Slow Hands: The Message in Eric Clapton’s Sad Announcement

The recent news was disheartening: Eric Clapton may soon no longer be able to play the guitar because of a debilitating nerve disease.


Naturally, it’s hoped that none of us will ever succumb to such a severe illness. Still, Clapton’s condition reminds us that, as guitarists, we must be aware of the potential for developing physical problems that can complicate—or totally prevent—our playing. The fact is we need not have to encounter physical trauma or disease like Clapton. Time can just take its toll considering—as we all know—how physically demanding it is to play the instrument in the first place.


I once had occasion to meet the 95-year-old guitarist (yes, 95) Al Caiola, when he played at my NJ hometown jazz spot, the Glen Rock Inn. Caiola is the legendary studio and recording artist who plays jazz, country, rock, and pop music. During his decades-long musical career, Caiola has recorded with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. His famous soundtracks include vintage TV and movie classics like Bonanza, From Russia with Love, and The Magnificent Seven.


In an article in Jersey Jazz magazine, Caiola was asked by fellow jazz guitar legend Frank Vignola how he has been able to avoid arthritis and maintain his “hand health” over the decades.


Caiola’s answer: cabbage soup.


Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting you go out and Google a recipe. But what’s important to note is that Caiola discovered his own individual solution to a prevalent problem. It follows that we should try to identify things we can personally do to limit the wear-and-tear strains of playing.


I discovered mine by accident. A student asked me once how I’ve safeguarded my hands over the years. It was the first time I thought about it.


I’ve been fortunate to not have developed any serious hand- or wrist-related problems thanks to a series of hand exercises I’ve done daily over the last 20 years as a karate practitioner. These stretching exercises are designed to support combat grappling, but they’ve proven beneficial to my guitar practice by boosting strength and flexibility in my hands. Only when asked by my student did I realize that the exercises have been a welcome by-product of my karate training. A pleasant surprise.


All things considered, it would seem important that part of our guitar warm ups should include hand, finger, or other exercises. (There are several interesting guitar exercise videos on YouTube.) You can apply them either before a practice session or as part of a broader regular workout. Either way, it’s advisable to perform them for a few minutes every day.


And don’t forget diet, as one 95-year-old guitarist would advise.


For Caiola, eating a certain food has helped him avoid hand stress issues. Al’s solution is fascinating (and kind of funny too). More important, it highlights the fact that we all have to work to stay “guitar healthy.” Stated another way, we have to attend to the physical aspects of musicianship in addition to the mental aspects of it.


It’s truly unfortunate that Slowhand’s hands are being slowed by disease. Clapton’s situation should never befall anyone.


But his problems stem from a nervous system disorder and, according to him, years of drug and alcohol abuse. Certainly, Clapton’s condition could never be attributed to prolonged guitar playing. But the fact is physical setbacks may occur and stifle our practice. We should endeavor to avoid them if at all possible.


Incorporating hand exercises or other measures today can help us sidestep painful problems in the future.


“Waiter, on second thought, I think I’ll have the cabbage soup.”


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  • Roy Rich

    Make sure that you choose instruments that match the size of your hands. Small hands, short fingers ? – a short scale and slim necked guitar should be chosen !

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