Relaxing is probably one of the most important guitar techniques you can develop for playing guitar. But it is also one of the most difficult to master. It's not normally a part of anyone's guitar lessons either. But it its important.
You only play guitar your best and are able to improve maximally when your body and mind are completely relaxed. Any tension and you simply won't be able to play your best. Unfortunately, tension has a way of creeping into your guitar playing unexpectedly. Right now relax your shoulders. I bet you didn't even realize you were that tense. Did you?
Well, when you're playing the guitar we're going to try to train ourselves to recognize that tension. Actually that's the easy part. Better yet, I'm going to give you some techniques on and off of the guitar fretboard to help train yourself to be able to relax.
There is physical relaxation and mental relaxation. They are interdependent. If you have relaxation in one of these areas, you'll get it in the other. The trick is to be able to relax at will. These techniques will help not only to improve your guitar technique: speed, clarity and coordination, they will also help if you play out and maybe have a little stage fright. You should practice these techniques regularly because the better you are at relaxing, the better you'll be able to play guitar.
Tension normally starts at the base of the head at the top of your neck and spreads from there throughout the body. This is very important because it's very convenient for tension to travel down to the shoulders, through the arms and to the hands. That's when your guitar playing becomes hindered. So the first thing to start thinking about regularly is... neck and shoulders
These are the two areas that most affect the rest of your body. The next is... the back
To start out, I want you to begin your guitar practice sessions proactively thinking about relaxing your neck shoulders and back. The rest of your body should follow suit. Next we are going to look at a more active approach to learning to induce a relaxed state.
Technique for Physical Relaxation for Guitar
This a technique that relaxes the entire body. Starting with your feet, flex as hard as you can for 5 full seconds. Now relax. Wiggle your toes. Now flex your calves for a full 5 seconds, massage them out. Now your thighs for 5 seconds. Massage them out. Now your chest, your shoulder, your back. Do this for every part of your body. After you flex each part, relax it and either massage it out or shake it out. After you finish you should feel your muscles a bit more loose. I use this technique when I'm feeling a lot of nervousness or tension.
I've found this exercise to be a little bit more help in recognizing even the slightest tension. You go through the exact same process you did for the last exercises but this time don't tense as hard as possible. Just tense or flex enough so that you feel that slight tension. After 5 seconds release. You should definitely feel more relaxed that you did before. This is the kind of tension that creeps in while you're playing the guitar. So practice this daily. I usually do it before my practice sessions.
On the guitar fretboard:
Now we'll go to your guitar's fretboard. Play any chord. Now play that same chord after doing the light relaxation method above. What was different?
This time play the same chord. Squeeze the neck of the guitar as hard as you can. How does it sound? Not bad probably. Now play the same chord. But this time just barely place your thumb on the back of the neck. How much pressure does it take to clearly play the chord? Not nearly as much and you probably get a clearer sound.
Now play two chords sequentially squeezing the neck as hard as possible. How easy is it to change chords? Okay do it the other way just barely touching the back of the neck. How much easier is it that way? How did it affect the sound you created?
I've found the lighter the touch, the easier the change in position on the fretboard and the more articulate the sound. Plus the lighter the touch, the more relaxed you feel and the more speed and dexterity you have. Actively practice letting up on the strings.
This is key to performing and indeed, to becoming relaxed physically. I used to compete in martial arts tournaments and I can tell you definitively that if you get into the ring unprepared mentally, you will embarrass yourself and possibly get hurt. Whoever is prepared mentally usually wins the fight. To perform well you must be relaxed and prepared. Now that may be a bad analogy because music is not a competition. It's quite the opposite actually. It's a cooperation between you and whomever you're playing with. But more importantly it's a cooperation between you and your instrument to create something beautiful. And this is where we'll start.
Techniques for Mental Relaxation
You're thought process must change. Before you pick up your instrument or go out on stage or whatever, you have to realize why you are going to do what you are about to do. For me when I go out on stage I go out to serve. I'm not serving myself. People are expecting to be moved in some way, whether it be spiritually, rhythmically, emotionally or any other way. My job is to serve those people. And because I consider music a spiritual endeavor, I play to worship. Whether you do or not is not my business. But what I've found is that when I take myself out of the equation and begin to form a relationship with the One whom I worship and with the audience, who is waiting for an experience, I become one with the music. The music flows more easily and the audience responds to that relationship. And guess what, my nervousness vanishes a lot. It's when I focus more on what I'm doing and how the audience is viewing me that I lose the music and it ends up sounding like... crap basically.
So your thought process is the single most important aspect of mental relaxation. Focus on the reason you play, feel the music and forget about the audience and yourself. Practice this attitude and you will certainly find it easier and easier to relax as time goes on.
Relaxation Imagery and Breathing
These two techniques go hand in hand and I'll explain in this segment. You may find this awkward or different at first but I promise if you stick with it will pay off. You've all heard take a deep breath and count to ten, well that a start but you can do more to relax. This exercises will help you to recall that relaxed feeling that you've experienced in the previous exercises when you're playing.
Here's the process.
- At night when you're lying in bed and everything is quiet, no wife, no kids, no TV, no X-box or whatever, close your eyes and slow down your breathing. Breath deeply but not exceedingly that you get dizzy.
- Try to eliminate all of the day's thoughts out of your head. Focus only on your breathing and your body.
- Clear your mind.
- Repeat in your head the word relax... over and over and over again. You'll feel yourself slipping into a pretty relaxed state.
- Now think of your toes. Try to feel your pulse in them. Even if you can't feel the pulse you'll start to feel just a hint of a tingle and maybe a little heaviness.
- Now move up to your feet and calves, all the while telling yourself to relax and breathing slowly.
- Continue on throughout your whole body, hitting every body part while telling yourself to relax.
I usually never make throughout the whole body. I usually fall asleep before that happens but the more and more I do this exercise, the more easily it is to recall that relaxed state. All I do is say the word relax and I slip into a more relaxed state and my breathing slows down and gets deeper. Try it, it may work for you.
That's it for the Relaxation segment. Hopefully you can incorporate some of this information into your guitar practice regimen or your life.
Just remember that the most important thing is that you try to relax. Your playing will improve. These are just some examples of ways you can try to learn to be aware of tension in your body and then work to eliminate it.
This section in particular may help you aside from guitar playing. Although it certainly helps me on the fretboard, I find these useful for life in general. Because eventually if you are a serious musician or intend to become a serious musician, you'll realize that every aspect of your life somehow ties into your playing and musicianship.