Playing a musical instrument can be taxing in unforeseen ways. I’m writing to share my experience as a guitarist who, in the pursuit of some imagined ideal sound, set up my instruments in a way that didn’t suit me physiologically, ignored all of the early warning signs, and needlessly placed excessive strain on my wrists, forearms and fingertips for around five and a half years. I made a series of bad decisions which held me back technically, impeded my performance at concerts and recordings, and ultimately led to physical pain severe enough that I stopped playing entirely for months following my final BMus recital in August 2020.
Overexertion has reduced my stamina for playing (especially in the practice room), however I count myself extremely lucky to have something of an intervention and stopped short of suffering any serious damage. I’m especially grateful to guitar virtuosos Samuel Killick and Josh Meader for their advice on string gauge and setup, and to amazing Peakhurst-based physio Luke Notley who not only addressed my symptoms, but taught me strategies for management and prevention, and ultimately had me playing again without pain by March 2021.
So what happened, anyway? How and why did I push myself to the point of injury? Well basically, stupid shit happened because I’m an idiot. I’m exactly the kind of person who reads two lines of any research paper, decides ‘yeah, that seems reasonable’ and proceeds to shape my entire worldview around it for a period of months or years, until the limits of the statement have long since become excruciatingly obvious to everyone around me. So as a naive teenager reading about piano tuning and sustain, I came across a statement which I have long since forgotten verbatim, though I clearly remember (or possibly misremember) the content:
As a string fixed at both ends approaches infinite length and tension, with minimal rigidity, its harmonic overtones increasingly approach frequencies of vibration which are perfect multiples of the string’s fundamental frequency.
“Wow, is that so,” a ratty fifteen-year-old wonders aloud, “long strings at high tension produce the best tone?”
The problems start here. At this early stage of my life, I was not poised to ask whether a mathematically perfect harmonic series was indeed the ‘best’ tone. (And in any case, lacking exposure to principles of anthropology as applied in ethnomusicology, I was not equipped to consider the relevance of context in the process of determining a ‘best’ anything.) So in the months and years to follow, I spent much time researching and experimenting with heavier string gauges. I gradually crept up in tension from .009-.042 (“light”) strings, and by late 2013 I was slinging a set of .012-.052 (“heavy gauge”) on both of my electric guitars. Though it was *much* harder to play, I was beginning to develop a genuine interest in big band jazz and did genuinely enjoy the tuning stability and darker tone these heavier strings offered, and to this day I’ll grant that given a note-by-note comparison, I’ll usually prefer the sound of .011’s and 0.012’s over .009’s and .010’s – but only when I can hear the difference!
There was definitely a (not-that-small) component of douchey machoism in knowing that I’m running heavier strings than most people for standard tuning. I’m not proud of this aspect of my personality, but I’m sharing this because that macho mentality kept me running the same string gauge for so long. When I dropped out of high school and enrolled in TAFE, I kept running .012’s with a wound 3rd string. I was hardly playing any big band jazz then, and while I was studying improvisation in my own way, I was not particularly interested in studying (capital-J) jazz guitar on a deeper level. My fingers were struggling to hold barre chords for the full length of a song, and I couldn’t really deliver wild bendy solos when they were called for. But for that entire year, I didn’t drop down a gauge: I was running heavy strings for the sake of it, rather than in service of the music I was most often playing (and being assessed on). Hell, I even raised my action a little for increased dynamic range, making it even harder to play. Though the action always crawled up or down as needed, I played the same string gauge for the next four years of my Bachelor degree, with plenty of guitarists and luthiers along the way suggesting I could afford to drop a gauge or two.
I’ve played a considerable chunk of music over the past seven years, and when I go back through the recordings I find so many happy memories that I’m unable to share because my fingers were audibly struggling to keep the strings in contact with the frets. Impressionable youths take heed: keep it light for yourself. A blind commitment to heavy string gauges as a kid impacted years of performances and recordings as a young adult, and it was only after the end of my degree – listening back to dropped notes littered throughout my final recital, physically unable to sit with my guitar due to spikes of burning pain in both forearms – that I allowed myself to listen to what people had been telling me the whole time.