By Gary Allen
Okay, so I stopped you with the headline. Sorry, but it’s not actually your guitar’s health I want to address. I want to talk about something equally, if not more important. I want to talk about YOUR health and how that translates into your life as a guitar player. I hope you will take the time to read this article because it may prolong the enjoyment of your guitar-playing journey.
Now I am by no means a doctor, but I have learned a few things along the way in my years as a musician. There are some very common things that can cause your health to degrade that are linked to playing guitar. I am not talking about getting all pumped up with muscle and becoming a lean, mean music-playing machine. Carrying a few extra pounds like I do will have a very minimal effect on your guitar playing. I want to talk about physical ailments that can affect you. I will talk about a few of these things and how to help avoid them. I will finish this article with some healthy tips for playing live. You may want to pass this article on to anyone who plays any instrument. This article really applies to any musicians from drummers and bass players, to piano players. Let's start with some physical problems that may come your way as a result of being a player.
Physical Problems Many Musicians Face
The topics we are going to cover here are hearing, carpal tunnel syndrome, and arthritis—probably the most common physiological challenges guitarists face.. Let's start with hearing.
Protect your ears!! We all have seen the concert either live or on TV where the guy runs out on the stage and yells something like "Are you ready to rock and roll?" At this point the crowd goes crazy. What is the next thing out of the guy's mouth? Generally it is something like "I can't hear you!!" Now we've thought for years that these music stars were just trying to pump up the crowd, but I believe that some of these artists really couldn't hear the crowd very well. All those years in small practice rooms turning their tube amps up high enough to get that overdriven sound, and sticking their heads in front of monitors onstage pumping a 5,000-watt wall of sound at their eardrums are going to do some damage. I can attest to this because I have lost some of my hearing over the years from not protecting my ears. I am by no means deaf, but I do not hear sounds like I used to either. It makes it much harder to hear the nuances of tone and pitch in the music.
There are times when the music needs to be loud. Metal and hard rock do not sound right if you can have a conversation with the person next to you without screaming. If you are in the band, you are going to hear loud music onstage also. There is no way around this especially if you have a drummer on the stage right behind you and all the other instruments have to be turned up so you can hear them over the drums.
Acoustic bands should take note that if you mic your instruments in a small room, and have monitors onstage, you are at risk as well. Remember this. There is no style of music that will not hurt your ears if it is too loud, whether it be country, classical or bluegrass. (Okay, you rockers. No jokes about these styles hurting your ears even at low levels.) I remember nights driving home from a gig where my ears were ringing because of the sound bombardment I had just put them through.
So how do we combat hearing problems if we can't turn down the volume without ruining our show or our sound? First off, you can use earplugs. They will diminish the sound level but still allow you to hear yourself. There are many available today. They are very inexpensive, so there is no excuse for not having a few pairs in your guitar case at all times. There are even some companies that will take a plastic mold of your ears and then design an earplug specifically for you. These are quite a bit more expensive but they are reusable and will probably last you for years as long as you don't lose them. These are much more comfortable than the inexpensive little foam rubber ones.
[Editors note: In-ear monitors and earphones will also help protect hearing when levels are set properly.]
So why is your hearing so important? Okay, that is a stupid question but I am going to answer it anyway. In an extreme case you can blow out an eardrum in an instant, but in most cases hearing loss is gradual. So gradual you probably won't notice it until someone points out to you that you say "what?" or "huh?" all the time. The reason it is important to notice hearing loss is because it affects certain frequencies. and when you lose frequencies you cannot hear if your guitar's pitch right. You will end up playing out of tune and not even notice. This is not a good thing because you will sound great to yourself, but you will sound awful to anyone with normal hearing. At some point as a guitar player you are going to start searching for your signature sound and the perfect tone. What good is it going to be to have the perfect tone if you cannot hear it?
At Musician’s Friend you’ll find a huge selection of ear plugs and hearing protection products.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Almost everyone has heard of carpal tunnel syndrome these days. More than likely you know someone who has had it. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the swelling of the tissue around the median nerve. The carpal tunnel is formed by the bones and ligaments in your wrist. When the tissues in your carpal tunnel swell they put pressure on the median nerve and the blood vessels that nourish it This can cause tingling, numbness, weakness, or pain in your wrist. and arm.
The cause of carpal tunnel syndrome is generally repetitive motion of the fingers or wrist from things such as typing, operating tools and even guitar playing. This goes for any instrument that requires repetitive wrist and finger movements. There are other causes for carpal tunnel syndrome including normal wear from aging, arthritis, gout, diabetes, broken wrist bones, as well as tumors in the wrist.
Since you are a guitar player you have a high risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive motions of chording and playing scales or leads. Musicians from drummers to horn players are also at risk.
Now I know that we are all not going to quit playing our guitars or practicing so we need to know what we can do to protect ourselves from carpal tunnel syndrome. Some of the steps we can take to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome are taking breaks when practicing or playing for long periods of time and exercising your wrist and finger muscles. According to Web MD, keeping your arm, hand and finger muscles strong will help prevent the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Do exercises to flex and stretch your hands and wrists before you start playing. Doing so will help minimize your susceptibility to this condition. If you feel that this is a problem you already have, see a doctor. If caught early, there are non-surgical steps they can recommend to help.
Les Paul struggled with crippling osteoarthritis during the last half of his life. He wasn’t alone among guitar players who have faced the various forms of this disease. The type Les had to deal with is the most common. Osteoarthritis causes joint pain and stiffness that worsens over time.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks joint tissue causing painful swelling in the joints of the fingers, wrists and extremities. Pain is often worse upon awakening.
In order to deal with either of these two types of arthritis, a diagnosis is needed first. Although both types tend to be chronic diseases that don’t go away, antiinflammatory drugs, lifestyle changes and diet may help minimize your symptoms. Consult your health provider.
Tips for the Live Gig
These are things that I learned and experienced in my time playing live. I am not saying that you need to make a complete lifestyle change to maintain your health while gigging. But small things can make a big difference.
Think of yourself as a marathon runner who should be ready to run on the day of the marathon. Instead of using your legs to carry your body through the marathon, you are going to be using your fingers to run a marathon on the fretboard. Like a marathon runner you should train (practice) every day to condition yourself to play. Here are some conditioning tips:
1. Stretch your muscles.
I usually do this about two hours before a gig. I stretch the muscles in my arms, legs, and back as well as my hands and fingers. Some of you may wonder why you need to stretch your legs and back muscles to play a guitar. For those of you who have never played a gig, here's why: You are going to be standing onstage for four-five hours with just a few breaks. You may end up with cramps in your legs after the show if your legs are not in great shape. Stretching these muscles will deliver oxygen to your muscles and will help curb any cramping in your legs and back.
2. Warm up backstage before the gig.
Play through some scales and chording patterns to get your fingers loosened up and ready to go. It can be very hard to get the night started if you are not loosened up. I have played gigs where I did not do this and the first few songs sounded awful until I was warmed up. If you warm up first, your set will more likely be successful from the first song to the last.
3. Eat a light meal.
I don't mean that you need to change your daily diet. Just don't load up right before you go onstage. Your body has to work very hard to digest a heavy meal and it makes you feel sluggish and tired. Try to imagine standing onstage for hours feeling like you want to take a nap. It kind of makes it difficult to get through the night. I like a huge T-bone steak as much as the next guy, but it does no good for you before a long night of playing. When I was playing a lot, the band and I would have a light dinner before the gig and then after the gig was over we would head to the late night diner for a good meal. This also provides a great time for a band meeting to go over how the gig went and address any problems that may have occurred during the gig.
4. Watch what you eat.
Avoid eating foods with a lot of sugars three to four hours before a gig. Sugar will spike your body's blood sugar level for about three-four hours. During this time you may feel you are invincible, but when you crash from that sugar high, you are going to feel tired and sluggish. This is not a great thing to experience when you are in the middle of a gig with an hour or two to go.
5. Limit your alcohol intake.
I know I am going to step on someone's toes here, but I am going to say it anyway. I have played enough gigs with other musicians who could not play in a bar without getting completely inebriated to know that this does not work well if you are trying to sound your best. I am not saying that you should not drink at all, although that is generally a good way to go if you can. Alcohol dulls your senses as well as slowing down your reflexes. Much guitar playing is reflex action in the fingers and wrist. You won't hear what you are playing as well and it will affect the way your fingers feel the strings. You may think you sound fine, but in reality you may not if you can't hear what you are playing as well. We had a rule in the last band I was in that you could have one beer before the gig and could not drink any more until the last hour of the gig. We actually fired members who could not adhere to this rule if they got sloppy-sounding halfway through a gig.
6. Make the gig a drug-free zone.
My final suggestion will involve a lifestyle change for anyone who uses drugs when performing. I am not going to preach to anyone here because I have done some in the past myself. I urge anyone who is using drugs to give them up. I want to be able to hear your music on the radio someday, and we have already lost enough wonderful musicians to drugs. Some who never lived long enough to get their music to the radio.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and maybe even learned a few things that will help you sound better and feel better in your guitar-playing journey. My wish for you all is that you have a long and healthy life playing music. Please be well!
[Editors note: Author Gary Allen received so much response to this article’s original publication he wrote a follow-up. You can read Guitar Health: Part 2 here.]
Musician’s Friend offers a healthy selection of hand and finger exercisers that help you to safely develop dexterity and playing stamina.
Photo: Wikimedia/Kris Krug