Why does my wrist get tired from barre chords?
December 27, 2003 12:20 PM   Subscribe

I've played the regularly guitar for eight years now and find that bar chords tire my hand/wrist/forearm *very* quickly. If the ratio between them and other chords is more than 50%, I just can't get through a whole song. This isn't terribly limiting overall, but it does make certain styles inaccessible. So I need some help. [more inside]

My question is twofold: (1) is there a way I can improve overall strength, flexibility, and health for my left hand, wrist, and forearm? (2) Is there, perhaps, a technique issue that I'm missing?

My hands are, I think, smaller than the average mans, and I've got skinny wrists and probably weak forearms overall. But I would think that with the amount of practice that I do, my left hand would have gotten gradually stronger, even for bar chords. I'm puzzled about why it doesn't seem to have.

I've tried lowering action on my steel string, which helps, but it's still a problem on that and my classical guitars (which generally aren't all that tense). I've tried lighter gauge strings, too... so the only thing I can think to change is my body or how I use it. : )
posted by weston to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes I run into this after about an hour or so of playing. When I feel it coming on I notice it often comes with me pressing harder than I need to. I usually run into it more playing blues-type solos where I bar and use the other fingers to play other notes. With bar chords I try to think about which strings I actually need to cover with my index finger, instead of trying to make sure I press down all six strings.

Though it can never hurt to do some light bicep / wrist exercises as well.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:49 PM on December 27, 2003

You might look at the hand-exercises used by rock climbers.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:51 PM on December 27, 2003

Response by poster: fff -- excellent suggestion, and I'll be off to google for that and ask some friends shortly. However, I'm a little bit skeptical about this the more I think about it.... most of the gripping involved in guitar playing takes place between an extended thumb and index finger, which I think might be different than climbing.

Not that I really know, and it's a better lead than I had before I asked the question, so I'll probably follow it.
posted by weston at 1:41 PM on December 27, 2003

Response by poster: Good general info about hand/forearm anatomy.
Some exercises.
More exercises (near bottom of page...).
posted by weston at 2:20 PM on December 27, 2003

Some online guitar stores sell balls and individual finger muscle builders. I'm not sure how well they work though.

When I first started playing I used to practice reaching my fingers as far back against my palm as possible, but I'm not sure that will help much. Not to mention that I'm only a bass player.
posted by drezdn at 2:21 PM on December 27, 2003

Aside from relaxing your grip and the grip exercises recommended above, which would help in the case of muscle fatigue, you might want to experiment with some other techniques.

Michael Manring would compose his songs and then tune his guitar to allow his hands to play some of the impossible things he'd come up with. Some hard rock bands these days drop the bottom E to D so they can play one finger power chords. Open tunings might help, but you have to re-learn your fretboard. Hendrix, Clapton, SRV and many other blues based fret the bottom E with their thumb allowing the rest of hand to fret more comfortable G/C type formations for the rest of the chord. Of course, for this, you also need a small and thin neck.

So, check for more playable guitars like thin electro-acoustics or smaller scale guitars that made for younger players. Short of buying a new guitar look for a luthier who can reduce the back of your neck for a better fit to your hand.

This is important: If your pain is anything other than muscle fatigue or soreness you should go see a doctor. I would probably worry if I could not get through one song.
posted by venegas at 3:07 PM on December 27, 2003

weston - you could also get a job assembling bicycles - from parts in boxes - for dept. stores. I had this job for two years, and later I had a auto repair/restoration business. The result was strangely disproportionate "popeye" forearms and well-muscled hands. I think fff's rock climbing exercise suggestion would work. The muscles same muscles apply, I'm pretty sure.

Strangely, I just picked up my 6 string today - after dropping guitar almost completely for several years. A little Murphy's oil soap to clean the strings, a new string to replace the broken one......I was good to good to go. Open G - Kottke style, I suppose. Lots of complex picking, fretting, voicings...I played for about 8 hours straight today, I'd say. My fingers got sore, but my hands were OK.
posted by troutfishing at 4:36 PM on December 27, 2003

Cheapest, most convenient hand/forearm exercise is this:

Take a single page of a newspaper, flat, and hold it in your hand at arm's length. Now crumple the paper into a ball with your outstretched hand. When it's crumpled, unfold the paper and repeat.

It sounds ridiculously easy, but damnit, after doing it just a few times my forearms are on fire.
posted by Hildago at 4:45 PM on December 27, 2003

A great excercise is to play bass guitar for a while, you use the same muscles in the same way, only with a lot more tension.
posted by signal at 5:47 PM on December 27, 2003

A cheap version of the little "chinese" balls that many guitarists diddle with for hand strength: film canisters. Take two canisters in you hand (kodak film if you've got small hands) and roll them over each other inside a ring made of your thumb and each of your fingers. It's great to keep your attention while driving.
posted by notsnot at 8:52 PM on December 27, 2003

I second venegas' suggestion... are you playing them "properly" barred, using your index finger across the entire fretboard? Try using your thumb a bit more, alternate between the two positions, for example:

Thumb on low E string
Ring finger on A
Pinky on D
Middle on G
Index on B and high E

practice using that form for a while, then interchange between the two forms between the song, it'll help.

I also find that instead of trying to shake the cramps out of my hand, wiggling my fingers a lot and stretching them out as far as i can helps a lot.
posted by cheaily at 9:02 PM on December 27, 2003

Or : every night (per fff's suggestion) hang off a small cliff, holding on to your anchored rope line by one hand. Alternate.

After building hand strength, Imagine that - every time you play the guitar - you are holding on for your dear life.
posted by troutfishing at 9:30 PM on December 27, 2003

I tried many people's suggestions on strengthening my hands, but I'll be honest; the only way I really learned how to do barre chords smoothly was practice. Pick a song you love, play it in C, where you know you're going to have to move to that &%!@ F sometime, and sit there and play it until you get it down. Why search around for exercises that work your guitar-playing muscles when you have a guitar to work them on?

(That said, I'd repeat the suggestion of trying to lighten your grip; that's something pretty much everyone has to do.)
posted by transient at 10:13 PM on December 27, 2003

Squeezing silly putty is also an excellent strengthening exercise.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:03 PM on December 27, 2003

Well, I'll second the suggestion of playing bass a bit. Get the cheapest, nastiest bass you can find in a pawn shop and play that a bit. I mostly play bass and when I switch over to guitar, barring the chords is very easy. (Much of this, I imagine, is due to my bass, which is large and heavy, with a thick neck and high action. Thus its moniker of 'the combat bass.')

Something I do is crush bottle caps one-handed between thumb and forefinger, which is also a good drinking trick.

When I carried a briefcase, I used to carry it home using just one finger.

And, as others have said, try not to clamp down on the guitar so hard. Certainly, when the music gets fast or loud, I know I have a tendency to really grip hard with the left hand, which is completely unnecessary and couterproductive.
posted by alex_reno at 12:46 AM on December 28, 2003

Another important thing is to spend some time practising holding the string down without actually making any music. The fatigue stems from excessive tension in the hand and wrist. Making the hand stronger will prolong the amount of time that you can maintain the tension, but you will still eventually get cramp. What you need to do is become aware of the minimum amount of tension necessary to get a clean sound.

Firstly it helps to have your guitar positioned comfortably and efficiently (a whole other thing in itself, but put simply around the knees like a Ramone is probably not going to help and right under your chin isn't good either. The best place seems to be so that if you just let your right arm hang it lies comfortably along the neck of the guitar) so that lifting your arm to the neck of the guitar isn't an unnecessary effort in itself. Also having the thumb of the left hand in the middle of the neck and the fingers square to the neck (parallel to the frets when barring and single notes fretted cleanly with the tips of the fingers) helps. Now become aware of how your left hand is doing what it is doing.

For example: place your index finger at a particular fret (say the G string at the seventh fret), just resting the end of the finger on the string. The finger should be just behind the fret, as close as you can get it. Become aware of the feeling of the string against the finger. Pluck the string and it should go plunk, possibly with some harmonics. Now slowly increase the pressure whilst maintaining the awareness of the fingertip. In a short amount of time, you will get a clean ringing tone. Now become aware of how the thumb feels and how much tension is being used there. Relax your hand, but keep it in position. Without moving your hand do this with your other fingers (so middle finger at eighth fret, ring finger at ninth and little finger at tenth), very slowly indeed, making sure that the finger is as close to the fret as possible when applied to the string and then appying only the amount of pressure necessary to get a clean tone and then releasing the tension.

The next thing to do is the same process with the barre, again at the seventh fret (it will be easier there than at the first fret. You can always make things more complicated later). Again the aim is to be aware of the feeling of the strings against the finger (more complicated now, obviously, because there are more strings) and get the finger positioned as close to the fret as possible. strum gently across the strings and increase the tension until you're getting a clean tone on all strings. Notice which strings ring first, which ring last. Become aware of the minimum tension necessary to get the clean tone. Then move the finger down the neck doing the same thing. It will become more difficult as you move down the neck.

Ideally you should be relaxed at all times, in your fingers, your wrists, arms and shoulders. Then you can go on forever, or at least until the next toilet break.

Practise, very slowly (everybody says that you have to practise very slowly. This is for the same reason that people say it's dark at night or that things fall down when you let go of them) cleanly fretting (say) a C chord and then switching to an F chord. If you have a metronome or drum machine use it, it really helps. Include the switching between chords in the count, so count 1-2-3-4-and and switch between the chords on the and. Teach your hands to do it as quickly and cleanly as possibly, and again maintain awareness of how your fingers and wrists feel when changing. You'll notice excessive tension, and being aware of it being there is the main thing.

Something like that. That's the general idea, anyway, although obviously it's a lot easier said than done. I realise that you don't want to be able to play like Steve Vai, but there's no harm in working on pure technique, a few minutes each day: spend a while putting a lot of work into very very simple things, like how you fret one string or how you play a C chord and then after you've done that for a while play whatever you want. Oddly the extra work will pay off in the long run, it's just a question of getting into the habit of making a point of doing it excessively properly for a short period every day. People won't think you're a sell-out (as a child of the Punk era this was a mental block re technique that I had for a long time), particularly if you don't tell them about it, they'll just notice you don't sound like shit.

If you can learn how to play A chords with just your index finger and the first joint of your little finger, that really freaks people out. It helps to be double-jointed in that area.

I need more coffee.
posted by Grangousier at 4:25 AM on December 28, 2003

Someone said to me once that it is easier to maintain your hand in a static position than it is to squeeze. They suggested using this knowledge to make barre chords easier.

Imagine that your arm and hand are a see saw and the thumb is the fulcrum. Best way to describe it is to fret the chord, make your hand a bit stiff, then let the arm sag a bit. Let gravity do some of the work for you.

I don't know if that is proper technique or not, and doing it does require enough muscle tone to keep the fingers stiff, but its worth a try for experimentation.

That being said, I haven't touched my guitar other than to move it from A to B in over a year. Take my advice with a rock of salt.
posted by jester69 at 7:25 AM on December 28, 2003

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