How I beat tendonitis

At a workshop in London earlier this month I was asked if I had ever had to deal with any physical problems related to playing guitar, and specifically tendonitis.

Many times over the years guitarists have asked me a similar question, so I have decided to offer an account of my experience with it, for what it’s worth.

Tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries strike fear in the hearts of musicians. We have all heard  stories of great players in their prime who were no longer able to play — in some cases ever again.

As musicians we want to get better and excel at our craft. That tends to make us push our physical limits in striving to improve — and pushing your physical limits can put you in the zone for a repetitive strain injury like tendonitis.

My path to recovery from a personal crisis with tendonitis may not work for every musician suffering from it. Indeed, it may not work for any other person but me. I was neither a doctor nor a scientist when I was confronted with a scary situation that necessitated a solution. I want to share the story of how I dealt with it.

Many years ago, around 1981, I had a  sudden, acute onset of tendonitis. It affected both hands. It was crippling and painful. And I had no idea what was wrong. As a working musician I was terrified.

At the time I was living outside of Hartford, Connecticut, working on material for my third album. I was broke and had a run of gigs coming up that were needed to pay the rent and the bills for the month.

It was crucial that I be able to play those gigs.

But my hands had swollen up like lobster claws. My fingers looked like thick, red chorizo sausages. They were screaming with pain — whether I played guitar or not.

In a panic, I went to a doctor (I never went to doctors). After looking at my hands and listening to my story, he told me I had tendonitis and would have to stop playing guitar until it went away. The treatment? Take aspirin and put ice on your hands.

I was a jogger in those days and subscribed to a running magazine. There was an article in a recent issue about tendonitis that basically said the same thing the doctor had said: stop running and put ice on the inflamed area. It went on to say there were some things — e.g. minor injuries and sprains — that  you can “run through”, but that you should never try that with tendonitis. The writer added in the last paragraph: “Once you get it, it’s the devil to get rid of.”

Unfortunately, neither piece of advice was an acceptable solution. I had to be able to continue working.

Everyone else I spoke to about it — friends, family, fellow musicians — produced the same look of fear and bewilderment. No one had any advice other than inactivity.

I was afraid my career was over.

The terrifying thing about acute tendonitis is that it can seem to have come out of nowhere. It can be hard to imagine that it could have come from you, or be the result of something you are doing.

As I was in physical agony and the advice I received all around was unhelpful, I set out to be a sleuth and try to figure it out on my own.

First, I asked myself, what have I been doing differently — lately — that could have brought this about?

Well…I had been feverishly practicing a new, difficult, high-speed fingerpicking tune called “Accufuse”.

I was in a state of limbo waiting to find out about a possible record deal.

Winter was setting in. It was cold and the air was very dry, which was causing me to tense up physically.

In general I had been pushing myself hard, worrying constantly about money and career progress.

And then it popped into my head to check my guitar tuning.

It was a whole step sharp.

I had been practicing on over-tensioned strings without knowing it. That was a dangerous thing to do…and probably the trigger for the attack.

A strong case was forming that I had done this to myself.

The next thing was to find a way to treat it.

When I tried putting my hands on ice it did nothing but make them feel numb. The background feeling of tension and quivering weakness was still there.

I asked myself, if ice doesn’t make my hands feel better, what would make them feel better?

I had noticed when I took a shower in the morning that the hot water felt good on my hands.

I went into the bathroom and ran hot water over them. It felt wonderful, made my hands relax, and reduced the pain.

So my therapy would be hot water, not ice.

Over the next few days I filled up the bathroom sink with the hottest water I could stand and immersed my hands in it for several minutes whenever the weakness and pain started.

After several days I began to feel my hands coming back, and with it an insight into what I had been doing — or overdoing — that had brought me to this place.

After several more days of self-administered hot water therapy I resumed practicing in micro bits — one minute the first day, two minutes the next day, five minutes the third day — paying attention to what felt good and what didn’t, how my hands were feeling generally, and what I was asking myself to do physically. As soon as my hands registered any feeling of fatigue or pain, I stopped and headed straight for the hot water.

For the shows coming up, I concluded that over-practicing at home — not performing shows — had caused this. Maybe if I continue the hot water therapy and kept the practicing to an absolute minimum, I could get through the shows.

My plan would be to immerse my hands in hot water before going on, play the gig at the most relaxed, undemanding pace I could, and then return my hands to the hot water immediately afterwards.

But what if I was wrong? What if this pushed the tendonitis in the wrong direction? What if I physically failed on stage? I would just have to see what happened.

To my utter shock, the first show went great. I was able to play, and not only that, it felt wonderful to play again. I was amazed to observe my hands playing normally for an audience, and without any pain.

From this I learned that there was a huge difference in the way I was using my hands, body and muscles when I performed versus when I practiced.

After the show, my hands actually felt better than they had in weeks.  Stronger, more relaxed, less inflamed. My hands — and tendons — seemed to have no problem playing music in front of an audience.

It was my practicing — or the way I was practicing — that was causing the tendonitis.

Subsequent gigs went the same way. My hands felt better and better with every gig. The swelling and the redness were disappearing.

I had played myself into the problem. Now, through becoming aware of what was going on and communicating with myself physically, I was playing myself back out of it.

It was an empowering discovery that the way back from tendonitis was not to stop playing, but to work with it and keep playing.

The entire ordeal from onset to full recovery lasted about six weeks.

Looking back, I realise that I solved the problem myself because I had no choice. There was very little useful information or research available at the time. In desperation I decided to listen to what my hands were telling me and use my intuition to support what they told me they needed…which was, in the end, for me to pay closer attention to what I was doing when I was practicing.

Getting rid of tendonitis was not about giving up playing guitar. That would have been a disastrous choice. Stress, fatigue and over-practicing had brought it on. Finding my way back had everything to do with changing how I was communicating with myself and the kind of energy I was putting into my hands.

Tendonitis is a tricky condition, intimately connected to your emotional state as well as your physical behaviour while playing your instrument.

I have felt the beginnings of tendonitis coming back multiple times in the decades since. But now that I know the warning signs, I know what to do — and what to stop doing.

Bringing awareness to it always makes it go away.

If you have made it this far in this post, then here is some parting advice:

Never give in to tendonitis. Yes, once you get it, it must be carefully babied. But remember that it’s you who created it, one way or another. And it is you who can make it go away…by communicating with yourself.

Do you have a tendonitis story?

If so, how did you deal with it?

What advice would you offer to others?

Posted in Guitar, Health and Well-Being, Learning, Music, Neuro-science, Psychology, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

John Fahey: A Tribute

I first heard John Fahey‘s solo acoustic guitar playing on an album when I was a teenager. I liked his strange, minimalist, visually and emotionally evocative instrumental compositions, performed in open tunings in an alternating-bass fingerpicking style.

I found his guitar playing accessible and was able to figure out how to fingerpick from his record America.

The discovery of alternating-bass fingerpicking and its strong, stable rhythmic foundations accelerated my creativity and set me on a path of writing guitar compositions in that style.

For my 17th birthday my sister took me to New York City to see John Fahey play at a club called Max’s Kansas City.

He walked on stage, sat down on a wooden chair, put a large mug of red wine and a towel on the floor next to him and played a continuous improvisation for thirty minutes or so.

Then he stopped, wiped his face with the towel (it was quite hot that day and there was no air conditioning), downed the entire mug of wine, scanned the audience briefly, and played another rambling improvisation for another half hour.

Then he left the stage.

He had never said a word to the audience.

It didn’t matter. It was an awesome concert.

(Years later when we talked about that show, he told me he hadn’t spoken to the audience because was scared to death.)

In the years that followed I was able to meet him (I sent him my first album in 1979 and he sent me a Christmas card saying positive things about the album which gave me a huge boost of confidence) and open many shows for him around the U.S. in the early 1980’s. I even slept on his couch for a couple of nights — the biggest, most comfortable couch I have ever experienced to this day — when I was touring in Oregon.

He was always supportive of my music, my playing and my recordings, for which I was — and still am — deeply honoured and grateful.

From John Fahey’s music I learned about freedom, courage and truth — the freedom to be yourself and trust your own ideas, even if they were different. The courage to show the world who you are, alone on a stage, on a solo instrument. And the importance of telling your personal truth — your unique story — through your art, whatever form that art may take.

John was a quirky, fiercely individual person — a really nice person with a wonderful sense of humour who cared about other people. Despite being a producer and record label owner, he was not built for the music business and seemed tormented by the politics and egos that went with it.

Unfortunately he had a self-destructive alcohol problem which eventually cost him his life.

I see John Fahey as the father of solo acoustic steel-string guitar playing. His pioneering record label (Takoma), the albums he produced for it, and the artists whose first records came out on it gave birth to the instrumental genre we now call acoustic fingerstyle guitar.

Guitar players today who pick up an acoustic and think about performing a solo composition on YouTube owe John Fahey a debt.

He started it.

Posted in Art, Creativity, Culture, Guitar, History, Music, Music business, Recording and producing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Three days in Odessa, Ukraine

Graffiti on the "mother-in-law" bridge.

Graffiti on the “mother-in-law” bridge.

I had always wanted to see Odessa, ever since watching the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein film The Battleship Potemkim in high school. The brilliantly-conceived scene of horror and tragedy distilled into an ironic symbol — a baby in a buggy rolling back down the steps after the mother has been shot by the Czar’s Guards — had stayed cemented in my mind for four decades.

When I was offered a chance to perform at the UNESCO International Jazz Day Festival in Odessa at the end of April, I was thrilled.

With the political crisis Ukraine is in right now, I knew there were some risks…but I was willing to take them for the chance to experience the city.

One of Odessa's many tree-lined streets in the city centre.

One of Odessa’s many tree-lined streets in the city centre.

Odessa is now, after Russia’s recent annexation of Sebastopol and Crimea, the largest port of the Ukraine. It is a vibrant, safe, cosmopolitan city of tree-lined streets, gardens and parks with multiple museums, a grand concert hall, a period-defining opera house, outdoor cafés, restaurants, bars and colourful street culture.

The Opera  and Ballet Theatre.

The Opera and Ballet Theatre.

It is a city to stroll through, relax in and explore. The people are friendly, the food is wonderful and international (although my favourite was the Ukrainian food — the variniki dumplings are incredible), the architecture stunning and the ambiance decidedly romantic.

My Ukrainian guide and translator during my stay — a six-foot tall woman named Olga Kravtsova — gave me a tour of the centre of the city the first day, starting with the Potemkin Steps and a vista of the port and the Black Sea spreading out behind it (I told her it was the first time I had ever seen the Black Sea. She said, “Make a wish.” I did).

The Potemkin Steps.

The Potemkin Steps.

Olga had many stories to tell about the history of Odessa — of the illustrious personages who had built the city (Odessa is only 220 years old), the famous writers and artists who had lived there (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky all lived in Odessa at different times), and some interesting facts (e.g. while walking along a cobblestone street, I was told that the stones came not from the countryside around the city but rather were ballast stones from ships that had visited the port).

We walked across the famous “mother-in-law” bridge built by one of the city’s founders — the Duke of Richelieu — to keep his mother-in-law at arm’s length. The rickety, romantic bridge is the traditional scene for “first kisses” and marriage proposals, and has thousands of padlocks attached to the railings symbolising bonds of love…and now endangering the bridge’s structural integrity.

Padlocks symbolising eternal love on the "mother-in-law" bridge.

Padlocks symbolising eternal love on the “mother-in-law” bridge.

One afternoon when I stepped out of my hotel (the Londonskaya Hotel, one of the city’s landmark buildings on the lovely, park-lined Primorsky Bulvar), a strolling couple stopped and looked at me, wide-eyed. “Are you Preston Reed?” the man asked. He had just seen me in a video and couldn’t believe he was seeing me in the flesh. He and his partner were down from Moscow for a break.

That’s the kind of city it is.

Odessa's iconic classical monument.

Odessa’s iconic classical monument.

The Tolstoy House.

The Tolstoy House.

Architectural feature on a private residence in the city centre.

Architectural feature on a private residence in the city centre.

I played two performances while I was there, one in the beautifully restored 19th Century Philharmonic Concert Hall and one in a park in the city centre the next night. The audiences for both shows were warm, appreciative and enthusiastic.

The Philharmonic Concert Hall during soundcheck.

The Philharmonic Concert Hall during soundcheck.

Afterwards, my hosts expressed relief that there had been no political disturbances at either of the shows.

During my time there I observed two gatherings of pro-Ukraine supporters (at the top of the famous steps) equipped with megaphones and Ukrainian flags, but the gatherings were peaceful.

A city with a strong sense of pride and identity, Odessa has all along tried to stay out of the current political conflict.

The feeling I got from the people I met there was that they were not going to give in to the fear and politically-motivated provocation in the air.

Sadly, despite Odessa’s bid for neutrality, it is being dragged into the conflict by outside elements.

I left Odessa on Friday, the first of May, in the morning. A few hours later armed pro-Russia supporters took over the Trade Unions Building. Forty-six people died that day, most from smoke inhalation when the building caught fire during Molotov cocktail exchanges with pro-Ukraine supporters.

It was shocking to hear about violence and death in the place I had just left. Everyone I had spoken to while I was there was expecting trouble in the near future from the pro-Russians, but certainly not a tragedy of such magnitude.

I was worried for the friends I made while was there, but they are ok — for now.

I hope the people of Odessa and the Ukraine survive this test of their solidarity and identity as a nation.

It is a special place that I want to visit again.

Yuri Kuznetzov, the president of the Odessa Jazz Festival and the Odessa minister of culture celebrating a successful end of the festival.

Yuri Kuznetzov, the president of the Odessa Jazz Festival and Vladislav Stankov, the Odessa minister of culture celebrating a successful end of the festival.

Posted in Culture, Literature, Music, TheArts, Touring, Travel, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The 20th anniversary of my instructional video

The Guitar of Preston Reed

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of my 1994 instructional video, The Guitar of Preston Reed: Expanding the Realm of Acoustic Playing on Homespun Tapes.

(I can’t believe it’s been twenty years!)

In the late 1980’s I had developed a new approach to guitar playing that involved compositions incorporating an integrated percussive groove. My left hand was usually over the top of the neck, and the “left-hand-over-the neck” became the visual symbol of this radical new style of playing.

I made the video because I wanted the world to see and understand my approach and the concepts behind it.

I also wanted to create a friendly and accessible portal for guitarists to learn it.

I tried to show not just the techniques I invented and how I employed them to get the sound I achieved, but the thinking behind it, in the hopes that guitarists in the future might learn to think in new ways about the possibilities of the acoustic guitar, and in a larger sense, about what music really is.

I am delighted that over the past twenty years my instructional video has had, and continues to have, an impact on guitar players all over the world.

Twenty years.


Time definitely flies when you’re having fun :^)

Posted in Composing, Creativity, Guitar, Learning, Music | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Let’s get bored


When I was in China last fall I watched a teenage girl on a Beijing subway say goodbye to a friend getting off at a stop. As soon as they had waved goodbye and the doors closed, the girl pulled out her phone and began thumbing away.

This reminded me that these days, all around the world, it no longer looks “normal” to be doing nothing — even on trains, in elevators, in waiting rooms, standing in lines, or walking down the street.

Since we can now bring our personal entertainment environments with us everywhere in the form of phones, tablets and headgear (like Google Glass), all locations and situations are becoming our personal entertainment environments.

We no longer have to be bored in traditionally boring situations…and are likely never to be bored again.

That’s great, right? Or is it…

The continually advancing capabilities of devices (and the media hype that goes with them) suggest to us that we are being further empowered every time we adopt a new, clever, entertaining tech capability.

It suggests that we will be using our devices more and more in the future as they become more and more relevant to our lives, assisting us in every imagineable situation.

As much as I love, use and benefit from technology (and I certainly do), I think today’s constantly-innovating, tech-driven lifestyle is encroaching on our time and freedom to just be.

In other words, we are running out of opportunities to be bored.

I recently read an article in an inflight magazine about boredom (picked up because I was bored on the plane). Various points were made by various experts.

•Research suggests that when you are bored your brain begins to create new neural pathways and connections within itself, leading to creativity, new thinking and other benefits.

•Our constant interaction with technology and screens is actually bad for our creativity and can result in a lack of originality.

•An example was given of a scientist who values her bored-time so much she refuses to use her laptop on plane flights — only a pad of paper and a pen, and only if she really needs to remember something.

We associate boredom with undesirable attributes like laziness, lack of motivation, non-productivity, arrogance and apathy.

Who wants to be (or look) bored? If you are bored — the current lifestyle model tells us — there is something wrong with you.

I was frequently bored as a boy growing up in a small town in upstate New York. My siblings were years older than me. I lived at the end of a private road surrounded by woods. Most friends my age lived miles away, requiring rides from parents if we wanted to play together. It was often up to me to entertain myself.

I learned to enjoy playing alone, and being alone with my thoughts. I had no particular agenda, I was free to adopt an idea one minute and abandon it the next; to invent, explore and discover what was inside as well as what was outside. I had a rich, lively, original inner landscape — powered by boredom.

Today I am convinced that the habits I developed from being bored as a child — proactivity, a love of exploring, openness to new ideas, being comfortable with myself — made it possible to connect strongly with creative outlets like writing and guitar playing later on.

I still see boredom as the starting point for creativity, insight and adventure.

I see it as an opportunity.

I see it as freedom.

Boredom compels you to solve the problem of being bored. It causes you to look around, literally and metaphorically. It can result in unexpected solutions, perspectives and new thinking.

Next time you feel bored, try resisting the impulse to reach for your phone and, instead, let yourself be bored for one minute. You might suddenly find yourself exploring a more interesting device: you.

Posted in Creativity, Culture, Health and Well-Being, Neuro-science, Psychology, Technology, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 209 Comments

Recording an instructional video project

A few weeks ago I flew to Colorado to record a video series for an internet company specialising in online guitar lessons.

I had been contacted by the company about six months earlier and liked what they were offering guitar players: online instruction in the form of short pre-recorded lessons from their favourite guitarists.

I also thought that with more and more people playing — and in some cases even teaching — my music on YouTube and other internet sites, it was time for me to weigh in and personally teach the guitar style I invented.

I flew to Denver from Glasgow (via Amsterdam and Minneapolis), rented a car and drove — in a snowstorm — to Fort Collins. After taking a day to adjust to the new time zone, and with the entire state blanketed in new-fallen snow, I showed up at the studio on an icey, arctic-cold Thursday morning.

The shoot turned out to be three days of hard work. It brought back memories of when I recorded my first instructional video twenty years earlier (that had been just one day of hard work).

At the end of each shooting day I was exhausted. I would go back to the hotel, take a nap, grab dinner at a nearby restaurant, head straight back to my room and go to bed. Not my usual style.

The shoot consisted of around twenty 7-10 minute lessons where I teach my techniques and approach and show guitar players how they can use them to play my music as well as enliven their own music and playing.

The lessons, most of which I had prepared in advance, included “Meet your acoustic guitar”, “Playing chords over the top of the neck”, “Chunks, whunks and slap harmonics”, “The acoustic guitar as a drum kit”, “Creating an integrated percussive groove”, “Combining techniques within a tune” and others.

I also taught four of my tunes in full.
That was tougher than I thought it was going to be.

I discovered that I “know” my music at a certain speed. Everything changes when it gets slowed down.

My tune “Tractor Pull” — a busy composition for both hands — was especially difficult to teach. I had to stop many times to re-play a section at its actual speed and observe what my fingers were doing, then re-teach the section after realising I had taught it incorrectly.

But the crowning difficulty of the shoot was presenting to a camera lens.

As things progressed I grew more relaxed, but I was always battling the feeling of being in a bubble.

I find it far easier to teach a live workshop for a theatre-full of guitar players because there is someone to interact with. I can make eye-contact, engage the audience in dialogue and generally gauge the level of comprehension and involvement.

That reality check was not available in the isolated environment of a video studio. I had to imagine an audience of guitar players in front of me and remember to include not only the basic material of the lesson but answers to imagined questions and sidebar points.

As challenging as the three-day shoot was, I’m glad I did it.

It felt good to document my playing style. It was an opportunity to impart my accumulated knowledge and experience — and my philosophy of music and composing — to other guitarists.

I was able to explain not just what I do and how I do it, but why I do it — what’s fun about it, what’s important about it (getting more music from the guitar) and what’s rewarding about it (playing multi-voiced music on a solo instrument and making full use of the sonic potential of the acoustic guitar in the process).

I flew home on Sunday tired but happy. I’m looking forward to seeing the series available online soon. I hope it helps guitar players to expand their minds, their skills and their horizons on the instrument.


Posted in Guitar, Learning, Music, Neuro-science, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

When you are doing nothing, you are doing something

When I first finish a challenging creative project, I feel a sense of relief and euphoria.

That feeling may last for a little while.

But eventually it wears off…and I am left feeling exhausted.

The truth is, the project has caused me to put out an enormous amount of energy…and I now need a rest.

When I am tired I lose (temporarily) my ability to create, innovate, or think fresh thoughts.

And that makes me feel lost.

The fatigue separates me from the heady feeling of power, confidence and dynamism that was part of the creative mode I was in…and that I had grown attached to.

That electrifying sense of connection with what I was creating disappears and is replaced by a feeling of weakness, listlessness…sometimes actual depression.

I say things to myself like, how could I ever have accomplished what I just accomplished and then feel as empty as I’m feeling now?

I worked so hard, gave so much. Why don’t I feel happy now?

I rail against my tiredness, as if in so doing I will get the magic back.

It doesn’t work of course. I just feel even more empty and exhausted.

Then at a certain point it all bottoms out and I recognise that I am in a state of withdrawal.

I accept that I am tired, let go of trying to be dynamic and creative, adjust my mood and expectations and move on to other things.

After a lifetime of dealing with my creative cycles, I have learned that the magic always comes back.

An idea for new tune, an opportunity for a cool photograph, an insight for a blog post are all right around the corner.

The secret is to get away from the intense creative activity I’ve just spent so much time in, and do…well…nothing for a little while.

I ride my bike, take naps, stare into space, run household errands, fix things, read, cook, meditate, tidy my studio, take walks, catch up with friends, and generally do anything and everything that is not about the creative project I was just doing.

The Irish have a saying: “A change is as good as a rest.”

Actually, changing a pattern of behavior is a rest from that behavior and its associated activities.

Being creative is not just about the active, productive times.

It’s about the silences, the gaps, the pauses between creating, when it can seem there’s nothing going on and time is being wasted.

It’s not.

When nothing is going on in your conscious mind, there’s always something going on in your unconscious mind — where the development of the next idea, the next composition, the next project, the next solution to a problem begins.

Creativity is not just about manifestation.

It’s about gestation.

When you are doing “nothing”, you are doing something very important.

When the rechargeable battery in my electric beard-trimmer runs out, I plug it in. It takes about eight hours to fully recharge. During that time I don’t use it.

Next time you are feeling tired and disappointed in yourself, give yourself a break.

You are in the battery-charging part of a creative cycle.

Use this time to take care of the rest of yourself.

You’ll be back soon.

Posted in Art, blogging, Creativity, Guitar, Music, Photography, Psychology, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments