Pressure & Tension

Weekly Newsletter #37

April 21, 2022

Have you ever noticed how effortlessly some guitarists play? 

Almost like their hands are barely moving and they float across the fretboard with ease? 

Wanting to play like that is a common goal for most guitarists and one that is more achievable than you may think. It’s not that these great players are superior talents or have physical attributes that you don’t have (although in rare cases that might be true). Rather, it’s simply that they have a greater sense of the level of pressure and tension they use while playing. 

What Do You Mean By Pressure & Tension? 

Fretting a note takes a certain level of pressure from your finger to push the string down. This pressure must come from somewhere, and that somewhere is obviously your hand. But what part of your hand? 

Grab your guitar and take your ring finger and hover over the 5th string on any fret. As you push your finger down to fret the note, be mindful of where that motion comes from? 

Is it your big knuckle? It should be. 

If you find yourself using your arm, wrist, all three knuckles of your finger etc. then you are likely missing out on the ability to play with more relaxation and ease. 

Hovering over the string, your finger should be in a “hook” shape with the fingertip pointed toward your target. As you engage your finger, that movement should come from the big knuckle, almost exclusively. This knuckle has the largest amount of muscle and power of any knuckles in your hand, and therefore can withstand longer use than keeping your other knuckles under pressure. 

The idea here is to use muscles and joints that won’t impart a lot of tension in your hand. Tension being the enemy of relaxation, comes from using too much muscle energy to execute something that should use much less energy. 

For example, you can hold a pencil very lightly between to fingers, but you could also use all your might and squeeze that pencil with the same two fingers. But how long could you sustain that tight grip? Probably much less time than if you lightly held it, which you could probably do forever. This is due to the fact that tightly gripping, using a ton of muscle, depletes the energy stores in you muscle tissue and you eventually have to stop. 

How Much Pressure Should I Be Using? 

The answer to this will probably surprise you. 

Take that same ring finger and lightly place it on the 5th string but don’t fret the note. Instead make sure you get a dead note. 

Now slowly increase pressure while continuously plucking the string. Eventually that dead note should turn into a buzzing sound, in which the note is partially audible but there is also a loud buzz attached to it. 

From this point engage slightly more pressure until that buzz goes away. Make sure to just add a little pressure and not too much at one time. 

As soon as the buzz disappears, stop adding pressure and take a mental note of how much you feel you’re using at that moment. 

This is how much pressure you should be playing with all the time! 

Think about it…let’s say that you are using maybe 35% of the pressure you could possibly use with that finger. 100% being the strongest most tension-filled grip you could muster (obviously not what we want). 

If 35% is enough to fret that note cleanly, then any amount of pressure you use over that amount is simply wasted energy. 

That wasted energy goes on to “infect” the other muscles in your hand as they try to compensate for the depleting muscle that is being overworked. 

Soon enough your whole hand is stiffening and becoming more tense. Making the relaxed and smooth playing nearly impossible. 

Taking that pressure test to determine how much you need to cleanly fret a note can be very eye-opening. It’s likely much less pressure than you normally use to play. Repeat that test for each finger and then compare that to how much you use when playing a song or riff you regularly play. 

Check out this VIDEO for more info on this pressure test. 

How Do I Maintain Low Pressure While Playing? 

The skill needed to maintain the minimum level of pressure while playing is one that must be practiced consciously. 

As with most things on the guitar, your mechanics and technique must be automatic. If you have to concentrate on a technique while performing it will likely come at the cost of other parts of your playing (phrasing, articulation, musicality etc.) 

This means that it’s important to build this lower level of pressure into your playing by constant, conscious practice. 

To do this you can take any riff, exercise or lick and simply focus exclusively on the amount of pressure you use while playing. Don’t get caught up in the tone or your picking hand or other distractions. 

Focus instead on how the inside of your hand feels. Is it as relaxed as possible? 

If you’re going to try to lighten up the pressure in your hand it’s always better to err on the side of too little pressure. 

Getting a dead note is fine for this type of practice because going from a dead note to a clean note is a simple matter of adding a small amount of pressure to the string. However backing off from too much pressure is significantly harder. 

Keeping a constant awareness of the pressure you are using and going slowly enough to control that level is key to successfully playing tension free. 

Pinky Problems 

As I said before, too much tension in one finger can “infect” another finger by causing it to overcompensate for the one that is depleting energy too quickly. 

Take a look at your pinky while playing. When the pinky isn’t being used, is it curled up in your hand, or is it completely relaxed and neutral? 

If your pinky is curled up when it’s not being used, then it means you are holding that curled shape using muscle energy. And it’s not even accomplishing anything! 

Since the pinky isn’t playing, why should it be using energy? It shouldn’t. 

Take your hand and let it hang in the air, completely relaxed. Look at the shape of your fingers in their naturally relaxed state. 

That is exactly what they should look like when not being used. Anything other than that means they are using energy unnecessarily and it’s just a matter of time before that built up tension transfers to the rest of your hand. 

Try to play a riff that doesn’t use your pinky and keep an eye on it. Focus all of your attention of relaxing it while playing. It will probably be very difficult to maintain a relaxed pinky. 

However this applies to all fingers when not in use, it just so happens that the pinky is the most likely culprit. 

The Volume Dilemma 

Do you find that when you relax and play more smoothly when the volume is much lower? 

Playing loudly is one of the most common sources of tension, but it doesn’t have to be. 

The natural tendency is to relax in both hands when playing quietly and to grip harder, with more pressure, when playing loudly. 

This comes from the fact that our hands naturally want to impart the same level of pressure between them. As you increase the pressure in your picking hand to get louder notes, your fretting hand will likely increase in pressure as well. 

This is totally unnecessary and defeats your ability to relax while playing. 

It’s very challenging to play loudly and aggressively with your picking hand while remaining as light and relaxed as possible in your fretting hand. 

Practicing this dichotomy should be a regular part of your relaxation practice. Once again, this must be done slowly and very deliberately so you can control the amount of pressure you use, and therefore keep the tension from building in your hand. 

Playing relaxed and tension free really does come down to keeping a constant watch on the level of pressure you are using; as well as making sure that you aren’t flexing or tensing your fingers when not in use. 

It sounds fairly easy, but putting in the time required to make that soft touch a habit can be challenging. 

Try to devote a significant amount of practice time daily to the awareness of pressure and soon you’ll be automatically playing more relaxed and with much less tension. 

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. 

-Max Rich