Playing an instrument is a rewarding pastime for some and a way of life for others. Whatever your level of investment in your instrument, you may find that you experience pain after practicing, especially if you practice for a long period of time.
Whether sitting or standing, right-handed or left, you are using one side of your body differently than the other when playing guitar. The shoulder, hand and forearm on the side that you use to navigate the fretboard are working more than those on your strumming side. If you stand when playing, this imbalance is exacerbated by the strap. Right-handed players support the weight of their guitar on the left side, which is also the fretting side, and vice versa for left-handed players. The extra work these muscles do causes them to become tense and shortened after prolonged use. Muscles that are tight become weak, as they are not flexible enough to perform work without possible injury. This can cause the muscles of the other side to attempt to compensate for them throughout your day, leading to tightness on that side as well.
The following tips will help to prevent neck, shoulder and back pain caused by overuse when playing the guitar.
You may think that a warmup for guitar playing means finger exercises on the fretboard. These are important, both for playing quality and for your finger and forearm muscles. However, the rest of your body should be warmed up, too. The neck, back, shoulders and hips should be stretched before your practice session. This ensures that the muscles are flexible and have received fresh nutrients and oxygen from increased blood flow to perform work with.
One of the most important postural tips to keep in mind when playing guitar is to keep your shoulders low and you spine straight. Many people, especially new players, will hunch over the instrument sitting down and tense their shoulders as they concentrate on their playing. Body awareness is one of your best protections against poor posture when playing guitar. Whether you’re sitting or standing, make every effort not to hunch over the guitar. For new players or those used to looking at the fretboard, this may take some practice. Begin relying on the dots that indicate fret numbers on the side of your guitar’s neck, or make your own indicators with colorful tape. Keep your neck as upright as possible. Make sure your shoulders are not creeping up toward your head.
If standing, play around with the length of your guitar strap. Some people prefer to keep the guitar low, while others like it very high. Ergonomically, the best position is that which sets the weight of the guitar’s body at your center of gravity, which is around navel level for men and hip level for women. If the guitar is lower, your shoulder strain will increase. If it is higher, you may find yourself raising your shoulders. Check out the DuoStrap, designed to allow the weight of your guitar to be shared by both shoulders: http://www.gruvgear.com/duostrap-signature.
Seating position for standard guitars involves resting the “waist” of the guitar (the indent between the upper and lower half of the body) on the thigh of your strumming side with your legs in an open stance. Resist the temptation to cross your legs; this causes your body to twist, increasing stress on your hip muscles, spine and lower back muscles. Your strumming arm should rest lightly on the lower half of the guitar. Classical guitarists support the weight of the guitar on the thigh of the fretting side with the neck pointing more upward. Classical or standard, your shoulders should be low and loose.
Those who would like to learn more about proper body mechanics, both when playing and not, should refer to the Alexander Technique. See their website at http://www.alexandertechnique.com/ for more information.
Some people can grab their guitars and stay put for hours, but your initial warmup won’t keep your muscles loose for that long. After half an hour of play, take a break and move around. If you play sitting, stand up and allow your hip muscles to elongate. If you play standing, give your legs a break and take a seat. Repeat your warmup stretches. Taking a two-minute break every half hour or so will allow your muscles to refresh themselves.
Playing guitar shouldn’t cause you pain. Paying attention to posture, warming up and taking breaks will help to prevent back pain during your practice sessions.