How to Release Excess Tension in Guitar Playing

In the beginning stages of learning to play classical, we cannot know how much tension is needed. Until later, we don’t know what “appropriate” is for each note.

This is true for our fingers pressing and playing the strings. But it is also the case for every other part of our body as well.

To find appropriate tension, we can also work outside of guitar practice. We can explore appropriate tension throughout the day.

Relieving Excess Tension on Guitar

When we have pain as we play, it is likely because we are using too much muscular effort in another part of the body.

For example, if we tense a shoulder while playing, this could lead to pain beyond that shoulder. It may also affect the neck, back, arms, or hands.

Upstream Effects: The Face and Neck

Excess tension in the face and neck creates more tension throughout the body.

One of the fastest ways to find appropriate tension playing the guitar is to practice releasing tension in the eyes, forehead, tongue, and mouth.

When we release tension here, we usually also release it in the neck. This cascades to the shoulders and down the arms.

Practice Throughout the Day – Take Advantage of the Mundane

We have many small, repeated tasks in our days. These are great times to practice using more appropriate tension.

Here are some tasks that are good opportunities for practice:

  • Brushing teeth
  • Washing dishes
  • Eating
  • Preparing food
  • Bathroom routines
  • Driving
  • Talking to others
  • Using the phone/device
  • Using the computer
  • Sitting
  • Laying down

Any activity can become a practice. We just need the extra brain power to pay attention to how we use our bodies and muscles. When we notice excess tension, we can release it.

This is why soccer great Pele said, “Everything in practice.”

A Long-Term Habit of Releasing Tension

Using appropriate tension in habitual tasks is a great goal. But we can expect it to take time to get there.

We likely use similar tension as our parents, because we mirror them as children. And changing such long-standing muscular patterns takes time.

But we have time. And the payoff is that we move through life more easily when we release excess tension. We may lower our stress levels and feel more comfortable.

And all this can transfer to the guitar! With practice both on and off the guitar, we can become more aware of the tension. Then, when we notice it, we can let go of it.

Like layers of an onion, we can find deeper patterns and discover habits we didn’t know we had.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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