Relaxing your picking arm

So I developed this pain in my right arm. It’s radiating from my elbow on the outside down the forearm side. I feel like it’s because I hold a lot of tension in my shoulder and elbow when I get up to speed. I try like hell to relax my shoulder and not tense up my elbow.

I am getting it checked by a doc but I’m curious how people “feel” their picking arm, shoulder and elbow. Is there a lot of tension?


My personal experiences:
Whenever i have a good day and can play a lick which i usually struggle with, the picking feels very relaxed. Note: I dont know whether it would still feel super crampy to a virtuosic player, if he would have to borrow my technique. Its just the comparison to what i usualy do which makes me feel that.

On these occations i usually feel like i can play it now because i’ve eliminated a source of tension which i previously had to overcome during every pickstroke.

The nasty thing is, these might return the next day and i wont even notice them when they do, they might just feel “normal” the next day.

I would say its all about eliminating Tension but on the other hand, i know a great guitarist who does a lot of live shows and he told me he often cramps through difficult sections, but they sound perfect when he does them.

I remember troy once wrote “tension” is now just a codeword of “bad form” for him. When we tense up, we are doing it wrong and try making something work which isnt working.

I think neither those who play relaxed nor those who dont really experience their playing as cramped or relaxed, it just feels normal to the player. The difference is only noticable during transitions, afterwards it becomes subjective again. So maybe my friend says he cramps up, but his idea of cramping is something different than mine. Maybe his wrist stays completely relaxed while there is a spasm in his forarm rotation, or his wrist and forarm muscles lock tight and the movement comes from the elbow which is still relaxed.

There are so many factors at play that i think we have to be suspicious of people who are great players but say tension isnt that big of a deal. If they had to play with the tight robot grip of steel i used to have, they might think differently.


@J.P.Amboss A lot of great insight there. I agree. 100%. Repetitions and practice can alleviate the stress of not playing well but not really address bad form. Without someone who can describe how it feels to play without bad tension it’s a shot in the dark. It can creep back in without you even realizing it.

That’s why I put the “feel” in there. I always want to equate it to a sports movement for some reason, like swinging a bat or a golf club. Ex; “It feels like pushing a broom or flushing an old pull handle toilet.” Those movements are easy to understand and universal. Whereas someone’s personal technique description might translate as nebulous if not communicated flawlessly.

For me it’s the same. If I’m having a good day with something I’m comfortable with I don’t notice the tension but that doesn’t mean it’s not there or I’m playing with good form. Now with an injury all form technique is exaggerated.

For specifics I try to hang my shoulder(consciously go limp) now without any tension. Which I believed adds MORE tension to the wrist. It results in me having an almost Marty Friedmanesque picking hand approach where there’s no contact between my wrist and the guitar body(bridge). But maybe I’m just swapping elbow/shoulder tension for wrist tension. Even then, if I need to mute strings I have to move my whole arm anyway which creates tension. Maybe playing without tension is a bit of a misnomer. Because I see plenty of great players looking like there arms are about to fall off when there going all out.

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So, I actually logged in just now to make a similar post. Glad I’m not the only one having issues with tension. I’ve been playing in some form for over 10 years, and it’s always been a pretty tense event in both arms, including everything from my shoulders to my fingers. Mostly, I tend to unconsciously clench my teeth and raise/tense my shoulders when I am playing. I can actually close my eyes, relax, and play sloppily just to focus on staying loose and relaxed, but within 10 or 20 seconds my shoulders (especially on my picking arm) will be raised, even though I can’t actually feel it moving upwards at all. I usually only notice once I thoughtfully force myself to let that shoulder down, back to the relaxed/down position I started in.

I’ve done some reading about these topics online, and I even saw one post suggest that the teeth clenching can be solved by shoving a fresh Pringle in your mouth, theoretically forcing you to become conscious of any clenching in your mouth and providing some tactile feedback when you fail. Now, I don’t let myself eat chips anymore, and I’m not sure that it’s psychologically sound to condition yourself to eat a delicious crunchy chip every time you get tense, so I haven’t tried it. The principle seems like a decent idea, however.

As for arm tension, I came across one article that referred to the excessive tension in your arm(s) as “Popeye Arm”, suggesting that a lot of players tend to clench their forearms when playing fast, clenching so hard that their arm turns into a bulging caricature, much like everyone’s favorite sailor-man. For, this tension seems to hit higher in my arm and even my neck. I have definitely noticed that when I am able to successfully relax or prevent this tension, the quality of my playing will increase, but I’m usually quite tense and not able to reliably reproduce the relaxation.

I actually have bone spurs and a bulging disc at my left C7 disc now, so there’s at least a constant, minor tension in that part of my neck. I’ve had that for about 8 years, and I always thought that my playing exacerbated it, not caused it. But looking back, I think I spent so much time playing and being tense that playing might have actually caused the problems. It looks like the only way to solve that now is to consciously remind myself every 10 seconds to relax my shoulders.

Has anyone had any success correcting issues like these, or at least making their default position a relaxed one instead of being tense?


I can relate to a lot of things here:

i often realize that i clench my teeth, too, i still could not get rid of that. However, i corrected another, more extreme habit: During difficult passages, i used to violently suck in air! I didnt even realize that until my whole band made fun of me for one whole practice session.
This is gone, as well as other bad forms, so yes, these habits definitly can be corrected. For good intuitive learners that seems to happen automaticly. Whatever progress i made, i had to findout, correct and condition very consciously.

Here is something positive: Even through i often loose progress, i find that once you found a form which works, you return to that form, even though you cant clearly remember how it felt while your in that regression phases. So whenever you had a good day, remember that will one day be your new level, imo.


It sucks that you’re experiencing pain in your arm :frowning:
Definitely talk to a doctor about it.
I had pain playing for a long time and had to take breaks of several months at a time, so I can relate. I saw so many doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, etc. The things I have found helpful are Alexander Technique (I ended up doing the teacher training) and guitar lessons with a teacher who specialised in helping people who’ve had injuries.
If you’re tensing up to play a passage, you’re probably not ready for that speed yet.
If you’re noticing tension in your arm it’ll be happening elsewhere too. If you can address your general coordination, the specifics sort themselves out. I learned how to do that with Alexander Technique.
I feel for you - good luck

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My muscles tense only when I play fast tremolo (beyond 240bpm), other times my arm is pretty relaxed. Except for the grip which is a bit tense, but I am used to it.

I guess it came from two reasons.
Fitst, I didn’t have any practice schedule, so I played when I felt it. Second, I spent much time with my guitat just sitting and watching movies, videoclips etc while making random noises or playing simple lines without thinking much about playing itself.


I’m from the down picking camp where this is a very relevant issue / questioned a lot.
There is a Master of Puppets riff thread were I discussed technique but didn’t really emphasize a critical issue - this thread is a good place as it directly relates to why tension occurs for the down picking style of playing - may not apply to other styles as much.

People ask all the time “What is the trick” to playing that riff at speed - and the answer is there is no trick to it but there is a critical area that is about as close to a trick as anything. That is the distance used for your pick strokes. You have to refine your picking hand to using as small a pick stroke as possible. What does this have to do with tension? - Actually a lot.

What happens when we don’t have a very small, refined pick stroke and try to play it at speed - is the exact nature of introducing tension. Use this analogy and make sure no one is watching or they will think you are nuts. Using your arm/hand, make a circular motion in the air about 1 foot in diameter. Now gradually speed up the rotations without shrinking the diameter. Now try to go about as fast as you can, not changing the diameter. Maybe as fast as you can is about the tempo of MoP. Without shrinking the diameter of the circle - in order to achieve fast speed, you incorporate tension to try to make it go fast. The speed is limited by the diameter (which is analogous to pick stroke) used. The smaller the diameter, the quicker the revolutions, or speed. When one learns how to get that pick stroke much smaller - the “speed” almost comes naturally and you are not forcing any longer with tension that ultimately slows you down and it’s a never ending cycle of forcing the speed and tension detracting from your speed. Another analogy is like trying to do a quick drum roll but the sticks have to come up from the head 6 inches.

“But rotjab - I already have a real small pick stroke…” Be careful with that - you can surprise yourself as to how much tighter you can get, even when you think your pick strokes are already pretty small & refined.

Working on refining your picking this way will get you to a place where the speed is no longer something you are trying to force, which itself is the cause of tension. This is the trick to overcoming the endless speed/tension cycle rut you may have been wrangling with for years. Once you master this, you will also develop the ability to gradually increase the pick stroke lengths to incorporate additional dynamics and understand your specific abilities along a kind of a “speed vs. pick stroke length curve”


My suggestion to all is to do most of your practicing at speeds you can handle and increase speeds gradually and yes remind yourself to relax . Don’t try to play at the speed of your guitar hero on a lick your just learning from him - take your time - if your practicing a lick and making mistakes every time your just practicing your mistakes. Practice at speeds you can handle ! You’ll be amazed at how fast the speed will come.


Ahh, hello tension my old friend…
Over the years I’ve picked up heaps of hand and forearm injuries, all related to tension. I’ve worked with hand therapists and osteopaths to settle things down, and it always comes down to minimising tension.

It’s two-fold for me - enough force to make the sound you need to, and time to release that tension, lest it build up.

The end point I keep coming back to is as little tension as possible. Fast, slow, moderate tempos are irrelevant. I need to play as light as possible, or the slightest tension will build over time and develop into injury. At the moment I’m dealing with a pain in my upper arm, tricep area, which has come from moving tension with speed higher up my arm, and also some incompatible shoulder rotating in some strumming passages.

If there’s pain always present, definitely address this first. See a doctor or someone who can get your body back into shape and give you some flexibility and strengthening exercises. Your playing has identified an imbalance, and it’s probably an easy fix, but is harder the longer you leave it.

My focus in practice and performing now is to be effortless and tension-free at all times. It starts with my pick grip, extends to my wrist mechanics, further in to my forearm, then upper arm, shoulder, back and neck. It’s all related. Over time my focus has extended through all of these, but I have a lot of work to do on shoulders still. Starting with being mindful of my hands helped a lot.

There was a LOT of relearning, I’ll be honest. But my technique is a lot better and I can play longer (8 shows a week at the moment) without pain. I stretch down after each show and try to warm up physically before I touch an instrument.

Sorry you’re experiencing pain. I get very jealous of guitarists who can play seemingly with whatever technique works for them and never experience injury. But I’m happy that my body has a very stern way of telling me I’m doing something wrong, quickly, because it’s leading me down a path of becoming more efficient.

The advice from others here is spot on about playing without tension, and avoiding speeds if your body isn’t keeping up. At higher speeds, any tension with be exacerbated.

I compare picking speeds to car or bike gears with students. At low speeds, you can use a little more force, as you’ll have time to recover between strokes. At higher speeds, you want to be floating through strings with zero tension. I can mostly identify 3 gears of speed and effort in my playing, you might have more. The important thing is they should feel different, and become lighter the faster you go, not become more tense.

The good news is your body should respond quickly. Get rid of the tension, let your arms and hands adapt, and you’ll find your technique will adapt to its new light regime in no time.


I have issues with tension, especially as I’ve been working to develop my USX picking motions. One of the biggest things that’s helped me has been relaxing my grip on the pick. I tend instinctively clamp down on the pick when doing simple tasks such as shifting power chords. Stuff that really shouldn’t affect the picking at all. It felt like my posture was constantly setting and resetting and causing my playing to stutter in the process.

When I can lock into a relaxed grip that has enough surface area to grab the pick sufficiently, everything clicks together way better. Might be worth considering if you haven’t already

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Tension can ruin your sound and weighs heavily on your mind why you can’t play something. I found that scotch tape can help bring problems to the forefront. I kept bending my thumb at the joint changing my pick angle. So I put a piece of tape around that joint and every time it tried to bend it was a reminder I was changing my technique. I was picking from my elbow instead of my wrist so I put a piece of tape across the top of my arm and anchoring it to the body of the guitar. (This only works on one string at a time). If I played from my wrist there was no pulling on my forearm, but the moment I tensed up it started pulling the skin. Since you are playing on one string, use a metronome and start as slow as possible with no pulling of the tape and slowly increase until you feel the tape pull. That means you are tensing up. Make a mental note of the tempo and staying relaxed try increase your speed. I found that I could play faster on the lighter strings than the bass strings. If you get any tape residue it removes easily with guitar polish and does not hurt the finish. It will seem stupid at first until you start seeing results.

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