As plectrum lovers, our striking hand is a part on which we focus more than most, and the more we play, the more our wrist gets used. This sounds painfully obvious, but have you ever thought about what your wrist is going through, or how it can affect your playing long term?
You’ll likely have heard about conditions like RSI (repetitive strain injury) and carpal tunnel syndrome. These are very different things, operating over different timescales. While carpal tunnel can be incredibly painful, I’ve known people to have surgery and come out of it following a period of recuperation, whereas RSI can perpetuate for years unless you make certain changes to your approach.
So why is this? Well, there’s a few things that can cause physical distress to our wrists which are possible to correct, and predictably, a lot of them are pick related.
I’ve mentioned this before in videos, but if you play lightly, a massive pick can be extremely helpful – the more pick you have, the more it’ll do the work for you, and the less physical effort is required to make big sounds. The reverse is also true – if you can’t help knocking the crap out of your guitar or you get seriously carried away, staying under 1mm will serve you well. The lack of material vibration from thinner plectrums means that there’s less vibration travelling up your wrist, so it’s less hard on your hands in the long run. It also means you can thrash away at your instrument without as much concern for string breaking, though if you’re light-handed and playing thick plectrums you’re no more likely to break a string than a heavy-handed person wielding a thin pick.
Not just the province of tech-death bands and jazzers, wearing your guitar a little higher can be highly beneficial to the preservation of your wrists. The ideal playing position for the human body-as a general rule-is the classical position, with everything in easy reach, and with less angle in the fretting hand. I’ve found my guitar slowly creeping up my body as I’ve got older, and I’ve found that this has not only improved my ability to play more accurately, but it’s not as hard on my right hand, as I’m no longer over-reaching in order to play. Try it, and see how you go.
Looking at James Hetfield on the Cunning Stunts tour, hunched forward with his guitar round his ankles, I can’t help thinking how much stress he’s putting on his back. Obviously looking cool has a price, but don’t let that price be your spinal health. If you’re standing upright with decent posture, you’ll feel more secure, more stable, and more connected to your instrument. You’ll look better in pictures too, but the most important thing is that by looking after your back you’re taking needless tension away from your body. Not hunching will improve your physical composition to the point that you’ll be able to deliver your tonal barrage with greater focus and power, making for better shows,accuracy and enjoyment when you pull off that thing you couldn’t do before.
In addition to the nature of your plectrum’s bevel and tip, the material you’re using makes a massive difference to how hard you’re having to strike, and by extension, how much physical force you’re having to use in order to get the sound you want. Pick materials have come a very, very long way, and using things like steel, coins, UHMWPE and so on mean that you can now have insanely hard picks that don’t break your strings while maintaining a genuinely thin makeup. The tonal nature and EQ balance of individual materials means you’ll be able to get exactly what you need with less force – steel is bright, stone is breathy, ultem is hard, tagua warm and pushy etc – and this lack of aggression means less of the feedback and shock previously mentioned.
If you watch a lot of players who make aggressive music, their bodies might be thrashing about with loads of windmilling, but their hands aren’t going all that hard. That’s because your strings can only take so much push before they reach their ceiling of aggression. If you think about the thickness of your strings and the amount of strikes you’ll chuck at them with even the most half-hearted practice, you might realise that the gap between knocking the crap out of each individual note and going in at 70% is minimal, especially if you’re playing for an extended period. Unless you’re in The Dillinger Escape Plan, using physical aggression sparingly when it comes to the approach of your picking hand can make the difference between playing well into your 50’s and knackering your wrists in your 40’s.
Stretch It Out
This is the one that we all take for granted. If you’re going to play football, do you get straight off a bus and run onto the pitch for a straight 90 minutes? Of course not – you warm up first. Most musicians will have experienced the true thrill of playing in a freezing rehearsal room or venue at least once; your strings feel harder, your hands are stiffer, and everything counts against you. Taking ten or fifteen minutes in the time before you play to stretch your hands and wrists out makes a massive difference to what can happen to your limbs if you’re playing every day, and if you get into the habit you’ll find yourself able to play that little bit faster, with more confidence and greater spontaneity.
Last, but not least – Don’t Play Through The Pain
Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve got 3 bars to go or you’re on the last verse of a 45 minute set then you might be able to survive it, but playing through noticeable pain means that you’re continuing to damage something that’s already developed a problem. No-one will think you’re cool if you have to miss shows with ruined hands, and only a moron would tell you to play through the sort of claw-forming agony a player can go through if they haven’t been looking after themselves. Remember, as rock and roll as it is to play through blood and all that, you’ll feel like a dunce in the morning when you realise you can’t even hold a pencil and you’ve got two shows left in the week, so don’t be a fool – look after your hands!