Yes I am going to write a boring article about guitar health. This is really aimed at the me of 10 years ago. I didn’t consider any of this stuff until I was on the other side and could look at it objectively and with hindsight, but I wouldn’t have listened, and I doubt anyone else will. Asking people to take better care of themselves is like asking them to watch out for falling meteorites. Pity because I really think this stuff matters, and makes a difference.
It’s false that pain is an indicator of potential injury, and as long as you heed it and rest up for a day or so, you’ll avoid injury. Injuries can appear literally overnight without any warning. I myself went to bed with no problems, and woke up next day with extremely sore middle joints of the left hand and unable to clench my fist. This remained the case for about a year. About six months in, I packed up my guitars thinking to hell with guitar, all I want is a left hand that works. A great weight I hadn’t realised I’d been carrying was lifted at that point, and I stopped fretting over my hand - pun intended. Two and a half years later, I’m essentially recovered, but my left hand can’t cope with too much strain.
Thanks largely to an excellent guitar player and fellow sufferer named Marcus Flynn - who sent me a message after I mentioned being injured on a you tube video - I now feel I have a much better understanding of the causes of my injury, and how I might have avoided it. It all has to do with circulation and blood supply to the hand.
I now believe that it’s no coincidence that my injury happened right in the middle of the coldest winter Britain has seen for decades. I certainly have never experienced -12 degree temperatures in England, but there is more to it than just cold conditions.
Cold plays a significant part because of one of the body’s methods of regulating temperature. When a dog pants, it is exposing lots of blood vessels to the cool air, and so cooling down its whole body. We don’t pant because we can sweat instead, but we do route blood to vessels in the skin for the purpose of cooling.
The opposite is true when we get cold. The body closes off these vessels in an effort to keep the core - where all the important stuff is - warm. The hands and feet are the first things to be sacrificed to extreme cold. Even when they’re not exposed to the cold, they’re the first to suffer from frost bite.
So what does all this have to do with injury? It’s ABOUT all those tiny muscles in the fingers that are being strained when we play guitar. They’re too small to contain blood vessels of their own, and so in order to get the nutrients they need to remain in good condition, or to repair damage, they have to absorb it from surrounding tissue. So if blood supplies to the hand are low for any reason, these muscles really suffer. And if they become damaged, they can take a very long time to heal.
Note the position of your fretting arm when playing guitar. Blood is having to travel uphill, and so this obviously affects blood supply too.
Cold was a factor, but so too was the type of practice I was engaging in at the time. Lots of technical practice of the sort you do to a metronome, or just on its own.
This sort of practice is different from band practice and playing actual music because of the amount of time spent fretting the strings, and so placing stress on the finger muscles.
When you play actual music, at least as part of a group of instruments, it usually contains plenty of rests, and bits where you’re not playing at all. Plus there are also relatively large pauses between songs. So if you spend 3 hours playing music, the actual amount of time spent fretting, is significantly less, and there are plenty of chances to rest the hand. Even more so with Band practice/rehearsals because of the stopping and starting, and the time spent discussing stuff.
If however you’re doing the sort of lone practice that involves developing your technique, much more time is spent placing stress on the hand while holding the arm in a position that isn’t great for keeping the hand well fed with blood. If you’re doing many many hours of this kind of practice every day, then you really need to take care.
Keep warm as much as possible during winter. This means keeping the whole body warm by wearing thermals, warm clothing, and gloves. I personally wear thermal long johns, and a thermal long sleeved t-shirt every day from December to March. I wear fingerless gloves almost constantly. I can even play guitar in them when I feel it absolutely necessary. Suede are good because you can cut them yourself to give maximum finger freedom, but the suede won’t fray.
Make technical practice as much like actual music as possible. If you’re working on scales, arpeggios and stuff, instead of just working to a metronome, try creating some simple drum and bass backing loops in all twelve keys, avoiding thirds so you can play in major and minor. Make sure you play plenty of rests, just as there would be in a real song. This is a great thing to do anyway because playing rests is seriously overlooked as a technical skill, yet it’s hugely important. Stop completely every 3 minutes or so as if the song is over, dangle your arm loosely by your side, give it a shake and a swing, and feel it filling with blood. You should really notice the restorative effect this has in removing any tension and the resulting aches and pains that come from it.
ADDICTIVE SUBSTANCES AND THE YOYO EFFECT
This isn’t about hard drugs because I have next to no experience of them. This is about the legal ones: nicotine and caffeine. I was a slave to one for 15 years, and to the other for 30. These substances are so good at hiding how damaging they are.
When you have the addiction - even talking about stuff like tea as an addiction is laughable but this is the trap - you become very good at rationalising it when you feel your addiction is under threat. “But I enjoy it”, “it wakes me up in the morning” I look forward to it at breaks”, “it isn’t doing that much harm, and who cares anyway, we all die sometime, we might as well have fun”. Even when you get on the other side and can think straight about it, you still don’t associate the fact that you’re sleeping properly, your energy levels are vastly increased, you can work much harder, concentrate for longer, and are generally more cheerful, with the fact that you knocked the crap on the head. These legal drugs really are that insidious and sly in the way we think about them.
Caffeine and nicotine only appear to be doing you some good because they’re in your system in the first place. The reward comes from feeding the addiction. Caffiene and nicotine levels drop, you run down, crave more, top up, run down, crave, top up, run down, crave top up… and so on. It’s so obvious that this is stupid behaviour, but if it’s that obvious, then why do so many of us ride the yoyo every day for years?
If you're on it now, trust me, get the hell off it, and you and your guitar practice will benefit hugely.