From the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Michael Chapdelaine
THE PROBLEM: You’re unsure as to how to hold the guitar in a way that is ergonomically efficient, gives maximum mechanical advantage, is comfortable, and won’t cause injury.
THE SOLUTION: Study the mechanics of both traditional and non-traditional approaches to posture, so that you can find the sitting position that will allow you to play the guitar without wrecking your back.
Nylon- and steel-string guitarists display great variety in posture, but it comes down to a common goal: to maximize one’s leverage over the instrument, while putting the least strain possible on the body. Fortunately the days of “just do it like Segovia” are gone in the pedagogical world—as are the plagues of back and neck deterioration and neuromuscular disease among classical guitarists. Here are some steps to help keep you healthily seated with your guitar.
Start with the Spine
Think of the confluence of body and guitar as a simple platform that will allow the left-hand fingers to squeeze the strings into the frets with ease and efficiency, as the right hand attacks the strings with comfort and accuracy. Your fretting hand requires an overwhelmingly greater amount of power than your picking hand, an imbalance that can result in an unhealthy posture if you don’t work on it.
Our natural inclination is to twist the spine toward the guitar’s neck and bend forward. While that position might give mechanical advantage and visual awareness of the guitar’s fingerboard, it can cause permanent spinal damage. So, practice in front of a mirror, always making sure that your spine appears elongated and neutral, never twisted.
Determine Your Architecture
Your fretting hand needs to apply sufficient tensile pressure to the fretboard’s entire length, on a classical guitar, typically around 13 inches between the nut and 12th fret. The difference in the geometry of the hand varies up and down the neck, so reference the midpoints of the neck (string 4, fret 6) and your fretting hand (second finger) to help determine your architecture. Use the intersection of those two points to position the guitar such that minimal strain is put on the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Then, modify your sitting and posture accordingly.
With your wrist and shoulder relaxed, your right elbow will flex to bring the hand near the strings; straightening the wrist brings your fingers to the strings. The arm crosses the rim of the guitar between mid-forearm and elbow, depending on your body dimensions and the method used to support the guitar. Put the entire weight of your arm on the guitar.
Try Different Supports
Using a footstool creates the most appealing posture for guitar technique—with both legs, the right arm, and the chest supporting the instrument—but the most toxic position for health. The problem is that the footstool requires that you sit with one foot higher than the other, and if you spend lots of time in this position, your musculature and spinal discs can become compromised.
That said, a footstool can help you get a feel for properly holding the guitar in one of the more ideal positions below. Put the guitar’s waist on your raised left thigh and the heel on your proximal right thigh. Sit straight up, as if a thread is pulling the center of your head towards the heavens. Adjust the height of the footstool such that, with your left elbow flexed and wrist straight, your second fingertip intersects string 4 at fret 6, perpendicular to the plane of the fingerboard. Now bring your right arm across the rim of the guitar and relax everything, from head to toe.
I believe that a support such as the ErgoPlay is the best thing to happen to the classical-guitar community since nylon strings. This type of solution allows the guitar to be held in the traditional classical position without harming the spine, as both feet are flat on the floor. Attach the support to your guitar and use a chair whose height bends your knees at 90 degrees. Sitting up perfectly straight, adjust the height of the support in the same way you would a footstool; once again, place your right forearm over the guitar and relax.
My preferred alternative, like what many flamenco guitarists do, is to set the guitar on my right thigh, just forward of the lower bout, with the instrument’s back pressed against my front-right torso. (In the video above, you can see me using this position while performing “Chapdelaine,” an amazing new piece dedicated to me by the composer Dennis Hayes.) The guitar is off-axis from the plane of the chair’s back by about 30–45 degrees, the instrument’s neck raised at a slight angle on the headstock side. Place your right biceps on the lower bout and relax the weight of that arm, with the elbow right at the rim and the entire forearm over the soundboard.
Note that in this position, the guitar is less secure, as it is supported by just three points: the right leg, the weight of the right arm, and the chest. Rather than using my muscles to hold the guitar in place, I use an anti-slip product called a Sticky Pad, wetting it for permanent adherence to the intersecting points of the body and guitar. Admittedly, I am much more concerned about my body than my guitar’s finish.
I’d recommend experimenting with these different approaches to find the position that works best for you. Remember, Segovia might have been lucky in that he used a footstool over the course of many decades and had the good fortune of escaping without injury. But get the sitting-position thing right—don’t bet your spine on luck.
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Michael Chapdelaine is the only guitarist to have ever won first prize in both prestigious classical (GFA International Classical Guitar Competition) and fingerstyle (National Fingerstyle Championship) competitions. He was a professor of music at the University of New Mexico for 33 years and performs and teaches internationally. michaelchapdelaine.com
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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