Tension: a Guitar Player’s Worst Enemy

If your a guitarist who fingerpicks, solos, or just strums, tension can be your worst enemy. I’m talking about the tension in your hands, arms, fingers, shoulders, or anywhere else! It’s important that as guitar players we are aware of tension and how it affects our guitar playing.

Why Tension is Bad

Tension can have a lot of negative effects on your guitar playing. One of the most noticeable effects is that it can tremendously slow down your fingerpicking speed or how fast you execute a riff or lead line. Tension can also really limit the amount of time you can play your instrument in one sitting without experiencing soreness.

If you’re having a hard time with strumming, tension in the hand and the wrist can prevent you from strumming smoothly. It can also give you a hard time when it comes to playing a really fast strumming pattern.

What to do about Tension

There a lot of ways you can prevent and all together eliminate tension from your guitar playing. The more tension you can remove the better. Here are some things you can try.

1.) Warm Up

Think about this for a minute. You’re an athlete about to run a marathon. What do you do before the start of the race? Of course. You warm up!

In a sense, as a guitar player, you’re an athlete. Maybe not in the common sense of the word, but playing the guitar is a physically “demanding” activity. You are using muscles in your body. Because of this, it’s important that you warm them up.

Before playing your guitar, rotate and move your wrists around. When I had problems in my right wrist a couple years ago, one exercise that my chiropractor taught me was to put your fingers together like your holding a pen, and then “invisibly” write out the alphabet in cursive. It seems weird, but it does a good job of stretching out the muscles in your wrist.

Next, on both hands, move and bend your fingers around. Stretch out your fingers like you are trying to palm a basketball. The looser your fingers are the more help you will have with increasing fingerpicking speed and dexterity in your fingering hand.

2.) Slow it Down

I mentioned this earlier in my post about how to play the guitar fast, but the same can apply to eliminating tension. 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed yourself doing this, but I’ve noticed that sometimes, especially in my attempt to try to play a more challenging or faster guitar part, I concentrate really hard, but then tense up in my attempt to try really hard. For whatever reason, I think if I try to the point of tension that I’ll somehow get it.

This becomes really counterproductive. Really, what I need to do is simply relax.

Slowing it down can help with this. If you’re playing a really fast guitar part and you notice yourself tensing up, either in your picking hand or fingering hand, slow it down to a speed where you can play it without any tension. Then, as you feel more comfortable, gradually kick up the speed.

3.) Enjoy the Ride with No Pressure

I’ll kind of bounce back to what I just said about trying really hard. I often times find that I perform the best when I’m not putting unnecessary pressure on myself.

Don’t get so caught up in thinking, “Oh man, I wish I sounded like “so-and-so,” that you stop enjoying the journey and process you are on in your own guitar playing. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by another guitarist, but come on let’s be realistic… you’re not going to sound like them overnight!

You’ll have good days and bad days. And it’s quite alright.

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.