Learn how to spot red flags, respond in time, and prevent harm so you can keep on rockin’ non-stop.
“Almost all accidents and injuries happen when an individual is not being present and not paying attention to what they are doing.”
― Tobe Hanson
You love music.
You’ve watched many of your musician heroes out there playing the living hell out of an instrument to the point that it wails like no banshee has ever done before.
Somewhere in the back of your mind, you adopted these figures as a reference, as something to aspire to, as role models.
As such, you start feeling that it would be nice to play to that level, until one day you decide to go all-in: you get yourself an instrument and start practicing day in and day out.
That sounds great… up until the moment you hurt your wrist and get your arm confined to a cast for two months.
In addition to hurting, you now have trouble doing your chores, maybe even working, which ends up being quite an expense…
Your case might not be so extreme, but are you already at risk of hurting yourself?
There is only so much punishment our bodies can take before snapping. Although it might seem that playing an instrument is fun, your body doesn’t understand fun – all it does know is contraction and relaxation of the muscles, together with tension in the joints and pressure in the cartilage.
This means that while you are having fun, your body is being exerted, and too much of a good thing usually ends up being pretty bad.
In this article, I’ll show you what you need to know about prevention of injuries while playing an instrument, including how to know when enough is enough, and how to push the envelope as safely as possible.
While you can use these tips for most instruments, I’ll be focusing on the guitar, which is my area of experience.
“No pain, no gain.”
However, it so happens that:
“Enough pain, enough gain.”
Once you reach that enough spot, maybe you should try again tomorrow.
This article will be in support of an answer I wrote on Quora a while back, which you can check out right here.
Let’s dive right in.
Good vs Bad Technique: is there even such a thing?
It’s 125% likely you’ve heard or read the term “good technique” before.
Maybe you encountered it in a video, while reading a book, or your teacher told you about it.
In more classical/old-school settings, “good” technique is often enforced on the student, and there’s nothing more to be done about it.
Usually, the basis of what makes “good” technique is a mixture of postures of the whole body that will add to your performance potential, in addition to not causing too much stress on the body.
On the other hand, “bad” technique is considered to be everything else. Sometimes there’s no set rule of what actually makes bad technique, and other times there’s only rough guidelines.
This is what good hand position looks like on the guitar neck:
This is achieved by placing your thumb on the back of the neck, while keeping the knuckle line parallel to the neck.
I don’t usually play that way, and instead my usual position looks like this:
A little different visually, but a huge difference in feel. Of course, this position would be considered a no-go in any classical context, apart from making me a fine candidate for failing the course…
Needless to say, I’m not the only one that plays in this manner.
So, why is the first hand position considered “good” and the other one considered “bad”?
The Truth About Technique
Here’s my ultimate answer to this, after years of playing guitar by myself and live, and because it’s a very tough thing to say, I’m going to ask Ozzy for a little help:
I know this might seem totally contrary to what many say out there, but hear me out on this one.
I very much prefer to frame it in the following manner:
If what you are doing works for you, then it’s good technique.
If what you are doing does not work for you, then it’s bad technique.
Why do you think I, like many other players out there, chose to play with the “bad” hand position on the guitar?
Is it because Jimi Hendrix did it too? Maybe.
Is it because it looks cool? Very likely.
Is it because it’s comfortable and works for me, so that I can play what I want to play well? Damn right it is!
Of course, I don’t mean to say that the classical technique is not effective; far from it. It’s just that I do not believe you should be encased into thinking that is the best and only way to play.
You might be asking yourself:
How can I tell what works for me and what doesn’t?
If you did, kudos to you, Padawan!
The ultimate answer to this question is that you are the one who can ultimately tell whether something works or not for you, although there’s a caveat to this, which I want you to be wary about.
As a beginner, you should always follow your teacher’s guidelines and technique.
As a newbie there’s so much you need to take in that you don’t really know what will ultimately work, even though you might have a gut feeling of it, or even if you momentarily feel something provides you more comfort.
The classical way in which all instruments are taught is a tried and true method that works for most players and is relatively safe to play without risking injuries. This is why you need to learn this form at first.
If you’ve been playing for a year or more, it’s likely you already have enough experience to start trying out alternatives for yourself while knowing what you are getting into.
Learn the rules first, break them later.
Doing that in that specific order is paramount, because knowing the rules will teach you important lessons so that, when you decide to break them, you know which ones, how, and most importantly, why.
Needless to say, this applies to all instruments.
Soreness vs Pain: what’s the difference?
Are you a gym-goer?
If you are, you most certainly know the difference between feeling sore and feeling pain.
You are not really working your muscles if you are not feeling some soreness. You know the feeling – it’s that tingling sensation in the muscles and joints that often makes those body parts feel a little hotter than the rest due to increased blood flow.
When you are feeling sore, even though you can feel it, is usually does not inhibit your movement. You don’t feel a deep stinging sensation when moving the muscles or joints.
I will say that I even enjoy that feeling of soreness, since it’s usually a sign that you did something right. This sensation is, in the case of working out, a sign that you are growing stronger, because it means that your muscles have suffered microlesions that, once rebuilt, will grow the muscle bigger and therefore stronger.
Pain is quite different. Pain is usually felt suddenly, unlike soreness that develops much slower.
You know you’ve made a mistake when you kneel to pick up something and suddenly feel a sharp pain on your back. You were just fine a second ago, and suddenly you almost can’t move anymore because of the excruciating pain.
Pain develops when some part of your body is definitely damaged. This means that there is a significant lesion to the tissue, unlike the microlesions that bring soreness. The problem with pain is that it lies very closely to injury, which means that if you are in pain, you are very close of developing a serious condition.
Whenever you feel pain, there’s the additional problem of residual pain. Because there’s a significant damage to the tissue, it feels painful even if you don’t move the body part anymore. This is very uncomfortable.
I know that you must have heard phrases that praise pain tolerance like “embrace your pain”. The problem with that is that you can only do it so much.
You might think that practicing until it hurts makes you grow stronger much faster, but that is, in the best-case scenario, highly arguable. You don’t want to get injured and then have to recover for a month, which will prevent you from practicing your skills adequately.
For all intents and purposes, instead of talking about good or bad technique as I was arguing before, I prefer to talk about the safety factor of a technique, which is the next topic of this article.
Technique’s Safety Factor
This concept of Safety Factor (let’s call it SF) I’ve minted is a measure of how sustainable is a technique in time.
There are two main factors that add to the SF:
1. Strength and stamina requirement
Each instrument has its own intricacies. When it comes to guitar, although you use pretty much all the arm up and including the shoulders, there are specific hot spots that are especially exercised during performance.
Although these hot spots depend greatly on what and how you are playing, the wrist and thumb muscles are almost always being used pretty intensely.
The more strength and stamina required to play, the more taxing it tends to be on your body, so it’s a definite concern.
2. Exertion intensity
Apart from how strong your muscles need to be, there’s also the issue of the joints’ movement.
Even if you are not exerting any effort, if your wrist is fully bent, there will be a lot of tension on the tendons, which can even compress the nerves. Needless to say, this is not a good place to stay for long.
Pushing your joints to the limit is a dangerous road to go down, so the closer you stay to the relaxed position, the safer it is for your body. Failure to do so can result in nasty injuries like the infamous carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis.
A Tale of Two Techniques
The higher each of these factors is, the less safe the technique becomes – please avoid any technique that forces you into an intense and exerted position!
As an example, let me show you two very eloquent examples of guitar techniques that are very close to me, since I’ve had to deal with them myself many times.
1. The Banana finger position
This is a pretty common technique used by guitar players whenever we need to play two (or more) notes on the same fret in adjacent strings. We will often use one finger making a small barre like so:
Notice how the joint of the ring finger’s phalange is bent outwards? This is the issue with this technique.
Although it’s very efficient to use a single finger to play two or more notes like this, we are applying pressure on the finger joint in a way that is in direct opposition to the natural bending motion of the joint.
This technique will hurt your finger sooner rather than later if you use it often.
Also, if you are playing on an acoustic guitar, you’ll likely need to apply quite a bit of force in this exertive position. This is a recipe for injury, as both the exertion intensity and the strength/stamina requirement are high – and therefore, so is the overall SF.
One possible way to alleviate this is by turning the wrist position and placing the thumb over the neck like so:
Notice how the finger is now much straighter than before? The unnatural curve is gone, and now this technique is much safer to play. You will still need to apply the same amount of force, but the position is much more comfortable, which results in a much lower SF.
2. The Twisted Wrist
No, this is not the name of a glam rock band from the 80s (sorry, Dee Snider).
This is a position of the fretting hand that is very common among rockers. The main cause of this is the coolness factor, I’m afraid.
You can’t be a rockstar if you look like a loser, right? Because of that, rockers tend to hold their guitars pretty low-hanging, because it looks much cooler than having it high up close to your chin.
It’s quite funny, especially since the higher you hang your guitar, the more comfortable it is to play and the safer it is to your wrist. It just so happens that we’ll do just about anything to look cool…
I’m pretty sure you’ll know this guy:
This is Saul Hudson, a.k.a. Slash. Look at how low his guitar hangs; it’s past his crotch. Looks cool.
On the other hand, take a look at this other musician:
This is John Petrucci, guitar master. Look how high his guitar is. He holds it pretty much against his chest.
Like I said before, the lower your guitar hands, the more you have to twist your wrist upwards in order to have access to all strings. Even if you are not playing any notes, the position of the wrist holds closer to the maximum range, which results in quite a lot of pressure on the wrist, and is a major risk factor for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
There is no definite way to alleviate this. Looking cool does come with its drawbacks. However, one thing you can do to straighten your wrist as you bring your guitar lower is to push your thumb over the neck instead of keeping it on the back.
How much is too much?
If you are not playing guitar, I’m still certain you will still be able to identify many of these red flags.
We’ll see how to push the envelope as safely as possible later on in this article.
I know I said that you should never practice until you start feeling pain. So how can you tell when enough is enough?
It was Muhammad Ali that said the following phrase:
“I don’t count my sit-ups; I only start counting when it starts hurting because they’re the only ones that count.”
Don’t take it too literally, because I really believe he did not mean to use the word “hurt”, but “sore”.
If what you are practicing or training does not bring some form of soreness into your body, then it’s probably not producing the effect you are looking for.
I say “probably” because it’s true. Just because you feel sore does not mean you are getting better, but you can’t get better if you don’t feel soreness.
In logic, this is what’s called a “necessity but insufficient” condition.
Have you ever heard of the term “overtraining”?
Whenever we practice a skill, like playing an instrument, our bodies have to adapt before we can get the hang of it. Adaptation takes time.
There are no set rules as to how you can identify this threshold of overtraining, at least not that I’ve been able to find out, but I can give you a couple of pointers on how you can learn to calibrate yourself, that have worked for me:
- No soreness
Not enough practice. Keep going.
- Feeling sore after a considerable amount of practice
This is the sweet spot.
How much is a “considerable amount of practice” is a highly subjective term, but I would say that at least 20-30 minutes is a good ballpark figure.
- Feeling sore after a short practice:
This is a red flag.
If you’ve been playing for 5 minutes and you are already feeling sore, it’s highly likely that either you are doing something with too much effort, or playing with a technique that is exerting yourself too much.
If you are in this situation, I would recommend that you analyze if you are playing in a safe way, or if you are suffering from an incipient condition that may result in injury. You might even want to consult with your Doctor to be safe.
- Feeling pain
By this time this means you’ve gone too far, so stop immediately.
If at any point you start feeling pain that does not go away even after resting for days, it’s a major red flag, and you should consult with a Doctor ASAP.
Last, but certainly not least: never underestimate the need for rest.
Soreness is good, but you’ll need to rest or else you’ll never grow stronger with the instrument.
Just how much you can practice before resting requires experience, as long as you don’t reach the point of feeling pain. Additionally, you should not practice again if you are still feeling sore, and instead rest and try again later.
Rest is so important that I always recommend taking at least one day off per week, to make sure that you give your body and brain a good rest, which also helps setting in the skills practiced.
Pushing the envelope safely
By now we’ve seen what happens as we practice.
We’ve seen how our body responds when we start pushing it to its limits.
We’ve even seen how to tell if we are taking it too far.
The next logical question is:
How can I push forward even if I’m using a risky technique?
Well, the answer to this is that you just can’t. Yes, I’m sorry about that.
Not the answer you were looking for? What would be the point of having a risky technique if you can do it without hurting yourself?
If combustion engines could be made to not use fossil fuels, then what would be the point of using fossil fuels in the first place?
Yeah, I know, I’m not looking to include any conspiracy theories here, but now that we are talking about engines, there’s something we can take from technology to give us a hint of how we can make small tweaks that can make a big difference, without sacrificing much of the original technique.
Look at it this way… our engine can still run on gas, but be more efficient and use less gas for the same mileage, right? Can we apply the same principle to our instrument’s technique?
Let’s find out, shall we?
Adjusting for Efficiency
I’m going to focus on the guitar hanging height that we already saw before as a blueprint on how you can be smart and make practically the same with a different outcome.
Once again, I’m going to use His Highness Slash as a model, so that you can see that this really works even at high-level playing.
Take a look at this photo:
Apart from the fact that he looks very cool (as does Myles Kennedy), you can see that his guitar hangs on his crotch, with the neck slightly turned upwards. This results in a position of the wrist that is twisted, with his left palm pretty much pointing upwards, which in turn contracts the muscles in the forearm just by holding the position, without playing any notes.
This is not a good position to keep for a long time. It will hurt you.
Now, check out the next one:
Notice how the guitar’s body pretty much hangs in the same position, but because the neck is turned upwards, now his left palm is actually pointing horizontally. By playing this way, you are eliminating much of the tension that is required to maintain the position when the neck was turned horizontally.
This is a definite win. Moreover, he still looks as cool as a rocker can get in 10 lifetimes.
Of course, you don’t need to have your guitar pointing upwards into the sky, you can have it in a more relaxed position, such as in the following pic:
Notice how the left wrist is practically straight, palm facing horizontally?
Yet still retaining all the rock n’ roll spirit that is required to stand out in a crowded scene.
This small tweak removes some of the movement on the wrist, leaving it much closer to its relaxed position.
Like the engine, it’s still running on oil, but it’s now a little more efficient.
So, what do I mean by this example?
In most cases there’s some small tweaking you can do that will make a huge difference in comfort and, in turn, reduce unnecessary tension that could hurt your body.
I can vouch that for playing guitar live, this is a must to learn, especially when you are having your first gigs. It’s one thing to practice in your room while sitting down, but it’s a totally different experience when you are out there standing up onstage.
Of course, not the same variations apply if you are playing piano, trumpet, or any other instrument, but the principle does.
Even though I’ve been approaching the subject with humor, it should not be taken as a joke.
Here’s the thing, guys…
We are all in this musical journey because we like playing. Some of you might also like performing live (if you have not yet done so, you definitely should).
There’s no point in burning out quickly. It’s better to take it slower at first, and to know what you are doing, so that you will be able to keep your music career going for years to come.
I can think of very few things that would be as much of a pity as an emerging star having their career cut short because of an injury, and this comes from a guy whose favorite guitar player is Jason Becker. If you do not know his ALS story, definitely check him out.
Having an impressive image is part of giving a good show, so even though I’ve tackled the fact of looking cool in a fun way, it should not be taken lightly either. That’s why it’s called a show, not an audition, because you are setting a performance in a specific ambience where not only the music plays a role, but the image, and even the vibe.
To play the part, you also need to look the part. However, there is no reason that you can’t do this while playing comfortably and being kind to your body.
And with that said… thanks for reading, and keep on rockin’!