18 October 2010

How Should You Keep Your Wrist: Straight or Bent?

Straight wrist

Today's post is written by Willem de Boer.

I've had several people come to me the past month asking me how they should keep the wrist of their fretting hand while playing: should it be as straight as possible, or should it be bent; and if so, which way, and by how much?

I often wondered about this myself many moons ago, when I was just starting out on the guitar. After several years of on-and-off experimentation, I settled on keeping the wrist as straight as possible -- but with some exceptions.

The general guitar playing and teaching community agrees on keeping your wrist straight. Here's my own argument for keeping a straight wrist, to help convince you.

A Little Experiment

I am going to assume you are right-handed. If you are left-handed, then you should read `right' wherever I write `left'.

Straighten your left wrist, and keep your fingers as relaxed as possible. Notice how your fingers are naturally curled. Now, slowly bend your wrist back, and note how your fingers curl even more as you bend your wrist. Now, bend your wrist forwards, and your fingers will extend.

Now imagine playing the guitar using each of the three wrist positions in turn: with the wrist bent all the way back, with the wrist bent all the way forward, and with a straight wrist. You will notice that each position uses a different part of your fingertips to fret the strings.

The ideal position is to play with a straight wrist, as this produces the best curl of your fingers to fret the strings. With your wrist bent back, your fingers are too flat against the strings; and with your wrist bent forwards, your nails get in the way. Either way, you are forced to compensate the natural curl of your fingers in order to fret correctly.

Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

For those of you who are not convinced by this argument -- there are physiological reasons for keeping your wrist straight. Your wrist is the narrowest part of your body, and there is an important nerve (the median nerve) that has to pass through it, that allows you to feel with your fingers. In addition to that, there are several tendons that must go through it, and then there are the bones.

When you bend your wrist, you are effectively squeezing the median nerve. If you bend it for too long, you can lose the sensation in your fingers. The net result is something called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (see here). You don't want this to happen, because it means you can't play the guitar as much, until you sort out the underlying cause.

So, a straight wrist it is!

Wait, there is an exception!

Having a straight wrist is a no-brainer when it comes to playing melodies, solos, phrases, etc. However, the picture is not as clear cut when you play chords.

When you play a barre chord, your index finger needs to be extended in order to fret the strings properly. As per the experiment that we just performed, the position of the wrist that best accommodates this with maximal relaxation and economy is a wrist that is (slightly) bent forwards.

When you play a Jimi Hendrix-style barre chord, or any chord that requires
you to hook your thumb over the fretboard
(see my post "What Jimi Hendrix can Teach you about Rhythm Guitar"), you bend your wrist backwards. This is simply the most natural way to play this kind of chord. Again, we are going for maximal relaxation and economy.

And there you have it. The best position to hold your wrist is straight, with the exception of barre chords and thumb-hook chords. Now go and play that guitar, and repeat after me: it is good to be straight, but not always! (sorry, couldn't resist)

About The Author

Willem is a keen amateur guitar player who has been playing the guitar for the past 15 years. He enjoys playing many styles of music: from jazz, to blues, to hard rock to pop, either on his own or with other musicians. Willem has made it his life-long mission to always keep on improving as a guitar player. Along the journey he’s picked up several lessons, insights and pieces of advice that he writes about on his blog The Lone Guitarist.

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Photo by notvalid.

1 comment:

Henderson Carpal Tunnel Injury said...

Great tips. I especially liked your reasoning about the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

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