The title of this article would have been good advice for me several years ago! Unfortunately back then I was playing lots of guitar without well-aligned posture and with some subtle errors in my technique. This soon took its toll in the form of a repetitive strain injury, the pain centred in my right shoulder and right wrist (my ‘picking arm’).
This meant some time away from my beloved Amelia (an Ibanez electric guitar) and plenty of treatment from the wonderful charity BAPAM – http://www.bapam.org.uk, and later from a great local osteopath – http://www.stalbansosteopaths272.co.uk
It’s amazing how common these types of injuries are amongst guitarists (and many other instrumentalists for that matter) and although I was lucky enough to make a pretty good recovery, I had to learn the hard/painful way. Even to this day I have to be very careful of how I’m sitting or standing when I play, how much unnecessary tension I’m carrying in my body when I play, when I’m overdoing it and a variety of other factors.
Whilst I make no claims to being an expert in physiotherapy, osteopathy, nutrition, sports science or any other related areas that I would recommend for treating tendon problems, I have nevertheless picked up useful information along the way. Not all injuries are the same of course, but here are a few things that have helped me:
1. Regular rests – A more obvious point but still worth mentioning. Very much about discipline and patience – knowing when to stop practising and take a break, even if you’re desperate to master your favourite riff or lick. A break at least every 30 minutes makes sense to me.
2. Good posture – Keep your posture and balance centred. It’s very common for guitarists to break this rule for at least a couple of reasons:
– Bending over too much to see what’s going on on their fretboard. This is a common habit that guitarists tend to do without realising. Therefore the first thing is simply to be more aware of how you’re sitting. Also you can try watching the fretboard by only turning your head to see what your fingers are doing, rather than bending over.
– Bending over to read music notation or guitar tab. One of the best purchases I’ve ever made was a music stand. Having music books in front of you at a height that won’t strain your neck is an easy way to reduce your chances of an injury.
Practising in front of a mirror can also improve posture, helping you notice if you are leaning one way more than the other and noticing if and where you are holding tension in your body. Pay attention to factors such as whether your picking hand, wrist and forearm are aligned when you play (wherever possible – not always an option when fretting complicated chords), or whether you’re hunching your shoulders (such was my habit once!).
3. Stretching – Definitely a very important one on this list. Please check out the following link for some great stretching exercises and advice: http://www.bapam.org.uk/docs/1_Dont_cramp_your_style_web.pdf
I also use an ‘eggsercizer’ to do some warm up exercises with my fingers and hands. Check it out here: http://www.magistercorp.com/eggsercizer.html
4. Attention to technique – One thing that many guitarists do (especially rock/metal guitarists) is hold their plectrum too tightly. You may find it surprising just how easy it is to achieve a rugged and punchy rock/metal tone, even with a very relaxed grip of the plectrum. As mentioned under ‘Posture’, also pay attention to other areas of your body such as your neck, shoulders and wrists to make sure that they are well aligned and relaxed.
5. Exercise – One piece of advice that music charity BAPAM gave me was something along the lines of: due to the intense demands musicians put on parts of their body, they should see themselves as ‘performance athletes’.
Therefore strengthening the body and improving flexibility is an important aspect of injury prevention and recovery. For me, swimming has been the perfect remedy. When other forms of exercise seemed too painful, swimming was great because I could easily adapt the intensity and it gave me a total body workout.
6. Good nutrition – With regards to treating injuries such as tendonitis, I’m still figuring this one out as it is hard to find conclusive research out there. However a good amount of protein seems important and there are various supplements that claim to help repair tendons, joints etc. I think the best bet is simply to eat a varied, healthy diet!
7. Visualisation/mental practise – Not as much fun I know, but I find this a pretty successful way of practising when I want to give my body a break. I visualise my fingers playing the notes and hear the music in my head – simple as that and it seems to work!
8. Prevention is preferable! – R.S.I. injuries can take time to treat successfully, so don’t wait until you have one to take care of your body. Please start now to save yourself pain and medical bills!
Whilst there are surely other points that could be listed, these are the ones I understand best and so have chosen to list. I hope they have been helpful for some of you out there. Most importantly don’t be put off! Playing an instrument can be so rewarding that its worth the small effort to do it in a way that won’t cause your body harm.