By Craig Winston, Guitar Instructor the Rock and Pop Music Academy of Boulder
In today’s guitar lesson I’m going to teach you how to be a better guitar player without practicing.
While performance anxiety seems to be an epidemic among musicians, and we all have our advice on how to change your mind to combat nervousness, we don’t hear much advice about how our lives off stage and out of the practice room can affect the way we play our instruments.
The following are some tips from my own experience that have helped me combat shaky hands, anxiety, and brain fog, as well as a number of other physical blocks that might not be obvious to us once we pick up the guitar.
Skip the coffee
I know…I know. BOOORING! And certainly, as a guy that likes to shred guitar, drive fast, and listen to heavy metal, this is the complete antithesis of what I should be saying.
However, advanced guitar technique requires so much precision and accuracy that is dependent on total relaxation. Even if that morning coffee seems to give you a boost and wake you up, it’s probably boosting your heart rate and causing a touch of nervousness, resulting in shaky hands. On top of that, caffeine has been shown to boost feelings of anxiety, promote dehydration, and possibly increase your blood pressure.
I’m not telling you to swear off it, but it’s a really good idea not to have it within a couple of hours of playing guitar. Trust me, you’ll notice that your hands feel less frantic when you’re learning that new Dragon Force solo.
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
Actually. Bananas. And Oranges. And actually other fruit too. But bananas in particular can act as a natural beta blocker, meaning they help to promote feelings of relaxation and reduce anxiety. They are high in an amino acid called Tryptophan, helping you to relax.
This is great news for musicians. Eat a couple of bananas 30 to 60 minutes before you perform, and you’ll be sure to feel a lot less nervous or shaky. Similarly, certain citrus fruits have been shown in some studies to reduce the effects of cold on your bodies extremities (i.e. your fingers) helping you to have slightly higher dexterity in cold rooms.
And in general the antioxidants in fruit can benefit blood flow helping to lower your heart rate and keep you relaxed. Vegetables work in this way too.
Cut your finger nails
This might seem obvious…but it obviously isn’t to the guy with Freddy Krueger claws who can’t figure out why his technique is so bad.
For most of us, at least cutting finger nails on our fret hand will make it so much easier to play notes because it’s going to let us place our finger tips directly on the strings without having to dodge an ungroomed finger nail.
For us speed pickers, the right hand can benefit from a good grooming too as those long nails can get caught on the strings (and that can actually be pretty painful). Additionally, longer nails collect more dirt which piles up on your strings and on the neck of your guitar adding to slower action, dull sounding strings, and an overall unsanitary instrument.
Which brings me to my next point…
WASH YOUR HANDS!
For obvious reasons. But wash your hands before you play. Your instrument will be cleaner and shinier, your strings will sound better, and you won’t be combatting the grip of grime all over the neck of the guitar when you shred.
As an added bonus, washing your hands in hot water for the recommended 30 seconds or more before you play will warm them up and can be extra therapeutic, helping you relax just a little bit and combat any coldness that can make your joints stiff.
Set up your guitar
Ok, so this one actually involves a guitar, but it doesn’t mean you have to practice. Proper action height on your instrument is essential for optimum precision and synchronization between your hands, intonation, and playability of the instrument. If strings are too high, notes are harder to fret and take a split second longer to depress causing your hands to be out of sync, thus causing you to play slower.
This can also instigate tendonitis because the delicate muscles and tendons in the wrist and hand must exert more force to play the notes.
Further, a well-maintained guitar sounds better as it is really in tune, the pickups are at the right height, and you just play it with ease. Learn how to do it yourself, ask your instructor, or take it to a good guitar repair shop. Trust me, you will have never loved your guitar more.
This still means you have to practice
Of course, nothing is a substitute for consistent practice. But if you follow some of these tips I guarantee they will help you to get an edge (or rather relax and be in the zone) for your next big audition, rehearsal, or performance. And they can serve to make your practice more effective.
What non-musical habits do you have that help you perform better?