I’m curious to hear from any who have struggled with this and applied a successful solution at some point. What have you found that works for you?
I struggled with it. I think a significant part of it was anxiety and misguided expectations on what playing guitar was supposed to be about. It became a habit to tense up. I also did the opposite and became way too relaxed as a counter, but it didn’t work. Mental blocks are a thing, guitar is as much about technique as it is about psychology. I don’t have much to suggest as it depends on why you tense up. Figure out the causes and work from there. To me, I think it was about trying to get over that mental block, connecting with my body in a deeper way and being hypersensitive of physical sensations when I play. Not being so afraid to make mistakes when practicing (this is a big one - I tried to avoid making mistakes, it just made me tense up. It’s like skateboarding, another passion of mine. You cannot be too afraid to skate, that’s when you get hurt. Sometimes you really just have to go for it and trust yourself. Lose yourself in the process and forget the world around you). Slowly moving my fingers from one chord to the next, or doing the opposite and trying very fast changes. Spending a lot, a lot, a lot of time just feeling the sensations and figuring out how to make it more effortless.
I’ve had the exact problem with speed + tension especially, whenever I noodle and don’t think it goes so fast, I agree on the mental note, Steve via has a segment on meditation on YouTube that really helped me
When working with a student who is struggling with too much hand tension I always begin with asking them to play softly. This request very often works wonders for releasing tension in both hands as it “tricks” the student into relaxing in an attempt to reduce volume.
Of course playing softer has little to do with the fretting hand but I discovered over many decades of practicing, performing, and teaching that relaxing the picking hand creates a similar relaxation in the fretting hand (and vice versa unfortunately).
- Play the line or rhythm that is causing the issue with your normal amp settings.
- Turn the amp up (gain and/or volume) just a bit but leave your guitar on 10 and see if you can achieve the same sound as before by reducing the amplitude of your pick attack.
- Challenge yourself in your daily practice to stay relaxed (play softly). You are what you practice after all. Don’t expect yourself to perform relaxed if you are practicing tensed up.
This approach can feel counter-intuitive if you are playing aggressive music but let the amp work a little harder (or get a boost pedal) and learn to protect your muscles, tendons, and ligaments by staying as relaxed as you are able.
If instead you are playing acoustic or clean electric a compressor can also help with volume and sustain that is reduced as you reduce tension.
Hope this helps!