Ergonomics For Musicians, The Small Muscle Athletes

 “But then who, looking at a hand, would say it was made to do easy work?  You can see from the look of it that it is meant to do difficult things, that it is the noble, willing servant of the heart and mind.” - Ursula LeGuin

General Principles

Pain is not an early warning system!

When you feel pain, it’s because tissue damage is occurring.  Change positions or stop.

Seek Comfort and Efficiency: Just because something is familiar does not mean it is comfortable.  Notice your body, not just the sounds you make.

Use large muscles for power, small ones to guide.  HANG your fretting hand.  Use gravity!  Use your back, shoulder and elbow to power your picking; hand muscles mainly for guidance. 

Garbage In; Garbage Out

Go Slow: Use slow-motion, stop-action timing.  Go too slowly to make mistakes

Relaxed good form: learn details correctly now, so you don’t risk a repetitive motion injury later.  Such injuries can take years to show up.

Short practice sessions:  No more than 5 minutes of new material at a time.  Maximum 6 repetitions.

Yawn: deeply and constantly to stay relaxed and improve focus.  (Really - it works!) Your body has two autonomic nervous systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.  The sympathetic system does “fight or flight” adrenaline release.  The parasympathetic does restorative processes, digestion, and clears excess adrenaline from the body.  Too much adrenaline makes thinking difficult.  You can trigger the parasympathetic response by yawning.  Use it!

Study vs Practice:  First study, examine, explore, decide.  Focus on smaller and smaller details. Then repeat till your body remembers.


Whole Body Balance on two feet and your spine as a tripod when sitting.  Raise one foot to tilt pelvis.  Keep your chin in.  Try not to look at the strings.  Don’t lift any of the weight of the guitar with either hand, (though leaning your right arm on the guitar is fine).  There is a guitar support available called the “neckup.” <>  Use gravity and the weight of your hand and arm to get the strings against the frets.  Just hang…

Keep your wrists in neutral every single moment! To find neutral, clench your fist hard, check your wrist position, and relax. This is neutral, not bent in any direction.  Try squeezing three fingers of the other hand tightly in your fist.  Now bend your squeezing wrist and try squeezing again.   Bending greatly reduces the power of your grip and increases your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.  Pretend you have splints on both wrists as you play.  Move your back and shoulders (and guitar!) for barre chords to where you can “kiss the strings.”   Watch to keep your wrist straight not just while you’re fretting, but between chords too.  For barre chords you’ll need to drop your shoulder and move your elbow towards the mid-line of your body and out in front of you, to support your hand and avoid a wrist bend.

Fretting Hand: Crawl your fingers from chord to chord.  Find pivot fingers that stay on the same string wherever possible and leave it in place. Relax completely between every chord. 

Fingers really close to the frets:  Fret the low E string in 3 locations: FIRST exactly half-way between the first and second frets, THEN just barely above the first fret, and FINALLY right behind the second fret.  Explore how hard you have to push to avoid buzzes in each spot. Don’t ever push any harder than needed to get the strings firmly against the frets.

Mirror Rotation: Pretend you are holding a mirror in your palm.  Point it at the ceiling.  Now point it at the wall beside you.  Now at the floor.  Move it back and forth. Notice that you can make this motion without bending your wrist!  Use this rotation as part of setting up a new chord.  You can turn your mirror to reflect the body of the guitar to make room to get all your fingers closer to the frets on an A or D chord.  Rotate it towards the ceiling for E.  For F rotate it even further to the ceiling or beyond to get the base of your little finger closer to the string you’re pushing on.  This improves leverage and keeps joints from hyperextending.

Proprioceptive Pushups:  Set up a new chord with perfect form before pushing down at all.  Now push briefly and firmly, and let go, using a single staccatto strum.  Watch your form!  Do no more than six.  Shake your hand out.  This is to program your hand, not to build strength, so don’t push any harder than needed.  Crawl back and forth between two chords, no more than six times, keeping your wrist straight.

Loose joints: If some of your finger or knuckle joints tend to flatten out or bend a bit backwards as you play, pay careful attention and try to avoid this.  If you just can’t keep them from collapsing, or if you’re double jointed, see an occupational therapist for a Silver Ring Splint for protection for those joints.  Be sure to ask if the therapist will prescribe ring splints for prevention before you visit.  Some will not prescribe till you are in pain.  The splints are beautiful, comfortable and effective.  For the name of the nearest provider, contact the Silver Ring Splint Company at 800-311-7028 or check their website at <>. Canadians contact Digisplint at 888-377-5468 or 519-235-2981.  Tell them “thanks” for me.

Picking Hand: Don't touch the face of your guitar. Stick out your thumb as if you were hitchhiking.  Now wave hello to your guitar.  “Grate cheese.”  (Try really grating some on a grater, or a carrot.  Notice your wrist position.  Pretend you have a cast on.)  Move big from the elbow and shoulder.  Relax, relax, relax.

Strumming:  Drag the back of your fingers across all or some of the strings, using a movement that starts at your elbow.  Keep your wrist straight.  Use the fronts of your fingertips to strum back up.

Picking:  Wave “hello” to your guitar.  Move your finger towards your wrist, not your palm (you probably won’t be able to reach your wrist, but move in that direction).

Your Thumb is a piece of meat! Try to move from your elbow rather than using that little fat muscle at the base of your thumb.  It just isn’t big enough for the job!


Warm Up First: 

Your body produces a quart a day of lubricating fluid.  Use it! Just spread lubricating fluid; DON’T STRETCH.  Gently wiggle fingers, rotate hands, flex elbows, shrug and roll shoulders, raise top back of head (with chin tucked in).  Yawn.

Breaks Every Five Minutes: Shake out hands and arms gently.  Shrug deeply.  Roll shoulders.  Lift back of head.  Yawn.

Stretch Afterwards:Stretch as far as comfortable, and no further!  This is not to prove how flexible you are.  It’s to find out.  No bouncing.  You can injure yourself stretching!  Hold each stretch 15 - 20 seconds (one good yawn!).  Your muscles should relax as you stretch. If not, ease off.  Try stretches, from the great book  Stretching by Bob and Jean Anderson.

© 2006 Flip Breskin       2518 Cherry Street, Bellingham WA 98225       360-671-4511