Is Playing Your Guitar Causing Tension?

Want to Become an Exceptional Guitarist?

Teach yourself how to relax while you play! 

Relaxing even while playing like a house on fire is on one of the greatest secrets held by exceptional guitar players. Yet, it is one of the most difficult principals I've ever tried to convey to beginner and intermediate guitarists. When I was just learning to play I fell into the tension trap myself. I think it's because when you're trying to learn something new you feel like you have to grunt your way through it. Like you're trying to lift 500 pounds or something. Here's the good news...

It's not that hard to learn how to relax no matter what you're playing.

Trying to Fit a Square Peg in a Round Hole?

When you try to force-learn something on the guitar you're like a child with one of those shape toys trying to fit a square peg into the round hole. Pushing, twisting and grunting won't make it fit.

When my kids were little I loved seeing the delight on their faces when, after struggling with the wrong shape/hole combo, I would hand them the right block and show them the right hole.

The reason I mention this is you've probably witnessed a child doing that. There's a lesson in that for the guitar learning process.

Lighten Up, Francis. Relax!

In a previous post I talked about quality practice time. High quality practice sessions can occur when you're not expecting them but it takes a quantity of sessions to stumble upon a serious quality session. 

That takes patience!

Frustration comes from thinking we're not getting anywhere. If you're thinking that, hang in there and read on.


Your Muscles and Nerves Only Know What You Teach Them!

When you first start to learn something new, the muscles and nerves in your arms, wrists and fingers are like a blank slate - a blank hard drive that's just waiting to be programmed.

I don't pretend to be an expert in neuroscience but I know from experience that you will program your muscles and nerves by repetition. However, the resulting program can be good or bad. As you practice you execute repetitive movements and little by little these repetitive movements write themselves into your muscles' memory. In fact, you've probably heard people refer to this as muscle-memory. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines muscle memory as:

the ability to repeat a specific muscular movement with improved efficiency and accuracy that is acquired through practice and repetition.

Wikapedia says (emphasis mine):

Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, the brain creates a long-term muscle memory for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.

So, if you're teaching your muscles to tighten when you play, you'll ingraine that into your muscle-memory. It's best to keep muscle tightness and tension from becoming part of the learning process.

So, onto the big question...

How Do You Teach Yourself to Relax?

Here are a few things to think of that can help you to avoid falling into the tension trap.


  1. Before playing, start with an awareness of the bigger muscles - the shoulders, arms and forearms. With your guitar held in a good playing position, release any tension that you might notice all the way down through your wrists and to your fingers.
  2. Using an easy-to-play song or exercise, concentrate on the muscles specifically needed to play it. Assure they are the only muscles being used. For example, only press the strings against the frets with the force needed to push them down. That in itself will force you to keep your fingers directly behind the fret bars because the closer you are, the less force it takes.
  3. Start with a focus on the shoulders, then move to the upper arms, then the forearms, then the wrists and finally the fingers and thumb. As soon as you sense any tension along the muscle chain, stop and start this process over again. (Remember the square peg in the round hole thing) If your left (right for a lefty) upper arm begins to develop some tension you might see signs like your elbow flying up and away from your body.
  4. Be sure your left elbow hangs loosely at your side using only enough strength in your left arm to keep your hand in a good playing position.


Many times tension comes from trying to make a difficult reach for a chord. Below is a video that explains things. This is a snippet of a video from the Fretboard Freedom. Check out the course page if you want to know more about that course.

Am9 Chord
Am9 chord played in the above video


If you can achieve a high level of relaxation while you're playing the guitar, you will be able to improve faster, play more difficult passages and play faster with more ease. Why not give it a serious effort?