A condensed guide to posture for guitar players
By Nick Haughton
Ergonomics – the study of people’s efficiency in their working or, in our case, playing environment
As usual, when I set out to research this article, instead of finding a tidy definition of guitar ergonomics, I instead found at least ten of them. As with many aspects of living the guitar, the theme stokes passions and you can find a whole aisle of advice, from yoga, diet and breathing exercises to suction-cup guitar supports and folding footstools. There are scientific articles about the musculoskeletal system and others which talk of the role emotions play. This article is aimed at helping those who, like me, have wondered (vaguely) about good posture whilst sitting, all right then, slouching on the couch playing my guitar and I hope it will serve, at least, as a common sense guide to looking after your body while playing the guitar.
What follows are general guidelines to help you figure out what your own, personal best posture might be. There are a lot of factors involved, from each players individual skeletal and muscular make-up, through mitigating health factors, to the physical dimensions and shape of the guitar you play. So let’s get started!
A Strapping Start
First off, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using a guitar strap.
- The right arm no longer plays a role in holding the guitar, resulting in more relaxed arms because they no longer have to ‘clamp’ the guitar into position with muscular force. This in turn frees you to vary thehand position, finger angle, and wrist position for a much improved range of tonalities and volume control.
- You won’t need that foot rest or guitar support anymore.
- It can help you to span frets more easily, especially if you have small hands. Playing above the 12th fret is easier too, including chords.
- Another advantage is that you can vary your posture more to avoid RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). You can stand up and walk around for a chunk of your practise time, helping to avoid fatigue.
- Tradition – it’s just not the done thing. Since the classical guitar began its popular explosion in the late 19th / early 20th century, grand masters like Llobet, Segovia and even Tarrega laid down the foundations for the “Classical guitar tradition” as we know it today. Little has changed.
- The actual fitting of a strap could be problematic, depending on the construction of your guitar.
- Some purists say that certain straps and their respective fixtures can detract from the tone and volume of the instrument.
- Other players complain that a strap makes the guitar unstable.
Give it a try and see if you like it! Most players who have experimented with straps would now never go back to playing without one. You can find our range of quality straps here
Support the Cause
Another option for holding the guitar in playing position, without having to use constant muscle-powered clamping, is the guitar support or rest. These come in a wide variety of flavours but our favourite is the Alhambra Gitano – a tried and tested stand for playing classical and flamenco guitar. It attaches with suction cups so no surgery has to be carried out. Find it on our product page here.
Most of our time practicing is going to be spent sitting down, especially if we’re not using a strap. It would therefore make sense to look at what we’re sitting on as we are probably going to be spending hours there. Your bed is not a chair. Your couch or sofa are probably no better and your office chair may be great for typing but horrible for practice.
The good news is that we don’t need to spend a fortune to achieve the right seat. The simple, armless wooden chair is a good option; it can have a back for resting but it’s not strictly necessary as we won’t be using the back whilst playing.
What we do need to pay attention to is the height in relation to our body size. A good guideline is for the chair to be at a height which sets your thigh parallel to the floor. If your leg is angled down (knee lower than your hip) then the guitar will probably sit too low and you’ll hunch over to compensate. If your knee is higher than your hip, you’ll feel cramped, and this position may lead to physical problems too. Some of the best chairs for practice are the simple folding kind. They’re the appropriate height to let your feet touch the floor, and their shape doesn’t push you into an awkward position. There are also adjustable chairs available if you are having difficulty finding one with the right height.
Posing solutions: Feet, legs and instrument angle
So we’ve got our chair. We’ve got our guitar, We may have a strap or we may have a foot rest. How do we do this thing?
Your feet should be flat on the floor and making a slight “V” formation. They should not be parallel. Both feet should be apart, with more or less the same separation as your shoulders. The bottom end of the guitar sits between your legs at a 45 degree angle, or a little more/less depending on your body. As a starting point you could aim to have the E-string tuning peg at about eye-height, and then adjust for personal comfort, but be careful — too low and it will affect how your right hand plays the strings and the angle of the right wrist. Your left leg may need to be elevated higher so that the guitar can tilt close to a 45 degree angle more easily. You can use a foot rest to rest your left foot on and raise up that leg. When using a foot rest, try positioning it far enough outside of the hip so that the leg falls inward toward the center of gravity. This relieves the inner thigh, and brain, of the extra work of holding the leg in place. However, a strap or guitar support may be better options as raising one foot can lead to a general mis-alignment of the body and eventual strain.
Back straight, but not necessarily at a 90 degree angle. You may want to lean forward a bit to an 80º angle or more/less depending on your body and comfort. Sit towards the edge of the seat, don’t rest your back against the back of the seat. Your body should be in a natural position in relation to your feet – you should not be leaning towards the left or right. Beginners tend to lean their bodies towards the neck of the guitar to be able to reach the notes easier. Try to avoid forming this habit.
Zen, butt-bones and the art of relaxation
Ok, put your guitar down for a moment ‘cause we are going to have a look at the ischium or more colloquial “butt-bone”. We’ve got two of these things and as we sit straight on our playing chair we need to feel both of these making an equal contact with the seat of the chair. Keep this ‘equal-contact’ idea in mind as you experiment with your playing position later.
Assume a playing position and hold your imaginary guitar: If you arch your lower back the ischium rolls forward and your weight rests on a different part of the bone. If you collapse your stomach, you roll to the back of your ischium. We want to find a comfortable spot in-between with our spine supporting our weight, instead of holding ourselves up with muscle.
So it’s better to find a chair which allows your ischium to make contact with its seat. If you’re sitting on a cushion you won’t be able to feel that all-important “butt-bone” equilibrium. If you must have something soft on your chair, try to make it thin enough to still feel the seat through it.
Listen to your body. Check everything for tension, a bit like a pre-flight checklist – from your forehead, down your face (no tight lips or note-bend grimaces) and neck. Check your shoulders aren’t raised or in tension. Make sure your back is straight. You can think of your body as if it were hanging from your head, which in turn is hanging from a string which is invisibly attached to the top of your head. Instead of concentrating on firing your back muscles to keep your spine straight, just “pull” on this imaginary string attached to your head to straighten things out. Relax your belly and breath from there. No tension.
Trying these ideas without the guitar first may seem silly, but it will help you to be more conscious of your posture as you carry this awareness through to your playing position. Now try them with the guitar.
Reducing general rigidity is a long-term goal. It takes awareness, patience and conscious intention. But on the upside, it reduces stress and likelihood of injury, brings your focus to the present moment, and helps your guitar playing.
Take frequent breaks to let your back muscles rest and to re-set your focus. Use a timer if you find yourself playing “overtime”. Walk around a bit, fix a drink and have another go. Happy playing!
Excellent page about holding the guitar. Great list of things to avoid regarding posture.
A short and concise guitar-posture article with photos.