Hand Care for Practicing Guitarists

Some Thoughts and Tips

Some guitarists play ALOT. Guitarists who are studying music at post-secondary institutions are often playing in excess of 5 hours a day just to keep their chops up (it’s a surprise that the topic of hand-health isn’t included in most Canadian music programs…!) Players on the road or in gigging bands usually have a regime of individual practice time, weekly rehearsals, and then the gigs themselves. New guitarist are often working harder then any of the aforementioned people as they are still figuring things out — likely overworking their hands as they develop proper technique.

The many hours of daily playing, regardless of the particular circumstance, often result in excess stress on the finer mechanics of the tendons and muscles in our fingers, hands and forearms. My goal - and the reason for this article - is to encourage a better understanding of how to create a preventative approach so that the guitarist, novice or advanced, will avoid the problems of tendon issues and be able to keep up their daily practice schedule without injury.

Please note I am not a physiotherapist or health care professional. I speak only as an experienced guitarist who has suffered through left-arm tendon inflammation over the last few years. Through visiting doctors, physiotherapists and through educated trial-and-error I have come to be mindful of my hand health and be aware of what it takes to keep them in shape and ready to play.

Here are some thoughts I have on the topic, and also some exercises that have worked in my individual case.

Tip #1. — You have to think of playing guitar like a sport

In sports we (hopefully) take proper care to warm up and cool down. I feel that these habits are largely lost on guitarists. Some guitarists aren’t into sports — the culture of stretching, warming up and cooling down are not on the forefront of their minds before and after they play. We are often an impatient bunch and just want to get at it, too. This is not good!

We should take proper care to stretch, massage and get the blood flowing before playing. I am in the routine of rubbing down my entire left-arm with coconut oil and massaging it for a good 5 minutes before I practice. This seems to work well for me.

Some may not need the oil for massaging — dry ‘washing’ the hands (rubbing them back in forth in a gentle massage) has done the trick for friends of mine as has some relatively simple stretching exercises.

Often we only start to incorporate these stretching and massaging techniques after we show signs of tendonitis or other inflammatory problems in the arm. By always warming up before playing we initiate a preventative approach to hand health rather than a symptomatic one.

Tip # 2. — Develop proper practice/playing technique

Do not start playing the most demanding piece you know, digging into the strings like Stevie Ray on steroids right away. Ease into it. Start with gentle slow lines, or a scale, and gradually warm up your fingers and hand to the idea of playing. You should find that this makes your playing better, anyway. After a few minutes the lubrication that allows your tendons to move properly will be adequate and you can begin playing ‘Donna Lee’ at 300 bpm (…or whatever it is you do!).

Also, make sure your hand posture is correct. Maintaining proper arc onto the strings, playing with the tips of your fingers and also your thumb position at the back of the neck are some common issues with the left-hand, while the right hand position is of equal importance. I don’t have enough time to go into detail on this, but any decent guitar instructor should be able to help you with hand posture while playing. There is likely some reasonable material online about it, too.

Tip # 3. Take breaks!

Enough said. You should take breaks every once in awhile when practicing. This allows your hands to just relax. It’s good for the mind, too. I try to take a break every half-hour or so.

Tip # 4. Be aware of what you do outside of your playing routine

Activities like typing or texting trigger many of the same movements that guitar playing does. It is good to be aware of the use your hand is getting in similar ways to that which it does while playing guitar.

More now than ever we are demanding additional use of our fingers and thumbs with digital devices. This is very taxing on the physiology of the fingers and on top of a rigorous practice routine it makes for very exhausted hands.

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If you are experiencing problems with either of your hands — go see someone. It’s worth it — there are many sport doctors and musician-specific physiotherapists that know this stuff extremely well and can help you out.

They may recommend you lift a small weight to build up tendon strength, or they may recommend you stop playing for awhile.

In my case, stopping playing was not an option as I make a living from the guitar. What I did do, however, was stop practicing for almost a year and take 2 months off playing. I also had to be very cautious and be conscious of when my hand was over-exerted.

My hand issues, though now fairly manageable, are long lasting. I am still dealing with scar tissue that irritates the tendons in my left arm as I play. To help with this I have been on a strict diet of electric guitar - with low action and slinky strings. This has helped quite alot.

Sometimes even switching your posture while playing/practicing can subtly orientate the position of your hand and ease some tension. For example, If you play a steel string with a strap and are having problems, try sitting classical style.

Taking care of the hands is a very important aspect of what we do. It is also easy to forget to do! Good Luck!

Happy Strummin’,

Nick