All in the Wrist

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Consider the wrist joint, one of the most complicated joints in the human body. In fact it isn’t really a single joint at all, though most people think of it that way. If you take a closer look at the anatomy of the wrist you will discover that it is really made up of four joints, working together around a network of eight small bones. These eight bones make the link between the two bones of the forearm and the five metacarpal bones of the hand.

Each of the eight carpal bones has a unique shape and name. To make it a little easier to remember, students of anatomy learn mnemonics such as this one: ” Some lovers try positions that they can’t handle”. The first letters of the words of the sentence are supposed to help you remember “Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate and Hamate”. The only problem is that three of the eight bones start with the letter T! Oh well, if you can sort out all the T names in the right order you’ll know the exact position of the two rows of four bones. Looking at the back of right your hand it goes left to right, from bottom to top.

As I said at the outset, the wrist is a very complicated structure. It just took me a whole paragraph to merely describe the names and positions of the bones. Around those bones are membranes, fluids, tendons, ligaments, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins and lymphatics that make the whole thing work. Millions of years of evolution have produced a true marvel of nature. It’s a marvel that enabled homo sapiens to make use of a larger brain to make the environment suit its purpose by using its hands.

If you’re a fly fisherman, you use the wrist to pop that lure right over the hole where that big trout will want to pounce on it. If you’re a computer typist, you hope your median nerve doesn’t get pinched as it squeezes through that narrow carpal tunnel while you make all those repetitive motions with your wrist. The wrist is a critical joint.

For those of us who play bluegrass music the wrist is especially important. We use our hands to produce sound from our instruments and to shape that sound into melodies. It would be pretty hard to play any of the major bluegrass instruments wearing wrist braces, wouldn’t it? But some instruments require more wrist than others and some musicians playing the same instrument use the wrist to a greater or lesser degree.

Every fiddle player I know knows the value of a supple wrist. The challenge of making a bow glide across the strings at just the right angle and weight is a challenge that I appreciate but have little chance of ever mastering. But it’s necessary if you want to get that beautiful sound that comes from a fiddle. Watch Kenny Baker and how his bow just floats through the air on some tunes.

If you watch a lot of different fiddlers closely, you’ll notice that some of them play with more elbow and less wrist. It’s all a matter of style. Long bow, short bow, bows that float and bows that shed horsehair like a coon dog in summer. There’s lots of ways to play the fiddle “right”.

When I started learning to play the mandolin most teachers emphasized the importance of using the wrist to move the pick smoothly through the strings. The idea is that, since the wrist is capable of such precise movement and is close to the action, your picking will develop precision more naturally. Roland White, Herschel Sizemore, Norman Blake. Watch those guys play mandolin and you’ll see what good wrist action should look like.

But I see lots of good mandolinists that don’t use the wrist as much. Last week if you were at the Sonoma County Bluegrass Festival you had the opportunity to see some really good mandolinists. But if you compare John Cogdill’s picking style to that of Tom Rozum, you’ll notice that John uses a lot of elbow whereas Tom uses the more conventional wrist style. They can both play. They just play differently. And John’s in good company too, John Reischman and Sam Bush also use less wrist and more elbow in their playing. Sam Bush broke his wrist and had to modify his style to adjust to the injury.

I suppose guitar players are more accustomed to using elbow movement for picking because they strum so much. The mechanics are not that much different for using a flat pick on a guitar versus a mandolin, so a good wrist can help out on the guitar as well. Every now and then I like to pick up a guitar and fool around with it but about the only tune I can flat pick is Wildwood Flower. When I did so at a jam a few months ago, my friend Mark Hogan noticed that my picking motion was exactly like it was on the mandolin, almost all wrist. Are guitar players who pick up the mandolin more likely to be elbow-centric? Interesting question.

A few years ago I fell off my bicycle and landed on my outstretched hand. That’s a typical story when someone fractures their wrist, usually the scaphoid bone or the end of the radius bone. But in my case I broke the head of the radius at my elbow. It still hurts sometimes but never when I play mandolin. Thank God I’m so much of a wrist player. (I don’t think I would have adjusted as well as Sam Bush did to his wrist fracture).

I would think that Dobro and banjo players would use their wrists less than other bluegrass pickers because they usually brace their wrists and use finger picks. If you play Dobro like Tut Taylor though, you’ll need a flat pick and probably a good wrist. I’ve seen banjo players use a flat pick to good advantage as well. Bass Players? Most of the wrist I notice is with vibrato during a spirited solo, but I don’t know. (Maybe I’ll find out when I study the bass at music camp this year!)

One word of warning: if you’re pretty comfortable with your playing now don’t start analyzing whether or not your wrist is good. As every good tennis player knows, when your opponent is beating the daylights out of you with wicked serves, all you have to do to mess them up is to ask how they do that thing with their wrist that gives them so much extra power. As much as it is a marvel, sometimes you should just take your wrist for granted. Only a month till our first campout. Don’t forget to bring your wrists.

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