Avoiding Painful Shoulder Tension

Aaron Shearer

Precise control of both upper arms is an important part of guitar technique. To carry out accurate movements of the fingers, the upper arm must maintain a position which allows the fingers to function freely. During normal playing, the exertion required to support the upper arm can be accomplished entirely with the muscles controlling the shoulder joint — this is the joint where the upper arm joins the shoulder.

Chronic shoulder pain occurs when the wrong muscles are brought into play. Most often, it’s caused by counterproductive ten­sion in the muscles which lift or lower the entire shoulder area. Although pain can occur in either shoulder, right shoulder pain is far more common than left shoulder pain. This is because of the different demands placed on your right and left shoulders during guitar playing. In normal playing, the left shoulder joint remains relatively mobile — the upper arm moves with every left-hand shift. Although it’s possible for tension to accumulate in the muscles controlling the entire shoulder, the constant left-hand movement acts as a natural release of this tension. Further, only the left lower arm requires constant support — the upper arm generally assumes a relaxed downward position. Thus, the left shoulder seldom accumulates enough tension to cause pain.

The right shoulder joint position, however, is relatively static — there’s not enough movement to cause a natural release of tension. Further, the entire right arm requires constant support. Thus, if the muscles controlling the entire shoulder area become tense, they tend to stay tensed. This tension not only causes pain which can spread to the back, it can also spread down the arms to hinder the free function of the hands.

Learning to Recognize Correct Arm Movement

To avoid chronic shoulder pain, you must acquire the habit of moving your upper arm at the shoulder joint alone — the muscles controlling the shoulder itself should remain relaxed. But these two movements feel so similar that we seldom distinguish between them—indeed, in everyday activities, they often occur simultaneously. Thus you must first become sensitive to the difference between movement of the entire shoulder and movement at the shoulder joint alone.

The following procedure can be carried out with whichever shoulder has been causing you pain. You’ll need a mirror large enough to show your head and torso—you won’t need the guitar.

    Exercise 1

    • Face the mirror with your shoulders in a relaxed and natur­ally rounded position.
    • Lift and drop your shoulder several times—this is move­ment of the entire shoulder. The muscles controlling this movement should remain relaxed during normal playing.

    Exercise 2

    • Allow your shoulder to return to its relaxed position.
    • Now, slowly raise and lower your arm to the side several times—this is movement at the shoulder joint. (Watch your shoulder carefully! Don’t allow it to rise as you raise your arm.) The muscles controlling this movement are the ones you’ll use to hold your arm in normal playing position.

    Repeat both these exercises many times, until you can begin to feel the difference between them.

    Left shoulder pain usually begins to disappear once you become aware of the difference between these two movements. For the left shoulder, moving the upper arm from the shoulder joint feels natural enough that you should have little problem acquiring habits of correct movement. Avoiding right-shoulder pain, however, is more challenging. Because you must lift your right upper arm into playing position, lifting the entire shoulder tends to feel very natural. To avoid this harmful movement, you must acquire new habits of playing. The following procedure will help you acquire these new habits.

    Procedure for Training the Right Shoulder

    When you’ve become sensitive to the two different movements with your right arm, you’re ready to begin this movement on the guitar. Facing a mirror, sit in normal playing position with the guitar. Before you begin, allow your right arm to hang in a relaxed position at your side. You may wish to shake it loosely — this will help to relax your shoulder muscles. Then carefully place your right arm in playing position. Don’t allow your shoulder to rise! It should remain in the same relaxed and sloping position as your left shoulder.  Proceed as follows:

    • To steady the guitar in playing position during this exercise,grasp the upper bout of the guitar with your left hand.
    • With your fingers curled in a loose fist, lightly place your right hand on the strings. Your hand should rest over the edge of the soundhole nearest the bridge — your wrist should be aligned and arched in its normal playing position.
    • Moving only from the shoulder joint, slide your hand back and forth along the strings. Your wrist should remain normally aligned and arched as you move. Your movements should be large enough for you to clearly feel movement at your shoulder joint — your hand should alternately slide over the fingerboard as far as the 7th fret, and all the way back to the bridge. If you’re an experienced guitarist, you’ll recognize this as the movement used for changing tone color and executing artificial harmonics, Thus, this movement is not only valuable for learning to avoid right shoulder pain—it’s also an essential part of guitar technique (Notice that, if your fingers are prepared against the strings, the nails tend to catch on the frets — this is why you should keep your fingers curled in a loose fist.)
    • Watch your right shoulder very carefully! If it starts to rise out of its relaxed position, stop immediately. If your shoulder be­comes even slightly tense, perform the right-hand position check several times — this helps to relax your shoulder muscles.

    Perform these steps many times. Concentrate on moving from the shoulder joint alone and keeping the shoulder muscles relaxed. Take frequent breaks to allow your muscles to release. Constantly check your shoulder posture as you execute the right-arm movements — your right shoulder should always remain in the same relaxed and sloping position as your left shoulder.

    At first, you may find your forearm pressing against the guitar so hard that it chafes against the rim of the guitar. If so, you’re allowing too much of the weight of your arm to press against the guitar. Allow only enough weight to keep the guitar in position— as you move, your forearm should slide comfortably across the area of the soundboard just below the rim of the guitar.

    As you become proficient in moving only from the shoulder joint, you’ll need to begin incorporating this movement into your playing. The following procedure will help you accomplish this:

    • Using the previous procedure, slide your hand back and forth along the strings several times. Then, in a smooth continuation of this movement, carefully slide your hand into normal playing position. NOTE: Sliding your hand into playing position from the fingerboard  tends to relax your shoulder; thus it requires little practice. Sliding your hand into playing position from the bridge, however, tends to cause tension in your shoulder; thus, this movement requires far more practice.
    • Using prepared strokes, sound the strings several times to ensure that your right hand and arm are in a comfortable playing position.
    • Repeat the previous steps. Aim to slide in and out of normal playing position by moving only from the shoulder joint.
    • Watch your right shoulder! As you slide into playing posi­tion, you may have a strong tendency to lift your shoulder — don’t allow this to happen.

    Summary of Avoiding Shoulder Pain

    Your ability to avoid chronic shoulder pain depends on the following factors:

      • Your ability to distinguish between movement at the shoul­der joint and lifting the entire shoulder.
      • Your ability to accurately repeat the correct movement, moving from the shoulder joint alone until it becomes habitual.
      • Your ability to play, whether practicing or performing, without confusion and error.

      Like all aspects of guitar positioning, eliminating chronic shoulder pain is a gradual and challenging process. You should defer performing during this process; otherwise you’ll tend to fall back into the same habits which caused your shoulder pain in the first place. Spend as much time as you need with these procedures. The careful practice you devote to acquiring correct habits of movement will be well rewarded.

      ……..Aaron Shearer