Fretting-hand fatigue--what can you do?

Discussion in 'THE Gretsch Discussion Forum' started by MichaelRopp, Nov 9, 2021.

  1. MichaelRopp

    MichaelRopp Electromatic

    Jan 20, 2021
    Hey, all. Can we talk fretting-hand fatigue? I'm struggling with fatigue in the thumb flexor of my fretting hand. My hands are pretty small and I play a lot of jazz chords with a lot of barre-ing. I've been trying to address the issue by just practicing more, but I am not seeing a lot of improvement yet.

    Two thoughts. Option A: I have a technique problem. I'm squeezing the neck too hard, basically, and need to figure out how not to do that. (I should post this on the "hardest thing to learn" thread that's up now....) Option B: perhaps some guitars don't fit my hands as well as others. I have an Epiphone Swingster, and two Gretsches: a 5420 and a 6120. I find that I have less fretting-hand fatigue issues on the Epi than my Gretsches. I think this has to do with two things: neck profile (a little thinner on the Gretsches, and slightly--but not much--chunkier on the Epi), and fret profile (slightly taller frets on the Epi than the Gretsches). But these differences are pretty small, and also it's not that I have zero fatigue problems on the Epi; it's just noticeably not as bad. Seems like it's probably some combination of A and B.

    Anyone else have this issue? What worked for you? In your experience what's the balance between options A and B--how much difference does "the right guitar for your hands" make and how much is just proper technique and getting your practice hours in?
  2. Henry

    Henry I Bleed Orange

    Apr 9, 2014
    Make sure you are playing properly.
    1. Thumb at middle of back of neck. Only your thumb and fingers should touch the guitar. Don't palm! My guess is it is not your whole hand that is sore, but the muscle between hr thumb and pointing finger. Usually do to paling the neck as you now use your hand muscles to grip when you should be using finger muscles. Once you use finger muscles, you will find it will be easier to play lighter, pushing away fatigue, and also sound better as you will be less likely to be out of tune /sharp due to pressing too hard.
    2. Elbow out, not tucked in, but flexible. Generally want a 90 degree or right angle at the elbow. when you need to move your hand relative to the length of the neck, you accomplish this by swinging your elbow in and out. But try to maintain the 90 degree angle and the bottom of your fretting fingers should be facing your fretting arm.
    3. Don't use your picking pinky as an anchor. If you need to rest, rest the palm on the bridge, it will help muting anyway. Also, that pinky could be used to plucked strings. Lastly, maintaining flexibility helps you play; anchoring means less flexibility.
    4. Always learn good habits before you decide to embrace bad habits.
    Other things:
    1. How well is the guitar set up. Many many guitars ate poorly set up.
    2. Lighter strings.
    3. Don't bar chord all the time as an aesthetic choice. Very rarely do you want to hear 5 or 6 notes played at the same time. Not only will it feel better but it will sound better, especially if you are in a band. Even on piano, most of the time you don't see 6 notes played at once. Since you are playing jazz you are familiar with chord fragments, inversions and variations.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2021
  3. swivel

    swivel Country Gent

    May 13, 2018
    -Raise your guitar up as much as possible so you are not reching or twisting around the neck on the low chords like the F Barre... etc
    -Evaluate if the necks you play have a decent amount of shoulder. A flat shoulder , like a sharp V neck, makes my hand ache quickly.
    -Yeah, ease up on the grip! Relax!
    Here the Clapton shape has shoulder, the JV does not:
    MichaelRopp likes this.
  4. petit professeur

    petit professeur Electromatic

    Nov 25, 2009
    Marseille, France
    I have poor guitar skills but as Henry says i alternate between bar chords and thumb on the low E to avoid muscle pain. And use chords fragments and inversions instead of full bar chords can help. Good luck!
  5. MichaelRopp

    MichaelRopp Electromatic

    Jan 20, 2021
    @Synchro , thanks for the photos. That's helpful.

    @Henry and @petit professeur , agreed on not using barre chords all the time. The thing I've been working on lately that has caused me the most trouble is a Chet Atkins-style Travis-picked accompaniment to a gospel hymn that alternates between the Cm7 on strings 2-5 in position III and the Fm7 in position I. (I think Synchro's second photo above may be of that Cm7 chord.) That wears my fret hand out pretty fast.

    @Henry -- thanks for all the detail. I think I'm already doing most of those things but I'll concentrate on them. I definitely agree with #4!

    @swivel -- I see what you mean about the neck shape. I *think* all three of these guitars have reasonable "shoulder", although I'd have to figure out how to be more quantitative about that. The only thing I feel is that the Gretsch neck is just a smidge thinner. I do have the guitar up fairly high, and I typically play sitting down with one foot propped up. One thing I really have to watch for is making sure the playing surface of my fingerboard is at a right angle to the floor. I start tipping the guitar towards me as I play and that definitely increases my problem. As to easing up on the grip, I think ultimately that's where my real problem is.
  6. Stingray70

    Stingray70 Electromatic

    Oct 18, 2021
    If you don't already do it try doing hand, finger and thumb stretching exercises and massage on your fretting hand (I do both hands) before, during and after playing. I have a tendon issue in the middle finger of my fretting hand and this really makes the difference between my being able play decently or not. BUT, as an added bonus I noticed that since I started doing this I also have much less hand fatigue, soreness or stiffness in my fretting (and picking) hand, play better and can pretty much play all day if I choose to without having issues... Below is one of the better vids for this on Youtube... from guitarlessons 365

    Essential Hand Stretches For Guitarists or Any Instrumentalist

    Also, possibly like you, I used to have some issues with using too much pressure when fretting chords, especially bar chords which led to hand fatigue and I managed to consciously develop a lighter touch.
    Don't laugh but one thing that seemed to help was playing songs like Joe Walsh's "Funk 49" where your fretting hand is constantly making variations to bar chords and muting while your strumming hand is continuously playing. You can't really play it well with a heavy hand because you need a light touch to alternately mute the strings without getting an unwanted buzz or fretted note.... It may sound crazy but playing this song a lot inadvertently seemed to help in developing a lighter touch with bar chords... (Plus, it's a great song and a lot of fun to play) Hope this helps...
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2021
    David_GS likes this.
  7. CousinWarsh

    CousinWarsh Synchromatic

    Jun 24, 2018
    Western NY
    I used to get hand cramping/fatigue and I’m sure at least part of it was bad technique, but, I put a fat neck on my tele and no more cramping/fatigue. The best way I can describe it is like using a screwdriver- if you use a skinny handle screwdriver for a project your hand grips tighter and gets fatigued and cramps. A bigger handled screwdriver is more comfortable and gives a little leverage, no cramps.

    That’s just me, and I’m a hack, but that might be why you say the epi with the bigger neck is easier to play.
  8. juks

    juks Country Gent

    Nov 26, 2020
    Fremont, California
    I can not be play barre chords at all anymore due damage in my left wrist. If I try, I get sharp pain shooting through the wrist. So I (try to) figure out other ways to play.

    Nice to hear the comment of not having 6 notes playing at the same time, because consequently that is definitely what I do :).

    And yes, small differences in necks make, eh, a big difference...
    Runamok and MichaelRopp like this.
  9. Viking Power

    Viking Power Synchromatic

    Jun 11, 2018
    Mountlake Terrace, WA
    Good info here. Dealing with some wrist pain issues myself. Always curious as to which is better for chords - fat neck or flat neck?
    Runamok likes this.
  10. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    Now that I have a few free minutes, let me elaborate.

    If you look at the second of the two pictures I posted, you will see that my left wrist is fairly straight. This relieves a lot of stress. It also maximizes the mechanical advantage of your left hand. If you bring your thumb and second finger together with your wrist straight, you will have a decent amount of pressure available with little effort. How, try the same thing with your wrist bent and you will notice that the amount of effort required increases significantly as the angle of your wrist increases in either direction.

    Obviously, various chords will have an effect on the mechanics of all this, but mechanical advantage is mechanical advantage and the straighter the wrist, the less pressure you are going to have to exert. I can play barre chords for as long as want using this technique.

    However, I don’t use barre chords all that often. I use relatively simple voicings which don’t duplicate notes. I’ve seen plenty of voicings which have both the root and the 5th below the root depressed at the same time. Pressure is pressure and 332010 involves more pressure than x32010 alternating with 3x2010. Besides that, if you strike both the 5th and 6th strings at the same time you have a dissonant 4th in the bottom end which doesn’t sound pleasant.

    Instead of barre chords, I use triads over a bass note. A Maj: 5x765x, A Maj7: 5x665x, A7: 5x565x, A6: 5x465x. (OK, the last two are not actually triads over a root, but you get the idea.) D Maj: x5x775, Dm7: x5x565. I rarely use barre chords, except when there is little other choice. I approach chords more like a piano player, choosing all of the notes I use, instead of just grabbing a chord form and playing all of the notes in that form. Usually, I play 3 or 4 notes in my voicings. Sometimes I use voicings with bass notes, but for other some things, I comp mostly with triads. Such voicings are amazingly focused and powerful. If you have a good bassist you don’t necessarily need big chords.
    S Macp, Gregor, Jeff67 and 3 others like this.
  11. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    It probably varies depending upon the individual, but I find necks that are too thin to be fatiguing. The trick is in defining what is too thin. Everyone has their own limits with regard to this. I’m not highly sensitive to a thin neck, but know and respect other players that are very sensitive to neck thickness. Perhaps the best thought I can contribute is to say that I’d rather deal with a neck that is a bit too thick, as opposed to a bit too thin.
    Runamok and Viking Power like this.
  12. Shock

    Shock Gretschie

    Sep 7, 2020
    In hindsight, this is how I got past that. Keep practicing until you feel the fatigue. Then reposition so that it doesn't hurt, and take all that pressure off your thumb.

    You really don't need to squeeze the neck as hard as you think if your have the right hand technique. Basically because of your fatigue, you will find the comfortable way. That would be the correct way. That is the way you should have been doing it all along and you wouldn't get fatigued to begin with. Relax. Develope a light touch. Only the back of my thumb and my fingertips touch the guitar. It would be easy to just pull my hand off the guitar. Not in a death grip.

    There is a tendency to squeeze the neck harder when we want to emphasis a chord, note, or phrase. But the left hand doesn't need to squeeze harder just because the right is going faster or harder. The more pressure on your thumb, the slower you will play.
  13. MichaelRopp

    MichaelRopp Electromatic

    Jan 20, 2021
    @Synchro -- thanks. The straight wrist makes a ton of sense. I mentioned earlier that one of my tendencies that I have to fight against is to roll the guitar upward a little so the fingerboard is facing more toward my face instead of straight ahead, and when I do that it forces my wrist out of that straight line. I'll concentrate on keeping my wrist straighter.

    I was playing a few minutes ago and one issue I think is causing me some trouble is that it seems like the crease on the front side of my pointer finger opposite the last knuckle is maybe a bit on the deep side. (Maybe everyone is built like that... I haven't paid that much attention to anyone else's fingers. :) ) Anyway, if I'm trying to do a barre chord and the string falls into that crease it buzzes, and I think I'm trying to eliminate that by absolutely smashing that finger flat, i.e. squeezing the snot out of the neck. I need to roll that finger more onto its side to correct that, right?

    I appreciate your music theory insights, too. I get the use of triads and the fact that you can build some super-cool tall chords by choosing the right triad over what your bassist is doing. I'd love to hear some of your playing sometime!
  14. MichaelRopp

    MichaelRopp Electromatic

    Jan 20, 2021
    @Shock -- thanks. That sounds logical to me. I'll try it.
  15. MichaelRopp

    MichaelRopp Electromatic

    Jan 20, 2021
    @Stingray70 -- I tried some of those hand stretching and massaging exercises, and they feel GREAT. I'll definitely try more of that.

    "Funk #49" as an exercise! I love it! (Actually, that makes a lot of sense.)
  16. Uncle Daddy

    Uncle Daddy Friend of Fred

    Jan 19, 2012
    Maldon UK
    I went with taller frets. I find the vintage style frets on proline stuff to be too small and would end up pressing the wood on the fretboard. Taller frets need less pressure, for me.

    I also switched to Strats. Made a big difference. More ergonomic.
    Shock and section2 like this.
  17. Gregor

    Gregor Country Gent

    Don't forget also that when using certain barre chords you don’t have to barre the entire chord....e.g. if you're using an E shape barre chord, you really only need to depress the 1st, 2nd and 6th string with the barre as the other 3 strings are being held down within the E shape. Try to focus on only depressing the strings that are can curve your barre finger somewhat to only touch the 1st, 2nd and 6th strings in the above example. I think there's a YT video that explains how to do this far better than I can. You've got some great suggestions from the members above. Best of luck.
  18. Henry

    Henry I Bleed Orange

    Apr 9, 2014
    One other thing I forgot to mention, the fretting arm should never support the guitar, it's job is to fret. The guitar should be stable in the correct position ideally with both arms up and away.

    If you play sports or do any martial arts, you know that a ball or punch is not thrown with just the arm - you should use as much of your body as possible. Same with fretting. The proper posture allows you to use your whole arm to fret, allowing the force needed to press the string to be distributed up the arm. Palming the neck, holding a neck dive up, etc. interferes with that distribution and transmission up the arm meaning more work is done in the hand, leading to more fatigue. Imagine throwing a baseball pitch or making a penalty kick while trying to hold up your pants.:eek: Either way lot more work or your throw or kick simply won't be as effective.
  19. NowEarThis

    NowEarThis Gretschie

    Jun 23, 2021
    Northern Rivers NSW Australia
    I have a problem with my fretting hand too but I think it's carpal tunnel syndrome. I can't play for too long without getting pins and needles. Have to stop and shake it out. Really annoying.
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