Thursday, 27 March 2014

Keep Those Fingers Working

Product Review: Planet Waves Varigrip - Variable Tension Hand & Finger Exerciser.

Originally featured on Thunder Row, 27 February, 2012

I got this about a week ago to help build the strength in my fretting hand. I'd read most of the reviews online - from Amazon and other music supply shops. The ratio of good to bad reviews was about 85% to 15%. Those who weren't satisfied included testimonials that the pistons would break and fly out of the device within hours of first use, that the device squeaked and squealed like a banshee when used, and that the motions involved did not simulate the true actions used in fretting a bass guitar.

By the time I decided to lay down my $12.75 for one of my own, I had a well-rounded picture of the problems I might experience. But the 85% who gave the Varigrip a four or five star rating convinced me that it was worth a go.

If you have weak fretting fingers, this could be your saving grace. Those of us whose daily schedules prohibit getting in as much practice as we'd like, the Varigrip fills in the spaces. You can pull it out for a quick five minute work-out anytime, anywhere. Run through some of the recommended exercises and your fingers will stay limber all the time, so that when you finally get to your practice session, you don't lose your enthusiasm due to stiff or un-warmed up fingers. You can do your warm-ups in the car on the way home, while watching TV, in the bathtub - wherever!

Within the first few hours of getting the Varigrip, my fingers were already looser and stronger. Seriously. There was a noticeable difference in my flexibility within a very short time. I peeled open the package and started squeezing...then I put it away. An hour later, I repeated the routine for another five-ten minutes. I did this stop-start routine three more times within the next couple of hours, and by the last run-through, I could depress the pistons with more ease and comfort, with ALL fingers. I could feel a little burn in my forearms, but that's how you know it's starting to work.

Because I suffer from RSI (repetitive stress injury) I was worried the Varigrip would aggravate it, but after the first day, I felt none of the pain I would normally feel from over-working my fingers. If you suffer from RSI, you can lose circulation to your fingertips if there is swelling in your carpal tunnel area. As well, pain can radiate all the way up to the shoulders. As a writer, I have to take breaks from the keyboard when my fingers start failing - they tremble and lose their accuracy for typing. I call it "dead hands." It's a similar feeling as waking up and finding one of your hands has fallen asleep. Try pressing the button to answer the phone or pouring a cup of coffee when your hand has fallen asleep!

It may be too early to commit to this statement, but the Varigrip might actually be aiding in my RSI, since I am suffering none of the expected injuries. Between using the Varigrip, playing the bass, and typing this review, my arms would normally need to be on ice by now, but I am still going strong without a lick of pain or "dead hands". Strange that no doctor has recommended this device!

Anyway, the second day of testing the Varigrip, I did a couple of routines and then put it away. An hour later, I picked up my bass and ran through some scales. Everything was smoother and cleaner, and my fingers pressed the strings with real ease. Even though I had only worked out with the Varigrip for about ten minutes on each hand, it felt like I had been warming up for a good half hour, at least! The biggest improvement was when I noticed that my weaker fingers - the ring finger and pinky - were able to make more of the moves they needed to make.

As to the Varigrip itself, luck was also with me in that the pistons did not explode. As some people reported, the thing DID make a lot of noise; in fact, it squeaked and squalled like a honeymoon bed, but I found that twisting the springs within the pistons re-seated them and stopped the noise altogether. As far as simulating the motions of fretting a bass, I don’t think the Varigrip was designed to reproduce this action. The motions seem to be geared strictly toward strength and flexibility. You certainly can't do "The Hazard" on it as it has no lateral motion across a "fretboard."

I've even been using it on my plucking hand, since it can build up endurance and strength in both hands. For $12.75, I'm even contemplating getting a second one, so I can work out both hands at the same time.

Okay, let's take a look at some of the features of the Varigrip. BTW, I borrowed these pictures from the Planet Waves site.

At the base of each piston spring is a dial where you can increase the tension with little incremented turns. I have mine on the lowest setting and see no reason (at this point) to stoke it up. Even the lowest setting is a challenge, unless you already have a lot of strength in your hands and forearms.

At the bottom of the device is a rubber cushion to make it comfortable in your hand. If you take this cushion off and cover the pistons with it instead, you reveal a set of simulated guitar strings on the bottom bar. In other words, using it upside down lets you work on keeping your callouses alive by pressing on these "strings". And it really works!

You can also use the Varigrip to work up strength in your thumb. This gives you an advantage when playing the bass, since your thumb won't get sore when held in the proper position on the back of the neck.

So, the word on the Planet Waves Varigrip is that I am finding it a remarkably valuable tool. As someone who can't always play the bass every day, the Varigrip keeps my fingers warm and flexible. What do you say? 86%?

If you already use the Varigrip (or other brands that perform the same functions) why not weigh in and tell us how it has worked for you?

© 2012 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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