"Protect yourself at all times…."

Anybody who has watched a boxing or MMA match has heard those words given by the referee at the beginning of a fight in the ring or cage. But they apply to aspiring shredder guitar players too.

I remember reading an article about Yngwie Malmsteen who complained about tendonitis in his left hand (I cannot find the article now). As I remember he said something like “I never warmed up, I just picked up the guitar everyday and played as fast as I could. I’m proud of this album because I was in a lot of pain during it”.
Recently I’ve been watching killer shredder Rusty Cooley play pentatonic scales, which are traditionally played with two notes per string, stretching out to playing 3 notes per string. Now I’m hearing that other players are playing the major scales, traditionally 3 notes per string, at 4 notes per string. Or 5.
The result is a dramatic change in the texture of the melodic line you’re playing, as well as very quickly traversing the guitar neck from low to high and back again (almost like sweeping arpeggios).
I’ve been working on these techniques myself too and noticed a few things:
The hand is just like any other physical part of your body. Every athlete warms up – especially before exercises of great speed (sprints for example) or strength (bench press with a barbell). EVERY single piece of documentation about exercise mentions to warm the body up before stressing it to reduce injury. In fact, even for low or moderate exercise.
The major scales for me pose no real stretching issues for me, so I practice those on a metronome for a couple of minutes at a very safe, borderline “boring” tempo. Then I bump it up 10 beats/min. Then another. Then another. You can feel your hand warming up – there’s more blood circulating to it. This is extremely important to keep your hand healthy.
With regards to stretching out on these 3/4/5 note per string scales – START SLOWLY! The beginning of the neck is where the frets are wider and pose the biggest challenge. One way to give yourself the optimum angle is to play the guitar on your left leg (not the right) and elevate your left foot. This is what classical guitarists do and so does Rusty Cooley.
When I first started working on my stretch, I did a whole note scale exercises – using my 1st, 2nd, and 4th finger on my left hand:
String Fret Finger
6 1 1
6 5 4
6 3 2
6 5 4
Shifting to the 5th string, the fingering remains the same:
Fret
2
6
4
6
4th string:
3
7
5
7
3rd string:
4
8
6
8
2nd string (notice there is no change in frets from the 3rd string due to how the guitar is tuned)
4
8
6
8
and 1st string
5
9
7
9
Then reverse the pattern 1st string down to 6th.
Master this pattern before attempting to go a wider stretch. The pentatonic pattern will require the stretch of 6 frets, as each string will require some combination of a whole step and a minor 3rd (3 half steps).
Additionally, don’t work these intensely at first. Take frequent breaks – go play something easy – it keeps your hand warmed up so then you can go back to the more challenging pattern. You should feel NO PAIN. I don’t mean the finger tips – your calluses will get built up, I mean no pain in the hand. If you do, rest it. Don’t get frustrated and push through it. Your hand will unfortunately reward you with pain, swelling, and a forced vacation from playing.
I did a general search for guitarists with tendonitis and I got an interesting list (Note, this list is in no way exhaustive and I have no way of verifying this):
Leo Kotke
Steve Vai (he admited in an interview I read he switches to .09 strings in the studio to go easier on his hand, but plays with .10 live).
Robben Ford
Alex DeGrassi
Yngwie Malmsteen
So if these guys can get it, any player can get it.
So to recap:
1) Warm up for at least 5 minutes, gradually increasing your speed (use a metronome)
2) Practice your stretching exercises (like the whole tone scale above) first – master it before trying to stretch one more fret
3) Guitar on left knee and elevate left foot for best hand angle
4) Take frequent breaks as you work on your new skills
5) NEVER push past pain if you feel it – take a break. If the new technique just hurts, give it a rest for a few days then go back to it.
6) If you get chronic pain, see the doctor. You’re likely going to have a take several weeks off from the instrument (hopefully steps 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 keep you from getting to this point).
Protect yourself at all times!!
Spencer

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