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My brother and I sat down to play electric / bass covers of Bad Religion together and by the end of the two hour session my hand literally died - like a tingling sensation and a sharp stinging pain. I'm going to take a couple days to a week off because it feels like the start of RSI (I've been playing a lot of guitar lately). I know it has to be a problem with my technique - which brings me to my question. There are two ways I've seen a power chord played:

1) Barred so you can mute all the other strings and convert to barre chord when necessary. (This is the way I play because I like not having to be accurate with my strumming hand on really fast stuff)

enter image description here

2) Not muting the other strings and the thumb sitting on top (kind of like playing a G open chord)

enter image description here

What is the best way?

  • Where is the tingling - fingers, wrist, hand etc? Might just be restricted blood flow for some reason, but it could be an early sign of injury as you say... (Both methods you ask about should be OK, though something's obviously wrong in this case.) – Andy Jan 6 '16 at 8:28
  • Consider switching to drop D power chords (altered tuning), if this is a style of playing you plan to focus on. Then you can do a simple bar for most of the chords. – amalgamate Jan 8 '16 at 15:00
11

I think you have two problems: Wrist geometry and muscle tension.

Wrist geometry

Wrist geometry is important for both allowing you to use the least amount of effort and muscle tension and for allowing your muscles and tendons to move in the directions in which they work best. An angled wrist (like in your first picture) fights your muscles. If you want to research this, the main muscles we are talking about are the flexor digitalis and extensor digitalis. The trick is (in case this isn't obvious) that the muscles that move your fingers for fretting are actually located up in your arm, closer to your elbow. Thin tendons run from those muscles down through your wrist to your fingers. That means that having the wrist in the best position allows those tendons to work smoothly. Also, giving your hand the best leverage means those muscles will have to use less force to play.

  • Your second picture is closer to what I recommend (and do, myself).
  • In addition to having your thumb on top, you want to raise your wrist and grip the neck. The web between your thumb and index finger should be in full contact with the neck.
  • Angle your hand so your palm is touching the neck. Your first set of knuckles, where your fingers start, should be mostly pointing at the ground. Your wrist should be up near the top of the neck. The inside of your first set of knuckles should be touching the bottom of the neck just behind the fretboard.
  • Your index finger should end up fairly flat across the fretboard and you can absolutely mute with your fretting hand with your wrist high and your thumb wrapped around the top. Close up your hand to bring your fingers closer to the fretboard so that they naturally mute.
  • At this point you will realize you can't really reach the low E string with your index finger to play power chords. You should be able to reach the A string with your index finger and play power chords based on the A string with no problem.
  • You have two options to deal with reaching the low E. The best option for my body is to fret the low E with your thumb. I keep my thumb curled over the top of the neck for muting the low E string, and with a little practice you can fret also with the side of the knuckle. This also gives you some interesting possiblities with chord voicings and finger positions, like playing an open G with the thumb fretting the third fret on the low E string and other fingers doing interesting things. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all fretted with their thumbs at one point or another.
  • Your other option is to drop your wrist just far enough to fret the low E with your index finger and then bring it back up when you're done on the low E string. For fast two-string power chords, especially with palm muting, like Metallica style playing, you pretty much have to do this. Keep your wrist as high as possible and use the barest tip of your index finger that will do the job. Your index finger should be pretty flat like you're doing a barre chord, but without the tension applied for any but the low E strings.
  • When playing solos and bending, make sure your wrist is high, your hand is wrapped around the neck, your thumb is on top, and you use your thumb and whole hand to "squeeze" the string up toward your thumb for the bend. This matters more when using thicker strings or performing wider bends.

If you have to play a barre chord and/or really get your fingers higher up on the fingerboard, try to not bend your wrist. Get your elbow as low as possible and lift up the guitar neck. If you frequently play music that requires greater access to the fretboard (e.g., jazz), you might change your whole style and tighten the strap, bring the whole guitar up higher, and angle the guitar with the neck fairly high up. You might have to bend your wrist slightly for certain things but you should minimize it as much as possible. The more you play with the low thumb position, the more important the relaxation of your muscles will be.

Muscle tension

  • Drop your shoulders! Make sure both of your shoulders are relaxed and low at all times. Point your elbows at the ground and focus on relaxing your shoulders to get your elbows closer to the ground.
  • Keep your elbows in. Completely relax your shoulders and let your elbows hang straight down. They should be within one or two inches of your torso near where your ribcage ends.
  • Drop your shoulders! By now you've spent ten seconds thinking about your elbows and your shoulders have probably started to creep up to your ears again. Keep revisiting your shoulder and elbow position and tension every few seconds and reminding yourself to relax.
  • Warm up and focus on relaxing your muscles as you warm up. Come up with something dead easy to play that your fingers can do while your brain is thinking about relaxation. Get your fingers moving and then ignore them and focus on your shoulders and elbows and relaxation.
  • If you have trouble relaxing your shoulders, check your jaw muscles, facial muscles, and neck muscles. The tension can seems to "flow" down to your shoulders. Relax your head and neck and then your shoulders.
  • Check again that your shoulders are dropped and relaxed and your elbows are close to your body and hanging straight down.
  • Stand up straight with good posture. Relax your back muscles as well, since they can feed tension into your shoulders. Avoid sitting down with the guitar on your knee hunched over it with a curved back.
  • Once you're doing well with shoulder relaxation, spend some thought and practice time on using as little fretting pressure as possible to fret the notes. At the same time, work on your pick technique so you are using as little of the pick as possible to hit the strings. Your goal is to use the bare minimum of effort to make music. It totally sounds like the opposite of rock and metal, but when you start getting it, you'll discover that your speed and tone improve and you start to sound more like a pro.
  • Get a good setup to help make sure your action is no higher than it has to be. Make sure you're not using strings that are too thin or too thick. Most likely 9s or 10s are ideal, depending on the scale length and your current strength and playing style.

Make sure you don't let yourself play too long in a single session. Get lots of sleep. Get some cardio exercise and stay in good shape, eat healthy, stay hydrated. Those will help with your wrists and make you a better musician in general.

Appendix

Here's an example of a high wrist position (although I daresay Jimmy Page has longer fingers than either of us):

enter image description here

Source

Kirk Hammett solos with a high wrist, like Jimmy Page, but he drops and bends his wrist when he does more work on the low E (this could be fast dropped-D power chords):

enter image description here

Source

The main thing to take away from a bunch of pictures of Kirk Hammett is that even though there are a few pictures with his wrist bent, at least 90% of the pictures show an unbent wrist that is high on the back of the neck.

  • 1
    Very comprehensive and well articulated answer. Nice work. I can't think of anything to add so I will just upvote your answer. – Rockin Cowboy Jan 6 '16 at 18:37
  • @RockinCowboy I think it's actually longer than most of your answers! ;-) – Todd Wilcox Jan 6 '16 at 18:37
  • Lol. Yep - you spent some time on that one. – Rockin Cowboy Jan 6 '16 at 19:56
  • I'm going to try this method. I think reason I was doing it like picture 1 is because I read a book that said classical players never move their thumb from the middle of the neck so I figured I should listen to those guys. – Kolob Canyon Jan 6 '16 at 20:30
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    @KolobCanyon That's understandable. The problem is that classical players play a very different kind of guitar and also angle the necks of their guitars very high so they don't have to bend their wrists. Look at this picture of the famous classical player John Williams and note that his wrist is straight: assets8.classicfm.com/2012/24/… In fact if you do an image search of your favorite guitarist(s), you'll probably find very few bent wrists, if any. – Todd Wilcox Jan 6 '16 at 20:33
4

If you are getting an RSI, you are either playing with poor technique (your guess), you are tensing up while playing, or both (usually both). If you fix your technique, but still tense up, you can still injure yourself, just slower.

Since I don't play guitar, I'm going to focus on the tensing issue.

When you're challenging yourself, or when you are really into what you are playing, it's very easy to tense your muscles and use much more force than you need to actually play. If you can learn to not do this, it will save yourself a lot of muscle strain.

Every time you finish a piece, take a few seconds to check in with your body. Is your hand or arm tense? If you do get tense, take a minute away from playing to stretch and move. Make it a full minute or two, not a fifteen second pause.

Even if you don't notice getting tense, you should do this three or four times an hour if you are playing for several hours straight. It just gives your body a chance to recover a bit, so that you can last longer.

If you're practicing, rather than playing with friends, the best solution is to slow down until you can play without stress. This might mean going at a boring, glacial pace at first. But if you are practicing with your hand tensed up, you will keep on being tensed up when you're playing with others. But if you practice without tension, the habit will carry over into your regular playing, just like all practicing.

The single best thing I've done to extend my playing time is learning yoga. I started after I started singing, because of all musicians, singers as a group seem to be the most injury-aware, and all the serious singers I know focus heavily on relaxing, stretching, and posture, which are major facets of yoga. If all you want to do it play longer once in a while, it's probably more of a commitment than you need, but it can help.

4

If you are constantly playing power chords, chances are that you form your hand into a pattern and move that pattern around.

Now for one thing, a fixed pattern does not reflect the changing fret distance as you move up and down the neck. That means that you need to employ more force than if your fingers were right behind the fret, the most effective position.

For another, you tend to lock/cramp up everything which means that you exert force for keeping everything stiff, and that you then apply force on that stiff contraptions from its end, with large leverage.

Try thinking of each power chord you play as if it were a completely new chord. Place all your fingers smoothly, employing all joints and not locking any of them, every time. Keep your wrist and palm and hand and thumb supple: they follow what happens on the fretboard.

The temptation to cramp up is particularly large when every chord has the same shape. Resist the temptation and play each chord fresh. Whenever you change position, don't do it with a pre-cramped hand. The hand shape settles when pressing down, not before, and it relaxes when leaving the strings. That does not mean that you reshape your hand into a neutral pattern: it merely means that you exert no force maintaining its pattern: the hand shape is reasserted at arrival, depending on distances and strengths the strings need there.

2

If the pain is wrist pain, then it could well be an RSI type pain, which I suffer from a lot, extremely badly on occasion.

I have never found a technique that got rid of it permanently, so I have to find ways to mitigate it.

The key part of RSI is "repetitive". The pain starts after the wrist has been clamped in the same position for a long time.

The mitigation is to try and build varying wrist shapes into the song. Throw a few riffs in, or just mute and release the barre completely, but make sure that whatever you do involves moving the wrist out of the barre position.

E.g. my main problem is that stretches with the little finger causes the wrist to come and stay bent over forward, which triggers my particular problem, so I have to make sure I play things that enable me to stretch it backwards again throughout a song.

Doing some wrist rotations / shakes / stretches before you play can't hurt, and there are loads of RSI / carpal tunnel exercises you can Google to help you recover.

  • I know the pain is from the barre chords. Playing open chords I can go for hours. I can relate to what you're saying. – Kolob Canyon Jan 6 '16 at 20:32
1

There could be many ways, the way you play it isn't surprising if your hands feel numb after sometime.You can just press on the bottom strings where you actually hold the chord and the rest can be muted by the fingers just lightly touching the higher strings.

You can also just press down the strings that are to be fretted and mute the other strings with your right hand or palm slightly resting on the bridge, comes down to preference.

As for using this way to quickly progress to barre chords, I would recommend to practice chord progressions. Don't pain your hands unnecessarily so that you can change to barre chords. Keep the fingers like you do in the second way that you have shown, but dont arch the fingers that much and let the palm slightly face the neck. Let the thumb be behind the neck and flatten your fingers so that they lightly keep touching the other strings and muting it. To progress to a barre chord you just then need to press down and there is no need to keep your fingers stressed all the time for a possible chord change.

As you practice chord progressions you'll get quicker and would be able to change to any chord rapidly, don't pain your fingers. Keep them as relaxed as possible and it will help you play longer and more accurately.

  • I strongly agree with what you are saying. Now that I've began having pain from always holding a power chord like a barre chord I'm going to change my technique. I probably even need to fix my technique for my barre chord as well. – Kolob Canyon Jan 6 '16 at 20:34
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    Some pain and practice and it'll all be great. – gospelslide Jan 7 '16 at 7:26

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