Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Relaxation on the right hand/arm

It’s the name of the game, right? To use no more effort than is absolutely required, so you’re all loose and snappy? Easy to understand, hard to do! And the “harder” you try, the worse it gets! I notice that the more I concentrate on getting the right notes, the tighter I get in that right shoulder, especially (but other places, too); I don’t notice while it’s happening so much, of course - I’m busy concentrating on hitting the right notes - but when I turn my awareness there, my right shoulder is lifted, “hunching up”. I try to ride herd on it, keep it loose, but if my attention drifts to what I’m supposed to be playing, inevitably it heads back in that direction.

I try to body scan periodically to find the tight(ening) spots, but dang, seems like a constant battle, and I ain’t exactly winning. This just par for the course, and keep on keeping on? Any helpful hints for doing battle with this bugaboo?

Many thanks!


That’s a tough one. I think for starters I might try a different sitting position, or maybe even play standing up to see if the problem persists. Maybe your body is adjusting for bad ergonomics?

Which instrument are you having this problem with?


Oh, sorry: guitar. And it may be particular to me, but I would think the general problem would be universal: tensing when you try hard, or are really concentrating to be accurate. I’ve run into the same thing on other instruments and in sports: how to stay relaxed when you’re doing something technique-driven, really fast and/or busy.


Hi Jamey,

Have been having what can be described as lots of plateau problems with my guitar playing if you click around you can see that a lot of information was given / gained on the subject. My particular problem was repeating a particular mistake over and over again. I realise that this is not your particular question but what I did amongst many other things was keep my left arm going up and down with the neck through raising my knee in time with the beat as a consequence the body of the guitar was moving… This seemed to break the tension problem I had . I do not intend to look like a puppet full time but will try this strategy when tensing causes my next hiccup.


Hi Happy

It is really hard to play fast if you tense up. I always find that I’ll lock up and lose my timing if I get tense. It is not at all comfortable to play tensed up and its a bad habit to form.

What I did, which helped me was learn to feel the pulse of the music you are playing. I’ll only play fast to a backing track. If I was finding it a real struggle to keep up playing the melody, I’ll now not even attempt it until I can play the rhythm smoothly, trying to add transitions and subtle changes to the chords I was playing. Keeping my wrist fluid and loose playing with the rhythm. If they’re is the opportunity I’ll sometimes play behind the beat, in front of it, on it, swing it, walk bass lines, etc. Till I can feel the changes and tempo - rather than have them wash over me in instant.

I’ll tap my foot or both feet alternating left to right (I’m left handed). I’ll even find myself almost dancing with the music as I’d get my whole body to feel the beat bouncing my head up and down or side to side and I’d seem to relax into the tempo and not find it so challenging or intimidating. My wrist and arm will have loosened up and my whole body then feels like its working with the beat rather than fighting or chasing it.

It’s not easy sometimes - If I can still not play the melody well at the tempo I’ve got to work with then I know that I don’t really have it yet. I can still fight and try then to keep up but I’ll know that I’ll probably still crash or make some errors or I can decide to work on the melody again with a slower back up track to keep practicing to know it better in my muscle memory. I now don’t play fast unless I have to - it doesn’t sound or feel good.

This is only my view or opinion that if is “more” important to work on your rhythm. I used to use backing tracks all the time and some of them are ridiculously fast. Because I didn’t have to play with anyone else I never learnt the chord progressions and just assumed I could do them. When I realized that I couldn’t keep them exactly in time I was quite shocked. My melody playing was fast, but robotic - but I had no idea where I really was in the song. I’d just memorized the melody as a pattern without any musicality to it. I’d become over confident and not learnt the song as a whole thing.

This is just my view, but you are correct, you need to be as relaxed as possible when playing. You will also enjoy playing more. I often find myself with smile on my face as I start to relax and get into the chord changes carefully listening and trying to hum or think of the melody in my head of what should fit in there, rather than just try play it fast all tensed up. My view now is do not play too fast if you really do not have to - I have no one else to keep up with. I want to play the song well not fast.

Hope this makes sense or is useful?

1 Like

Absolutely, thanks!

1 Like

To add to what is said above: Slow is loose, loose is fast. When I tense up, slowing down seems to help most every time.



I’m almost two years into guitar. I found myself spending too much time learning to pick the melody. Now I’m learning the chords first, then adding a few tasteful licks and lastly learn to pick a break. It’s working for me. This process is also paying off with the banjo.

I’ve recently realized my left hand fretting grip was too tight with the guitar and it was slowing me down and wearing me out. I’m trying to relax the grip. I’ll let you know how this works out.


What an excellent post @5-StringPilgrim and timely reminder. Showing my age and influences I loved much of the works done by Southern Rock Group Blackfoot. In particular the picked pieces such as Highway Song , Diary of a Working Man, Fly away (OK I know get to the point).

In those days online videos and lessons either did not exist or were in their infancy. So you worked on recognising the Chord progression and then doodled and lifted fingers, placed fingers on 7ths and 9ths etc until you had a working version.

That might be quite a point actually as an example I now see a dozen ways of playing the intro and opening solo of Highway song.

Looking at those influences from a distance of some nearly 40 years they were playing loud picked patterns not a million miles away from bluegrass.

1 Like

Think we have two threads running that we could all perhaps gain from and looks like some crossover here. Right hand technique


Hi Pilgrim,

I think I’m doing the same thing as you now - putting a lot more time into the chords and then seeing where I can use the licks or incorporate the melody of the song. I’m no longer in a hurry to learn the melody first and the chords after or even someday - which what I used to do.

Maybe I’m digressing, but when I first used to listen to the back up tracks - they pretty much all sounded identical - You could be playing along to almost any bluegrass song with a similar progression. They had a uniform, almost sterile feel. Now that I work on the chord progressions more, I get a feel for each song and it gives it a kind of personality that makes it more unique and memorable. There is a lot you can do with the rhythm. I’ve still got so much to learn.

I also spent a bit of time trying to learn to sing and play some “simple” songs. People call them cowboy chords or progressions, but I don’t think they fully acknowledge how hard it is to sing or perform a song with its bare bones - especially as well as you are able and someone might enjoy listening to it - not just recognize it . I really do think its improved my overall playing of melody and chords.

The singing seems to give me a fuller appreciation of what I’m trying to do with song and I a sort of get it more. It stays with me better and the whole song seems richer for it. I still do not sing well, but I used to not be able to sing at all and play without crashing out - so I’m pleased to have made some progress.

Again, I probably think about things a lot - maybe too much. But I know if I’m struggling to get into the groove with the chord progression (that it isn’t second nature) then I’ll have a hell of time with the melody or licks I want to play.

It’s uncommon for UK players to know the tunes off by heart and it is very hard work to learn, so I’ve not played bluegrass with anyone else who could take a break. I know that if I do ever meet other players over here, one day, that it will be more useful for me to hold the foundations of the song together as a chord progression in good time. We could both build up what we know from there. I’m okay with melody, but you really wouldn’t want to listen to me repeat the tabs I’ve memorized over and over for more than a few measures.

Thanks for sharing your views, its reassuring to discover that you’re not doing it all wrong and others are taking a similar approach to yourself to get the most out of their playing and learning experience.



Yep. My Mistake. I should never reply to anything before the 2nd cup of coffee. I read right hand and was thinking about my current focus on the left hand.


@5-StringPilgrim Thought it great post actually before we had the leads and melodies tabbed out for us you worked out the chord progression and played notes out the chord by sort of doodling. Adding 7ths , 9ths hammering on etc and got a version of it which if it worked you stuck with it. made me remember those days and will put that sort of experimentation back into my work.

1 Like

You just described how I learned to play Cajun accordion: played along with songs, discovering chords, and then key phrases, along the way by noodling. And it was fun!