Posture Makes Perfect

A Guide to Good Guitar Playing Posture
by David Isaacs

When a player has mastered their game, we say they make it look effortless. Great players are fluid and confident, and it shows in their bodies as well as their hands. You can start to develop this relaxed confidence in your own playing by becoming more aware of your posture.
Proper Guitar Playing Posture

Playing guitar well takes more than your hands. After all, your hands are, hopefully, attached to the rest of your body! But it’s easy to miss this when practicing, because most people are only thinking about their fingers. When you’re not aware of the rest of your body, your posture is usually the first thing to suffer. Aside from being uncomfortable and potentially leading to back pain or other problems, bad posture can make it harder to play smoothly.

Now, you might already be saying “wait a minute, I’ve seen great players that get all bent over and contorted, especially people who are really animated onstage.” That’s definitely true, but it makes sense to suggest that being efficient and relaxed in your movements helps you play better, so let’s proceed with that idea in mind.

To start with, let’s talk about strumming. Many people work much too hard to strum the guitar. The movement itself should generally be some combination of swinging the forearm and rotating the wrist, depending on the sound you’re looking to produce. It doesn’t need to involve your biceps – it’s about motion, not muscle – and it definitely doesn’t need to involve your neck and shoulders. But it often does! Stand or sit in front of a mirror and watch your shoulders as you strum. Then try strumming while thinking about your shoulder blades, and just “ask” the muscles of your neck and upper back to stay relaxed. You might be surprised at how much lighter your strumming hand becomes, and at the change it makes in your sound.

While you’re up there in front of that mirror, think about your stance. When you’re standing with the guitar, do you feel balanced lightly on your feet or do your legs or back lock up? Explore this by rocking your weight back and forth from one foot to the other while staying aware of the top of your head. Most likely you’ll feel your spine start to lengthen. If you’re used to looking down at your fretting hand, hold your head up and use your peripheral vision instead of craning your neck. You may need to adjust your strap for this to work. As you explore this, you might find that the guitar suddenly seems much further away! Because we focus so much on our hands and often don’t feel the rest of our bodies, it’s easy to bend towards your fretting hand without realizing it. Don’t worry about “standing up straight”, this isn’t boot camp. Just pay attention to what you feel in your body and see what you observe. It’s amazing how much we can relax by simply thinking about an area of the body and just asking it to let go.

Proper Guitar Playing Posture

If you mostly play seated, the same basic concepts apply. Watch a classical guitarist or cellist, and notice the position of their bodies. Most great players are upright and relaxed, though just as in rock music there are many exceptions. Instead of balancing on two feet, when you play seated you become a tripod balanced on three points. Explore this a little and you’ll see what I mean. If you’re more comfortable sitting with your legs crossed or folded, that’s ok. Just be aware of the rest of your body, especially your back and the back of your neck. The idea isn’t to hold yourself in a particular position, but to find what feels most natural as your body relaxes. You may find as you explore that it’s easy to let the shoulders round inward towards the guitar, to hold one shoulder higher than the other, or to twist your upper body towards the guitar. These aren’t necessarily problems in themselves, but over time they can become postural habits that will creep into your everyday life. Generally this sort of thing happens when you spend a lot of time practicing; a weekend warrior is less likely to develop these sort of problems, but it’s worth being aware of.

That brings up another point that’s worth discussing. If you do practice a lot, or sometimes even if you don’t, playing guitar for long hours can make you susceptible to repetitive strain injuries like tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Professional musicians have to accept this as an occupational hazard, much like athletes, but the difference is that the average pro athlete expects their career to be over sometime in their thirties. Musicians play for a lifetime, or at least intend to! Developing good postural awareness is one way to make these kinds of problems less likely.

Proper Guitar Playing Posture

I should mention that the way you practice figures into this as well. Take regular breaks if you’re going to play for long periods of time. One of the challenges for the weekend warrior is that you’re likely to spend a lot more time with the guitar in your hands one or two days a week, and not nearly as much the rest of the time. That means that your muscles don’t get accustomed to the longer workout. Remember, practicing guitar is no different from any other kind of exercise, with one big exception: “no pain, no gain” does NOT apply here! I’m not talking about sore fingertips if you’re developing calluses or building them back up. Pain in the hand, wrist, arms, or neck can be a sign of chronic tension or overworked muscles. Actually, one can lead to the other.

I did say earlier that you don’t want to use the muscles of your upper arms, neck, or back when you play, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t involved. The larger muscles of the upper body support the free movement of the smaller muscles in the hands. When the upper body is tight or locked up, the hand and arm muscles compensate by working harder. Not only does this interfere with the free movement of your hands, it makes it much easier to overuse those muscles and create strain or injury. So if you find you’re in pain after you practice, take a good look at your posture and practice habits. Generally, pain is a signal of a problem, not progress.

So let’s sum up the basic concepts here:

  1. Confident, relaxed playing comes from a relaxed body.
  2. Slouching or tensing up puts strain on your hand and arm muscles, puts your upper body off balance, and makes it harder to play well.
  3. Most people are much more aware of their hands when they play than the rest of the body, so it’s easy for these issues to go unnoticed.
  4. Simply paying attention is the key. The idea is not to try to hold an upright posture, but to notice when you slouch or tighten up so that you can ask your body to relax and balance. Think of it as “checking in” every so often. Just ask yourself what you feel.
  5. If you feel pain, recognize that it’s usually a sign of a problem. Examine your playing habits, and take breaks if you play for long periods of time.

One last point to keep in mind. Oddly enough, you may find that a more relaxed posture feels awkward at first. This is usually a sign that you’re out of alignment and have gotten comfortable in your habitual posture. Recognize the difference between unfamiliar and awkward. When you aren’t used to a playing position, you’re likely to feel like you have less control at first. But we often mistake tightness and tension for control. Learn to know the difference and you might be amazed at the changes in your playing.

For more on this and related subjects, check out the introductory lesson to my JamPlay series “Effortless Guitar”:

Effortless Guitar Primer

Taught by David Isaacs

JamPlay welcomes David Isaacs to our teacher roster. With his first lesson Dave explains his approach to playing guitar with a focus on efficiency of motion.

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with our guest author David Isaacs!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Liepe

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

David Isaacs is a JamPlay instructor and frequest guest author for the JamPlay.com Weekend Warrior series.

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