The Importance of Learning How to Hold Your Guitar

how to hold an acoustic guitarNot many people know how important it is to learn how to hold a guitar. The best guitar playing posture is one that allows you to reach all the notes on the neck without using too much muscular tension. Of course, guitarists have always been able to produce fine music while maintaining unhealthy postures, but medical experts tell us that long sessions of playing and practicing can damage your body. There are a number of medical conditions which can afflict guitar players months or years after they begin playing. Carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain are two common complaints that can be avoided by taking care of your body right from the beginning of your musical career. Playing your guitar should not be painful. If you develop pain in the back, shoulders, wrists or hands you need to take a look at how you are holding the guitar.

The Alexander Technique gives guitarists some principles to apply to the way they move while playing the guitar. Yoga offers some easy exercises which help guitar players stay healthy.

The Classical Position

In the nineteenth century, during the development of the classical guitar and its playing techniques, guitarists figured out their own ways of supporting their instrument. Straps, stands and tables were introduced as ways of holding the guitar steady. The now generally accepted “classical” position with the guitarist’s left foot on a stool with the guitar on the left thigh originated with Spanish guitarist and composer, Francisco Tarrega. Not all classical players wholeheartedly endorse this position. Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida played with the guitar balanced on his right thigh. Additionally, the use of the footstool in classical guitar playing is condemned by some experts on human anatomy as putting too much strain on the back.

Although the classical position looks rigid, the purpose behind it is to hold the guitar steady with minimal muscular tension. This position leaves you free to engage your back, legs, arms, wrists and hands in playing music. As you perform or practice you should have the freedom to make minute adjustments to improve posture while you apply most of your attention to playing music.

Many guitarists see the classical guitar posture as an elitist pose on the part of guitarists who play classical music on the guitar. The truth is, people who play rock, flamenco, bluegrass, folk or any other genre are subject to the same injuries as classical players, and should be aware of the need to look after their bodies.

This video featuring Frederic Mesnier shows you how the classical posture allows the guitarist to easily reach any notes or chord shapes he needs to.

While performing using the classical position may not be appropriate for everybody, beginners should be aware of the intention behind it. You will see guitar players in pictures and videos who obviously have never made looking after their bodies a part of their guitar playing. This is because they have probably never been told about it and have been lucky enough to avoid serious issues associated with posture.

As you learn how to play the guitar you will still develop issues with unnecessary tension, bad posture and bad playing habits if you are unaware of how you hold your instrument. I recently read a forum post by a guitar player who had anchored his pinky on the body of his guitar for fifteen years without noticing that he did it! This is the kind of inattention we are ALL guilty of in one form or another.

Playing Sitting Down

As practice sessions tend to be long, and involve study, repetition and adjustment, it is a good idea to practice while sitting. The standing position requires much more tension just to maintain without doing any playing. A kitchen chair with a back is best for doing some work on posture correction during practice. Before doing anything else, check to make sure you are not hunching over the instrument. Hunching makes the muscles work harder, so if your backbone is straight, you will be putting minimal strain on the muscles in your back. You will need to check this often while you practice.

The best way to guard against hunching is to find your “sitting bones” when you first sit down to play. Your sitting bones are the sharp bones you feel if you sit on your hands. When you sit on a chair without a cushion, you will probably feel your sitting bones in contact with the chair’s hard surface. Rock a little bit back and forth, and from side to side until you feel that you are centered over these bones. One thing you might notice is when you are centered on your sitting bones, there is not so much need to use your muscles to sit up straight. Your body just finds its correct posture. If you are using a music stand or a computer, position them so that you do not need to look down in order to read your notation.

When you are sitting quietly, you can easily remember to maintain your position over your sitting bones. As you continue to sit still you will notice your neck lose its tension and your head assume its balanced position at the top of your spine. Once you become active again you will lose this balanced posture. When you notice that your body is slumping or straining forward, simply stop for a moment and find your sitting bones again. If you only remember to do this once or twice during your practice, that is okay. The point is to increase your awareness of your body in a healthy posture so that you will see the signs of strain before you do any damage to yourself.

Your knees should be supporting the guitar without you having to keep your legs straining, and you should be holding the instrument flat against your body.

You need to be sitting comfortably, resting your back against the backrest, making sure your legs are in front and your feet are flat to the ground. This is your basic practice position. Return to it when you remember, but do not strain yourself trying to maintain it rigidly.

Hold your guitar close to your chest or stomach making sure that the back of the guitar touches your chest and the neck is parallel to the ground.

To play in a sitting position, the body should be resting on one of your thighs. If you are right handed, you will probably tend to rest it on your right thigh. Rest your right arm over the guitar. Your bicep should rest on the top part of the guitar.

The position of the fingers of your left hand depends on the style of music you want to play, but your wrist should always be relaxed. Your thumb should press into the back of the guitar’s neck, but if you want to use the thumb to finger chords as is sometimes done in rock and folk playing, you need to take more of a grabbing position.

While you are learning how to sit and hold the guitar, you should not worry about muffling notes or making mistakes. What you are doing now is learning to play FROM A COMFORTABLE POSITION.

If you are playing an electric guitar, use the neck strap.

Playing Standing Up

When you play standing, the guitar strap should be set so the guitar is high, whether you play acoustic or electric. A major consideration when you are playing on stage is how cool you look. Your persona is important, but you need to be able to reach all the notes on the neck, while avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome.

Pay Attention to Your Hands

Some guitar teachers encourage their students to anchor their pinky on the body of the guitar to provide a pivot. Many guitarists who have adopted this way of playing say it enables them to play faster but it is often at the expense of developing pain in the hand. You can find many posts on guitar forums by players who adopted anchoring the pinky because they saw virtuoso guitarists do it. They subsequently dropped the practice because of the onset of excess tension and tendonitis.

One way of guarding against the injuries caused by bad posture and excess tension is to use the minimum force necessary to strum, pick or pluck the strings. The same principle applies to your fretting hand. Making barre chords takes a lot of pressure at first but slow, careful practice will ensure you do not continue to use excess pressure after the initial stages of learning.

Another source of excess tension is the desire not to make mistakes. Many guitarists maintain a steady tempo when they are practicing or playing, and use tension to “get through” difficult sections. They fail to realize that certain chord changes, arpeggios or scales are only difficult if they do not make use of muscle memory while they are learning a piece. As a general rule, the tempo in which you practice a new piece should be the speed at which you can COMFORTABLY play the most difficult section.