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Physiology of Guitar: 5 Practical Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing

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Like many guitar players, I’m self taught. While I believe that we autodidacts develop a degree of independence and creativity in our approach that eludes some schooled players, the cost of this is that we also tend to develop an impressive array of bad habits.

While some “bad” habits and unconventional techniques can be the very things that endow us with a unique style, others are the barriers that prevent us from realising our musical ideals.

With this in mind, I’d like to share with you five practical, personally tried and tested ideas to revamp your playing by re-examining the rudiments of how you connect and interact with your instrument.


Mea Culpa

I’m not a great guitarist, and probably never will be. I’m neither a technical wizard, great through sheer application and effort of will, nor an inimitable one-off, endowed with an unfathomably idiosyncratic style. Then again, most of the players I admire aren’t the image of perfection either and, come to that, even many of the “great” players have noticeable flaws: Jimmy Page is famously sloppy, Kirk Hammet has a notoriously iffy vibrato technique…

Point is, being a good guitar player means being exciting, interesting, passionate and musical. It doesn’t mean being perfect and, besides, if there really was a one-size-fits-all foolproof recipe for perfection, we’d all be virtuosos.

But don’t quit your practice regimen just yet! Just because you don’t have to be perfect doesn’t mean you don’t need to work on finding and expressing your style, and even if you’re not interested in the traditionally “technical” disciplines of jazz, classical and shred metal (a weirder trio is hard to imagine!), it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from borrowing some of their ideas.

So, here we go. No crazy scales, no pythagorean gobbledegook. Guaranteed.


1. Loosen Up

Removing tension from your body when playing can really help you to achieve greater fluidity, speed and accuracy, but the guitar is a very physical instrument and it’s natural that we tend to develop a tight grip both on the plectrum and on the neck. We’re performing highly unnatural, physically demanding movements and, wouldn’t you know it, our instinctive ways of coping with this are the very things that can hold us back.

Think of the way that a beginner guitarist will tend to make a tense fist around the neck in order to hold down even a simple chord. What they’re doing makes perfect sense – if you wanted to squeeze water out of a sponge, the most efficient way of applying the required force is to make a fist around it – but only for as long as the muscles in the hand haven’t been trained to apply the right amount of force in the right directions. The beginner overestimates the amount of force required and, more importantly, is focussed largely on making the notes sound, not on mobility.

In other words, trying to work with, rather than against, our own physiology can really help us to develop that easy grace with the instrument that is the hallmark of a truly good player.

As soon as I started paying attention to muscular tension when playing guitar, I started noticing it all the time. Of course, it makes sense that, if we’re more relaxed generally, we’ll be more relaxed when we play.

So as a little experiment, take a couple of minutes right now to find any unnecessary tension in your body. Start with your neck, then your shoulders, arms and keep working down your body. Unless you’re a tai chi aficionado, I’m willing to bet that you’re tensing something. Try getting into the habit of running this little check on yourself throughout the day and, soon enough, it’ll become second nature.

Likewise, before you even pick up your guitar, spend a moment looking for tension in your shoulders, arms and fingers. Take some slow, deep breaths, roll your head around a little, flex your arms and hands – whatever helps you get loose. Then, while playing normally, keep checking to see if you can feel any tension building up, especially in your shoulders and arms, and try to minimise it. Keep checking while you play and, gradually, you should begin to internalize the process and break the habit of tensing up.

Over a week or so, you should begin to feel much more limber and begin to see the benefits to your playing.


2. Try a Different Plectrum

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been using the same sort of plectrum more or less since you started. You may even have reached a point where anything much different to what you’re used to makes playing feel like a battle.

When I took up the guitar, I think I bought three or four different types and eventually settled on Jim Dunlop 1mm nylon. It amazes me that never once in the ensuing 14 years did I think to even try anything else. But why not? If you want to take up marathon running or hill walking, you’re sooner or later going to go out and find the right shoes for the job since the variety you’re accustomed to for day-to-day wear likely aren’t best suited. Likewise, somewhere, there’s the right plectrum for the way that you play guitar now, not how you played when you started.

A couple of years ago, I was given a few of those huge, triangular Ultex plectra which, when I first tried to use one, felt rather like trying to play the guitar with a picnic plate. In the process, I noticed how the new pick forced me to adapt my picking habits, making some things easier to play and others much harder.

I experimented some more, trying every plectrum I could get my hands on. I even tried making my own out of an old debit card and using a coin a la Brian May and Billy Gibbons. All had their pros and cons, but a very important thing happened: the process made me really analyze and adapt my picking technique.

I realized that, though second nature and comfortable, my existing habits weren’t necessarily optimal. I began to understand why I’d struggled with some things in the past and saw how to improve, and I also learned a lot about what plectrum shapes and materials make the sounds I like.

So, next time you’re down at Dick’s Guitar World, why not hit up that little plastic tray on the counter and spend the price of a beer on a handful of different types and gauges of plectra? When you get home, try working with each of them through a short routine of your usual techniques – strumming, single notes, arpeggios, what have you – and, as well as seeing if anything feels better, pay attention to how you use them.


3. Check Your Grip

So the way you hold the plectrum has a huge impact on what you’re able to play and how well you play it, and changing your plectrum is a great way to force yourself to reassess your technique.

Most people hold the plectrum between their thumb and first finger. Others use the thumb and first two fingers, thumb and middle finger, etc. Some people plant the side of their palm on the bridge, others anchor their little finger on the face of the guitar. All of these approaches have their benefits and drawbacks and, in my view, rather than aiming to find and adopt one “correct” style, the ideal is to develop the flexibility to adopt the technique that best suits a given playing scenario.

As we’ve discussed, tension is the enemy, so above all we need to weed out the habits that make us tense up. Where our picking hand is concerned, this means a couple of things:

  • Holding the plectrum just tightly enough that it’s secure, no more. If you have problems with “escaping” plectra, try scoring them with a sharp knife to add more grip, or try the deliciously titled Gorilla Snot “gripping aid” – a kind of resin you apply to your fingers to prevent slippage. It’s worth noting, incidentally, that if you try an unfamiliar plectrum, your grip is often one of the first things to present a problem, but it’s usually only a transitional problem. It’s likely that, after a few weeks, your grip will have adjusted and you won’t need to rely on creative methods to keep your pick in your hand.
  • Avoid the tendency to “plant” your picking hand on the guitar, and instead develop the ability to let your hand float relatively freely over the strings, only “anchoring” when necessary. By allowing yourself to “lean” on the guitar, you’re probably introducing unnecessary tension in your picking arm.

4. Check Your Other Grip

What about your fretting hand? As we’ve already discussed, beginners tend to grasp the neck very tightly and, if we never fully unlearn this, the chances are that we’re impeding our own ease of movement through excess force and unnecessary muscular tension.

Classical and formally trained guitarists tend to go for a fretting position whereby the thumb is placed at the centre of the back of the neck, with the fingers pressing down more or less perpendicular to the fretboard. It might look uncomfortable and awkward, especially compared to the more commonly seen “blues” grip (thumb over the top of the neck and the fingers flatter to the strings), but actually affords a great deal more precision and mobility.

As before, though, each grip has it’s attractions and detractions and, for typical applications, learning to have both in the toolkit is time well spent. For me, the ideal is to use the least amount of force and have the least amount of skin in contact with the neck as possible for any given task, because doing this ensures greatest ease of movement, and minimises strain.

Obviously, a classical style position won’t do the trick for string bending – you can’t apply the required force in the required direction – but, likewise, the blues grip isn’t ideal for agile rhythm playing, because you’re applying lots of tension in the wrong way, and most of your hand is in contact with the neck.

So try working through exercises slowly – perhaps some typical chord changes, some single note lines, some bluesy soloing – and pay attention to your fretting hand’s position and grip. Look for tension, excess force and uncomfortable angles and try to minimise them. You’ll probably find that you’ll need to adjust how you sit with the guitar or, if you tend to stand, the height of your guitar on the strap. Don’t worry, though, the likes of Tom Morrello and Ben Weinman have made wearing your guitar on your chest hip.


5. Change Your Program

How do you normally practice? Do you have a set program of warm-ups, set pieces and techniques to work through, or do you just jam along with your favourite tracks and stop here and there to work through some of the trickier bits?

Either way, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and to develop a kind of tunnel vision about your playing, so doing something to disrupt your usual routine and try new things, even just for a few days, can really help to freshen things up.

Generally, the best approach to practicing is simply knowing what you want to achieve and devoting time to it regularly. As long as you stay focussed on achieving a specific goal, even for as little as 20 or 30 minutes each day, you should see steady improvement. More important than that, though, is that your practice is fun: doing the same old stuff day after day gets boring, whether it’s running scales or jamming out Highway to Hell and Whole Lotta Love, and if you’re not engaged by the activity, nothing’s going to “stick”.

So why not pick some activity you’re not accustomed to – anything from learning your major scale all over the neck to learning to play along with a favourite track from start to finish – and give it 30 minutes a day for a week? What you do depends on what you’re used to, since the point is to have a change, but if you’re stuck for ideas, try cruising some guitar forums and find out how others spend their practice time. Whatever you do, since it’s new to you, use it as an opportunity to slow down, relax, and pay attention to how you’re interacting with your guitar.

Personally, I’m in the jamming along to records camp, and I always found it hard to commit myself to the comparatively dry practice of learning scales, exercises and so on. When I felt stuck in a rut, I decided to try learning scales all over the neck by jamming over the top of the backing tracks in GarageBand’s Magic GarageBand function. Doing this brought the scales to life and made using them feel much like my usual playing routine, i.e., jamming!


Wrap Up

I hope there are some ideas in here that can help you to rethink your approach to the guitar from a basic principle of working with your body, rather than fighting against it. Like anything, it takes time, so don’t take on too much at once, and break things down into manageable chunks.

If you’re really interested in the detail of how human physiology and guitar relate to each other, I recommend the Contacting the Guitar site, which has some fascinating and, at times, mind boggling information on the muscles and nerves that we use (or abuse) while playing.

Happy strumming!

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