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Strangling My Guitar

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Reputable Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 239
Topic starter  

I've been playing the acoustic coming on three years now. Far as I know I have a fairly decent(for a fifty year old!) posture – feet on the floor, back pretty straight, guitar neck and fretboard parallel to the floor and wall respectively.

What I am trying to get over is two possibly (?) related habits:

1. Pressing down on the strings so hard that after ¾ of an hour or so my fingers are cramping and I have grooves in my calluses so deep I can't fret a string accurately

2. Digging my left elbow into my side creating all sorts of tension in my shoulder and elbow.

I can play fairly decently, but I know I could do better and probably avoid some injuries long term if I beat these habits. I've tried standing up which helps a bit, but then “the knee” becomes bothersome, plus I really prefer sitting to play. I've tried “relaxing” too but that only lasts a few bars and I am back to strangling the bejesus out of it again.

Any ideas out there?

Illustrious Member
Joined: 22 years ago
Posts: 5108

It sounds like you've tried relaxing but haven't succeeded at relaxing! That's the key, I think. When I'm playing (especially if we're performing) and tense up, I start a little mantra in my head: "breathe!" Focus on taking in slow deep breaths and see if you relax. If you do, you'll relax the strangle hold. You might also have your guitar's set-up checked. The action might be too high and thus cause you to strangle the poor thing.

Well we all shine on--like the moon and the stars and the sun.
-- John Lennon

Noble Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 1221

2. Digging my left elbow into my side creating all sorts of tension in my shoulder and elbow.

Ouch, Dave that hurt just to read!
In my limited experience, elbow position is critical. Mine's always away from my body to some degree from, say, the 5th fret to open. Otherwise, you're creating all these extreme angles that leave only your fingers to do the work (your first problem).
Try a G barre chord with your elbow about 4 inches from your side:
Square to square to square: from your elbow to your wrist angle to your fingers.
Hope that helps!


Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 6348

the elbow jabbing the side ...yikes, that is bad posture.
to break that bad habit is to simply stand up and play for awhile.
so many players feel they have to press very hard to when fretting a string. usually, it is because of improper finger placement and then trying to eliminate the subsequent string buzzing.
please fret behind the fret wire. if the string buzzes move the finger nearer o the fret.
you never have to use so much pressure that your fingers hurt.

Prominent Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 827

Breaking a bad habit will mean that you will have to become "worse" at playing for a while. You'll find it uncomfortable and awkward because you aren't used to the right way. Supposedly all beginners fret too hard - I've heard some here call it the "Vulcan death grip". :D

I used to grip really hard too (though I don't think as hard as you describe) and I've loosened over time. One thing that helped was to run through my warmups and scales at the start of practice and really concentrate on playing as light as possible. You can experiment with the scales by lifting the finger up from the string to see how light you can go before the buzzing starts. When you get buzzing press down again until the buzzing goes away.

Don't use the metronome at first either. Just experiment with how light you can go with each finger and then do your normal warmups and scales (though no metronome) but focussing on being as light as possible (the lightness level you found in the experimentation step). If at any time you lose the feeling of how light you can go stop and go back to the experimenting with each finger. When you can make it through your normal whole warmup and scales reasonably consistently with light pressure then start worrying about adding back the metronome and increasing the pace. If at any point you lose the light feeling in your fingers go back and experiment. This will take longer than your normal warmup and scales but it will get easier. It will also work it's way into the rest of your practice over time but try to be aware of it.

I would only worry about breaking one of these habits at a time. You can only focus on so much at one time. You won't get it all at once either. You should be able to lighten your grip some and then you'll need to come back and do this again. I do the lightness drills every so often to reinforce it.

Pop music is about stealing pocket money from children. - Ian Anderson

Famed Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 2717

Well, it's nice to hear of a problem I'll never have.
I always take the lazy way out.
I never expend more energy than is necessary.
I've just started (today's my 1 month anniversary) with my guitar and after I learn a chord, my mistakes after are usually a result of 'laxing up' and not "squeezing the trigger" hard enough. So I quickly learn what's the minimal effort I have to put in.
But that's just the nature of this beast.

Not a type A personality,
(Some may call me lazy. I prefer to think of it as 'energy efficient')
Kilowatt Ken

It's the rock that gives the stream its music . . . and the stream that gives the rock its roll.

Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 3454


The better I got the lighter my touch became, so I guess it's just that old solution - Practice.

As far as posture goes, I've had a lot of luck switching to a decent chair for playing sitting. I now use an adjustable office chair. I took the arms off it, and can adjust the height, various angles etc. I also have something I can stick a foot on to raise one leg, like the classical guys do. The aim was to get a nice comfortable balance with guitar so that the instrument is stable and under control with the minimum amount of fuss and force. Getting a good posture seems to be the foundation for that. A lot of the 'death grip' seems to relate to poor control of the neck. It's hard to land a chord change cleanly when the landing ground is moving around. :shock: A well adjusted strap, good posture and plain old experience all help. At least that's how it was for me.

Not sure that your idea of having the neck "parallel to the floor" is that good either. Check these pics out for some ideas:

Jamie Andreas on Posture