How to play guitar with 90% of an arm
November 8, 2007 10:00 PM   Subscribe

My arm broke. Is there a guitar I can still play?

I broke my left elbow pretty badly about a year and a half ago. It's much better now, but my arm doesn't do everything it used to; I can't, for instance, bend it enough to touch my left shoulder, and I can only supinate my left palm about 10 degrees past the vertical. There aren't many life situations where I need to do these things, but there is one: playing guitar. I can still play, but the effort required to get my left arm bent around the neck and my fingers on the frets starts to really hurt my wrist after about fifteen minutes. And getting an A-barre down is impossible; I just can't turn my wrist that much. Does anyone have any ideas for how to get my guitar hobby back? Should I learn to play a left-handed guitar? Lap steel? Just give up guitar and work on bass? (I can play an electric bass with no discomfort at all.) Are there kinds of guitar that require less wrist torsion to play?
posted by escabeche to Health & Fitness (12 answers total)
I think learning to play left-handed, although it'll take a while, would be the best way to get back to a conventional playing style.

Otherwise, yeah, you could play in an unconventional style, like Kaki King. It's sort of a lap steel approach, but the music is not at all what most people are hearing from lap steel guitar. She doesn't seem to play barre chords, but she is pretty expressive. Her right had spends most of that performance tapping, but it does do picking at some points.
posted by ignignokt at 11:23 PM on November 8, 2007

"...what most people are used to hearing from lap steel..." is what I meant to say.
posted by ignignokt at 11:25 PM on November 8, 2007

Have you tried playing with the classical guitar position? Sidenote, Zach Condon (of Beirut), broke his arm and finds the ukulele easier to play.
posted by tmcw at 11:30 PM on November 8, 2007

You might try a smaller necked guitar, or completely change instruments. I tried for many years to play both classical and acoustic guitar. A combo of small hands, short fingers, and a very sore wrist eventually led me to try smaller instruments.

I recently bought a mandolin, and even after a marathon practice session (4+ hours), I don't experience any wrist pain. Plus, who doesn't love bluegrass? ;-)

Also, see a doctor? Maybe your arm healed weird, or there is some physical therapy voodoo you can do to help alleviate the pain when you play.
posted by n2linux at 11:35 PM on November 8, 2007

I'd recommend checking with your doctor as well. If there is physical therapy, exercises, stretches, etc, that could regain the lost motion it'd be well worth pursuing.

But barring that another instrument or playing a guitar in a somewhat non-standard fashion may be your best bet. How about a lute? You definitely don't hold it quite like a guitar and the elbow looks significantly straighter in those pics and the wrist and hand are in different positions as well. There's really a huge world of other stringed instruments out there. Piano or keyboard is another possibility. There's also smaller guitars; some, like the baby Taylor's, are definitely not just for kids.

Your goals are also relevant since you mentioned you can play bass without discomfort. I find writing songs doesn't often work for me with bass; the range, chords, and harmonic possibilities of the guitar seem to lend themselves much better for songwriting. But for jamming with people bassists are always in demand so it's certainly worthwhile pursuing that if you do like playing with others. Maybe find another instrument that works for songwriting but practice bass as well.
posted by 6550 at 12:43 AM on November 9, 2007

Physical therapy and stretching to regain the range of motion and muscle. Just giving up on the proper functioning of your arm is pretty whack.
posted by anaelith at 3:53 AM on November 9, 2007

Seconding the suggestion to try a smaller instrument - try a parlour size guitar, or one of the bigger ukes (tennor/bartiton).
posted by primer_dimer at 5:00 AM on November 9, 2007

a year and a half is pretty soon to give up on that elbow. my knee did some breaking four years ago and it's been a pretty steady upward slope of returning function- i'd say within two and a half years it was pretty well back to normal, but it's still getting slightly better four years later (for instance, it's grey and rainy today and i am not in the throes of achey misery as i would have been on a rainy day last year).

to get better, i did physio, worked out on my own, stretched, did little stretchy and strengtheny exercises all the time (like if i was just watching TV i'd do range of motion stuff for 10 mins wheneve i thought of it) and did yoga. i did not enjoy physio- it seemed too "forcey"- but yoga helped me a lot. it was kind of magic, actually. i'm not well-versed on "arm yoga" but i bet you could find someone who is.
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:33 AM on November 9, 2007

After I dislocated my shouldr, I capoed the guitar up real high and played that way. I'm talking 7th, even 9th frets.
posted by ORthey at 7:14 AM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Great suggestions, keep them coming!

A few remarks:
* Now that you mention it, I played mandolin at a friend's house a few months ago and that was indeed much easier.
* My current range of motion is the result of eight months of pretty hard-core physical therapy, starting right after the injury -- used to be it took 20 minutes of warming up just to touch my ear. Surgeons and PTs agree this is where I'm going to stay.
* Goals -- strumming, songwriting, occasional playing with friends, in the indie-rock medium loosely construed. Switching instruments definitely wouldnt mean sacrificing years of classical training or shredding practice. But I'd want it to be something that doesn't sound too exotic in a rock context. I've never heard of a baritone ukelele; maybe this is something to look into!
posted by escabeche at 7:40 AM on November 9, 2007

A few years ago, my pinky went numb due to an injury, making normal guitar playing terribly difficult, so I took up slide / lap steel. Honestly, it made my regular guitar playing phenomenally better when I could use my pinky again. Also, it sounds bad-ass. And there's nothing cooler than being able to (assuming you'll be playing guitar again) pick up a beer bottle in the middle of playing electric and play slide on it.

So yeah, try slide / lap steel.
posted by General Malaise at 10:50 AM on November 9, 2007

Unfortunately, the right time to fix this was probably when the doc was setting your arm. When Les Paul broke his left elbow, the doc set it specially so he would be able to play guitar with it again - he can't do anything else with it.

If I were you I'd go back to the orthopedist, let him know what your functional limitations are, and ask if there's anything that can be done to fix them. It might be a matter of surgery, or physical therapy, or it might not.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:05 AM on November 9, 2007

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