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Day 110 : A Different Kind of Tension

Today in practice it again occurred to me the importance of dealing with tension. I have noticed when I struggle (and when I see my guitar students struggle), the effects are all physical: Faces scrunch up. Shoulders pull up closer to the ears. Breathing stops. Most importantly the hands want to close and we have to fight these involuntary muscle contractions in oder to get the hands and fingers to do what is needed to play guitar. This involuntary muscle tension is often called “sympathetic tension” and it is a well known enemy to good guitar playing. I’ve experienced many times that so much of learning to play music is learning to relax these unnecessary muscles and basically get out of my own way.

The intuitive response to tension is to fight it on a physical level. But often we can’t directly command these spastic muscles to relax. Muscles we can’t allow to flex or extend seem tied to the muscles we need to flex or extend. But today it occurred to me that it is critically important to identify the source of this tension, which is not physical at all. In almost all the cases I can think of, unwanted MUSCLE tension is the direct result of unnecessary MENTAL tension.

When I am using unnecessary muscle tension I’ve noticed it is because I don’t exactly understand the thing that I am trying to do. I obviously have a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do, but the extent to which that understanding is incomplete is the extent to which attempting to play the part will result in mental tension. If I can’t quite picture in my mind all the events that need to occur and/or the precise timing when these things need to happen, the hand will “try” to do it for me. The result of the hands trying on their own (without good instructions from the brain), is always excess tension. And there is the link between mental tension and physical tension.

This is particularly evident when it comes to taking things up to higher speeds. I simply can’t rely on my hands to show me how its going to sound. For more complex musical structures and high speeds, I am finding that I have to very clearly hear it in my mind and visualize how the hands feel playing it before I can play it IRL.

What’s tricky is that we can get away with a certain amount of tension. That is to say there is a non-zero threshold which, so long as we don’t exceed it, we can play a part or a song and not make mistakes. As tensions (both mental and muscular) accumulate they may eventually exceed this somewhat intangible threshold and as a result we crash and burn.

The upshot from all this is that 99.99% of any guitarists limitation are all mental (and not physical). It really is a case of mind over matter. This realization strengthens the argument for more ear training and deeper study of music theory. The sharper and more effective a musician’s mental toolset is the more mental room she will have below that crash and burn threshold. The easier and more quickly we can fully realize complex musical structures mentally, the sooner we can play them.

Maybe a specific example would help illustrate what I’m trying to say here. This idea occurred to me today while I was trying to work on combining my tremolo picking with left hand glissandos. You hear this technique a lot in the intro to surf songs. I had been hunting around trying to get this technique to work at high speeds for a long time and today it finally clicked. What made the difference was a bit of mental clarity.

I noticed that a lot of guitar glissandos tend to have a range of exactly one octave. Think about how you start at the 12 fret and glide down in tremolo to the open string. But when I would simply trem-pick as fast as possible and then glide down the result never sound smooth. It seemed like too often my picking tended to occur when my finger was over a fret rather than behind a fret where a good note could be produced. But how could I keep track of the instantaneous position of my left hand for every note of this chromatic descent?? Then I started to think about rhythmic subdivision. Ok 12 frets in an octave. What rhythmic subdivisions could I trem-pick that would neatly multiply up to 12? I found that I could easily account for two groups of 6 when employing T/16 trem-picking.

As soon as I saw the glissando as 2 beats of T/16 tremolo the cloud of uncertainty surrounding these highspeed glissandos suddenly lifted and I immediately began to articulate every note along the neck slide. I was also able to stick the landing on the open string on a strong beat. I hadn’t even realized how critically important that clean finish was to produce a convincing glissando. Once I had automated the rhythmic subdivisions, I was able to apply the mental savings to higher order ideas. I found that I was able to think about comfortably accelerating the slide on the way down to compensate for the incrementally wider frets at the low end of the neck.

Even now I struggle to explain how powerfully efficient the effect of all this is. It’s one of those picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words kind of things. A technical revelation like this is worth a 1000 blog posts. But the gist is that greater mental clarity, aided by theoretical understanding, reduced mental tension and resulted in an easier and more accurate physical articulation on the guitar.

As a final thought, I can’t deny the argument that some tension may actually be a good thing. When I think of my musical heroes (Kurt Cobain, Freddy King, Robert Fripp, Johnny Greenwood, even Hendrix) most were not paragons of carefully honed technique. At least not on the surface. Some of that struggle to get the sounds out no doubt contributes to the compelling qualities in their sound. Still, I have no interest in preserving some kind of ignorance around my work. My plan is to try as hard as I can and use every tool I can find to create new things. There is plenty of struggle in that.