Tension? Is It Holding Back Your Guitar Playing?
Now, we are not talking about musical tension (this is actually a welcome way to spice up your guitar playing); the tension we are seeking to lessen here is the physical kind and can cause all manner of playing issues which, as a guitarist, you can spend a life time trying to shake off.
How does tension manifest when we play?
You may well be a happy go-lucky, relaxed person, without a care in the world; but pick up a guitar and (particularly when tackling something new) a certain unique rigidity takes hold. Now, this is not a matter of playing with confidence or authority and is exclusive to the subject of stage fright; physical tension is something we all experience when facing a physically challenging act such as playing guitar.
The chief signs of tension in our playing have a few common manifestations - accuracy problems - such as hitting the wrong strings, a heightened frequency of mistakes, hesitation and timing issues plus an overall ‘stiff’ or robot sound to everything we play or an inability to play faster. If you have ever experienced playing something badly which you ‘know’ utterly that you can play well - tension may be the cause.
How do I know if I am suffering from excess tension when playing?
A key way to discover this is to ‘hear’ it in your playing - record yourself performing a simple riff (one of your favourites) and really listen to the sound - are the notes ‘pinched’ short? Is your pick attack overly aggressive or anxious (even metal guitar requires relaxation!).
Be aware of your physical state - how do your arms, shoulders and picking hand feel? Are you gripping the pick harder? Tensing your forearms?
And the big one …. Are you holding your breath?
If tension is an issue, what impact will beating it have on my playing?
Think of any guitarist you admire and hold up as a hero, listen to them carefully - everything ‘flows’, right? Now really watch them - their physical state, their arms, shoulders and picking hand - even during fast, aggressive playing, notice how physically in control they are - this is more than just confidence! The same can be witnessed when watching any great musician - drummers particularly require complete command of tension in order to play efficiently.
Once you are able to control and become aware of additional tension, the effects are instant and transformative - everything feels easier to play, accuracy improves and your general state of ‘playing in the moment’ increases - think of those times when you are ‘in the zone’ and everything you play feels effortless - is this because you are warmed up, or because you are more relaxed?
Causes of, and ways to beat playing tension
Shoulders and Arms
The first area of focus is your shoulders and arms - if your shoulders are raised or tensed then this stiffness is transferred to your arms and hands; causing many of the above mentioned issues. Interestingly, military exercises designed to enable soldiers to fall asleep at a moments notice are famed for putting an emphasis on how tension in the shoulders prevents relaxation (although we wouldn’t recommend falling asleep mid-solo!). Try relaxing and dropping your shoulders when playing whilst adjusting your playing position to accommodate this. Next, go into limp mode with your arms and forearms - try and make your arms ‘dead’ and ‘floppy’ (for lack of a better word). Now try and play that afore mentioned guitar part again - do you hear and feel the difference?
You have no doubt heard the advice to take deep breaths to alleviate stress; the issue with many of us guitarists is that we tend to, conversely, hold our breaths when playing, particularly right before executing anything tricky. Hold your breath for a moment and notice how your body responds - you get tense, right? It’s no wonder this has a detrimental impact on our playing.
To combat this - try exhaling as you play the part and, better still, play for a single bar of your riff, lick or solo; exhaling when you play and inhaling for an empty bar’s gap in between. For a deeper exercise try breathing slowly in time with the backing track/song from which your part comes - without your guitar - in for a bar and out for a bar (or 2 bars if this is something fast - we don’t want you passing out!). The purpose of this is to foster the practice of regular and controlled breathing when performing to music, which also feeds into releasing tension elsewhere in your body.
Apply ‘just enough’ pressure
Applying too much pressure to notes is a common practice for us all - you want that bend to be accurate, those pull offs to sound strong or that chord to sound clean, right? The truth is, there is a fine line between just enough pressure to make a note ‘happen’ and too much; and, you guessed it, too much pressure from your fingers causes tension. Try this for yourself - choose a single note or chord and press down really hard with your fretting hand, now pluck or strum - notice how tense your picking hand is? Your shoulders and arms - your muscles all become taught in sympathy too don’t they?
As an exercise, experiment with just how much pressure you need to apply in order to make a note or chord clean - try this with bends, slides and other nuances too. Where is the happy medium? The chances are you were pressing down on those strings harder than you needed too!
As a key part of our push for progress we are conditioned to see our fingers and hands as where all the action happens; technique and musicality are, of course, prime drivers for us, and these cannot be replaced with a few simple breathing and relaxation exercises. But being aware of your full physical state when you are playing is something we rarely give a moments thought. So give tension the kick and see how it has a positive impact on your playing! Meditation and yoga are optional!
Want to explore this subject more? Check out this great lesson on breathing and posture from George Marios: