Posture for playing classical guitar

Getting your seated posture sorted for playing is pivotal to physically enjoying your playing, reducing the chance of overuse or incorrect use injuries and ensuring the longevity of your playing. You really don’t want to end up 10 or 20 years down the line being forced to play only in small goes or being forced to stop playing at all. It’s worth taking the time just to slow down or stop and assess your posture.

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentw...
Sit up properly! Photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection

Big to small

When looking at posture I always work from the biggest structures first (i.e. the larger body parts or muscles) before then moving thought to successively smaller elements. Getting your overall seated position needs sorting out before moving on to the movement on the hands and fingers. Your seated position and posture is the framework, the basis from which you’re building your playing and your finer movements.

Building a good solid base for yourself, a bit like practicing your daily scales, is key to much faster, or rather much easier progress, down the line.

Pointers on posture

When seated make sure your legs are bent at roughly 90 degrees, with both feet flat on the ground. Then holding the guitar (using either your preference of foot stool or rest), make sure that your back is straight, using your stomach muscles to help keep that nice straight form. Sit towards the front of your seat; don’t sit too far back on the chair or lean on the back of the chair.

Think about tucking your tail bone under your bum. Lengthen your spine by imagining you’re a puppet with a string attached to the crown of your head keeping you upright.

Legs

Whatever your choice of foot stool versus guitar rest (and I recommend rest as I believe it reduces adverse impacts to the hips and lower back) ensure that your left foot, knee and shoulder are all aligned – no knee or foot sticking out to the side. This neutral position is the most natural and ultimately comfortable position to play in. With the right leg, bending this in at a similar angle, or even slightly closer to the chair acts as a stabiliser rooting you to the ground and creating a solid playing position.

One key tip, passed on to me by the great Phillip Houghton that I in turn pass on to my students, is a non-slip mat on my right leg where the body of the guitar contacts with my leg (of course, swap that to left leg if you’re a left-handed player). This helps to stabilise the guitar, make it feel really solid and in control, particularly if your guitar is heavy (as some of the newer style lattice braced guitars are) or you’re wearing potentially slippery clothing. The grip of the mat takes a bit of the tension away from your right arm in pinning the guitar back or limiting the guitar’s movements.

Arms

Your right arm should be soft and heavy, positioned over the bell of the body, with just the minimal amount of tension through it to hold that relaxed form. The feel is almost as if you’re embracing the guitar. Just be careful though not to drop and round the shoulder; hold your form through the shoulder joint too.

With the left arm, also be careful not to drop the shoulder and ensure your wrist is nice and straight, and in line with the hand and arm most of the time. Movement to reach the strings should primarily come from the shoulder in a vertical pivot like movement – make use of this big muscle group, rather than putting undue stress and strain on the smaller muscles of the wrist and lower arm.

Similarly when moving up and down and around the fretboard, use you shoulder as a horizontal pivot. Use the bigger muscles to do the majority of the work. This is what the shoulder is designed for and you’re really going to protect yourself from carpal tunnel syndrome type symptoms this way. I should know – I learnt the hard way on this and went through a long journey of correcting my previously poor technique.

So the key, “take home” message today is to make use of the body’s natural movements. Use leverage by using the biggest muscle groups to carry out the bulk of the work – that’s your back muscles, shoulder and arms – before moving on to think about smaller movements from the hands, fingers and thumbs. Movements are not massive either, probably much less than you’d think.

And relax!

Here’s a great You Tube clip I found on setting up your posture that may also help….

Stretches for guitarists

Following on from last Saturday’s post on neck and shoulder pain associated with guitar playing, I thought I’d share with you some stretches that I’ve reinstated this past week (after being very

What a pain in the neck

naughty and lazy and not doing them! Smack hands!).

These exercises:

(a) work to relieve those feelings and sensations of tightness, sharp pain and dull ache sensations in the back and front or the shoulder, the side of the neck, upper back and even headaches (yes, headaches and even jaw aches you may have been experiencing could well be referred pain from trigger points, or knotted and constricted fibres, in your muscles).

(b) are excellent maintenance exercises to prevent the tightness, pain and dull ache in the shoulder, neck and chest from occurring in the first place.

Just be careful!

I will caveat that this post with the fact that I’m in no way any kind of physical practitioner, yoga teacher or any other kind of biomechanics personage. As ever, and with all my other advice, it is all delivered with the best of intentions.

These exercises are ones that I do and work for me. Hopefully they can work for others, but remember that we are all built and work differently. If you are experiencing a lot of pain, or discomfort or it is recurring, you should head to see your doctor/ physiotherapist/ myotherapist/ Alexander Technique teacher sooner rather than later.

So. On to the stretches!

A few of the stretches are based around some of the stretches and yoga positions that I’ve been working on this week, but I’ve picked out the most accessible and hopefully most relevant ones for us guitarists – those working on opening up the chest and relieving and stretching the neck and shoulders.

As an aside, the yoga I think is really beneficial for “guitarist shoulder”. It’s been working really well for me this week anyway. The first session back after a big hiatus of over a year was a real shock to the system – argh! I’m so weak! – but my old flappy chicken wing of a right shoulder felt really stable and secure and achey only in a good, I’ve-done-a-workout way. The second session felt much easier by comparison, and along with a second myotherapy session, the shoulder is most definitely on the improve. Get on it people!

So anyways, yes, we were getting on with those stretches weren’t we?

Stretch 1 – Neck nods (or as I call it “sniff ya pits”!)

You may have guessed that this delightfully descriptive moniker is not the proper yoga term for the stretch, but it gives you a very good indication of the action you need to perform.

How to perform the stretch

Gently turn your head to the left, and nod your head down as if looking to inspect your armpit – noice. You should feel a nice stretching sensation along the right side of your neck. If you want to increase the stretch place your left hand on the crown of your head and pull your head down slightly, doing so very gently.

Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the left side and in the centre too, looking down to your chest. Repeat that sequence once more.

You can do this one seated or standing up.

What does this stretch help with?

This stretches out those muscles at the side of your neck (such as the sternocleidomastoid and the levator scapulae), reducing the stress on them, and relieving feelings of tension in the neck and potentially some headache symptoms.

Stretch 2 – Side stretches

How to perform the stretch

This one is best carried out standing up (which you should be doing every 30 minutes or so anyway whilst practicing), but you can do it seated if you really want. 

Raise your arms up above your head, parallel with one another (I always find that action in itself feels really nice after having practiced for a little while), lean very slightly and gently forwards (only a couple of degrees) and slowly bend to the left as far as you’re able.

Hold the stretch for around 30 seconds if you can. Repeat to the right side.

What does this stretch help with?

This stretch helps with postural alignment and stretching out the spine and back muscles. It also gives a little work to the shoulders and upper arms muscles, getting them to work in a different way to playing the guitar (or sitting at a desk and typing like I am now!)

Stretch 3 Standing one arm row (as in boat, not as in having an argument with someone….)

How to perform the stretch 

Right. You know the score by now of standing versus sitting to do these stretches. Raise your right arm to about shoulder height, with your palm open and facing the ground. Then gradually squeeze your shoulder-blade back, and gradually return to the starting point.

Ensure you don’t move your left shoulder or shoulder-blade whilst carrying it this motion. Repeat this movement around 6-10 times. Repeat to the left side.

What does this stretch help with? 

Similarly to the previous stretch, this one gives a little work to the shoulders and upper arms muscles, getting them to work in a different way to playing the guitar. It also works the upper and middle back, helping your trapezius and latissimus dorsi to fire properly.

Muscles connecting the upper extremity to the ...
Latissimus dorsi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stretch 4 – Shoulder circles

How to perform the stretch 

Sit or stand tall move your shoulders in a circle, moving forwards. Repeat this action 5 times and then repeat 5 times circling backwards. The movement, as always, a gentle, slow movement.

What does this stretch help with? 

Stretch 5 – Torso twists

How to perform the stretch 

OK, this one you do need to be seated for. Sit tall and place your hands behind your head. Inhale deeply and twist your whole torso, arms and head as far to the right as you can. Hold that for 5-10 seconds and release slowly to the centre. Repeat to the left side. Repeat the sequence again another 2 or 3 times.

What does this stretch help with? 

This last one helps to relieve and maintain the muscles in our back which are responsible for spinal rotation. Sitting in the one position puts stresses on these back muscles and the twisting exercise can help relieve those.

All of these stretches can be done:

  • prior to commencing practice (to warm yourself up a bit and get blood flowing to the area)
  • part way through a practice session (to break it up a bit, and move the muscles in a different way)
  • and most desirably after a practice session (to allow the muscles, again, to work in a different way, to have them stretch where they were contracting during playing and vice versa, to re-centre them, strengthen and relax them, and to get blood flowing through the area to flush out any waste products such as lactic acid.

These stretches are primarily focussed on neck, shoulders and torso. There are a whole bunch of other stretches that can be done for other parts of the body playing our instrument impacts on, such as arms, hands, fingers, hips and lower back which we can also look at another time if you’re interested?