Tension And The Soda Can Or Practicing Part III

Practicing Part III

In order to practice properly, attention needs to be paid to a number of different areas.  Today’s post addresses some issues regarding fretting hand tension as a precursor to proper form in practicing.

Fretting Hand Positioning and Tension

Many guitarists begin playing guitar without being aware of how much tension they are exerting on their fretting hand.  While the title refers to fretting hand fingers, hand tension is actually a complex coordination of muscles working in the hand and forearm.  The concept here is to talk about hand tension as it relates to your ability to move your fingers freely.

Here is an example that may help explain how much of a performance issue this can be.

For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine that you have taken a break from the rigors of guitar practice and have gone to spend the day at muscle beach with your friend Charles Atlas.  After arriving there and seeing miles and miles of Herculean figures – you have decided to show off to your friends and crush the can of soda you have been drinking.

Okay – hold your fretting hand out in front of you – like you were holding a soda can you were drinking from.

Really visualize the can.  Try to feel the ice cold metal against the palm of your hand.

Okay, now try to crush it.  But imagine that the can has been replaced with some infinitely strong material that can’t be crushed.  You don’t want to crush the imaginary can – but truly struggle against it.  If you’re doing the exercise properly, your arm is probably shaking from the exertion.

Okay – now try to move your fingers while you crush the can.  You may be able to move them a little but it’s going to be very difficult.  You should feel (or even see) a lot of tension in your forearm.

Now stop trying to crush the can.  Wiggle your fingers.  This should be much easier.

If you grip the guitar neck with too much tension, it’s the same as trying to crush the soda can.  If you are carrying tension it will be very difficult to move your fingers freely.

What follows is an exercise that can help with proper hand tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Sit in a comfortable chair (preferably without armrests) with your guitar around your neck as if you were going to play (you are wearing a strap aren’t you? If not you may want to read the last post.)

Relax your fretting hand by letting your arm hang fully extended by your side.  Wiggle your fingers a bit and try to relax as much as possible.

Take a deep breath.  While inhaling on that breath, make a fist.  As you exhale –  fully release the fist.  Just let your hand naturally relax into a position.  Look down at your hand.

Note – this is your hand in a relaxed position.

Now, keeping your hand in position, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to the neck of the guitar as if you were going to play.  Your fingers should be bent slightly at each knuckle (i.e. the fingers should be curved similar to the relaxed position).

Proper Fretting Hand Thumb Tension

Reverting back to the soda can example, it’s important that the thumb remain in the back of the neck as relaxed as possible as to not tense the rest of the hand.   This is something that I never thought about until I had studied with Jack Sanders.  So I need to thank him for bringing this to my attention in my own playing.

It’s also important to note that your hand position will change if you are doing a lot of string bending.  While it is possible to bend strings with your fretting hand thumb in the middle of the neck,  most people will be used to moving the thumb so that it is more on the bass string side of the fretboard to facilitate bending.   Since this isn’t the majority of what most people play on guitar – I view bending hand position as the exception rather than the rule.

The thumb acts as a balance to pressure from the fingers;  so the location of the thumb is very important.  Ideally the thumb should be in the middle of the guitar neck and typically in line with the middle finger or between the middle and ring finger.  What you are trying to do is put the thumb in an area of minimal tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Try playing a scale on the guitar.  If you think that your thumb is squeezing the back of the neck hard, try removing the thumb from the back of the fingerboard while you are playing.  Now gently and gradually, move the thumb back to the neck so that it is very lightly touching it.  Repeat as necessary.

Obviously a huge component in hand tension is how the fingers are actually connecting with the strings and that will be the subject of the next post on practicing.

I hope this helps!



Proper Posture Is Required For Proper Performance – Practicing Part II

In the last post, I talked about some of the pre-requisites for setting up to practice.  While I want to discuss specific issues with  proper picking and fretting hand techniques, it’s important to address how the actual guitar is positioned when playing.


When practicing, it is imperative to practice the same way consistently so that performance is consistent.

A key component of this is posture.


First, a brief anecdote.  When I started playing guitar, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to how I was practicing or how I was holding the guitar.  I just paid attention to whether or not I was getting the notes out (more on what’s wrong with this in future posts).  I started noticing my live playing was really inconsistent.  Sometimes the solos I practiced came out fine and sometimes they were really sloppy.  I initially attributed it to nerves or adrenaline, but after reading a number of books on performance I was introduced to the concept of “muscle memory”, and realized the root of my problem.

For those of you who have never heard of this term, when performing repetitive tasks synapses actually rewire themselves in your brain to short cut the mental processing behind the activity.  This is known as “muscle memory”.  Muscle memory is different from your dad’s memory of where he might have set his car keys down, and more like words carved in stone.  On the plus side – if you’re doing things correctly – you don’t have to worry about it – but on the minus side if you have to fix something that’s ingrained in muscle memory  – it takes a lot of effort to erase them.

Here’s an example that illustrates this idea.  

If I am walking and need to tie my shoe lace –  “tie my shoe” is a short cut for the following steps (or some variation):

  1. Notice my shoe is untied
  2. Stop walking
  3. Bend down
  4. Grab one lace per hand
  5. Cross laces to opposite sides of shoe in an x shape
  6. Tuck one lace under another
  7. Pull laces taught
  8. Move laces in opposite direction
  9. Make a loop with the first lace (i.e. “bunny ears.”)
  10. Cross one “ear” over the other, in the opposite order of your overhand knot.
  11. Bend one loop over the other
  12. Pass the tip of the bent ear through the hole
  13. Pull the loops tight
  14. Double knot if need be


Once you’ve mastered this skill,  you probably don’t have to put any thought into it at all.  You could easily have a conversation and do it at the same time.  A complex list of processes have been broken down into a single mental shortcut in this case called “tie my shoe”.

In music, muscle memory works the same way.  If you play a lick over and over again the same way your brain actually rewires itself so that the numerous physical events that go into playing “lick #7” in your brain just becomes a mental shortcut “lick #7”.


In my first person anecdote above, because my playing position varied between sitting, standing, squatting and lying down – I wasn’t developing proper muscle memory.  Instead of learning one lick – my brain was trying to learn how to play that idea in a variety of contexts.  This sounds small – but if you’ve ever been in a situation where you weren’t able to nail a part you normally can – you know what I’m referring to here.


The Solution?

My solution came in the form of a guitar strap.

Some people do not use guitar straps.  In playing steel string guitar, I believe that a guitar strap is every bit as important as a guitar string.  Again, if your hands are not in the same position when you practice as when you perform you will not have proper muscle memory and the chances of flubbing notes goes up dramatically.

The key to using a guitar strap is to make sure that the guitar sits on your frame the same way when you stand as when you sit.



You may be asking.  Well – what about nylon string guitars?  While it’s pretty rare to see nylon string guitarists use a strap, if you see a number of players you’ll notice that the majority of the good ones have very consistent posture.  Posture is a big part of the classical pedagogical tradition and while flamenco guitar posture may be unorthodox with regards to the classical tradition, it is most definitely a consistent posture.

This is not to say that muscle memory isn’t flexible.  You don’t have to have your hands in exactly the same position or expect total failure.  If you’re playing live and you move around – your body will typically adapt to what’s going on and accommodate you.  If you like to practice sitting(and many people do unless they’re practicing with a band) having a consistent instrument position will help you perform more consistently when you stand – which is likely how you are going to perform unless you’re used to performing when sitting down.

Give it a try.  When practicing try adjusting your strap differently when you sit or when you stand and see if makes a difference over a couple of weeks.  You might be surprised.


In the next post I’ll start the long process of addressing left and right hand placement, tension and the thumb (i.e. some common sense “secrets” that evade a lot of teachers and students).

Thanks for reading.