Understand Your Hands - Part 1

Weekly Newsletter #48

July 7, 2022

As a guitarist your hands are your primary tools for music making. 

Yes your guitar, pick and amp count too, but those are all meaningless unless your hands can execute what you hear in your head. 

As any good craftsman will tell you, understanding your tools is essential for success. As such, I’ve made it my life’s work to understand how my hands function, the most efficient way to train them, and how to use them in a manner that allows me to have the most accuracy and speed with the least amount of effort. 

I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the anatomy of a guitarist’s hands with you. 

This will be an ongoing series within this newsletter since the topic is so vast. Every few weeks I’ll share more info about your hands’ anatomy and how best to use it to improve your playing. 

The Importance Of Understanding Your Hands 

If you’re even remotely serious about improving your guitar playing, then one of the very best things you could do is to explore the anatomy of your hands. 

By learning how the muscles, tendons, and nervous system work you can actually pinpoint technical and mechanical problems in your playing very quickly. 

If you can find the exact flaw in your playing that’s stopping you from playing that scale at 180 BPM or that’s preventing you from changing chords rapidly enough to play your favorite song, then all that’s needed is to design an exercise that solves that particular mechanical problem. 

Over the last 25 years of playing (15 of them at a professional level) I have spent countless hours analyzing how one of my fingers is moving or watching my wrist rotate during picking; constantly asking myself, “how can I streamline that movement?” 

We are, of course, talking about improving technique, and what is technique exactly? It is the way in which you complete a physical motion on the guitar. 

Your technique relies on your anatomy and is limited by its current ability. The goal of practicing shouldn’t be a number of repetitions or hours spent doing something, but rather the expansion of what your anatomy can achieve. 

In the same way a sprinter works on building specific muscle groups in his or her legs, we must focus on building and maintaining a high degree of control over our hand and forearm muscles. In order to do that, we must have a basic knowledge of what our hands can and cannot do, and how exactly they do it. 

Muscle Fibers 

You owe all of your movement to the functioning of your muscle fibers and if you want to truly train your muscles to accomplish greater tasks (speed, relaxation, efficiency, control etc.) you must understand how they work. 

There are essentially two main groups of muscle fiber tissues: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. 

Slow-twitch is commonly referred to as Type I muscle fiber while fast-twitch is referred to as Type II. 

A common misperception is that playing fast, rapid chord changes, legato and many of the techniques guitarists long for are products of Type II fibers. In reality however, they are much more a product of Type I with Type II playing a secondary role. 

In order to understand how muscle fibers allow you to execute various techniques, let’s discuss the difference between Type I and Type II. 

Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers 

Slow-twitch fibers, or Type I, are mainly used for endurance and continuous contractions over longer periods of time. 

Think of a sprinter versus a marathon runner. They’re both running, but the sprinter uses maximum exertion for a short period of time while a marathon runner maintains a high level of output at a steady pace for hours on end. 

The marathon runner is using Type I fibers. 

The way slow-twitch fibers get their energy is quite different from fast-twitch fibers and is the reason they are so effective at different tasks. 

Slow-twitch converts oxygen into energy to fuel the cells of the muscle that then contract. 

This means that oxygen must be continuously introduced into the blood stream via breathing. 

Now, when you’re playing a long, fast passage on the guitar, or when you’re approaching a difficult phrase in which you often make a mistake, you very likely hold your breath or start to breathe in very short, shallow gasps from anticipation. 

Pay attention to your breathing when playing something very difficult, you’ll see what I mean. 

Almost every motion you make on the guitar ends up using slow-twitch fibers, especially fast passages. This means that if you’re not breathing, or you’re breathing poorly and not getting enough oxygen your Type I muscle fibers won’t have the fuel necessary to accomplish the task and they will necessarily fail. 

This is part of the reason you can’t play as fast as you want to, for as long as you want, or maybe you can’t hold that bar chord for the length of time you need. 

Your muscles are running out of fuel. 

Now training them to use the fuel they have more efficiently can be done, and we will address that in another newsletter. 

For now, let’s move on to Fast-twitch muscles. 

Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers 

Unlike slow-twitch, fast-twitch fibers are actually split into two sub-categories: Type IIa and Type IIb. 

We will examine Type IIb first because these muscle fibers play a relatively small role in our guitar playing. 

Type IIb are the largest and most powerful muscle fibers in the body and are used to produce brute force and rapid acceleration. Unlike Type I muscles, these fibers use glucose to produce energy, which is a very inefficient form of energy production. 

Type IIb are the muscles used when doing push-ups, lifting something heavy or sprinting; high-energy exertion for a short period of time. 

If you had a guitar with really high action and tried to play nothing but bar chords, you’d need to use Type IIb fibers, because the power needed to fret the notes is so high. 

The fact that these use only glucose to produce energy means that they very quickly run out of fuel…which is why you can’t hold a bar chord for an hour straight or why you can’t do non-stop push ups for 20 minutes. 

Type IIa is a much more versatile form of muscle fiber because it uses both oxygen and glucose as fuel sources. 

It is essentially a blend of Type I and Type II fibers. 

These fibers produce a higher force output than slow-twitch fibers but fatigue more quickly. They also produce less force than Type IIb fast-twitch but last significantly longer because they can switch from using glucose for high energy to oxygen for longer duration. 

This type of muscle fiber is responsible for a lot of your guitar playing, especially when playing difficult passages for longer than a few seconds. 

Think of strumming along to an easy song and then in the middle playing a blazing series of 16th notes for 8 measures. This sudden burst of speed and intensity is made possible through the use of Type IIa muscles fibers. 

If that passage were to extend for a longer time, such as a shred guitar solo or a flamenco piece, your body would go through using all three muscle fibers in a specific order. 

As a general rule, when the body is trying to accomplish some physical task, it will try to do it with Type I muscles first. When the force from Type I muscles isn’t enough, the brain sends a signal to recruit the next set of fibers, Type IIa, and if that is still not enough force, Type IIb fibers are used to finish the job. 

Exception To The Rule 

All of this information has a caveat to it: the level of relaxation you have directly affects the muscle fiber being used. 

If you are squeezing a string much harder than you need to you’re probably using Type IIb fibers instead of Type IIa or Type I, which would allow you to play comfortably for longer. 

Playing while tense and not relaxed is a sure way to continuously use the wrong muscle fiber and continuously fail at the technique you’re trying to improve upon. 

Often times, “trying” manifests itself as more muscle energy being used. When you try to play something difficult, you might grit your teeth and “dig in”. This guarantees you are gripping too hard and using Type IIb fibers when you don’t need to. 

Hence the importance of practicing relaxation while playing. 

If you can practice slowly and ultra-relaxed your brain begins to recognize that it needs to recruit Type I or Type IIa fibers for that specific song, lick or phrase. As you gradually build up speed, if you can maintain the same level of relaxation, your body will simply continue to use those same muscle fibers rather than recruiting the ones that fail very quickly. 

This is why you can’t jump from playing a lick at 80 BPM to 200 BPM. When you go to play faster you immediately tense up subconsciously and your brain recognizes that as a need for greater power output and uses Type IIb fibers, which are not effective at all for fine motor skills, especially over long duration. 

This can all seem rather overwhelming and “sciency” but I assure you understanding how your muscles work and thinking about this material when you sit down to practice can greatly improve your progress if you start to apply it. 

Take this week to critically analyze how you practice and how you play. How much tension are you using? If it’s too much you’re likely using Type IIb fibers which is stopping you from playing cleanly and efficiently. 

How long can you play something before you notice tension beginning to creep into your hands? That building of tension is your body switching from one muscle fiber to the next. 

Keeping your muscles relaxed ensures that you use Type I or Type IIa while executing a motion on guitar. If you’re using Type IIb you’ll be noticeably tense and the technique will begin to fail very quickly. 

Observing your playing and analyzing it is a guaranteed way to improve and should not be over looked. 

Instead of playing those extra repetitions, take the time to analyze your muscle movement and relaxation. You’ll be much better off for having done that. 

-Max Rich