Understand Your Hands Part 3 - Tendons & Energy

Weekly Newsletter #58

September 16, 2022

How much thought have you given to the way in which your tendons function while playing guitar? 

Probably not much. 

In order to continue on the journey of understanding your hands in order to refine the best practices for improving as a guitarist, we now turn our attention to our tendons. 

As we discussed in the last two installments of Understand Your Hands (Part 1 and Part 2), muscle fibers are essential for developing good techniques. 

The type of muscle fiber and how to build more of it are valuable pieces of the puzzle. 

However, without tendons working in an ideal fashion, muscle fiber of any kind is no use to us. 

In order to get that snappy, powerful and ultra-fast motion in your fingers you must understand and develop your tendons. 

What Are Tendons Exactly? 

Tendons are rope-like cords of soft-tissue that are fibrous and connect the muscles to bone throughout the entire body. 

These essential pieces of tissue are responsible for the movement of a body part that results from a muscle contracting. When a signal is sent from the brain to a muscle that commands it to move, it is actually commanding that muscle to simply contract. 

The appendage or body part moves as a result of that muscle pulling on a tendon, which is connected to a bone. 

Think about walking a dog and being distracted while doing so. If the dog were to take off running it would suddenly yank the leash and cause you to fall forward. 

That is essentially the same principle that applies to movement in the body. The dog is equivalent to the muscle, the leash acts as the tendon and you are the body part. The muscle contracts, pulling on the tendon, which results in the body part moving. 

How Do They Function? 

The most important element of our tendons is the fact they load, store and unload energy. 

When a muscle contracts it pulls on the tendon that moves the body part. 

Think of jumping. As you squat down to jump, the muscles in your legs are contracting with a great deal of force, so much force in fact, that it is likely the muscle would tear under the strain if not for the tendons. 

The force exerted on the muscle is partially alleviated by the tendon and its elasticity. 

As we squat down to jump, the force on our muscles is reduced by the stretching of the tendons, which simultaneously stores that energy under tension, just like compressing a spring. 

As we jump, that energy is released rapidly and the force of that energy being released causes us to spring upward. 

The same is true for every muscle and tendon in our body. 

In our fingers, as we contract the muscles in our forearm, the tendons pull on the fingers which keep them loaded with energy. 

Think of a hammer-on. It’s much more effective if you “wind up” before doing a hammer-on. That is, if you move your finger slightly backward, away from the fretboard before shooting it toward your target string. 

This backward motion loads the tendon with energy like a spring and upon release, allows it to pop forward, creating a loud, crisp hammer-on. 

However, a key point is that during the loading of the tendon energy is being slowly dissipated from that tendon. This loss of energy is called hysteresis and is a common result of holding a tendon under strain. 

Hysteresis & Why You Must Avoid It While Playing 

Think about squatting for a long time and then jumping. After a while it will feel as though you have no energy left to jump at all because it was “used up” by staying in the squatted position. 

This is hysteresis and is a very important concept for guitarists to understand. 

As you play guitar you’re constantly loading and unloading the tendons in your arms, hands and fingers with energy. 

However, the more intensely you play, and the more challenging material you play, the more likely you are to remain strained in those tendons. 

If you’re playing something really challenging and you notice you’re fatiguing or getting worse the more reps you do, this is almost certainly because you’re suffering from hysteresis. 

You’re loading your tendons with energy, which is mandatory for playing, but then when you release that energy, you’re not releasing all of it. 

Instead, your simply releasing some and keeping the tendon somewhat stretched and under tension. 

This compounded over hundreds of small movements add up to a lot of tension and a total lack of energy and relaxation. 

You’ve likely noticed this effect before, particularly if you pay attention to how relaxed you are while playing. 

The upside to noticing that hysteresis is occurring in your tendons is that although your playing is suffering, the fix for it is a mental one and not a physical one. 

Staying Relaxed, Unloading Energy & Avoiding Hysteresis 

The cause of building up tension as you play is almost always from anticipation of something. 

Whether that’s anticipating a hard section of music, what the audience will think, or will you finally be able to play this lick on the 40th attempt. 

This anticipation originates in your mind but manifests itself in your tendons. 

Think about your instinctive reaction to something unexpectedly flying in your face, let’s say a tennis ball. 

Your reaction would be to flinch. 

This is an involuntary contraction of your muscles, which yank on your tendons and cause your body to shrink inward to make itself smaller (in the hopes of avoiding the ball). 

This is the flight part of the “fight or flight” mechanism we humans have. 

After you realize you didn’t get hit by the ball you can easily relax, but it’s not immediate. 

As your muscles loosen, your tendons slowly release the energy they stored up during the flinch and within a few seconds you’re back to being completely relaxed. 

However, when playing guitar you don’t have a few seconds, you must learn to relax immediately after every contraction. 

This is made even more apparent when your flight mechanism kicks in during the anticipation of a difficult section of music. 

As you approach it, time isn’t stopping and you’re getting closer to the part where you usually make a mistake. 

This causes you to tighten and load your tendons with energy prematurely. 

Your fingers get a little tighter, your hands get a bit stiffer and they start to function less effortlessly and the technique begins to collapse. 

All of this is a result of your mind “worrying” about what is coming. 

Your anticipation causes the hysteresis and your inability to immediately release that energy from your tendons is why the technique begins to break down more and more the longer you play through the errors. 

Rather than trying to get flawless repetitions at a high tempo or while attempting something really challenging, it’s far more effective to stop caring altogether about the outcome (easier said then done). 

Instead of focusing on the outcome and the quality of the repetition, you should first spend time simply avoiding the hysteresis completely. 

This can be done by simply relaxing to the point where you’re guaranteed to get dead notes, buzzed strings and all the tones you try to avoid. 

By learning to load your tendons with small amounts of energy, you’re able to release that small energy with much less effort, and much more naturally. 

This process can then be built up to higher levels of energy in which the proper tone and quality outcomes result. 

All of this requires a deep understanding of how your hands function and the patience to avoid playing one repetition after another, in the hopes of getting one right. 

The discipline to learn how to avoid hysteresis is truly the key to effortless playing. 

-Max Rich