Joanna is a nurse and has never hesitated to let me know what she’s thinking, regardless of the subject (!) and in this case she had a valid point, at least from a health standpoint. She made this comment a couple years ago and now I wish I’d listened to her! My back has been giving me fits all winter, despite multiple trips to the chiropractor and downing ibuprofen by the bottle. I can no longer ignore my posture.
Over 50 years of guitar playing can certainly take its toll. I thank my lucky stars that arthritis has been only barely evident in my hands and fingers up to this point, although it runs in both sides of my family so the prospects are not good. But I suspect it is making itself evident in my back so some radical changes must be made.
Along with this, I have a couple older students who hunch over when they play and yesterday I spent the better part of a lesson just working on getting one of them to hold the guitar correctly and sit up straight. This sounds simple if you’re young and flexible; not so much with posture habits that have been learned over a long lifetime.
Obviously I’m talking about playing while sitting, although good posture habits should show while standing and playing too. I have a picture of myself standing and playing at a large outdoor concert back in the 1970s and a couple more from various later years and I never noticed my less than perfect posture. But looking at them now, I sure do.
The first and most important step is selecting the correct chair if you’re going to sit and play. I use standard wooden chairs in my studio (without arms of course) that measure just a shade under 18” from the floor to the front of the seat. They serve the purpose for most students and myself while teaching. The backs are straight but reasonably comfortable. At that height most players can comfortably place their feet flat on the floor, which may or may not be necessary to play with good posture. More on that in a minute.
My favorite seating is a couple of padded stools I used for a while. They are 22” from floor to seat, with lightly curved backs for extra support. The seats swivel, which makes it easy for the student to rotate to watch me and then look at the music on its stand. They also have cross bars that serve as foot rests if needed. But while most of my students liked them, a few wanted the old standard chairs so those stools now reside in the basement. But I think they will be coming back into the studio because they are comfortable, functional and encourage correct posture and playing position.
Quite a while back I tried some standard “bar stools” but at a height of 29” and no back they were not very comfortable for extended playing, even with cross bars for foot support.
When I play out I use a great little stool called the StagePlayer II. It has a padded seat, measures 24 ½” from seat to floor, collapses easily and is light to carry. It has a cross member for the feet that folds up or down, plus a wonderful feature of two padded braces that fold down to function as a guitar stand when it’s break time. I’ve gone through a couple of them over the last five years or so, which is why I don’t use it in the studio to teach: unfortunately, it is not super durable and over time the bolts tend to fail. I replace them as needed though, and retailing for about $50 it is very reasonably priced.
Then there are the debatable factors relating to posture and playing. Some players are absolutely adamant about keeping their feet flat on the floor when seated and playing. They do not like resting one or both feet on a cross member on a stool. I get that but my experience with many hundreds of students and pro players is that often there is a bad habit that they develop that pretty much requires feet planted flat. That is holding the guitar neck on a downward angle and resting the forearm on the thigh when fretting chords. Never, never should one do this! It restricts easy movement of the hand and fingers and encourages bad technique like the “baseball bat grip” on the neck.
So what’s the solution? If you can stand it, ALWAYS use a strap when playing, adjusted to the correct length while sitting and playing. The overwhelming majority of guitarists think that guitar straps are only for standing and playing and this is absolutely not the case. A correctly adjusted strap takes the weight of the instrument off your arms, allowing for holding the neck slightly on an upward angle. Now add in the use of a stool that forces your thigh downward slightly (foot on the floor, or on a cross member) and your forearm is free to move without your leg being in the way. Which leg holds the guitar is another discussion that I won’t get into now, except to say it’s worth experimenting with guitar body position and you may find things easier if you change up the way you normally hold your instrument.
Never, ever sit slouched on a couch while you play. Couches are nice for many things but playing the guitar is not one of them. Bad posture and poor technique are the inevitable result of playing while lounging on a cushy couch.
Finally, just why is it that we hunch over the guitar? To see what we’re doing with our hands of course! This conundrum is the worst of all as it relates to posture. Again based on decades of observing players of all levels I have to conclude there are three solutions to the issue of seeing what we’re playing, but two of them are bad. Hunching over – you will pay for this over time. Believe me! (as our president is fond of saying – ha!). Holding the guitar on a more flat plane to better see the fretboard….bad because you have to reach that much farther around the neck to arch your fingers correctly and not damp out adjacent strings. So that leaves only one solution, tough though it may be.
Learn to find the strings and frets as much by feel as by sight. Yes, you can see at least part of the neck without hunching over or craning your neck but the temptation to hunch over will always be there. But with perseverance and practice you WILL develop muscle memory regarding placement. If you have any doubt about this, consider the great guitarists Doc Watson and Jose Feliciano. They were never able to see the neck of the guitar and it didn’t keep them from mastering their instruments.
So sit up straight, keep the body of the guitar as flat against your body as possible. Your back will thank you. And just think how cool you’ll look!
Peace & good music,