Voyager Recordings & Publications
RELAXED PICKING ON GUITAR AND MANDOLIN
By Philip L. Williams
I play a lot of guitar and mandolin. Many years ago, before I learned better, I would get real
tense, especially under the pressure of playing a fast mandolin break on a show or keeping up with
a real fast fiddle tune on the guitar. This caused me some serious problems in the form of
tendinitis. I simply had to learn to play without tension to avoid more injury. As I learned more
about how my muscles worked when playing, and how to relax them, my risk of further injury
went down, and my ability to play fast and accurately went up. It took time, patience, practice,
and constant awareness of tension and motion, but it was worth it. I now can play with no
tension at all, and so can you by taking the time to learn to play as relaxed as you can..
As soon as you feel any muscle tension, back off and see if you still can get
the sound you want. There are times in picking and holding down strings to make
chords or notes when you have to use pressure, and hence muscle tension, to
get the job done. There are many times when you do not need a lot of muscle
power. Tense the muscles only when you need to. Relax them when you do not need
the tension. This is a skill that has to be learned. It does not come naturally.
In the heat of a jam session or performance it is normal to ignore what your
body is doing as you are concentrating hard on getting the notes. This very
concentration produces tension and tensed up muscles, which detracts from your
ability to play your best. I noted during my earlier years of performing on
mandolin that every time it was my turn to take a fast break in a performance,
my wrist muscles would get so tense that by the end of the break I could hardly
play the notes. After learning how to play completely relaxed, these same breaks
could be played much better with no effort at all, and no stiff wrist. Here
are some exercises that will help you play with minimum muscle tension:
- Hold the pick the way you normally do. Grasp it tight, play a note and strum a chord. Note
the way your muscles feel. As you grasp the pick, be aware of what muscles you are
tightening. With your other hand, feel the muscles in your hand and arm as you grasp the pick.
Then loosen your grip so you can just barely hold the pick. Note what muscles are relaxing.
Do this until your mind can focus in on each muscle you are using to grip the pick and strike
the note. Practice gripping and releasing and focus on each individual muscle. Get used to
knowing what it feels like for the muscle to be tense and for it to be relaxed.
- Grasp the pick as tightly as you are used to and pick and note and strum a chord. Listen
closely to how it sounds and be aware of the grip and force you used to produce the sound.
Grip the pick even tighter and strike the note and chord with even more force. Listen to how the note and chord sound and be aware of this increased grip and force. Then start holding the
pick with less muscle tension and using less force to make the note. Again, listen carefully to
the sound you are making as you continue to decrease the muscle tension you are using to play
the notes. Relax to the point where you can barely hold the pick. You have noted in this
exercise that the sound of the note and chord varies with how hard you hold the pick and how
hard you strike the note. You want to work to get the sound you want with the least amount
of muscle tension. Practice a lot using minimum muscle tension. While initially it may be
difficult to get the sound you are used to getting with tensed muscles, after awhile you will find
that you can get the same sound, or actually a better sound, with little muscle tension.
- Note carefully the differences in sound of the notes with different grip
and picking tensions. You will get a sharper attack and more powerful sound
when the pick is gripped tightly and more force is used in making the note.
Now back off all the way on muscle tension to the point where you can just
hold the pick and strum the strings with as little muscle tension as you can.
Note the difference in sound from when you used full muscle tension. This
shows you the range of sounds you have available between full and minimum
muscle tension. Get used to using only as much muscle tension as you need
to make the sound you want. This helps gaining of sense of dynamics in your
music, as well as saving your muscles and tendons from the effects of continual
- Try gripping the pick tightly only when you are striking the string. After the string has
sounded, release your grip tension.
- Apply these principals to your left hand work. Holding down a chord too long with too much
tension can result in tendinitis at the base of your thumb and/or in your wrist. Most of the time
you do not have to grip the neck tightly at all to make a good, clean chord. Try making chords
without having your thumb on the neck at all as an exercise. Get used to tensing the muscles
to hold the strings down only at the moment you strike the strings with the pick and releasing
your grip after the chord has sounded. If you release your grip slightly, the string vibrations
will be damped off against your fingers, giving the chord a short sustain and a snappy sound.
This alternate press and release is what gives the "bark" to rhythm playing.
I also find it helpful to practice relaxation techniques before and during a performance. Get a
book on relaxation and stress reduction methods and/or take a course from a therapist. A few
simple relaxation techniques, such as taking a couple deep breaths and relaxing before taking that
break can go a long way in making playing more enjoyable for you and your audience.
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