By Jamie Andreas

February 16, 2023 minutes read


Have you ever had trouble playing something on the guitar? Have you ever seen or heard someone play something, tried to do it yourself, maybe practiced it for a long time, and ended up with only frustration and bad feelings about yourself as a player? Be honest now.

I’ve been playing for 54 years, and giving guitar lessons for 50 of those years, and I have never met a player, including myself, who could honestly answer no to that question.

There are a few things that are always true when we are unable to play something we want to play on the guitar.

Are You Playing  With Excessive Tension?

One of the things that you will always find, if you look for it, is what noted guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer called, in his first book, uncontrolled muscle tension. Many, many players have in fact commented on this fact, mainly because this fact becomes obvious to anyone who plays for awhile, pays attention, and starts to discover the path to gaining increasing ability on the guitar. Many people mention it. The problem is they never tell you what to do about it!

Oh sure, you'll hear people say "play S-L-O-W-LY", or "RELAX"! I asked, ordered, screamed, and pleaded with students to do that for probably 20 years, before I realized that almost no one was listening to me, or maybe they didn’t believe me, or maybe they thought I was kidding!

No, it seems most people would rather try to play that bar chord or that scale with their shoulders tensed up to their ears, their pinky tensed up and pulled 2 inches from the neck as they dislocate their shoulder trying to get it to it’s note on time, practice and play that way day in and day out, and then wonder why they find that scale hard to play, or why it breaks down at a certain speed.

Or maybe they wonder why they have a pain here or there. Heck, they may be really persistent and keep at it till they qualify for one o the popular conditions such as Repetitive Strain Injury. RSI, or focal dystonia. These are simply names for what happens to you when you play with excess tension and you don't know it. They are simply the conditions that result from doing something wrong, over and over!

Why Do People Practice With Excess Tension?

It is rather simple. They are not paying attention to their own body when you practice. They have no idea what their shoulders, neck, or any other body part is busy doing as they struggle to get their fingers into that chord or to do that scale. 

They are not practicing whole body awareness and they are not using no tempo practice. 

Is This You?

I got a new student about a year ago, we’ll call him Tom. Now Tom had been teaching himself for a few years, is very musical, very intelligent, and managed to learn fingerstyle guitar well enough to attempt some rather challenging pieces, including some classical repertoire.

In fact, he would play for friends and often impress them. However, it was also true that he knew he never played anywhere near his best in these circumstances, and the piece would often break down somewhere. It was also true that he had a growing pain in his left shoulder when he practiced.

Tom has two very important qualities that a player must have in order to overcome problems, and make what I call Vertical Growth. Those two things are Desire, and Honesty. Tom doesn’t have the pain in his shoulder anymore, and his playing is getting better and better. 

This is because he has learned a few things. He has learned about the incredible attention that a player must have as they play. He has learned how difficult it is to actually make sure you have that relaxation as you play.

He has learned about Sympathetic Tension (a key concept from "The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar"), how every time you use one muscle, others become tense also, and how if you are not aware of it, and allow it to be there, it becomes locked in to the muscles through the power of Muscle Memory.

Tom is also learning, over time, that by always making the effort to focus his attention on this muscle tension, he can always eliminate some part of it, and by consistently doing this in practice, things begin to feel easier and easier, because he was really fighting his own muscle tension, which made it feel so hard.

What Every Guitar Player Must Do

Every guitar player must discover the hidden muscle tension they are always playing with ( watch the video at the top of the page to begin this process). 

Tom inspired me to invent a phrase, something for him to always keep in mind when he practices. In fact, I told him to do what I do; write it out on a sign and keep it somewhere in front of him as he practices. On the music stand or taped to the wall like I do. The phrase is "Discover Your Discomfort".

Pay attention, notice what happens in the body as you play. How does it feel. Good players are not experiencing that discomfort when they do the thing you struggle to do. If they had to struggle they wouldn’t be good players!
 Here are a little exercise for discovering your own discomfort....

  1. 1
    Hold the guitar as comfortably as you can.
  2. 2
    Allow your left arm to hang limp at your side.
  3. 3
    Place your right hand fingers on the strings, keeping them very loose and relaxed. If you use a pick, float the pick in between two strings and keep it there.
  4. 4
    Focus your attention on your shoulders, as you raise your left hand slowly. Raise it straight up without extending it, and place all your fingers on the sixth string, around the tenth fret. Keep them on the string so lightly, you don’t even press the string down. (Not easy at first)!
  5. 5
    Do you feel anything in your right shoulder as you do this? Do you feel any tightness come in to the pick hand, perhaps you are gripping the pick tighter, or tensing your wrist? Be honest now.
  6. 6
    Keeping your left hand fingers on the string lightly, begin to move your hand down toward the first fret. You must do this VERY SLOWLY. Notice what happens throughout your body. As I have had students do this, I have seen everything from tense ankles or belly, to practically falling off the chair!

I hope I have provided a starting point for further investigations and insights for you. Take anything you find hard to do, stop yourself in the middle of it, and check out what is happening in your body. You will be amazed.

Jamie Andreas

About the author

Jamie Andreas has one goal: to make sure that everyone who wants to learn guitar is successful. After her first 25 years of teaching, she wrote the world acclaimed method for guitar "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar". She put everything into this method that was essential for success on guitar.
Called "The Holy Grail" of guitar books, the Principles has enabled thousands of students who tried and failed to play guitar for years or even decades, to become real guitar players.

In 2012 Jamie was profiled in "Guitar Zero" (Penguin Press 2012), a study of how adults learn to play guitar. Jamie was interviewed along with some of the worlds leading guitarist/teachers, including jazz legend Pat Martino and Tom Morello ("Rage Against The Machine").

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