What's Wrong With My Hand? Vise-Grip.
Updated: Jul 11
This post will be about a technique issue that I see in almost everyone I teach. Namely, over-squeezing with the fretting hand - the left hand for right-handed guitarists.
Sometime in 1983 or '84 I was playing 2 gigs a day and one on Sunday. That's 13 gigs a week! Happy-hour (4pm-8pm) Monday through Friday as a solo jazz guitarist in a hotel bar providing ambiance for businessmen and their after-work trysts and martinis. After that I would go play Rock &/or R&B Dance music in a club from 9pm-1am Monday through Saturday. I did a Jazz/Blues matinee on Saturday afternoons with a different band and then a Sunday night jazz gig with the Saturday afternoon band. This went on for months without a day off. Juggling two different bands and 5 solo gigs a week.
During this period, for some stupid obsessive-compulsive reason, I decided I wasn't good enough and started practicing a couple of hours in the mornings. It became apparent that I could do 8 hours a day but 10 hours a day was too much!
I woke up one morning to the discovery that even the slightest spreading of my left-hand fingers resulted in disabling pain in my wrist.
I don't remember receiving an official diagnosis (Carpel Tunnel? Tendonitis?) but my doctor told me to quit playing for at least 3 weeks.
I told him that wasn't going to happen. At the time, my teaching business was 2 or 3 years in the future. I was self-employed and my income was dependent on gigging - if I didn't play I didn't get paid and I was the main support of a wife and 3 kids.
I quit practicing and farmed out the solo jazz gig to a buddy since that gig was the most strenuous - no loopers, tracks or technological aids of any kind in those days. It really was 4 hours of unaccompanied solo guitar.
I gritted my teeth and limped through the Rock gigs and the weekend Jazz/Blues gigs. That was four 45-minute sets a night. After 2 or 3 weeks the pain disappeared.
However, I was shaken.
"I want to still be playing when I'm 70" I thought, "and I'm not even 30 yet and already having problems. This is not good! I need to figure this out."
I went into hyper-analytic mode. Every night on the gig I was watching myself. What was I doing? What could I change that would result in less movement, less stress on my wrist?
The main thing I discovered was that I was squeezing the guitar neck waaay harder than necessary. Once I figured that out I zeroed in on the mechanics of fretting a string.
The primary thing is realizing that the string does not vibrate from your fingertip; it vibrates from the fret wire. All you have to do is push the string down till it touches the fret wire. That's what - a sixteenth of an inch? How much strength does that take?
The issue is never strength - you have more than enough strength to play the guitar. The issue is fine motor control and positioning or placement.
I have students ask me, "Should I buy one of those squeezy hand exercise thingies to build up strength in my left hand?"
My answer? "Absolutely not! You don't need strength, you need fine motor control. And doing exercises to build up strength can actually inhibit fine motor control."
If you want make sure you're using the right muscles and building up your fine motor control the best exercise you can do is just play the guitar! That way you KNOW you're working the right muscles. Simple.
Optimum placement is right up against the back of the fret wire using no more pressure than it takes to get the string to touch the fret wire - which is very little pressure. Any more pressure than what is necessary to do that is excessive, wasteful and unduly stressful.
Excess pressure was what was creating the stress on my wrist.
Again, all you have to do is push the string down about a sixteenth of an inch - or until it touches the fret wire.
Conversely, if you place your finger on the backside of the fret - away from the fret wire - you have to push harder to get the string to touch the fret wire.
Furthermore, when you position your finger far back from the fret wire, the string touches the fret wire behind your finger before it touches the fret wire you want it to touch. That means that in order to get the string to touch the fret wire you want, you have to press against the force of the fret wire behind your finger. It's the worst of everything!
I started cultivating as light a touch as possible.
In order to ascertain exactly how much excessive force you're using, try this;
Randomly play a note - make sure you're in optimum position; right up behind the fret wire. Then, while continuously picking the note with your picking hand, slowly release the pressure until you hear fret-buzz. Then, press just a hair harder - that's the optimum.
Relax. Optimum placement. As light a touch as possible.
Release the Vise-Grip!
BTW - studies show that 5 hours a day is max. Anything beyond 5 hours and diminishing returns kick in. Not very many people have that problem. Just OCD types like me!
The period of wrist pain was well over 30 years ago and I haven't had the problem since. I'm now into my sixties and 70 doesn't seem very far away.
I'm now thinking I'll try to keep playing till 85!
What the hell...90!
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