Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing

16 Comments

I’m gonna give you some straight talk about practicing guitar and taking good care of your body and hands.

This is especially relevant today since so many people are self taught from videos and don’t have a real life teacher for feedback.

The “He / She Never Stops Practicing” Myth – Debunked!

One of the favorite “myths” that fans and students hold in mind is that “great musicians practice 24 hours a day, to the exclusion of everything else and that’s why they are so good!”

People always ask me how “many hours a day I practice”  and I see that they are living exactly this fantasy of “wow you are a dedicated artist who practices all the time!”

It’s cool to “imagine the life of an artist”  but gang, let’s get real.  We are all human and we all have limits.

Practicing for hours and hours might make you feel like you are living up to this myth of the musical super-hero, but you can injure yourself physically by overdoing it, and end up having to stop playing for months.

Myth debunked: I do not practice 24 hours a day.

Practicing mindfully and correctly is much more important than simply racking up mindless hours of practice time.

Don’t believe all the BS stories about “so and so’s endless practice.”   It’s just a story which is used to sell you stuff.

What you are not hearing is the endless stories about musicians with carpal tunnel syndrome that go along with them.

The Good News

I’m going to show you how to treat your hands and body with love & care – so that you can make music in the long haul.

Progress comes from mindful relaxed practice sessions which are broken into several 15-20 minute chunks, and then spread over a months and years.  Think “long term” planning, and go for slow, boring steady progress.

Never practice past the point where your body is telling you to stop.  It’s not weight lifting, and a hand injury can totally put your playing out of commission.

It’s ok to say  “I’m done for today.”

I practice many hours a week, but I take time off and rest, and stretch, and sleep enough, and breathe deep and drink enough water.

If anything ever twinges, feels tight – I stop playing and rest up.  Often I want to “keep going”  but I know to stop if the body says stop.

In other words – I know when to call it a day.

Many pro players and adult players especially ages 35-45  have hand problems due to the stresses of life, financial stress, lack of warm up time, before gigs etc.

And even if you are playing properly, “overusing”  your body can cause injury.  I hear about guitarists doing 2  4-hour gigs a day and then wondering why they have hand problems. OW!

Imagine how many times you use an index finger in one song!  Some songs have hundreds of notes, and this will tax the fingers, joints, tendons – to repeat a motion 1000’s of times.  So – repeating perfectly normal motions over and over can lead to injury.

New Technique?  New Guitar?

Don’t start a new technique suddenly or change instruments cold-turkey.  “Sudden”  changes are not good, they stress muscles you are not used to using.  Like…

  • Out of nowhere you do a gig bending strings on your Strat and you haven’t done it in years!
  • Someone asks you to do a bass gig and you never play bass.
  • You are a steel string player and out of nowhere do a gig for 3 hours on nylon string with a much wider neck.
  • You get a new guitar and play it for 5 hours with no break.

Always ease in to new techniques, and ease into that new guitar you just got – both a technique and a new instrument require new & different muscles.

10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing

Fortunately I had 2 great classical teachers who taught me some good concepts.

I have been reviewing this myself for the past few weeks – just to refresh, and I am feeling and playing better than ever.

Here goes…

1) Make sure your guitar is comfortable to play.

Here are my measurements (for fingerstyle steel string).
1st, put a capo on the first fret.
The measurement at the 13Th fret is: Bass = 4/64, Treble = 3/64.
The measurement is from the top of the 13Th fret to the bottom of the string.

Also – I try to avoid barre chords in my solo arrangements when possible!

2) Practice Finding the “Buzz” Point.

Try this – play so light with your left hand that notes actually start to “buzz”  from not pressing hard enough.

Next, press just enough to make the buzz disappear.

If you are squeezing harder than the point where you’ve just made the buzz go away you’ll need to do a daily warmup  where you repeat finding the “just enough”  point through muscle memory, to train your hands to play “just enough” to not buzz.

Any “squeezing”  past the point you need is wasted energy, tension and can lead to injury.

3) Examine Your Hand Position.

This is too deep a topic to get into fully here in this post, but here goes.

Basically your wrists should not be bent in extremes in any direction.  Many guitarists have a left hand wrist hulking forward, and a cocked back right wrist as they fingerpick.

A teacher can help you with this.

For more in depth lessons, check out my lessons at http://www.steviewonderguitarlessons.com

I think the hand position is is videos 2 & 3 in the series.

4) Establish Your Stretching Routine.

I just found some great stretches for the hands arms & shoulders on youtube.  I am doing these now as “preventative stretches”  and it’s helping my playing.

The “expertvillage”  channel gave these as some results when I searched “yoga for carpal tunnel.”  These are a MUST for all guitarists!

Here they are, and please consult a doctor first!:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IJC0bckKBY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11bX6_dM6UQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC1ZHSgwIS4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1ihdWRUHDI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk4cDYoNw3E

5) Learn to Breathe Deeply.

I used to forget about this.  I’d hold my breath tight in my upper chest (especially if I was nervous, before I went on stage.)

Now I know to take good slow deep breaths.  It calms me and I play looser, better, groovier – and get a better tone.

If you get nervous, try this.

Once you breathe deeply and fully, your body’s entire physiology changes, so learn to breathe into your diaphragm, then up into the chest, then exhale…and do it when you play!

Here is a great vid on breathing:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hitveWT0Oc

6) Take Breaks When You Practice.

I take breaks practicing every 15-20 mins whether or not I think I need it.   It’s easy to play for an hour with no break and not realize it.

You’ll make more progress this way – and your brain will retain more as well.

If you do a background music type gig where you have to play constantly, be very mindful of your technique.  This can be much more taxing on your chops than doing a big concert!

Tip – have easy stuff to play with lots of open strings and slow to medium tempos.

7) Have a Sensible Warm Up & Practice Routine.

I start every practice session with a long version of my “groove scales.”   I play very slow, and “monitor”  my body, make sure shoulders are loose, that I am breathing deep and not “pushing”  or “squeezing”  the notes  too hard.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKDoAD0r-HM%5D

It’s also a good idea to try not to let your head hang way forward and get it comfortably sitting over your shoulders.  A “forward head”  causes all kinds of discomfort.

After scales, I’ll play music VERY SLOW with a DEEP POCKET, and making sure nothing is strained or stressed.  Grooving helps relaxation, so I play  “loose as a goose!”

The picture we hold in mind influences our body!

I make sure that my mental image of my body is that my whole body is like a well oiled groove machine, with pendulums swinging loosely and gears meshing with no effort.

If your mental image of your body is muscles pumping, hard work, aggression, strength, veins popping out of your neck and winning a WWF wrestling match – CHANGE IT.

This ain’t about winning…it’s about grooving.

8) Drink enough water!  

I’m no doctor but my neck, back, hands and brain all feel better when I drink enough water. Often we’re dehydrated and don’t know it…when I drink enough water, I feel awake, alert and happy.

9) Stop practicing GUITAR and start learning MUSIC!

Things like speed and fluidity and “techniques” will simply “appear”  when you grasp the concepts  behind the music you play.

I see people all the time practicing “fast…tense…I WANNA BE GOOD…”  until they are blue in the face!  That’s “meathead”  practice!

Not only can this be bad for your body, but you get de-sensitized to the music. This is a such waste of time to do it this way.  Trust me, I’ve tried it and lost hours.

The best practice is to understand and contemplate the musical idea you are working with.  It may then come out of your fingers with much less practice than you thought you needed.

10) Go for “beauty” rather than “to be the BEST.”

Anytime “I try to be the best”  there’s a problem….

“I”  becomes the focus rather than “the music.”  Then comes tension, competition, worry, shortness of breath, and all that ego crap.

Get 2 people functioning like that and team them up on stage and it becomes a pissing contest.

When I am focused on “the music”, groove, beauty of melody and sound, my body always feels fine.  Everything’s ok and in balance.

Whenever the EGO takes over, the body feels tight and nothing feels good musically.

So – be a giver, rather than a taker 🙂

Dunno if this applies to you, check it for yourself!  If you feel tense, scared and short of breath – really take a look and see….are you working on music or are you working on “being great?”

(Feeling like you suck is also the EGO….)

Groove On!

That’s it for now Gang, I’ll try to keep posting lesson videos to demo all these techniques.

Carry on!   Practice consistently, musically and mindfully and take good care of your body.

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Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

16 thoughts on “10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing

  1. Thanks Adam. This was excellent.

  2. Excellent, excellent article Adam. I’m 55 and have been playing classical/fingerstyle guitar most of my life but have seen the “issues” with my hands creep in the last couple of years (thumb joint, tennis elbow, etc.) I perform about 8 to 12 hours per week in addition to daily practice. I believe most of my issues are created by too many pieces using upper position (full bar) playing on the classical guitar. While it’s hard to get around it with some pieces, your point about arranging with fewer bars is a great one. Thanks. By the way, you and Shaun kicked it in Clearwater. Bob

    • Bob – there is a way to do barres on the nylon where you

      1) straighten the barre finger completely
      2) put your LH thumb on the bottom of the neck, not behind the neck
      3) pull back using your bicept

      Look for pictures of Segovia – he does this. I can play full barres with no buzzes without even touching my thumb at the back of the neck (on nylon. Steel string I use a different LF position)….worth looking into – and look for photos of Segovai barring – check his LH thumb!

  3. It’s amazing that you take the time to write these things. You don’t have to, but you do, and you are helping sooo many people with it! Thank you very much! I bought your 2 Stevie Wonder-dvd’s and I LOVE it! He is my favorite musician and your arrangements are tasteful and original. I only play my own arrangements on stage, because that’s the place to be original, and also I don’t want to get complimented on things other people made. Feels “not right” or something haha. But I love it and the people who I play it to love it. Friends/family etc. Thanks again!

  4. Point number 9 is SO heavy and SO true!

  5. I love this:
    “I” becomes the focus rather than “the music.”

    I think that’s a nice way to think about stage fright, well the inverse of that, actually. If you’re making good music, what’s there to be afraid of! I wish web sites like this and people like you were around 20 years ago when I started playing…

  6. Great tips Adam – thanks. One question – I’ve just started lessons and the teacher insists on the guitar resting on the left knee (right handed) with the neck of the guitar sloping upwards. It feels a bit awkward but it is supposed to be good for technique. Do you have an opinion on this? My daughter is 13 and also having lessons and seems to have adapted quite easily.
    Cheers
    Jon

  7. Hi Adam, Tariq here from Toronto. I see you have a busy schedule in Germany. God luck.
    As other’s have already commented – great tips! Thanks. The stretches are great.
    The one tip I did not quite understand is Tip 1. What am I measuring at the 13th fret to get 4/64 for bass and 3/64 for treble? Why is the capo put on the first fret if I am only measuring top of 13th fret to bottom of string? Also what units is the 4/64 and 3/64 – inches etc?
    Please shed some light.
    Thanks.

  8. Hi Adam! I just watched your version of Man in the mirror on youtube and loved it. I have a book with Tuck Andress version but prefer yours. Is there any chance you have tabs for it? Will you release a DVD or book with the tabs anytime soon?
    Best regards,
    Daniel

  9. Excellent Article from an excellent dude! Keep up the great work! Really enjoyed it and where you are coming from!

  10. Excellent article. The tip on “going for beauty, rather than to be the best” is especially important. All the greats never tried to be great – they were just interested in playing beautiful music. They became great automatically by seeking beauty in the music they loved to play.

  11. I’ve read many articles and blog posts reference the philosophy behind playing, practicing and performing but your blog stands out for me as succintly and without fuss conveying a wealth of really useful tips. A couple of years ago I delved into the mystery of that unfortunate “plateau”, one’s progress hindered and we can’t work out why. It’s strange isn’t it? I’ve been playing 27 years, but I wonder how good I’d be if my progress over that time had followed the same curve as my first 3-4 years. It seemed to level off for nearly 20 years! Only recently did I find I was practicing wrongly. Unfortunately, not only was my structure wrong, but playing without proper warm up, or taking enough breaks, has resulted in injury to my left arm, and I’ve not been able to play for 4 months. Recovery slow. I may have to relearn on the left knee, which feels awkward.

    Check out my stuff, I’d welcome your comments.

    Just wanted to let you know, yours is the first blog I’ve ever subscribed too. The emphasis on beauty rather than technique was just the sort of Zen quality I’ve been searching for. The generosity you show in dispensing the benefit of your experience is quite humbling. All the best.

    • MIke I am sorry to hear about your arm, but the good news is – these things do repair with proper rest and care.

      A hand doctor once put me at ease by telling me this.

      I look forward to checking your channel out.

      LIfe is long, and I know Fingerstyle MIke will be making lots more beautiful music…..

  12. Hi!
    Have to say….this is real stuff….I practise a lot. Not 12 h. But say 4-5. I´ve recently started to realize what you are “talking about”.
    Noticing progress is hard….but when I started to play “old stuff”, the realm of music opened a bit. It is wonderful to read about this in Your tips. And I hope that these tips will encourage a lot of people, who certainly are skilled already, to go for the beauty.

    So…Thank You, for this page. This is my first but not last visit here.

    ove

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