Muscles Tense Much?

Hi All!

It’s been a couple of weeks since I could make the time to have a look at what’s been going on here on the JG Community Forum and I thought I would share a topic that has become a real focus for me in the last several weeks.

I am now about 4 months into my “return to playing guitar” after a four year hiatus and, since my last period of regular guitar practice, have become acutely aware of all the tension that I was previously carrying in my body when I played/practiced guitar previously.

It’s now clear to me that this tension – a product of “trying really hard to play it right” is just an absolute killer when it comes to playing in a fluid way. So. . . I was wondering how many of you have noticed where tension occurs in your body when you are practising a new riff/chord/scale/slde, etc. ?? Where do you notice it? What specific body parts?

If you look around the internet there’s lots on this topic and was hoping to start a discussion around muscle tension, where we feel it, how we stop (or avoid) it and any recommendations you all might have for addressing problem areas of tension in your body when you are playing / practicing.

For me; I notice that I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders (particularly when trying to get a new lick or riff or change down, I’ll tense my shoulders up). My picking hand can get tense if I am trying to alternate pick a quicker series of notes. My thumb gets tense when I am trying to fingerpick individual notes with it and of course my neck gets tense from looking down at strings or fretboard or where ever feels required for a longer period of time.

This tension has only negative consequences for my playing – I don’t see any positives about it.

I have some strategies of my own that I’ll share but I’d love to get a sense from this community of how big an issue you think this is and what you do about it. . .

I am pretty sure it’s not just me. . .and that many of us do the “tensing up thing” during practice or playing in front of people.

Anyway, let me know if this is something that you’re familiar with. . .


Funny, I’ve been thinking about this very topic recently. Like you (and, I suspect, many of us), my shoulders tense. I’m not positive this is accurate, but I think I’ve noticed that my right shoulder hunches when I’m trying to focus on my fretting hand (learning a new song or chord, working on chord changes). Hmm. I’m not going to try to analyze it too much (which is as difficult as not hunching my shoulder :laughing:). Rather I’m trying to remain mindful that I do this, checking in with myself as I practice, and gently relaxing (without chastising myself!) when I feel that hunch. I’ve noticed this when I’m sitting, haven’t thought about it yet when I play standing. I guess that’s the next assignment.

I’m sure there are other tension points - for example, my right pinky gets weird after awhile when I anchor it for fingerstyle. I am mindful of and work on that too, but the shoulder thing seems to be my low-hanging fruit.

Like you, I’m interested to hear about others’ experiences and approaches.

Tension is a big deal and you want to get it under control.

I crashed hard riding motocross at about age 16 and carried a neck problem for a couple decades until I found a way to correct a lot of the trouble. I still have tension around that injury point, but over the years of it being uncorrected, I learned to NOT hold much in tension and to recognize when I was.

Posture is a big part of tension. When I am hunched over and paying attention to the fretboard, I will start to get muscle tightness in my neck and I need to make a conscious effort to reset my seating position and how I am holding the guitar. If I fail to fix this, I will be doing something other than guitar in a few more minutes due to the tension turning into pain.

If you extend this everything you do in the day, you will see that you are likely causing issues in other activities and the guitar is simply one of them. Try to recognize these other events and your guitar playing can accommodate a little more poor posture without causing discomfort or injury.

I just got a new guitar with the goal of improving my posture. It is light weight (4.63 pounds = 2.1kg), and has cutouts to allow placement in many positions. I have only had it 2 days, so still experimenting. I notice tension in odd places playing this one but I expect that to go away as I get position figured out.

Always an appropriate topic.

One aspect of tension I notice is hand tension.

For example, when I practice a single handed technique, like spider, or finger picking patterns or anything using only one hand, I marvel at how tense my other hand is.

I was doing a left hand legato exercise and my right hand was contorting right up. Total spaz. Crazy. So when doing these exercises, I try to spend some time paying attention to this and releasing theat other hand tension while still doing the exercise.

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When trying to pick precisely, I feel tension in my right shoulder, running down along the outside of my arm.

When trying to get precise chord changes, I tend to press too hard with my fingertips and cause forearm tension.

I broke both of these habits by practicing slowly until the movement feels natural before trying to increase the speed, and training my brain to understand that squeezing harder won’t make the chord ring out any better.


I used to get tension in my shoulders. I don’t notice it any more. It just seemed to go away with time. I think it’s a bit like driving a car- you’re tense when you first get your licence, but you relax as driving becomes second nature.

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Tension is bad for sure. I’ve worked my way through a bunch of stuff.

Left hand tension - can happen if you’re stretching to the limits of your hands. Playing should be in the comfortable zone. I worked on finger stretching to expand that comfortable zone.

Also: static finger stretching should be done towards the end of a session. If you do it at the beginning it makes playing less accurate (same as sports stretching, dynamic to warm up and static for range expansion).

Right hand tension - shoulder or hand position are the usual causes for me. I’ve learned where to anchor my palm or forearm to reduce/stop it.

The psychological tension of trying real hard - just slow it down and play it fluidly. Then speed it up comfortably. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast - a motorsports saying.

I don’t get much tension anymore and it made a huge difference.

Yes, a critically important topic, and one I think that gets forgotten about at times in favour of more exciting topics.

Playing with progressively less tension is one of my 3 top goals for this year, so I’ve been consciously working on it. Its more apparent at speed, and during more challenging passages. I can feel it in the usual places at times - shoulders, arms, hand, fingers etc - and have developed some exercises, both physical, and mental, to assist. And I think thats the key here - to work on it consciously, in isolation, with intent - rather than just saying, well, I need to loosen up a bit.

In fact, I think many play with alot of tension that they are not even aware of. It becomes normalised.

One such exercise I do I call the " dancing fairy" where I just move across the fretboard doing pentatonic runs, being almost flippant with how I’m playing notes, only concentrating ( or not concentrating) on very, very lightly dancing across the top of the strings.

Cheers, Shane

100% agree. Therefore, if you are aware of physical tension, just imagine how much tension you’re not even aware of.

Thanks to @dblinden @sclay @jkahn @judi @jacksprat @fast-eddie @Jamolay for your inputs. Much appreciated!!

Judi I think this line sums up the whole ball of wax. It’s almost a certainty, whoever you are, that you have areas of muscle tension in your body that increase as you play guitar, some areas you are more aware of and others not so much. The key seems to me to be to stay in a kind of “rotative attention mode” checking up on those parts of your body where you know you have extra tension and tryin to relax those parts as you are playing.

So, getting back into playing on a regular basis has shown me that my posture was/is such an issue. I realised that when I play with my right foot flat on the floor (guitar supported on right thigh) I was raising my right foor because I “felt” (quite unconsciously) that the guitar was too low with my foot flat. It was only after having some pain in my right leg that I realised how tense my whole leg was and got something to place my foot on, raising my right leg and the guitar up a bit. I still get tension there but I am mich more aware of it and it doesn’t ever hurt anymore. I also make a consistent effort to re set my posture ( every 15 minutes or so) and get up from the chair and take a break from sitting even for 30 seconds or so to break up the session and not be sat for long periods of time.

This is TOTALLY true. I notice muscle tension in lots of other activities that I do and continue to be mindful of how my muscles are feeling when I am doing something. . .from washing dishes to cutting veggies, to using a chainsaw or whatever.

I get get tense both in fretting hand and picking hand during every practice session and make a conscious effort to “shake them out” from time to time just to loosen up. It took me longer to notice the tension in my picking hand than in my fretting hand. My fretting hand suffers when playing barre chords and one of the first things I did when coming back to guitar practice was to check out Justin’s lessons on how to play barre chords and the helpful tips. I am trying to play these with minimal pressure required in order to save my left hand the stress. I still get into what I call “super clamp” mode from time to time. . .when I notice I just repeat to myself “super clamp” and instantly I relax my fret hand .

Amen brothers, amen. In my practice habits “pre break,” say from 2013 to 2017, I was SO impatient and really wanted to “learn fast” and tried upping my metronome speeds on everything way too soon. . .stepping away for so long, I have now (finally!!) got the message that the key is getting it down slowly and then building speed. Works every time. Every. Time.

I think the analogy is a good one. The more familiar you get with something the more you relax while doing it. Well, I hope I can get to this point Chris. But I reckon that I will be constantly checking for tension for awhile to come.

Definitely agree with you Shane. Has to be an intentional thing, at least for me. I think it’s like another skill that you can develop like ear training or whatever. Conscious attention and relaxation while playing – being aware of tension as it arises, recognising it and then focusing on it til it drifts away. . . or something like that. . .

I think the real lesson in all of this is that maybe I am just a lot more up tight that I thought I was.
:rofl: :rofl: :rofl:

Thanks again, all, for your input!! Love to hear from anyone else with new things to add here!!



Good discussion topic Jeremy and some insightful responses.

Neck and shoulders for sure for me, always conscious of the need to relax but as soon as I get in some high concentration focused practice, the relaxation goes out the window, then everything tenses up. Big impact on fluidity and speed. Your post has made me realise I need to make a conscious effort to fix that tension, so thanks to everyone for their comments.


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I take it there’s a NGD post for this? Link please!!! :grin:

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OH boy… I don’t usually do the NGD thing, but I suppose a brief review is a good idea.
I’ll find a way to take a nice picture and write something about my first week with it.

OW - ok you can let go of my arm!