Look up “most dangerous professions.” Music isn’t going to be in the top 10, and that’s a blessing. Those don’t-let-your-guard-down-for-one-second positions generally involve heights, open water, tall trees, and power tools. But music comes with its own hazards, from hecklers armed with glass beer steins to highway mishaps on the way home from a gig.
In warehouses and factories, the first thing new hires generally hear is a safety lecture. For musicians, we take the native hazards for granted all too often. But injuries can stop us from playing, and that’s the headline here. The following is a list of some of the most common ways for musicians to end up on injured reserve and how to avoid them.
Finger smash and crush injuries
Since many times we're our own roadies, most of us can remember a painful injury to a finger or hand. These almost always occur when moving gear. The most common culprits? Piles of hard metal cymbal stands that trap fingers. And heavy amps and cabinets that are a little too wide to fit through the studio door. How many times have these two happened to you?
Those stands should be strapped together or placed in a big duffel bag with handles. That big bundle of stands is too big to wrap your hands around anyway, and it only takes one bent finger to take a guitarist or bass player out of action for a while, especially if a bone is broken. As for those heavy plywood cabinets, all of them should be equipped with proper handles like these genuine Marshall cabinet handles.
If your amp only has a leather handle up top (quite possible broken or cracked anyhow) or no handles at all, you can install the Marshall handles for a correct grip using a jigsaw and drill driver (or somebody in your band can). That way, your hands will be in the safest position, inside the structure of the amp box. You won’t crush or scrape them against door frames, lock hardware, or whatever else you have to squeeze through while carrying that gear.
Some call it a back strain. Others say their back is “thrown out.” Usually, this refers to a herniated disk, in which one vertebra is pulled out of line from the others. In this case, the resultant swelling can impinge on a nerve and cause continuous pain. And it can take a long time to heal.
The best cure is prevention. Try to avoid sudden lifts of heavy objects, and if you must do a clean-and-jerk of a bass cab with an 18-inch speaker, at least lift with your thigh muscles like Grandpa showed you.
Even more helpful is simply keeping yourself in shape. Often, weak stomach muscles make back injuries more likely, because these muscles provide counter pressure to the muscle groups in the lower back. Think of the truss rod and the strings on your guitar. When they’re in balance, the guitar stays in tune and is easy to play. When you have passable muscle tone front and back, you’ll be able to handle lifting and moving gear with a reduced likelihood of a back pull.
You can also add caster wheels to your amps, a relatively cheap mod that you only have to do once, with a huge payoff in ease of load-in.
Repetitive stress injuries
When we think of this type of injury, we usually go right to the wrists, and we usually think of guitar, bass, and keys. If you play any of these instruments, think about your wrist position. The more radical the bend in your wrist, the more stress the wrist is under. Your arm and hand position should be as close to natural as possible. In other words, your arms and hands should be on close to the same plane.
If you’re using a radical bend, try to find ways to reduce that angle before you get swollen and impinged nerves. For example, if you play a stringed instrument, consider your fretting hand and how it grips the neck. Adjust strap length for maximum ease and comfort. If you’re a keyboardist, consider the height of your bench or stool. Too high or too low will result in that nasty wrist bend that will cause trouble sooner or later.
Also, consider your day job. For instance, I spend hours per day playing guitar or bass and typing, so good ergonomics are doubly critical for people like me. Check out this guide to correct typing position so the computer won’t be your worst enemy.
Your voice is like a chainsaw that needs bar oil after every cut. If you don’t keep your voice lubricated, something will eventually break, so stay hydrated. Even screamo/death metal singers have to keep their voices in shape and train so they can master those Cookie-Monster vocals without injury.
Vocalists also need to really watch the (dehydrating) booze, at least until after the set – it destroys fine muscle control in the vocal cords, resulting in off-key performances and a much greater chance of injury. And nobody in your band is a better candidate for a weight-training regime than your lead singer. Building up core strength and muscle tone in the chest and stomach will greatly mitigate the danger to those vocal cords.
Bottom line, driving is the most dangerous thing we do every day. And musicians do it more than most. Driving home late at night, don’t be a tough guy about giving up the wheel to a more alert bandmate. And make sure someone else rides up front to keep the driver alert.
If you’re at the point of playing loud music or letting icy air in through the windows to stay awake, you’re already too spent to be driving. It’s better to pull over and take an uncomfortable nap sitting up than to press on and end up driving off the road. Your fans want to hear what your next album sounds like, and that requires getting home from your show in one piece.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.