One of the more challenging adjustments guitarists have to make is learning to stand up when they perform. When I was about 15 I had been playing a few years and was ready to form a band. The first jam session I learned that when I stood up and played I couldn’t play as well as when I was sitting down. What a realization! I was prepared to wail on Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Van Halen songs to impress my friends but I was just making mistakes everywhere.
This happens to everyone when they first play standing up. It probably happens to you. Here’s a few things I have done over the years to become a good player when I stand up. Don’t get me wrong there is no miracle or trick to playing every bit as well as you can sitting down, the mechanics of playing just don’t accommodate it. But there are things you can do to make it easier.
Lets look at the big picture. When you play standing up you are using entirely different muscle groups than when you are sitting down. When you are standing you support the guitar with your back and shoulders as opposed to resting it on your leg when you are sitting. When you are standing you left arm and wrist become contorted to reach the neck and strings, creating more muscle tension while you are trying to play and an altogether different “feel”. Since your wrist and arm approach the strings from a different angle you are left with less finger length to stretch for notes, thus your ability to stretch is lesser.
If you’ve read any of my other blogs you already know I’m big on practicing something the way you intend to perform it. The simple solution here would seem to be just practicing standing up until you are good at it. Unfortunately that doesn’t entirely apply here. Playing while standing is tremendously strenuous on your back, shoulders, neck and to a lesser degree your wrist. If you apply constant stress on them then you will undoubtedly cause damage. Obviously you will need to practice standing up some, but as soon as you feel discomfort stop and stretch out a while.
In the beginning stages you may feel discomfort after just a few minutes. Take a short break when that happens. As your muscles grow accustomed to it, you will be able to play for longer periods in the future. Whatever you do I wouldn’t recommend playing for more than twenty minutes even if you can push yourself to that point. Standing with a guitar hanging off you puts an uneven amount of weight and thus stress on your body. This is really bad for the discs in your back.
Another important point, practicing for ridiculous amounts of time probably won’t help you get any better at it past what 20 minutes will do. The whole trick is to get used to playing standing up by making adjustments to what you are doing sitting down. Focus on making the adjustments not the act of playing standing.
When playing standing up you’ll need to make adjustments in both hands. The right hand picking adjustments have always been the most difficult for me. In a sitting position you can rest your right arm on the guitar for stability and picking leverage. When standing up you lose a lot of that. With the left hand your wrist needs to bend a lot more standing up. This puts some new stress on your tendons and muscles that can make it harder to move quickly and lessened stretching ability. Become highly aware of these adjustments and exactly what feels best for you to make them. That is the whole trick to playing standing up.
You’ll see most modern rock stars holding their guitar halfway down to their knees. The thing to keep in mind is that modern rock is very easy to play so it accommodates it. It’s more for show than anything. This is the most difficult way to play standing up. In my experience I lose about 30% of my ability to play anything with the guitar slung down really low. This means I need to be really good at something sitting down before it can be converted to standing up. There are guys like Slash (Guns n Roses) who play so well that they can afford to lose 30% of their ability and still sound great, plus his music does not require a lot of stretching. So next time you see somebody playing their guitar like keep that in mind. They are really fluent at what they do and the music accommodates it.
If you check out guys like Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen you’ll notice that their guitars hang reasonably, maybe to their waist at most. This is because what they play actually necessitates it as far as speed picking and stretching goes. So when you choose exactly how low you want your guitar to be slung your first consideration should be the style of music you are faced with.
The lower you hang the guitar, the more the position of your hands deviates from sitting down. In the beginning stages you may want to take it easy on yourself and gain some confidence by keeping your guitar pretty high, maybe just below your chest. As you get better at it and have more confidence gradually lower it until you’ve found a point that looks cool enough for your music style but still accommodates good playing. Paying standing up is like anything that needs to be practiced. You start with what’s comfortable and push from there to get better.
One final thought, I’m just going to stress again how important it is not to create strain on your lower back, shoulders and wrist when playing standing up. Even playing sitting down is bad for your lower back. Standing up is brutal. I’m speaking from experience. My lumbar system is a mess in part from playing standing up hours on end at gigs, not to mention all of the injuries I suffered in wrestling and martial arts. If you plan on playing guitar as more than a hobby I suggest you stay away from that stuff.
Now its time to get up from your computer and play while standing up.