The poison is muscle tension, muscles that tense up just out of habit as soon as you start playing. It will keep you from playing the way you want to play. It will slow you down and make what is simple for other guitar players, hard for you. And the more you practice the worse it will get.
It Cures All that Ails You
To take down this disease of Unnecessary Muscle Tension (UMT) you need a cure that will put you on a path of guitar growth.
That cure is RELAXATION. It’s the solution. It’s soothing. It’s comfortable. It’s free and you don’t need a prescription. All you need is to start noticing some things that you may not have noticed before. For many of us, when we first started to play guitar it felt so awkward; everything from the feel of the guitar pushing up against us, the motion of strumming and the strings cutting through our fingers on our less than dominate hand was like riding a bike for the first time. Forming simple chords was so foreign our bodies would sometimes tense up in some key areas.
The more we practiced the more our bodies learned to tense up. When you pick up the guitar your body may start to revert to habits of using muscles it doesn’t need to use.
Aiming for the Trouble Spots
Any muscles can be tense but there are three common trouble spots many guitar players deal with without even knowing it.
1. Shoulders. Particularly the strumming shoulder can often be tense. Pick up the guitar and start playing a familiar progression. If your shoulder rises that is because of Unnecessary Muscle Tension. When we first learn to play, strumming can be a cumbersome motion so our shoulder will tense up as we concentrate on getting the motion down. This is one of the most common places and easiest to see from the outside. If you video tape yourself playing or just look at a mirror and you see your shoulder rise, you know you are a victim of UMT.
2. Hands. Hands are making the contact with the string and decide the sounds our guitars make. Guitar playing really is all about the hands so pay close attention to how tense they are. This one is harder to judge because they are supposed to be moving, pressing down and picking strings. The rule of thumb is to try to play so you may drop the pick or you might not press a string the whole way down. It’s a little counter intuitive but it makes for a great exercise.
3. Tongue and Jaw. The tongue can be tricky because you can’t see it so you will have to be very conscious of what your tongue is doing. If it is doing anything, it’s too much.
Hold the guitar and don’t play it. Notice how tense or relaxed you shoulder is. If you really struggle keeping it relaxed go ahead and put the guitar down and just sit there with your eyes closed. Exhale and try to be as relaxed as possible. Bring you picking hand up to position; place it right on the G string without plucking it.
Ask yourself: Where are you tense? Check the trouble spots. Once that checks out bring your other hand up to the neck, somewhere between the ninth and twelfth fret. Put all of your fingers on the G string. Check yourself again.
Once you get relaxed ingrain it into your memory. The more you do it the more it will become habit.
We are all trying to sound good together.