Tension and the Economy of the Right Hand
While talking to students and trying to assess problems they may have while playing, I am constantly looking inward and trying to figure out why I play the way I play. This includes looking at the position of the guitar on the body, the type of pick, the angle of the wrists and the force needed to accomplish any task I wish to overcome.
To start this, I recognize that for whatever method I use, there are tons of successful guitarists out there (and I mean successful in musical ways, not necessarily fame) that have done things differently. Inefficient technique is no obstacle to attaining our goals, but things sure are a lot easier when we understand how our bodies work.
Guitar playing (especially electric guitar playing) doesn’t have the hundreds of years of tradition that piano and violin does. With those instruments, instructors are very specific about wrist angles and piano bench height. Technique is achieved one way- by adhering to a very specific set of rules and practicing them diligently, without fail.
But we guitarists are different. Much of the way we play is dictated by our heroes. Not even just the notes, but what we wear, how low our guitar is slung, as well as the colors and sounds of our particular favorite guitars. We don’t need hundreds of years of tradition, and certainly guitar playing is about rebellion, right? It is about not conforming, right? It is about doing our own thing, dude! Repeat after me: We are all individuals!
Many years ago, I came to a brick wall as far as technique. There were certainly things I couldn’t play, and I wasn’t able to get any faster or more precise no matter how I practiced. I looked at everything I was doing, and decided that if I wanted to stop playing the same notes over and over, my brain had to tell my body to not go on ‘auto-pilot’ and keep on doing the same things I have always done. It all started with…
Tone production starts here. I chose an easy-to-hold pick that didn’t bend and stayed where I put it. I held it with enough force to not drop it, and no more. The pick hit the strings in an exact parallel motion, no matter if I was picking up or down. I didn’t like the tone or feel of it slicing across the strings. My pick hit the string and went past it, only enough so it would vibrate and no more. Since I was playing electric guitar at the time, I let the pickups and the amp do all the work, not me. Picking an electric guitar very hard is a lot of work, and it can often bring the guitar out-of tune. Not to mention, I don’t want to work that hard.
The Right Hand and Wrist
My wrist was straight, but not locked. Picking is mainly from the wrist except engaging the elbow when switching strings. Either letting it drop to go to a smaller string (no need to engage muscles here at all), or a slight lift to a bigger string. The right hand doesn’t anchor anywhere on the body. It is free to play funky strumming or lightly palm mute if need be. It is also free to strum anywhere along the string, if that is the sound I am going for. The right hand does not need to calculate what string it is on by using an anchor point. Think of it like this:
When little kids go to dance class, they are told to wear black and are made to wear a white belt, so that their hips are parallel to the floor at all times. This feels weird for quite a long time. Eventually, this weirdness feels normal. The result is that even just walking across the room looks like they are floating across the floor. We see this grace in not just dancers or guitarists, but anyone who is good at their craft. Basketball players, carpenters and chefs: they only move enough to accomplish a task, and absolutely no more.
The right hand can be taught the same way, and yes, it does feel weird not to anchor your hand. But once I got over the initial struggle of not knowing where the right strings were, I started feeling where they were in relationship to my body.
The fingers that are not holding a pick are lightly curled but not tense. They are free to drop down and pluck the strings in conjunction with the pick (hybrid picking) or not.
The key to playing efficiently, economically, and ergonomically is a lack of tension. It isn’t always in your right hand, either. I tend to tense up muscles in my back and neck. I have to make sure I realize this, and release this tension by stretching. Some people physically tie themselves up in knots, and it is uncomfortable to watch, much less listen to. Some sort of body work, whether it is martial arts, yoga, Alexander technique, etc helps in recognizing where we hold tension in our bodies and how to release it.
I know most guitarists don’t give these sort of things any thought, but I had to so I could overcome my plateau. Years later, I can play more complex things without pain than was ever possible before. And when I watch really great players with boundless technique and effortless playing, I realize at some point, they had to think of all of this stuff too.