Playing Guitar with Pain: Advice on Prevention, Maintenance, and Recovery from Glen Phillips, John Mock & More

Physical setbacks can change the way you approach the guitar. Here are some strategies for coping with, and moving on from, what every guitarist dreads most.

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket was sitting on a glass-topped coffee table in the living room of Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins, when the glass suddenly shattered, sending shards into the air and leaving Phillips with a severe cut on his left arm and a badly damaged ulnar nerve. (That’s the long, unprotected nerve in your forearm that tingles painfully when you hit your “funny bone.”) He also damaged a muscle in the arm. Watch above as Phillips discusses his injury in an exclusive Guitar Talk.

Surgery repaired most of the damage, but Phillips was left with a long road to recovery—a road that he is still traveling. His injury has had a lasting effect on what Phillips feels when he frets the strings. Nine years after the accident, his fingers are often numb. At other times, they tingle like he is being lightly shocked, and his little finger has yet to recover. This situation has forced him to permanently adjust the way he approaches his playing.

Realistic about his guitar chops, Phillips tries to deal with the blow through humor. “For the first time in my life, I was grateful that I wasn’t great at practicing,” he says, “so I hadn’t thrown away those hours.”

Then he tried to determine his next steps.

“I think of it in a ‘be careful what you wish for’ way,” he says. “I needed a challenge and wanted to collaborate more.”

Figuring out how to keep touring presented the challenge. Getting Watkins, who had rushed Phillips to the hospital, to take on guitar duties for Phillips’s first post-injury tour provided the collaboration. In fact, the pleasure of working with Watkins turned out to have to an unexpectedly positive effect on Phillips’s rehabilitation.

Phillips suffered the kind of trauma that can leave permanent scars, both physical and emotional. He could have chosen to escape into medication or refused to face his changed circumstances. Instead, he addressed his situation head on. “There is something you really learn from sitting with pain when you can’t escape it,” he says, “having to learn how to deal with it and keep your center. It was not the most fun experience I ever had, but it was one of the most important.”

Starting Over
Phillips is not alone when it comes to guitarists dealing with injuries. Say the name Django and every serious guitarist knows you mean Django Reinhardt, the legendary Gypsy-jazz player whose feats of guitar mastery with the Quintette du Hot Club de France are even more amazing when you consider that two of the fingers on his left fretting hand had been paralyzed in a childhood fire. There are other well-known guitarists who have had life-changing injuries or health issues that challenged or changed the way they play guitar. Guitar legend Tony Iommi created Black Sabbath’s trademark sound as a result of an injury that severed the tips of two fingers on his left hand. The late Nashville master picker Pete Huttlinger recovered from a major stroke, that temporarily paralyzed his right side, and end-stage heart failure, caused by a congenital heart issue, to rebuild his legendary playing before his untimely death last year.

No one knows how many guitarists face physical setbacks that impact their playing. But if you play long enough, you may have multiple incidents.

I did.

I’m well acquainted with the dire straits a guitar player can find himself in during the first days of physical rehabilitation. I know what comes next, and I’ve learned how to avoid the situation in the first place. I’m right-handed, yet I’m typing this piece with only my left. I’m typing with my non-dominant hand because, for the second time in ten years, I’ve broken up a fight between two large dogs. I got lucky. This time I only broke a small bone, the first metacarpal above the knuckle, so in about a month I’ll start the slow process of reminding my right hand how to alternate the bass, frail, and hold a pick.

This isn’t exactly starting over. I know—
I have started over.


A combination of patience, drive, and optimism, plus the guidance of a top-flight surgical and rehab team, allowed me to not only regain, but improve my abilities.

Six-and-a-half years ago, I came out of major surgery on my right shoulder, so doped up that I didn’t understand or even hear my surgeon give me a detailed 15-minute description of the operation (the surgery had been much longer than expected, with much more damage to repair than hoped for). I was strapped into a shoulder sling and a foam pad called an immobilizer that I would wear 24/7 for the next six weeks.

I went from being a hard-hitting flatpicker to playing primarily with my fingers, the result of relearning the mechanics of playing guitar during and after the recovery from this 2010 surgery. A combination of patience, drive, and optimism, plus the guidance of a top-flight surgical and rehab team, allowed me to not only regain, but improve my abilities.

What follows is a distillation of the lessons I and other players have learned in coping with, and moving on from, what every guitarist dreads most.

Getting Hurt Is Easy
You don’t have to be doing anything as risky as coming between two snarling dogs to suffer misfortune. Just having a carpet can be a dangerous thing.

John Mock (Dixie Chicks, Maura O’Connell, Nashville fingerstyle guitarist, and multi-instrumental go-to studio picker) didn’t know that rubbing out a spot on his carpet with the tip of his left middle finger would lead to 12 months of recovery and rehab and a temporary career as a tin-whistle player. Pushing his finger forward along the carpet to dislodge a stubborn piece of dirt resulted in a painless (and common) injury to the first joint, often called Mallet or Baseball Finger, in which the detachment of the tendon on top of the finger makes it impossible to control the digit. Fretting a stringed instrument was out of the question.

Mock started a yearlong recovery process in which playing the guitar was going to be almost impossible—he taught himself dobro and tin whistle, just in case the finger didn’t come back.

His experience underscores an important lesson: Musicians who immediately begin working on a back-up plan recover faster and with less emotional stress. And his story has a happy ending. Mock has returned to playing the guitar, although he now requires longer warm-ups and constant preventative therapy to play to his usual high level of competence. And he’s added dobro to his bag of tricks!

The second lesson: You’re still a musician. Find an instrument that you can play while recovering from your injury. Not only will learning something new lift your spirits, you’ll absorb interesting new ways to approach music making. Even if all you can do is use a shaker to learn the virtually endless rhythmic variations of world music, you’ll still develop as an artist. It’s the ultimate win/win: better recovery and a new skill.

If You Can’t Stop
I know what happens when you can’t play your instrument at all. Lost gigs, lost income, lost practice time. What if you need the money too much to not play while injured?

Bassist Missy Raines is leader of the acclaimed band the New Hip and seven-time IBMA Bassist of the Year. She has worked with bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch and five-string banjo phenom Eddie Adcock and also plays banjo and guitar. After finally recovering from major hip surgery and a severe bout of tendinitis, she broke her upper arm while exercising. Raines knew she needed treatment, but found herself facing a stretch of gigs that she and her band counted on for much-needed income. Her first act after returning from the emergency room was to grab her bass and begin testing work-arounds.

The way you approach rehab will play just as large a role in how well you recover and adapt as any physical remedy.

By restraining her arm, and cutting back on such aggressive techniques as slapping and popping, she was able to soldier on and play her scheduled shows. But like a smart professional, immediately after finishing the shows she sought professional help.

If you don’t live in Nashville, LA, or Austin, where hospitals frequently treat injured musicians, you’ll encounter fewer musician-aware emergency-room professionals, so this is a good time to think about being a proactive patient. Don’t allow yourself to bleed to death, but insist on seeing a specialist. If they don’t have one, and you suspect that your injury could be life-altering, insist on a referral before further treatment. Your recovery will be easier and more successful if you are confident that you have the best resources and information available.

Attitude Is Everything
Being injured is hard enough. But as the pain of the injury recedes and the tasks ahead come into focus, your imagination can become your worst enemy. It may seem mystical, but your mindset and the way you approach rehab will play just as large a role in how well you recover and adapt as any physical remedy.

While recovering from my shoulder surgery, it helped to accept that I would almost certainly need to make changes to my playing technique and my choice of equipment. But I knew that I was headed for a full recovery.

It can be more daunting for others.

Pete Huttlinger died of a stroke in 2016 at age 56, but, despite a frightening diagnosis after an earlier stroke, he lived his life to the fullest. His mantra was “Don’t just live, live well.” This positive approach served the studio ace and gifted fingerstylist well during his recovery from a major stroke and upon learning that he had sudden-death syndrome. A year before his death, he told AG, “I learned to let go and rebuild. So now I’m a different player. After four and a half years . . . I’m working all the time and I’m a better person for all I’ve gone through. And being a better person is by far the greater gift.”

As for my own shoulder, after 12 months of rehab, it works better than ever. I was lucky to have a terrific group of doctors and physical therapists, including Dr. Brent Sanders, whose experience working on athletes, along with his hobby of playing guitar and other musical instruments, enabled him to conduct the extensive surgery and handle my frustrating and painstaking recovery. There was a silver lining, as well. I had never learned to fingerpick, so now, at an age when many guitar players are slowing down, I’m still finding new things to learn.


Ironically, it is the lesser injury, the broken right hand, that will stay with me. Injuries to the hand often affect the tendons and the sheaths that allow those tendons to move smoothly and facilitate fine motor functions. My minor break has left me with stiffness in my right index finger that is likely to remain. But I’ve already begun adjusting, and the recovery period has forced me to become a more efficient finger picker.

If you’re lucky and you avoid injuries, you’re still likely eventually to suffer some of the aches and pains of overuse and aging. Professional musicians know that career longevity is more than just practice—it involves exercise, diet, and a measured approach to practice and playing. As you get older, you’ll need to warm up more slowly and for a longer time. You also may want to make equipment changes to ease some of the discomfort of chronic issues such as tendinitis and arthritis. For example, you may find that a smaller-body guitar or a slimmer-neck profile is ideal.

In the unlikely case that your guitar-playing world turns upside down, listen to Django and remember that even if you’re reduced to fretting with two fingers, you can still make beautiful music. And think of Huttlinger’s recovery. You won’t know where you’re going, but you will still get there—one note at a time.

10 Ways to Prevent Injuries

1. Stay fit: Staying healthy on the road can be difficult, but walking and stretching can be done almost everywhere. You might even see something new on your walk. Yoga is terrific for those who spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms.

2. Driving and riding in cars and planes can be hard on a touring musician. Pay attention to simple things like posture.

3. Play music at reasonable levels, both in your car and with headphones during air travel. Loud noises can cause fatigue. Touring is hard enough without self-inflicted miseries.

4. Get enough sleep. Skip the parties after the show and arrange your morning so you aren’t in a rush.

5. Food is one of the most important parts of staying healthy. Some foods like blueberries, strawberries, and avocados appear to have a positive effect on arthritis, whereas other foods like dairy and tomatoes worsen inflammation for some people.

6. Use the lightest equipment possible. Learn proper lifting and carrying techniques.

7. Choose your hobbies accordingly. A guitar player may need to reconsider whether taking a daily boxing class or playing handball is a good idea (despite handball being the greatest sport ever invented).

8. Beware of a firm handshake! Having a firm handshake is a good quality, but not when it results in a tweaked wrist or bruised arthritic knuckle. Take up the European greeting of two air kisses.

9. Control stress. Injuries are far more likely to happen when you feel pressured and take shortcuts. Meditating doesn’t cost a dime and has been proven to improve health and focus.

10. Think before you use your hands for small tasks. Even home repairs and woodworking projects might be too risky if your livelihood would be impacted by a minor injury.


10 ways to recover from an injury

1. Educate yourself. If you are injured in a way that will impact your playing, it will be critical that you follow a course of treatment and recovery that affords the best chance of full recovery. Ask questions and do internet research, but beware of fake cures and “holistic” treatments that have no track record for efficacy and safety.

2. Prepare yourself mentally. A positive attitude goes a long way toward a full and prompt recovery.

3. If you’re going into surgery for your dominant side, spend the days before the surgery practicing using your weaker hand—especially when it comes to typing, brushing your teeth, eating, and critical personal sanitary functions.

4. Prepare your body. The healthier you are and the better you feel, the better you will handle long periods of convalescence.

5. Do you have a pile of books in the house that you always wanted to read? Have you always thought that you should try to improve your sight reading and music theory? Recovery time is an opportunity to do this without worrying about the time you should be spending practicing your instrument.

6. Go easy on yourself. It’s hard not to worry about lost income and the possibility of reduced physical capabilities. You’re staring into the great unknown, so don’t make things worse by mentally obsessing over what-ifs and might-have-beens. There will be a way forward.

7. During recovery, pay attention and listen to the professionals. Do the very most rehabilitation you can but don’t think you know more than they do. There is a reason that recovery has a timetable. Play by the rules.


8. And when you get back to playing again, these words from hand specialist Dr. Justin Arnold of the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, may help put your mind at ease: “As we age, the cycles and pressures on joints add up. This isn’t all bad news. X-rays taken decades apart may show degeneration, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to pain or loss of function. I tell patients that the best way to keep their hands moving is to keep their hands moving.” And that leads to . . .

9. Practice. Play. Perform. Keep moving, and . . .

10. It can’t be said enough, “Don’t just live, live well.”

Acoustic Guitar magazine's July 2017 issue cover featuring a guitarist's fretting hand

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Nathan Bell
Nathan Bell

Award-winning performing songwriter/guitarist Nathan Bell owns and teaches at Signal Mountain Doghouse Music Studio in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *