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Don't Play Hurt, Play Healthy

Instrument choices you can make to keep yourself in the best playing shape possible for as long as possible

First things first, I would like to give a hearty hallelujah to my web-brother Steve Ouimette for writing about how our health impacts our ability to play. I have had so many conversations with other guitarists recently about this that I was thinking of writing something quite similar, and since he’s done the heavy lifting, I can swoop in and get straight to the heart of the matter.

Even if rock’n’roll will never die, all of us eventually will, and before we do we can go through a hell of a lot of suffering if we’re not careful. I just reviewed a book for PG’s Media Preview called Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story (look for it in the July 2010 issue), where we get a very clear account of both the loss of Mr. Rice’s phenomenal voice, and the onset of intensely painful tendonitis that has forced him to reinvent his playing, and dial back the smoldering, lick-driven style that made him the most important guitarist in bluegrass ever. It was as heartbreaking to read as it was educational.

So let’s look at some ways to protect ourselves a little bit from the can of whup-ass that time can unleash upon us. You might have heard of some of these things in PG before, but anything that helps you and me play with less pain is worth mentioning again.

The Laskin Arm Rest
This is a beautiful invention, literally. Laskin was the first luthier to bevel off the hard, sharp edge where the top meets the side, right where your arm drapes over to get to the strings. Check out our Builder Profile on Laskin in the January 2010 issue, and visit Laskin’s website.

Don’t go thinking that edge isn’t a big deal, kids. I played two gigs one weekend, and by the middle of the second gig, my forearm was creased quite deeply from that hard edge, and it looked bruised. I didn’t know if I could make it through the night because the pain was so bad, and it hurt for days after. My doctor said I had injured a tendon, and it could take weeks for the crease to plump back up. Many luthiers have incorporated the Laskin Arm Rest into their array of options, and it seems a very reasonably priced way to prevent a lot of future pain. Just ask for it. Common injuries that this rather elegant piece of workmanship is designed to prevent or work around include tendonitis and carpel tunnel syndrome. Ouch.

The Manzer Wedge
Another ridiculously talented and innovative builder from Canada, Linda Manzer (builder profile July 2009) originally developed the Manzer Wedge for the Pikasso Guitar for Pat Metheny. It’s shallower on the bass side, and deeper on the treble side, so there’s not much of a difference in the amount of air it can push out. I have played a few wedges now, and find them to be no less brilliant, warm, loud, full, rich, or anything good than their standard brethren. The only thing they’re less of is painful. For folks fighting rotator cuff injuries or other shoulder problems, they’re magic. And again, if you are planning on ordering a guitar, you may as well get one that feels that good to play, right?

Go Smaller
Big dreadnoughts sound awesome, but small-bodied guitars have really come into their own, in the past couple decades particularly. I won’t even consider anything bigger than a Grand Auditorium. Smaller-bodied guitars are a little lighter, and their deeper waist makes them more comfortable to sit and hold on your lap. You don’t have to have a dreadnought to keep up your macho image. Smaller is better for your neck and shoulders, hands down.

Spring for a Setup
Fall and spring, actually. Solid wood guitars shift a little bit (or sometimes a lot) with the seasons, so it’s good to have a tech give them a good going over twice a year. It’ll keep your action right where you like it all year long, and that will reduce the wear and tear on those magical fingers, not to mention the wrist and forearm. You winterize your car, right?

Humidity Control
You know how when you forget to water your plants, they go all wilty and the roots get brittle and tough, and things tend to fall off and break really easily? Guitars are ex-plants. They’re organic material—natural fibers. They need moisture for that top to vibrate appropriately and not just rattle unattractively, and for the action to stay where the tech puts it without developing string splats on inconvenient frets. My tech told me a minimum of two humidifiers in each case over the winter, and one during the summer if your house is air conditioned. If your guitar gets dried out and hard to play, you’re going to hurt you and it.

Injuries happen when there is muscle tension. Muscle tension happens when we’re hanging on to the flatpick for dear life in order to make it through a gig that’s either way too hot or way too cold, and unless all your gigs are in perfectly temperate Fantasy Land, you know what I’m talking about. Enter the V-Pick, the virtues of which Dean Farley extolled at length in his May 2010 Signal Chain column. Body heat gets the V-Pick a little soft after a few minutes, which makes the V-Pick stick really firmly to your fingers. In fact, according to Farley, it’s nearly impossible to drop. For those fighting tendonitis in the right wrist, or even a peculiar kind of tennis elbow from too hard of a grip on the flatpick, this pick may be the cure for what ails you, and it may increase your speed and accuracy, too.

Lighten That Load!
Guitar cases are finally getting lighter and stronger. We were astounded back in April of 2009 when we reviewed the Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin guitar at the lightness and sturdiness of the TRIC case it came with, made of Neopolen P Expanded Polypropylene or EPP. In the video review, I tossed it up in the air and caught it a few times, just to illustrate the lightness, and joked that the guitar actually seemed lighter inside the case than outside it. They’re made by Godin for nearly every model they have, so if you are interested in one of those guitars, ask for the TRIC case.

Gig bags have come a long way in recent years and many offer remarkable protection for your instrument, as well as hands-free transport. Mono Case is a company that makes gig-bag style cases for many musical and gear applications out of the lightest and strongest material they can find. Although I personally have not had a chance to check one out, I am very intrigued. Our Editorial Director, Joe Coffey, took a Reunion Blues case on a road trip to test it, and sent it through baggage handling on an airline. His guitar came back to him intact.

Amps are also getting smaller and lighter, and it’s about time. I remember the first time I got my hands on an AER AcoustiCube way back in the late ‘90s. We put it in the trunk of our 1995 Ford Escort and just laughed at it because it was so little. But we didn’t laugh at the gig when I had brilliant, gorgeous, full sound that could be heard in every nook and cranny. I had been using one of the early behemoth acoustic amps and getting extremely weary of fighting it. Fortunately, several amp manufacturers have caught on that smaller is better. We’ve reviewed a few little amps with big sounds over the years, and some of them are simply amazing. Check out the Baggs Core 1, the Alesis Transactive Mobile PA, the Bose L1 Compact, the Fishman SA220 and the ZT Lunchbox Acoustic.

If you know of any additional resources for healthy playing, please post them to the comments section. I am always interested in learning about painless playing. Suffering for your art doesn’t mean you should play until it hurts.