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Shaky Hands Guitar Syndrome: How to Stop Shaky Hands for Better Performance

Oh, the dreaded shaky guitar hands!

We practice. We prepare.  We offer to share…… and out comes the Terrible Hand Wobble!

Whether you’ve had shaky hands in performance or just when you practice, you are about to discover a multitude of actions (and non-actions) that you can take to “calm the savage beast”.

Why We Wobble (The Shaky Hands Guitar Syndrome)

There are different varieties of “shaky hands guitar syndrome”, and they can come about for any of several reasons.

There are situation-specific wobbles, and perpetual wobbles.

(note: I will be using “shaky” and “wobbly” interchangeably.)

The Sudden Shake

Sometimes we shake in lessons or in performance.

We are all good and fine at home, but suddenly when we have an audience (even someone we love and trust), things go to pieces.

This type of wobble arises from nerves.

More specifically, it comes about roughly because of this scenario:

10 Steps to a Wobblier You!

  1. We perceive a threat (shame, judgement, failure, whatever)
  2. We have stress response (adrenaline/epinephrine)
  3. We grow tense all over (adrenaline does that)
  4. We begin to breathe in shorter, shallower breaths
  5. Our shoulders rise, further tightening our chest
  6. Our capillaries constrict because of the reduced oxygen
  7. Our muscles grow even tenser
  8. We lose control of our fine-motor skills (i.e. shaking)
  9. We freak out and tell ourselves that something is wrong
  10. This triggers more stress, and the cycle spirals out of control.

In a minute we’ll talk about ways to avoid this scenario, and pull out of it more quickly if it does start.

The Chronic Shake

There are many different reasons that some people are always or often shaky.  These range from medical issues with fancy names to lifestyle choices, and everywhere in between.

Here are a few:

  • Psychological Disorder (PTSD, GAD, panic disorder, others)
  • Dehydrated (~75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated!)
  • Chronically over-caffeinated (You know who you are! Oh wait, that’s me…)
  • Vata imbalance (in the Ayurvedic modality, most common in people with thin body types)
  • Cold (some people are chronically cold and don’t realize it.  Go figure.)
  • Tremors (and other age-related wobbles, like Parkinson’s)

 

Solutions:  How to Stop Shaky Hands

We are going to break this up into two sections:  immediate fixes and long-term solutions.

 

Short-term Fixes for Shaky Hands:

-Stay hydrated, especially just before performing

Avoid caffeine and sugar (a radical idea, but at least before playing.)

-Eat a banana or two 30 min. prior to playing (natural beta-blockers)

Drugs, like beta-blockers (not advisable, if for no other reason than you become detached and it makes it more difficult to connect with the music and play beautifully.)

-Do EFT, also known as “tapping” (weird and new-agey perhaps, but it works)

-Remember to breathe.  To relax prior to playing, breathe in for 7 counts and out for 11 counts.

-Put your hands in hot water.  Close your eyes and breathe deeply with your hands under a warm faucet: it’s like a trip to the hand-spa!

Avoid nervous people.  If someone else is going down The Dark Road, avoid them like The Plague!

-Relentless focus on rhythm.  If you are already playing and start to shake, play with as much rhythmic precision and intention as you can muster.  Not just a steady beat, but each note played as securely and rhythmic as possible.

For more performance tips, see also:

Long-term Fixes for Shaky Hands:

-Always take a few minutes to relax with your eyes closed or meditate before opening your case and touching your guitar.  This repeated ritual creates an “anchor” of relaxation, which you trigger when you pick up your guitar.

-Practice being as focused as possible in your practice.  This trains your “autopilot” to focus when playing.  Most people allow their minds to wander in practice.  When it wanders in performance, it scares them and they start to shake.  Always pay attention to something specific in your practice.

-Create a short warm-up ritual.  It could be a couple of scales, some stretches, a phrase that you repeat to yourself, and/or anything else you like.  When you go to perform, if you can do this shortly before playing, you will feel warmed up and more confident.

-Practice playing very slowly from memory.  Often we rely too much on “muscle memory”.  In performance or lessons, our muscle tone is different than at home, so muscle memory goes out the window.  Being able to play your pieces at a very slow tempo from memory will assure you that you really do know the music, and that you do not need muscle memory.  You feel more confident.

Visualization.  If you regularly visualize yourself playing with power, grace and poise, you will, over time, bring that into your playing.  Olympic athletes have used visualization for decades (if not centuries) to prepare themselves for high-pressure performance.  It works.

Planning and Preparing for the Worst

We all hope that wobbly hands will disappear over time.

It’s commonly said that, “The only way to get rid of performance nerves is to simply perform more.”

This may work, but it may not.  Even Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time, frequently had to be physically pushed onto the stage because he was frozen with fear, even after decades of touring.

It’s a myth that we “grow out of” stage nerves.  We might, but we can’t count on it.

Better to plan and prepare as if they were only going to get worse!

Just imagine:  each time will be even shakier and wobblier than the time before.  What do we do?

 Trust in the Training and Process

Instead of hoping for the best, we can incorporate some of the long-term solutions above into our daily practice.

Not only will we feel empowered and more in control of the outcome, but by expecting the worse, we can feel elated that we only shake moderately!

Tip: Choose one or two small changes to start with (like setting a reminder to drink plenty of water and skip the sugar on your lesson day).  When you are comfortable with that habit, add another.

And if you could only make one change, increased focus on specific details in your practice would be the one to pick to quiet shaky hands.

 

 

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14 Responses to Shaky Hands Guitar Syndrome: How to Stop Shaky Hands for Better Performance

  1. Amitab Mohanty May 18, 2018 at 12:44 am #

    Hi Allen
    I have been asking you for guidance through mails esp. for my Plec Guitar exams. I appeared for Grade 4 today and was in better control compared to last Grade 3 exams.
    I read this article again before appearing today. I have improved a bit it seems if not much.

    Again fumbled at unimaginable places and even at places which were my forte 🙁

    But i am sticking to it and won’t give up. Hopefully next Grade will be even better.

    thanks for being there…the day will come!

    regards
    Amitab
    India

    • Allen May 18, 2018 at 10:41 am #

      Hi Amitab,
      Congratulations on the exam!
      Something else that helps for preparing is video. You can read about that here.

      Thanks for the note, and best of luck going forward!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  2. brontide June 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

    Hi guys! I am a guitarist from iran and I have a Thrash metal band. I have this shaky hands from my twenties and it’s getting even worse

    Specifically my fretboard hand (left hand). specially my Hammeron technique is aweful and i think it is because of my shaky hands.

    can you please suggest anything that could help me or these solutions would done it?! any help from you guys could do me a big favor and save

    my career. thank you and sorry for my bad english!

    • Allen June 17, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Brontide,
      I’m sure I don’t have the perfect answer, but you may try slowing down in practice and working on accuracy. Use good technique (here’s a link to hammer-on technique, and here’s another). You could also try warming up and coming to your practice very calm. Of course, you play high-energy music, but that doesn’t mean that your practice has to be.
      I would also avoid sugar and stimulants before playing.
      Lastly, practicing relaxing your hands throughout your day may help. If you are sitting and waiting for somewhere, release all the tension in your hands and face (and eyes). Your shaky hands could come from a general habit of tension. If so, you’ll need to change it overall, not just during guitar practice.

      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  3. Lorn March 7, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    I have suffered with Essential Tremors all of my life, then at age 56 took up guitar. The shaking is amplified whenever small precise motions are required in everyday living. When playing guitar most things are small precise motions. There is no panacea, Propanolol is prescribed but it only helps a little. Alcohol is great, except for everything that accompanies its use. I take solace in my small steps forward, to me it’s like learning a new language when you stutter.

    • Kevin December 11, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

      I suffer from Essential tremors also. This especially affects my strumming hand. Sometimes I find it impossible to strum with a pick. So I strum with my fingers. I don’t get the same volume but I do get much better accuracy. I still practice with a pick and i am getting better but still have a ways to go. I find this article to be very helpful.

  4. George April 12, 2016 at 1:25 am #

    Doing my Trinity Guildhall 7 exam my right hand started to shake uncontrollably . It was awful. Two pieces were horrible . My third piece was Smoke Rising wasnt too bad due (I think) to the percussive section releasing some tension. Luckily my scales and excercises played pre tremors were good enough to carry me through to a pass.
    Grade 8 exam soon and this is playing on my mind. But trying to lay in public more to get comfortable with performing.

    • Allen April 12, 2016 at 7:50 am #

      Good luck with the upcoming exam, George.

  5. Don March 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    Had my first ever solo recording session last week…it took nearly half an hour and 4 takes to relax to where I could play the song…poorly…I’ll be doing this each month for about a year and am hoping it will improve. Hands shaking and lost most of my “feel” …it was hard to get it back…I was fine until he said “OK rolling”…then it would start. Embarrassing for sure. No coffee and no sugar for sure and I will definitely meditate prior next time…hope it works.

    • Allen March 26, 2016 at 7:22 pm #

      Congratulations on recording and setting yourself some landmarks. I find it much easier to work through things like nerves with a schedule.
      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  6. Jamie Dimarucot April 14, 2015 at 5:07 am #

    This is helpful
    You are helpful

    • Allen April 16, 2015 at 8:14 am #

      Thanks Jamie!

  7. Richard Turner April 11, 2015 at 5:35 am #

    There have been times when I played for my church service, in front of about 80 people, when my right hand would shake. It shook so badly that it was clearly visible. It was difficult to get through the piece. To minimize this, I always try now to play pieces that I have practiced a lot, and are easier than my current skill level. Backing off the caffeine the day of the performance helps. Prayer helps too!

    • Allen April 11, 2015 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Richard,
      I find it especially difficult in places like church, because you typically only play one piece. By the time you get over the adrenaline spike, the song’s over! Playing easier pieces is a great idea. So is playing moderate-tempo pieces, so you are not tempted to play too fast, or too slow (which can be the hardest, mentally).

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