I've been playing for a few years now, completely self taught and I've always had a problem with pain in my left hand. It's in the thick fleshy area right below the thumb. I can only describe it as the burn you feel from exercising a muscle. It doesn't cramp up, it just hurts and I eventually have to quit playing and rest it. I can't make it through certain songs that are longer and require complicated fingering. I don't know how performing guitarists can make through a show.
Does anyone know of any exercises that will alleviate this? Will strengthening my left hand allow me to play longer without pain?
Have you ever been shown the proper way to hold a guitar .What type of guitar are you playing .
I know that's probably what it is. It's a hard habit to break.
I agree with the above, sounds like technique. If you've been playing a few years all the necessary muscles should be up to the task. Make sure you're not clamping too hard when fingering or making bar chords. If you find you have to really give it a lot of tension I would look into having your guitar set up properly and perhaps having the action lowered. Run you about $50 at a respectable guitar shop for a complete setup...
And bar chords can always make your hand ache, depending on the amount of chords invloved, speed of the progressions, etc. I've been playing for about 25 years, and some songs still make my hand (and the muscle you reference) hurt like hell by the end of the tune.
I get that when i play a few hours straight
check out hand exercises by Greg Irwin
I agree with Mark, check your technique and have a reputable guitar shop set up your guitar. Another thing to consider is the gauge of your strings. If you're using medium, consider switching to light. When you have you're guitar setup you'll want it setup with the gauge of strings you plan to use.
Sounds like an overuse issue, likely from pressing harder on the back of the neck than you need to when barring. It may get better as you strengthen, but you can expedite the process by getting some treatment for it. As a chiropractor, I've seen this type of situation many times... the muscles in the pad of the thumb (specifically, the opponens pollicis) get very tight and fibrotic, to the point that the muscle can't relax anymore. Also, it's likely that you're overusing the muscles all the way up the arm, to the neck. If you can find a chiropractor, physical therapist or massage therapist that does Active Release Technique (www.activerelease.com), you'll feel a lot better, sooner rather than later. Also, I agree with everyone who says that you should have someone show you the proper way to hold and play your guitar. Until you improve your technique, you're likely to re-injure.
You may have a technique issue and should see a teacher/video/book or whatever for that. This should be your priority. After that, it does take practice and time for muscles to strengthen. With many bar chords you can bring your first finger down to cover the first two strings and bring your thumb over the top to cover the sixth string. This is a good way to get some relief during a song.
After fifty years of playing, arthritis finally kicked in, so I have to pace myself. Having built up some playing versatility gives me the opportunity to switch styles midstream if I start getting some pain.
I don't fight with my guitars anymore. I set up my guitars with low low action and use extra light strings. Any lack of bass response can be handled with electronics.
Learn to transpose & use a capo. Open chords are always easier. This will allow you to take a song in the key of B-flat, for example (yuck) & still play along using open chords. Carry a tennis ball with you everywhere you go & squeeze it. Warm up prorerly before you perform & most importantly, RELAX.
If you aren't keeping you're wrist straight, then that might be contributing to the pain. When you play bar chords, you really can't keep you're wrist straight. But I find that with other chords, like a C or G, if I can place my thumb over the top of the neck comfortably then I know my wrist is straight and I'm not straining my hand. Sometimes people tell you not to put your thumb over the neck like that, but it definitely helps me. It could also be that you're holding the strings down to hard, either out of habit or because the action is high. Try stretching out your hand muscles before playing guitar.