You don't need to have guitar hand pain to have bad posture. We’re going to learn left hand form that promotes free and functional movement, where a pain-free left wrist should be a welcomed side-effect.
Also, I won’t assume you have terrible posture.
And if you’re happy with how you hold the fretboard then you may not need to change anything.
Guitarists just get comfortable with certain habits, good or bad.
But, if you’ve learned to play guitar in a way that isn’t functional or friendly to the way your body was designed to work (your hands in particular) you’ll have a more difficult time developing speed, strength and dexterity in your fingers.
You might even have a sore wrist from time to time.
We’ll look at how playing the guitar impacts our wrist and how we can position our hand in a way that minimizes stress and promotes functionality in our guitar playing.
The Natural Tendency of Our Wrist and Fingers
In everyday life, we don’t usually grip things like we grip a fretboard.
More often, we grip things and then relax our wrist forming an acute angle (45ish degrees) between the direction our arm is pointing and the object in our hands.
Take for example, holding a pencil.
In anatomy, we use what’s called a “precision grip” to hold a pencil because it allows us to handle things delicately or deal with a moving object.
Paintbrushes, pencils, sewing needles and silverware would all fall into this grip category.
We hold those everyday things in almost a straight line, pointed in the same direction as our arm. Using our flexor tendons and muscles (located on our forearm) to control our fingers, we then grip objects and make small, calculated movements.
Quite obviously, we can’t hold a guitar’s fretboard like a pen.
For some people who try to grip a fretboard, which runs perpendicular to the direction our forearm is pointing, the tendency is to try and bend the wrist in order to reach the frets.
This creates more work for our flexor tendons and can put a lot of stress on our carpometacarpal joints as well, where our forearm and hands connect.
Incorrect and Correct Posture
So poor or incorrect posture comes in when we curl or bend our wrist while trying to grip the fretboard.
Our wrist should be straightened when we play.
This is often the deciding factor when it comes to how high or low people wear their guitars.
For example, someone with longer arms will need to have their guitar lower to straighten their wrist, shorter arms will need the guitar higher.
And since your fingers curl, you shouldn’t have to use your wrist to reach any of the frets, even if you have short fingers.
A small bend or angle is fine, but think about watching someone’s hands when they swing a baseball bat.
There’s little bending of the wrist, if any.
Because you grip the bat in a similar fashion, perpendicular to the direction your arm is pointing.
This makes bending the wrists completely unnecessary. Particularly in the left hand.
Hold the guitar’s fretboard the same way with your left hand (or whichever hand you play with), almost like you’re handing it to someone.
Here are a few things to check.
- Make sure your wrist doesn’t tend in one direction or another because of muscle memory.
- Curl your fingers slightly so that you can grip the fretboard without having to angle your wrist or your forearm.
- Your upper arm and forearm should be at a right angle when holding the fretboard.
- Relax your wrist and forearm, allowing your fingers and thumb to hold the fretboard.
If you’re looking at someone holding a guitar from the side and you drew a line between each joint, correct form would look like this.
You want your forearm and wrist to be in the most natural position possible, since fast playing will stress those muscles quickly.
If either of the two joints need to be significantly bent, it might be a good idea to adjust the length of your strap.
As you can see, a small and varying amount of bending in the wrist is unavoidable and necessary.
What you should avoid is having the guitar so low that you need to constantly bend your wrist or hand to reach the fretboard.
The same goes for having your guitar too high, where your elbow would have to adjust and your wrist have to bend backward in order to grip the fretboard.
What if my wrist actually hurts?
If you are dealing with wrist pain when you play guitar, odds are that you’re dealing with stress or soreness in your flexor tendons or forearm muscles.
This can be a result of two things.
Either 1) you haven’t played guitar enough (or long enough) to strengthen and develop your muscles and stamina for the instrument, or 2) your posture is off and putting strain on your wrist joints and the muscles around them.
Keep in mind, it’s normal to feel stress and tension when you’re playing fast or pushing your abilities.
What’s not normal is to feel pain or awkwardness when you’re just trying to play simple things that you’re comfortable with.
If that’s the case, it’s time to work on your form.
When to Break a Bad Habit
In some cases, players have learned guitar and gotten used to less-than-perfect form, simply because it was comfortable to them.
In many cases, being slightly outside of conventional wisdom is acceptable.
If it works for you and it is in fact comfortable, than there’s no reason to try and reform your habits.
On the other hand, if your form is to the point where it’s negatively impacting your ability to play the guitar and possibly even causing you physical pain, it’s well worth the effort to intentionally change the way you approach your posture with the instrument.
Some Practical Solutions
There are some intensely practical things you can do to strengthen your wrist and the muscles around it.
For one, working your forearm muscles and engaging the tendons attached to them can be done by using your fingers to grip things in towards your palm. A guitar tool called The Gripmaster allows you to do that for either your entire hand or each individual finger.
Additionally, baseball players (particularly pitchers) will use a type of steel bar with a rope for training their wrist and forearms.
On your guitar, you can push for more speed and use a number of different beginner exercises to increase your arm strength.
You’ll always have that ceiling where your stamina fails you, but that amount of time can continually increase.
This is an area where personal experience can be exceptionally helpful. So share your thoughts and stories on this issue with us in the comments section below.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Guillaume Laurent