Do you experience a strange back pain after sitting or standing with your guitar for extended periods of time?
Or feel a bit of tension in the wrists after playing those overreaching barre chords and power chords?
Do not fret (pun intended)! These are just signs of a tension buildup.
Tension buildup is quite common among first-time guitarists. Awareness is the first step to tackle the pain.
Let’s look at some common causes of tension buildup.
It’s mainly a combination of improper technique, bad posture, and the inability to relax while playing. We’ll look at the most common causes of body tension and poor posture, which also happen to be the easiest to correct.
1. Guitar Posture - Sitting
More often than not, how you’re currently sitting and reading this article is more or less the correct posture you’ll want to have while playing guitar. However, many of us already have bad posture while sitting down, and this is further amplified when playing guitar. So let’s talk about how we should sit in a manner that won’t hurt our backs.
The main thing is to sit with your chest slightly sticking outwards. You don’t want to overdo it though, because pushing your chest too far out will cause you to arch your lower back. I like to think about what a position of “dignity” looks like.
Just try it out; think about the position of your body when you’re sitting in a position of dignity. Most of you would have already assumed the proper posture when the word “dignity” flashes through your mind.
If that doesn’t help, imagine there is a ball right in your solar plexus. Now try to raise this imaginary ball up towards your skull. You should find that your spine begins to lengthen, which in turn releases any tension that may be in your back.
The main thing you want to avoid doing is to arch your lower back outwards, which is what most of us do when we want to straighten our backs. Instead of straightening our backs, we need to lengthen it.
One more thing. Invest in a quality chair! Chances are you'll be doing a lot of sitting, so make sure your chair is giving you the ergonomic support you need. And even when you have a good quality chair, you still need to get up and take a break every so often. A few minutes of rest is very good for your body, eyes, and mind.
2. Bring the Instrument to You
One of the main reasons why we hunch our backs while playing guitar is the instrument may feel like it’s too far away from us. The key to correcting this is to bring the instrument towards you, and not your body towards the instrument.
The solution is simple:
You need something to step on so your leg is slightly raised up, which in turn raises your instrument. A guitar footstool can easily accomplish this, but, honestly, it can be anything that you can step on. A stack of books will work just as well. I normally use whatever is nearby, which ends up being an Xbox most of the time.
Just like this video below between 0:55 - 1:18, you can see what I use to step on to bring the guitar closer to me.
3. How to Hold a Guitar
When you hold your guitar, your fretting hand should not be involved in keeping it in place. Try this:
Sit down and assume your regular playing position. Now, raise your fretting hand. If your guitar starts to wobble around, or worse still, does a face plant, then you’re probably not holding it right.
What you should be doing is using your strumming arm to hold it against your body. Some people use their bicep to clamp their guitar towards their body, but I prefer to use my forearm. Whichever works best for your body should be fine.
4. Our Shoulders, the Port of Tension
We harbor most of our stresses and tensions within our shoulders, and the same can be said about playing guitar. One thing that happens quite a bit is my shoulders tend to creep upwards when I’m playing a difficult or fast passage.
Playing with your shoulders raised creates unnecessary tension, so occasionally check in on your shoulders to make sure they are still nice and relaxed. The unawareness of your raised shoulders can lead to shoulder aches and pains. This is the most common site of pain and tension while playing guitar, so pay a little more attention to this area.
As I demonstrate in this video between 0:25 - 0:37, relax and loosen up your shoulders.
5. Guitar Posture - Finger Pain
The third kind of pain that often happens to guitarists, especially for those starting out, is finger pain. Your fingertips are hurting because they are rubbing against steel strings. The friction from sliding around on the strings causes the skin on our fingertips to peel away, which results in soreness.
This will go away however, especially as you play more and more. Your fingertips will start growing calluses and eventually they’ll end up looking like you have terrible sunburn on your fingertips, but on the upside, the skin will become so hard that you’ll be able to play for hours without feeling a hint of pain.
Sometimes, even after playing for months, our fingertips or finger joints still hurt from applying too much pressure on the strings. The first thing you want to check out is your technique.
The way to use the least amount of force to get a nice and clean sound is to place your fretting fingers near the fretwire towards the soundhole. This is true for both chords and single-notes. Always place your fingers near the fretwire, and, if that’s not possible, place them in the middle of the fret.
If that doesn’t help, then the problem may be your string action. The action is the distance between the fretboard and the strings. Very often, the strings are too high off the fretboard, which forces us to use a lot of strength to press down on them. Even the difference in half a millimeter can be felt in your fingers.
To fix this, you’ll have to bring your guitar to a shop to get a professional setup. It is possible to do it yourself if you are handy with tools, but I definitely recommend bringing it to a pro for your first setup. Most places will let you stay to watch your guitar being worked on, so you’ll learn a thing or two!
6. Guitar Posture - Standing
Our standing postures while playing guitar should be very similar to our sitting posture. The same principles apply here; lengthen your back instead of straightening it. We will stand in a position of dignity when playing guitar. Tell yourself that you are a dignified musician.
Besides having your back and shoulders in their correct positions, we should also look at how to keep our instrument at a comfortable distance while standing. The idea is simple; we want to set our guitar straps so that our guitar is roughly the same distance away from us as when we’re sitting and playing.
What I do is I’ll adjust the strap while I’m in the perfect sitting posture. Adjust your strap so that your guitar sits nice and snug with you; any movement you make with your upper body should move your guitar with you.
After you’ve done this, your guitar should be more or less at the correct height when you stand up. Some slight adjustments will need to be made because most people prefer to have the guitar slightly lower so it doesn’t feel like the guitar is suffocating you. The main thing is that your wrist isn’t bent too much when you’re playing (which happens when the guitar is too low), and your shoulders are not raised when you play open chords (which happens when the guitar is too high). Spend some time raising and lowering the guitar to find what feels comfortable for you.
The Bottom Line
You can use this article as a know-how guide to understand the causes of tension buildup and body pain. By pinpointing the causes, you can maintain good body posture and finger placement.
Remember that slight discomfort is inevitable for guitarists at all levels, especially for beginners, whose fingers are still getting used to playing hard steel strings until the finger calluses have grown. At the end of the day, the best way to minimize any pain or tension is to take constant breaks and stretch your entire body.
Furthermore, don't focus too much on your pain. Some studies show that negative emotions can fuel physical pain. So the best advice I can give to you is don’t obsess over it. As long as you take breaks when you feel pain and tension, then you will be fine. Most of these problems go away with rest. However, if your pain persists, it’s also not a bad idea to talk to your doctor.
Besides taking breaks, there are other methods to release tension. These include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and physical exercise. Spend some time trying each of these methods out and see which one works best for you!
Now that you know how to assume the correct guitar playing posture and how to play guitar without pain and tension, all that’s left to do is to relax and just play some music!
About the Author: Ze
Ze first began his journey playing original music and top 40s pop tunes around the country's popular venues. Eventually, through the music of John Mayer, he found a strong attraction to blues music. Ze has years of experience teaching beginners and intermediate guitarists. Currently with Liberty Park Music he is teaching Introduction to Guitar Playing for Complete Beginners, Rhythm Guitar to learn about strumming, chords and more, Guitar Essentials as a fast-track review course, and lots of Song Lessons on pop and rock hits.