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I'm recovering from tendonitis in my left (fretting) wrist. I think it was due to trying to build speed with poor technique. Part of it was too much bending of the wrist, but the other part is likely from playing with too much tension.

Does anyone have any tips, tricks, or advice on reducing unnecessary fretting hand tension? I know you can get a good tone while applying a fraction of the pressure I normally apply, but the body seems to 'forget' this when playing a difficult passage or speed exercises.

Edit: I focus on the electric guitar. I'm in my twenties. I played for years as a teenager and took several years off due to other commitments. I started playing again three months ago.

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Type of guitar? Style of playing? Are you young or older? How long have you been playing? All these are points you could make, to get more helpful answers. –  Tim May 8 at 15:55

3 Answers 3

Two tricks and two suggestions.

Trick 1: Raise your chin.

I'm guessing that your posture while you play is, as with many guitarists, especially students, head-down over your instrument. This posture makes a tight curl from forehead, down the back of the neck, across the left shoulder down the back of the upper arm to the elbow, up the back of the forearm, across the back of the wrist, and up the hand.

Simply moving the center of mass of your head back over your shoulders and thus relieving some of the tension on the neck will also relieve some of the tension all down the arm. It literally introduces a little bit of slack into the soft-tissue circuit ending at your frets.

You might imagine that you're playing to an audience and hamming it up -- looking at them, playing right to them. That will get you to lift your face and open up your posture a bit.

Trick 2: Practice playing pianissimo. Part of what is going on in your fretting hand is a function of how vigorously you're working the strumming/picking hand. Fake out your fretting hand by getting the other hand to take it a bit easier.

Suggestion 1: If you're getting so tense playing difficult passages -- and I think I know exactly what you're talking about, I have the same issue playing harp, and it does a doozy on my tendons -- that suggests to me that you're fighting for control to play something at the edges of your dexterity. So maybe you need to slow those passages way down, and get them into your hands properly with more practice, before trying them at speed.

Suggestion 2: There are a couple of physiological disciplines that help musicians manage body tension better to reduce or eliminate RSIs. The two I've heard of are the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique. I know almost nothing about them, except that I know serious musicians who swear by them. You might want to take instruction in such a discipline. It will almost certainly cost money.

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Thanks for a truly amazing reply –  Julie May 8 at 23:03
    
You're welcome (please upvote it if you haven't!) Have you tried any of these yet? Have they helped? –  Codeswitcher May 8 at 23:15
    
I haven't yet! Should I be raising my chin to the point where I can't see the fretboard/fingers any longer? I suppose this means I should learn to play without looking at the guitar? –  Julie May 9 at 0:10
    
For your purposes, anything that gets your head back over your ribcage is adequate. That said, in general, with a couple of notable exceptions, instruments aren't to be played by sight. I'm not a guitarist (oh, I took a class a long time ago), but I would guess guitar too is an instrument one should be able to play without looking. –  Codeswitcher May 9 at 1:47

To relieve tension, you have to be aware of it, which is very difficult to do in the moment. You are thinking about the music, not your body. My suggestions are mostly about how to be more aware of tension. Codeswitcher’s answer is great, but I’m going to add a few more non-guitar specific things.

When you finish playing a passage or a piece, stop to assess. Think not only of how you sounded, but about how you felt. Were your shoulders tense, your arms and hands stiff? Were you hunched over uncomfortably? Do you still have that tension? If the answer to any of those is yes, or even maybe, then take a minute to stand up, put down the instrument, and stretch out. Don’t skip this step. When you go back, play the same thing over again, focusing on how you feel. If you get tense, stop, stand up and move around, then come back and try again. This may mean you are playing very, very slowly, especially at first. The goal with this exercise is not speed, or musicality, but to be playing as relaxed as possible.

Codeswitcher mentioned Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method as physiological disiplines. I’d add yoga to this list, especially if you get really into it. It is less explicitly about performance and releasing tension, but it is MUCH easier to find a basic yoga class than someone who specializes in the other two disciplines. When I started practicing yoga (a single 1-hour class a week), it took about a month for a 3 year old neck crick to go away, and it has made me much more aware of when I’m getting too tense while playing, because I’ve got a real baseline of what low tension feels like. That crick hasn’t come back, and neither has a playing-related back problem.

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Proper guitar setup helps, especially for the first few positions. If the nut is too tall, then additional tension is required to fret the chords and notes. A common guideline for nut slot depth is 0.018" between the string and first fret. Before you cut the nut to it's final depth, it would be best to have finalized your choice of string gauges, together with your desired bridge height and neck bow.

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