What is tension? Is it bad?

Hello!

This might be a quite vauge question, or multiple questions rather. I’ve tried googling but without success (maybe I’m a bad googler)

Why do we get tension when doing specific movements?
Why is it mostly considered ‘‘bad’’ to have tension? I’ve seen multiple articles/videos on how to reduce tension but never understood why we want to reduce it on an anatomical level.

Anecdotal, I feel much more in control when being relaxed, and learning new stuff feels way way easier if im focused on being very relaxed in my hands (esp the right hand). I just wonder why that is?

Basically, tension is muscular contraction.

Playing guitar is an active process, so some degree of tension is necessary. However, a high background of muscular tension and unnecessary muscular exertion will have negative consequences.

Too much tension reduces our ability to move quickly and it reduces our sensitivity to tactile reference and kinaesthetic feedback. It also results in more rapid onset of fatigue.

Continuing to stress your body beyond the point of fatigue can result in overuse injuries.

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This is something that’s really on my mind since discovering CtC a few weeks ago. When tension is present your muscles are fighting each other which is of course counterproductive, and I suspect most times it comes about when you don’t have equilibrium.

First I realized I was using UPS technique for trying to play DSP passages (ugh) but that led me to another problem which makes for a clearer example: suddenly my left hand couldn’t keep up with my right and I started noticing numbness and discomfort. CtC focuses strictly on right hand but I took the same approach and realized what was happening:

I have really long fingers and was getting a false sense of stability by placing the hand near the neck, often with the base of the first finger touching the fretboard. If you keep your wrist straight and wiggle your fingers, then cock the wrist back and keep wiggling you’ll feel that tension right away; it’s kind of embarrassing to admit I played that way for so long, but that’s the point of this approach.

So I was using tendons in the back of the hand to hold it in this uncomfortable position, and yanking the tendons on the other side of the wrist back, putting them at a mechanical disadvantage; that’s about the clearest example of playing with tension I can think of.

Seems obvious to just do the opposite but the funny thing is, at first it feels really unstable having the hand so far out; it takes some getting used to but damn if the numbness didn’t just disappear. It slowed me down for about a week but now the left hand is catching up and I don’t worry about overuse.

Anyone else have examples of things like this?

I feel good about my fretting hand, but I’m curious to understand what you’re describing and don’t quite follow you. Could you post a few photos or a short video to help illustrate the problem and remedy you’re describing?

Sure thing, just found stock images online but they should illustrate the problem. This is neutral:

wrist-hand-neutral-position-diagram-small
This is extension, which was causing the problem:

wrist-extension-diagram-small
Below is what I use now, a little flexion is fine and allows easy reach of the strings:

wrist-flexion-diagram-small

The drawing is exaggerated, my wrist has maybe 15 degrees flexion or so now which is pretty common I’d guess.

Adding, tension is essential because without it we’d be blobs on the floor. We need a certain amount of it to hold the guitar, keep ourselves upright, not drop the pick, apply enough force for things like fretting a note, etc etc, you probably get the idea.

I think what’s implied whenever “tension” is discussed is really “extra tension.”

There can be “extra” in the muscle we’re actively using, and there can also be extra in muscles we’re not really using for much - for example I think a lot of people tense up their neck/jaw unnecessarily when they’re trying to do something difficult with their hands. You don’t want your head rolling off your shoulders, but I don’t think a strong bite gives any advantage to guitar playing.

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Exactly, we’re not trying to eliminate all tension.

We’re trying to eliminate unnecessary tension, to find the minimum effective dose.

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Agreed, I would love to see a compendium of common sources of nonproductive tension and I think we’re sitting on a goldmine here; I’d say most of us ran across Troy’s discoveries, realized we’d been doing something crucially wrong, and were willing to face that head-on which is kind of rare; most people avoid disconfirming evidence like the plague.

I suspect most undesirable tension is the result of a short-term “fix” that, though a dead-end, becomes habit: here’s a classic example. In my teaching days I’d run across students who would jam their RH pinky hard into the top of the guitar which sort of makes sense if you have trouble hitting the right strings. Now there’s nothing wrong with RH fingers touching the top as long as it doesn’t introduce counterproductive tension.

Or the problem might be passive, where the amount of tension is normal but the approach multiplies the tension mechanically for example, trying to use slant picking for phrases not suited to that technique: if you’re using DPS and try doing a descending sweep normal tension is magnified and you snag the lower string.

Seriously I’d love more examples of things that held people back, anytime a light bulb goes on it can save endless wasted hours of practice.

I think it would be hard to be exhaustive because:

A. There are a lot of muscles in the human body

B. Using a comparatively inefficient technique can be a factor contributing to excess tension, but I think the correlation is not very direct. Simple example, you can easily play a solo using just your left hand pinky, and only picking upstrokes, and be super hunched over, and not have much extra tension going on…it would simply be an issue of playing figures that were comfortable for that technique (eg, not too fast, no bending or minimal bending) and simply being relaxed while playing.

Conversely, and this is something I’m very familiar with, you can be using excellent technique in terms of mechanics and positioning, but simply be locked up and unintentionally engaging a bunch of other muscles (like neck/jaw stuff as I mentioned in last comment) and that would be excess tension. I mean, sit and flex your calf muscle while strumming a G chord…bam, excess tension!

I agree it wouldn’t be practical to address every source of tension but bear with me here, I’m riding on a high lately having eliminated some fatal errors from my technique.

To borrow an analogy from psychiatry, it’s only a disorder if there’s a real problem that needs to be solved. It’s common to hear people say “I’m so OCD, I always like to organize my pencils on the desk!” But that’s not OCD; the only consequence is that now your pencils are organized, awesome. But if your hands are bloody from checking a thousand times to make sure your door is actually locked, well, now we have a problem.

That’s Troy’s crucial insight, finding common problem-solving errors: anyone who tries to play Yngwie licks using upward pickslanting is gonna have a bad time . . . believe me, I’ve tried.

At the end of the day everything is a cost/benefit analysis, I’d guess the most common problems are the easiest to solve and we have an unusually good community here, what if many of us said “this was holding me back, hope it works for someone out there?” I’ll start:

For some reason I figured economy of motion was key (not true: look at Troy’s range of motion with the pick) so it seemed to make sense to lock my wrist in one place on the bridge. Terrible idea, that just means your (my) wrist has to make all kinds of corrections, introducing tons of tension. Forearm tracking (thanks Troy!) solved it. I’d like to hear more success stories (granted I’m far from the best, just someone who made some improvements based on input from others!)

Well I mean, a list of common but not optimal technique choices could be interesting, though I’m sure each one could be debated. I see it as a seperate issue than the tension discussion. But certainly could be interesting. And very, very, very, very long.

A post was merged into an existing topic: Mechanical solutions for YYZ’s riff?

I have to reply to this, because, with all due respect, I find it a really misguided conceptualization of what a disorder might be, which can be very harmful for people who suffer or have suffered from any form of psychological distress, like I have. So first of all, external behaviour or external consequence of that behaviour is an extremely poor marker for determining whether one is mentally healthy or not. Not all of us walk around with bloody hands all the time, yet that does not make us healthy. A compulsion is a compulsion. Whether it results in bloody hands or not doesn’t matter. Organizing your pencils is not a marker of compulsion, but it can be driven by compulsion, in which case the fact that it doesn’t appear to have any external consequences but time better wasted somewhere else matters not. Compulsions are in my view, intended to prevent harm, they are a coping mechanism to anxiety. One cannot “see” anxiety, but one can see bloody hands, which is why certain psychotherapeutic models equate mental health with “behavioral health”, which is profoundly problematic for a number of reasons. Not to even talk about OCD as a diagnosis or an illness, which I think is bunk. You could delete all these arbitrary constructs for the DSM and be left with the symptoms that constitute them (delete OCD, which is an arbitrary construct, leave the terms “compulsion”, “avoidance”, “anxiety”, etc, which are real experiences) guide the symptomatic person into reflecting on them, and you’d make a much better job than how it happens nowadays (placing a label onto a person).

On topic, tension is certainly negative and I find an extreme difference between how I was playing, say, just a few years ago and now. Playing well is supposed to feel easy and effortless. It is never meant to feel tense. You will simply know the difference when you get there. There is always tension because there is always muscle activation, but it never feels like you’re brute forcing something and “putting effort” into it. Good technique should develop more or less naturally. If you look at how kids learn, they don’t stand around doing all sorts of mental gymnastics that we adults do to discover how to be good at something. They just play and experiment and have fun. That’s the right mindset to learn any skill. If you’re tense, you’re probably overreaching and going for something you’re not yet skilled enough to do, trying to force yourself, controlling the outcome…I find that relaxation exercises can be useful to understand how things are supposed to feel, but the catch is, if you’re used to forcing yourself to do things you can be tense doing those exercises and completely misunderstanding what relaxation is.

What I recommend anyone struggling with tension (or anything, really) to do is simply to find something that brings them to some sort of childlike playfulness. Lately I’ve been playing football (soccer, for you americans out there) and rediscovering what it feels like to simply kick the ball and experiment with it and letting go of at least a degree of control. It brough a childlike playfulness to me and I now understand completely how that was missing from the way I practiced guitar. You see, when you play with a childlike innocence you aren’t afraid of making mistakes. You develop your skills naturally, with joy, being immersed in what you do. When you start to get worried about technique, and thinking that to get good technically you need to know rocket science, you start to lose that playfulness and it hinders you. It should be a joy to play guitar, it should feel like “look what I can do now! I can pick just this one single note and it sounds really good!” rather than “oh my, I keep hitting the wrong strings in this 1 million note per string pattern at 300 bpm that’s completely way beyond my skill level for me to do yet, I guess I just need to try harder”.

From my experience tension in the way you’re talking about, is trying to play in a way thats not natural to your body.

I played quite fluid before getting into technique, the got obsessed with evh and Jason Becker, trying to play in a specific way like them. I have to accept my own way of playing rather than wanting to look like them, to loosen up.

I’ve suffered from many different psychological symptoms that could easily be attributed many different diagnosis, including OCD. In fact, the synptoms of many DSM diagnosis overlap woth each other. They are constelation of symptoms, constructs, not, in my opinion, actual illnesses with a neurobiological basis. I adhere to the view that what we call mental illness is more often than not either trauma responses or survival and coping mechanisms to the stresses of life and society.

I’ve suffered, for instance, from nasty intrusive thoughts that were very usual of typical OCD descriptions. I’ve suffered from all sorts of compulsions, like going for a walk or scrolling through my phone to deal with overwhelming anxiety. I wondered if I had OCD, or ADHD, and each time I started to self-identify with one of those, it’s like I started to explain everything through that lenses and the typical theories associated (like I was neurodivergent) and it only made me more confused and lost. Since then, more careful analysis of my condition, life history and life circumstances, made me realize that all of those symptoms were simply the result of a history of abuse and neglect. They were, effectively, survival and coping mechanisms, or the result of, say, gaslighting and lies. It is all very understandable when you start to comprehend how it all fits together. You go from a brain fog to a clear mind.

Thus, I adamantly refuse to be labeled with any kind of diagnosis and I refute DSM labeling as a way to describe the complexities of human behavior and mind. It might be true, as you say, that before certain diagnosis existed it was harder for people to get treatments, but in my view that only displays the flaws of the system and how psychiatric labeling works against people receiving treatment, not contribute to it. Obviously your mileage differs depending where you live (I’m told in the USA it’s like that because of insurance companies), but where I live I’ve encountered therapists who were themselves dismissive of psychiatric labels. I don’t think labeling helps in any way to address the root of the problem. Curious exploration of your mind and your psychological quirks is what helps, as well as human connection and social support, of course. I think being labeled can result in resignation and identifying with the label, which obscures the knowledge that the root of the problem lies elsewhere and you can heal. I favor psychodynamic approaches as opposed to behavioral-cognitive approaches.

I hope this conversation hasn’t turned way off -topic. It is a topic dear to me. Regardless, I think it interlinks with guitar playing because correct understanding of the causes of my psychological distress was one of the things that helped me the most in my guitar playing and im reducing tension. Many of the barriers laid in my path were never technical in nature, but psychological, emotional, social, even spiritual and philosophical. The fingers aren’t the enemy. The mind can be.

If I understand most animals have pairs of muscles that oppose each other. My amateur definition of tension is that BOTH pairs of muscles are turned on, effectively fighting each other, and making the joint behave as if it is stiff. It looks to me like many of our favorite players do have a lot of tension when they go really fast, so I’m not sure if tension is good or bad. My guess would be that it’s probably best to have the lowest tension that is possible, but this is likely entering an area where expertise is required, hence asking Troy.