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Relax! Improving guitar technique by minimizing muscular tension

To begin our adventure into advanced mastery, let us take a break for a moment from the details of music theory and talk about a critical component of fluent playing.

Now that you are gaining some physical skills you are likely noticing that it is not easy to get your hands to do what you know in your mind that you want them to do. This is one of the greatest challenges of playing the guitar. Many of the things we must physically do to make music on the guitar do not come naturally to our hands. In the language of guitar players we refer to the physical aspects of playing as "technique". We have already discussed previously in the course that repetition is the key to mastery of technique. That still holds true. Without repetition, there will be no progress. With repetition, progress is certain!

However, it is possible to practice in ways that hinder our long term development rather than help it. We do not want to use repetition to ingrain poor technique into our hands. Thus it is very important to practice playing notes and chords such that everything is clear and smooth.

There is a great danger for a beginner in falling into the trap of playing with much more tension than is really necessary to assure all notes ring out clearly. At first, when our fingers are gaining strength and our fingertips are still soft, it is often necessary to apply a lot of pressure to the strings to get a good clear sound. So we get into the habit of applying a lot of pressure without even realizing we are doing this. When we get farther along and start increasing our speed, we then find it is difficult to change chords and play through scales. If we play with more tension than is necessary, we sort of force our fingers to "stick" in the position they are in, so that changing to some other position involves releasing, then changing. Now you may be thinking,"What is the big deal, I can release tension in a finger within a split second". Well, consider this: many passages of music involve playing solo notes at the rates of three or four notes per second. Every little delay we suffer hinders our ability to make smooth transitions bewteen notes.

Additionally, using excess tension can cause us to unintentionally bend strings out of tune, and it can wear us out so that we simply run out of strength in our hands to continue playing a piece of music. We must also realize that tension creeps in to our arms, shoulders, neck, even our jaws! This kind of tension can make playing guitar a chore rather than a pleasure, and it also can provoke joint pain, and even serious health problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. So, tension is no small matter! We must learn to play without tension.

Let's do an experiment to determine how much finger tension is necessaary to sound out a note clearly. Try this: go to the A note on the 1st string (fifth fret). Now, put your index finger on this string, but do not apply full pressure. Apply only enough pressure to make the string just barely contact the fret. Stop there and begin picking the string every second or so. Then gradually increase the pressure until the string sounds out clearly. Now notice how much pressure that is. How much is it? HARDLY ANY! You can see clearly from this that it does not take much pressure on the strings to get good clear notes.

We must learn to play at that low level of finger tension that we just observed in our experiment. In addition, we encourage you to do some experimentation with observing the tension in your arms, shoulders, and other areas as you play guitar. The way we learn to play without tension is this: we force ourselves to be conscious of tension while playing, and we consciously relax the tension while practicing.

If you have ever observed some of these high-speeed guitarists who crank out notes like some kind of machine, and you wondered how they could move their fingers so fast and maintain precise control, now you know how they do it: they have trained themselves to play relaxed!


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