Relieving Fretting Hand Tension

A few tips on how to relieve unnecessary hand tension by releasing The Clamp.

Ultimate Guitar
There are a couple of things you need to be aware of for this article to have any use for you. Firstly you need to be a victim of the clamp', and secondly, you have to be aware of it. To go off on an immediate tangent for a minute, I had the habit of raising my right shoulder while picking anything fast or tricky. It was an unconscious muscle-tensing response. I only became aware of it because I often wore a pair of headphones that developed a fault that caused them to crackle whenever my shoulder lifted up and came in contact with the wire on that side. If this hadn't have happened, I might never have become conscious of this unnecessary muscle tension, so you could be applying the clamp and not know it. The clamp is something that affects the fretting hand. For a long time I just assumed it was to do with a lack of fitness, agility, fluency etc. It'll go away with practice I thought. Unfortunately this isn't the case. No amount of grinding away with the clamp on will turn it off and free the fretting hand. The clamp makes its presence felt in the form of stiffness, aches, the hand locking up, and almost immediate weariness. It's just impossible to play fluently with the clamp on. The clamp is the result of unnecessary tension in the fingers/hand/arm, and the application of far more pressure than is required to fret a string. I'm not sure of the causes, but I think it has to do with trying too hard, getting over-excited, and unconsciously responding to aggressive-sounding music by employing an overly aggressive attacking style of play, so instead of caressing and stroking the guitar, we try to strangle and batter it. SOLUTIONS; STACATTO SLIDES Sliding and staccato are two things we can do that immediately release the clamp. While sliding we instinctively apply just enough pressure to sound the note, but not so much that friction interferes with the slide; we apply the correct amount of necessary pressure, so sliding can be a useful gauge. The name clamp' obviously refers to the fact that we lock down with the fretting hand in a strangulation type way. This is of course impossible to do while playing staccato, which involves the fingers 'pecking' at the fret board. It's impossible to peck, and difficult to slide, with the clamp turned on. It's for this reason that playing through some scales, licks etc, using all slides and staccatos gives you a great demonstration of how little pressure should be applied when fretting notes. If the fret board is a surface, and our fingers were feet, we need to tap dance and glide/skate, and not stamp and dig our heels in with lead boots. One particular area that can lead to clamping has to do with note duration. For example, say we were to play a whole bar of A notes at the 5th fret of the low E string. Each one of the A notes has the duration of an eighth, so we play eight of them one after another. The temptation is to just clamp down the first finger on the 5th fret, and let the picking hand play the eighths, 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Not only does this one-sided approach to rhythm lead to clamping and cramping, it also means that the picking hand is trying to be rhythmic while the fretting hand just hangs their like a piece of meat. It's like dancing with a corpse. Both sides need to be rhythmically active, so play the eighths with the fretting hand too. Of course there's a limit to how fast the fingers can fret, release, and fret again. I'm not sure what the limit is in terms of tempo, but it's something that improves with practice, and it's something you need to do as much as is physically possible. It will do wonders for the definition and snappiness of your rhythms, and of course the clamp won't be able to take possession of your hand. Hope this helps, and apologies for the tasteless analogy.

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    i didn't know what a clamp was, and i still don't know it after reading an article about it
    Really helpful. I've had the clamping issue before, but what I used to do was just leave my guitar alone for a few hours hoping my arms would just return to normal. And to those who haven't actually read the article, by 'clamp' he's talking about when your hand gets stiff and unresponsive... not a capo.
    "If the fret board is a surface, and our fingers were feet, we need to tap dance and glide/skate, and not stamp and dig our heels in with lead boots." This right here is some extremely insightful advice. I don't even have this problem anymore but that right there just changed the way I look at playing a guitar. Very good lesson here, and it's important to realize that the clamp is very tough to identify as it took me probably 2 years for me to figure it out, but with scales and consistent practice, I overcame. Not to contradict what he said in the lesson by saying you can overcome this solely on practice time, but I spent lots and lots of time playing my scales specifically, gradually faster and faster. Your hand just learns to play very loosely by the time you get up to playing them at 200 BPM. If you have any lessons about improving picking hand technique, that would be great too if you put them up/linked them, or if you don't already have one, I'm sure you have a lot of useful advice to make a lesson out of. Thanks!
    so they can filter out all the bad words but not not crappy chinese knockoff spam? really? i thought this site was already 98% ads...
    JayMichaelRayne wrote: i didn't know what a clamp was, and i still don't know it after reading an article about it
    Skimming isn't reading, it says it in the article "The name clamp obviously refers to the fact that we lock down with the fretting hand in a strangulation type way"
    winniethepooh wrote: Wow, i always do this, and I always thought it happened because I'm not a good enough player :p
    It does.
    Thanks Chris.Ok, I'll give 10's another go, and ensure I wrap plenty of coils around. I had actually always flexed chords on and off, but lately I've been aiming for a cleaner sound by keeping the chord held on and using right hand palm muting to define the rhythmic sound. I've also just been wondering if this little delay is a genetic thing for me... I mean some people are natural sprinters, some are better at long distance running and a lot of that comes down to internal factors. Maybe my body is a bit slower at dealing with some kind of lactic acid buildup from all the intense effort of barre chord playing? Maybe that's why I'm a muso and not a footballer!? It hasn't affected my piano playing though or any other part of my life... I'm fit, strong and in shape. It's such an enjoyable journey, mastering an instrument! So many lessons to learn. I'm a uni-trained pianist actually, busy gigging regularly, and I've dabbled with guitar since school but never sunk any decent time into it until the last year. Now I spend a couple of hours a day on it. It's great fun. I'm going to try this 'you can master an instrument in 7 years' theory on guitar myself. Maybe I need to try lighter strings, allow myself to flex chords on and off more, prepare for solo picking a bit earlier. Great solo phrasing often means telling the listener a story by drawing them in bit by bit, starting slower and building intensity...
    What's a problem for me is this annoying 5 second delay when I switch from rhythm to lead. If I play a couple of minutes of pure barre chord rhythm, then switch to solo notes, it takes a few seconds for my left hand fingers to loosen up get up to speed. My fingers feel slow and heavy. Its as if my muscles and tendons need to catch their breath a while. Then a few seconds into it and they're off and racing! I'm using 11's on an electric because I was finding 10's too floppy and prone to going out of tune. My rhythm style is predominantly up the fretboard using triads, Hendrix style A shape inversions, and C shape barres.
    I had a huge problem with this and I only started to relieve this recently. It's so easy to do especially if you're taught by a teacher who emphasizes "no buzzing." I caught it though when I would pick up my guitar just before going to bed, and I noticed I played better than during the day. I realized that after using my hands for work the whole day that they were too "tired" to press as hard as a normally made them as a result I played better. Now I'm training myself to play like I'm "tired," ironically.
    After reading this article I got aware of it. So I decided to try this out and I experienced very quickly faster chords changing and more fluent playing.
    could also have to do with how you were taught. People who claimed to know so much about guitar that helped me learn in the beginning would say "press down harder that's why it doesn't sound as good" . I felt I was already pressing hard because I had no callouses. and some of us carry that approach down the road. I've been focusing on relaxing my arms and hands before playing. A buddy of mine puts his hands in really warm water for 60 seconds before playing..that helps him he says.
    what about getting tired quickly with the picking hand when picking fast with fingers? (bass player here) is this lack of practice, or another fault in technique?
    Good article, im really working on my fretting hand, i generally suck with big chords that involve 3-4 fingers, since all ive been playing was fast metal where i trained my hand to actually NOT press 2 or more notes simultaneously, so its kind of starting-from-zero thing for me
    So why are we trying to sounds smart now, calling hammer notes "staccato." It's staccato if you release quickly and it always has been in music notation. I've seen this a lot lately, like staccato is the correct term for tapping.
    cripple perc
    you need to stretch as with any exercise with excessive use the muscle gets all sore and stuff. look up some stretches. john petruccies rock discipline has got some good ones but yeah that thumb one needs worked
    This defenitely applies to me man so thanks for the article. I do not experience the exact same as described above as the only thing i really experience is a terrible pain in my thumb joint which may not be the clamp and something entirely different but the article has helped release the pain i feel. The main cause of the pain is exactly as described; strangling the fret in an attempt to attack the notes. I play bullet for my vallentine songs and during songs such as waking the demon, pleasure and pain and most defenitely in the song the last fight i experience this excrutiating pain during the fast sections in both the chorus and verses. This article has been very informative and will help my playing in future thanks
    This article contradicts the ideas i've had about developing tone. I thought you have to be deliberate and firm about fretting the notes, so they'll be clear. I assumed if you lightly fret, the tone will be sloppy or weak. Guess i gotta practice way more in order for my fretting fingers to be more deliberate and solid, also apply less pressure, as stated in the article.
    I could use a lesson on left hand thumb placement at times. When I play on the low e string for a long time but I also need the A, I have a tendency to wear my thumb out. Especially Black Sabbath songs/
    Definitely, you're welcome. Great read. That strikes me very oddly that the other article went down so poorly because I 100% agree with that, but have never heard anyone else state the same thing about combining groove with scales -- i.e. making music, so it should be a pretty prevalent topic lol. I practice scales daily and have been for a good 2 years so I know them extremely well, but I still find it very difficult (when playing improv.) to get the right groove or rhythm I want or sometimes any groove at all. Typically I become focused on what my fretting hand is doing, trying to figure out what notes I want to play as I'm improvising and it takes away from what my right hand is doing. It tends to just become 8th or 16th notes from there and I'm having difficulty getting past it. I don't know if that's exactly what you were referring to in your article but that's how that works for me. Well I'll be keeping an eye out for anything else you have to put up here because then I'll know it's something no one else has ever said anywhere else lol. Great quote too.
    Sorry I meant to specify that they're consistently picked 8th or 16th notes
    Wow, i always do this, and I always thought it happened because I'm not a good enough player :p
    Good article, in my experience several novice players have an issue, more or less, with clamping - and usually the players are not aware of the problem which is causing trouble with speed and fluency. I have recently been getting rid of the problem, releasing tension especially from the fretting hand. A good read, though a little more woul've been great
    Good article, This also applies to the right. If your rhythm sucks then your right hand has too much tension. When stoned I noticed the slight tension in my right hand when playing (I never got cramps or discomfort, it was a very mild tension) and made a conscious effort to release it. A few days of this and my strumming rhythm and fingerstyle fluency have improved dramatically. Hold your right hand out and make it as limp as you can. Feel the lack of tension, feel how relaxed it is. You want to mimmick that feeling as closely as possible when playing. After that I realized I must do the same for the fretting hand!