Tension - The Technique Killer

Weekly Newsletter #73

December 30, 2022

Most of us want to play as flawlessly as possibly, and we strive for that ability every time we sit down to practice. 

But too often there seems to be either a lack of progress or sometimes it can even feel like you’re moving backwards instead of forwards in your playing. 

There are three main things that stop guitarists from playing fast, cleanly and accurately: 

  • Tension 
  • Fatigue 
  • Lack of control 

The first of these, tension, is almost always the cause for the other two (although lack of control can be caused by other things as well). 

So in reality, if you can solve the tension problem, you can pretty much solve every problem in either your right or left hand. 

Now, to clarify what I mean by tension…I mean excess tension. 

What Exactly Is Tension? 

Obviously you have to use some muscle tension to fret notes, pluck the strings etc. however it’s the build up of that tension over time that causes the break down in your technique. 

I’m sure you know the feeling of cramping up while playing, or trying to play that fast lick and never getting it right…that’s because you have a build up of excess tension in your hands, arms shoulders etc. 

What causes the build up of tension? The answer is a lack of fuel for your muscles. 

Your slow and intermediate twitch muscles use oxygen as a fuel source. These are the muscles you use most of the time while playing. 

As you play, that oxygen is being burnt up by the muscle fibers. If it’s not replenished in time your technique will begin to fail. 

As you play guitar your muscles start to constrict and squeeze the blood vessels that bring oxygen to those same muscles. 

The more tense you get, the harder the muscles squeeze and the less oxygen they receive. 

At some point they just break down. 

The trick is to replenish those muscles with oxygen as often as possible, so you never have a break down in your technique. 

 Avoiding Excess Tension 

There’s really no avoiding the tension, the solution instead is how to deal with it. 

So what do you do with that excess tension, how do you get rid of it? 

The answer sounds too easy, but you have to release it by relaxing that one single muscle. 

It’s in the small moments between each movement on the guitar that you have the chance to replenish your energy. 

Every single time you fully relax a muscle, blood can bring much-needed oxygen back into that muscle, reducing the inflammation caused by excess tension. 

Simply put, if you are able to fully relax between each movement on the guitar, even if its just half a second long, those small moments of relaxation will add up over the course of a song. 

-Here’s a VIDEO that explains a way to do this while playing- 

Without these brief respites, you remain fully engaged and tense even when its unnecessary, and even if you are using the bare minimum amount of tension. 

It’s like being held under water. 

If you can come up for small sips of air, you can stay under water for a long time, but without that air…you’re finished. 

Controlling The Oxygen 

Take a long deep breath and let it out. 

Is that how you breathe while playing guitar? 

Probably not. 

And yet that is the best way to oxygenate your blood. 

Instead you probably breathe short, shallow breaths, or even worse hold your breath. 

This is especially likely if you’re playing something really difficult. 

Breathing is your only source of oxygen and the only way for your muscles (and technique) to function. 

So why not practice giving the maximum amount and highest quality oxygen to your muscles? 

Learn how to breathe long deep breathes while playing, even while playing fast, up-tempo music. 

Keeping a steady breathing pattern will do two things: 

  • Provide much needed oxygen for your muscles 
  • Lower your heart rate so you don’t burn as much oxygen while playing 

These are key elements in getting rid of excess tension. 

Now you have to practice having your muscles take those “sips of air” while playing. 

In order for this to become second nature, it’s mandatory that you practice this concept slowly and methodically. 

For example, you could attempt this while switching between two uncomfortable chord shapes. You would make the first shape and fret it for a certain length of time and then slowly switch to the next shape. 

However, the crucial step is while switching; you must consciously relax your hand and fingers while lifting off the strings and while making the new chord shape in the air, trying to remain as close to zero tension as possible. 

Then when it is time to fret the new shape you can engage the correct tension from a rested position rather than compounding the tension from chord one onto the tension from chord two. 

Professional guitarists do this millions of times, in between every little finger movement. 

Every time they let go of a finger they relax. 

After every pick stroke, they relax. 

Relaxing the muscles becomes the immediate response after a movement…like a reflex. 

Training that response, to immediately relax after doing anything on the guitar, is what will make you an amazing player. 

Breathe, relax and play with ease. 

-Max Rich