How many times have you heard someone talk about the secret of great guitar playing by saying “Relax, you have to play relaxed. All the great players are very relaxed when they play.” I have heard and read that statement or some variation many, many times. In fact, I have often said or written some form of those words myself! And I think we all know how completely useless that advice is. It’s like telling the drowning person “Just swim!”. Yeah, if they could do that, they probably would!
Well, the time has come for me to tell you the real truth, or at least the rest of the truth. Relaxation is not the answer, but it is part of the answer to the question “What is great guitar playing about”. When we say “You must be relaxed when you play”, we are speaking as if there were a state called “relaxation” that we must maintain. But in its truest sense, the word “relax” is not indicating a state, it is indicating an action: the action of “returning to laxity”. This means that relaxation is the releasing of the tension created by the necessary effort of muscle contraction that creates movement and brings force to the strings. It also means releasing the tension created in muscles as the flexible medium of the strings places force back on the body (see "The Cycle of the Note" from the Yoga of Guitar). This must be a constant and continuous action as we play.
Relax Into The Effort
This means that playing the guitar is a continuous process of making efforts, and then releasing those efforts. Of course, included in this description should be the understanding that all efforts are made with the minimum amount of muscle tension possible, as when we use minimum pressure with a finger when it presses a string to a fret, or allow arm weight to do much of the work.
So we must realize that playing the guitar, as well as developing the fingers to play, requires effort, sometimes considerable effort. As we develop our playing muscles with exercises, scales, etc., we feel a great effort as we strengthen and stretch unused muscles. This causes great confusion to many students who believe in the “relaxation paradigm” of playing. They worry because the last thing they feel as they practice is relaxed, even though they are making necessary efforts. What all students must understand is that our task during such times in practice is to “relax into the effort”. This is best done by keeping whole body awareness while using Posing and no tempo practice as taught in “The Principles”.
This first stage of physical development must be achieved before we have any hope of playing in an easy and relaxed manner. This basic development is best achieved by study of “The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar”, and furthered by study of the supporting products I have created - “How to Master A Scale”, “The 6 Essential Scales”, “Hammers & Pulls”, and “Bar Chord Mastery”. These courses will give any student the necessary development that is the foundation of easy guitar playing.
The Dynamic Relationship To The String
As a student receives this training, another essential requirement of good playing develops alongside this essential physical development: a dynamic relationship to the string. Like a diving board, the string is a flexible medium that possesses its own energy, referred to as potential or elastic energy. A great diver knows how to interact with the diving board in such a way to as connect with and use that energy. A great guitar player knows how to contact the energy of the string and use that energy to propel movement.
A dynamic relationship means that just as the string is alive, and changes in response to every touch and force placed upon it, so is the player alive, responding to every force applied to their body, and to every change in balance created by the movement of fingers, hands, arms and body while they play. This dynamic relationship to the string is fostered in all Guitar Principles courses, and is taught in its most intense form in our latest course “The Yoga of Guitar”.
When these 2 developments are in place, the physical development and the ability to relate dynamically to the strings, we are in a position to do what is really required in all our playing. We will be able play in a way that gives the appearance of, and the sensation of “relaxed playing” we always hear about, often called “effortless mastery”. And that requirement is this: the application of balanced forces to the strings and body of the guitar from the fingers and all points of contact with the guitar, at each moment of the movement process.
This video will illustrate the points made in this essay.................
This is our true goal in playing, not relaxation itself. Relaxation, or the return to laxity, is simply one of the ways in which a dynamic relationship to the string is created and maintained. It is the same with the diver - a tense diver, with body held rigid, is not going to get any “spring” from the diving board. The board will be hard and unresponsive. A tightrope walker who cannot constantly change their body position in response to the ever changing state of tension of the tightrope will have a very short career. So it is with a guitar player, without a dynamic relationship to the strings, the strings remain hard and unresponsive to the player. Without maintaining a constant state of balance of forces as we interact with the string, we have no chance of playing with ease and flow, which all music demands. In this case, the player will experience chronic tension during playing.
When balanced force is applied to the strings from a player who has a dynamic relationship to the strings, a very strong connection is created between player and instrument. This connection is the true source of power, control, and security in our playing. Those who are able to create this connection know how to use the fingers of the left hand, the pick and/or the fingers of the right hand, as well as all points of bodily contact with the guitar to create this connection in every playing moment. The particulars of this balance of forces changes at every moment of playing, and the player must instantly adapt and respond in every moment, in the same way a tightrope walker must respond to the changing condition of the tightrope with every step in order to maintain the connection.
Of course, most of the players who can do this probably don't know they are doing it, and probably couldn't explain it to you, because this is most often an intuitive or acquired knowledge of the body itself. However, this knowledge can be taught and understood consciously, which makes it possible for anyone to gain these abilities for themselves.
“The Yoga of Guitar” is the entranceway into this higher level paradigm of guitar technique. For users of this system, as well as all players, keeping this paradigm in mind during practice will lead to amazing discoveries and new and higher levels of playing ability. I will be publishing higher levels of “The Yoga of Guitar” in coming years, and they will give many powerful ways of achieving the necessary union of body and instrument that gives us access to the highest levels of playing ability.
Understanding and practice of the first level of the Yoga of Guitar must be undertaken before a player can make use of the higher levels. In the meantime, I will be training my students in these higher levels in our one on one lessons. Information about updates and additions to my emerging system will be published on my Facebook group for the “Yoga of Guitar”. All interested players are invited to join.
The conception that I have outlined here has taken me almost 50 years to formulate, understand, and integrate fully into my playing. I recommend that all serious guitar playersho want to be the best they can be, and better, begin to contemplate and implement these ideas with great energy.
1) Relaxation is only part of the secret of great guitar playing. It is not a state, it is the action of “returning to laxity”, or the releasing of muscle tension after an effort.
2) Before we can make music, the fingers must go through a period of development. This development requires physical effort. We must use whole body awareness, posing and no tempo practice to “relax into the effort”.
3) In order to play easily and really make music, we must have a dynamic relationship to the strings, which allows us to use the energy of the strings themselves to propel movement.
4) Our real goal in practicing is to find the balance of forces applied to the strings and body of the guitar from all points of contact in every moment of playing. This balance of forces is achieved through the proper combination of body behaviors and finger behaviors. This balance of forces gives us a strong connection between body and guitar, and this connection gives us power, control, and security in our playing.