the pain.

Uhhh uhhh. Nope. Naughty!

Firstly, when you look at a particular element in the music that is causing the tension, it probably is not as difficult as you imagine. You may just require some carefully selected studies or exercises that, erm, exercise that particular element.

Secondly, awareness is key (again). Being aware that we’re trying excessively, aware that we’re putting undue strain and stress through our muscles, ligaments and joints can helps to just turn our effort down a notch or two.

Do you really need to be pressing that hard or stretch that intensely? What’s the right amount of “trying” or rather “doing” to achieve that musical outcome?

We kind of do this unthinkingly everyday – the right amount of effort to open a door, lift a lovely cup of cappuccino, walk down the road. We can apply the same to our playing. Once we’ve made ourselves aware of and learnt that right amount of effort required technically in our playing we need not think of it much again! And stop putting so much undue stress on our bodies and buggering ourselves up!

And don’t forget, these things take time (see my previous post – keep chipping away, with awareness and care not to wear yourself out and you’ll get there.


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