After writing about my approach to the right hand, I figure that the left hand should get the same treatment. First, I must explain, I am naturally left-handed, at least when I write. I throw with my right hand (except darts, weird, huh?) and will eat with whatever hand is closest to the fork. I do play guitar right-handed though so my most-dexterous hand is on the fretboard, which seems logical to me. Steve Morse and Robert Fripp, both some of the best technicians in the world of electric guitar, are lefties that play righty. In any case, if you play guitar left-handed, not only do you usually have limited choice in instruments, but you have to mentally switch ‘left’ and ‘right’ when reading guitar books or magazines. This article will be no exception.
I will break this article in 2 parts though, because as I started writing it, the wrist and the thumb deserve their own article, and the fingers another.
Well, the left hand does most of the work, right? Well, guitar is one of those instruments that have to usually have 2 motions to make a sound- right hand picks, left hand frets. As a result, a piano player can usually play much faster and cleaner than most guitarists, (with more range and denser chords too), and so the relaxation and awareness of our left hand go a long way to achieving the speeds we may aspire to.
My approach is based on relaxation, and necessary movement, versus tension and unnecessary movement. Classical guitarists rest their guitar on their left leg, putting their right hand directly in front of their center. This is great for the right hand, but the left arm is extended. Electric players usually place the guitar on the right knee when sitting, and the right arm tilts the axis of the guitar away from the player due to the pressure of the right forearm. The left hand has to reach too far across the body to get to the fretboard, and the fingers and thumb are keeping the neck steady.
Some players even hold the neck in the palm of their left hand, so the neck doesn’t dive to the floor (badly-balanced guitar syndrome). This will also limit blood flow to the fingers, limit range of motion for the fingers and eventually cause some serious wrist pain in a few years.
All of this places way too much tension on the left hand. We have to learn to relax.
Try this: Sit down in an armless chair with your guitar. Place your left hand on your knee, palm up, fingers slightly curled as if they were playing. Bring it up slowly so the thumb gently contacts the back of the neck. A strap keeps the guitar from tilting towards the right when the right forearm brings the pick to the guitar. The left hand is free to move up and down the fretboard, with the thumb generally right behind wherever the first finger is. The palm is not touching the back of the guitar neck, and the wrist is straight but not locked. My thumb is usually in contact with the top third of the back of the neck.
This is the starting point of the left hand, what I call the zero position. Your left hand is free to move from this, especially for barre chords, where the wrist drops and the fingers extend. But anyone who plays barre chords for a song or 2 will tell you, this hurts! Do that for a few years, and you might cause damage.
Remember, if this works when sitting, your wrist should be in the same position when standing. If the angles of your wrist and thumb change when standing, adjust the strap.
Despite all of this nonsense about economy, tension and relaxation, I vary my approach as I need to. Some techniques absolutely require it, and some of those extended chords (or those seemingly made-up ones in any Allan Holdsworth song), absolutely require a shift in wrist and thumb angles. Yes, some people have exceptionally large hands. Some people fret with their thumb, and some, like me, will extend the thumb over the neck for bending strings.
Remember, there are so many guitarists that play their own way. Some are very successful. Some of those are even very original. This proves that there isn’t a right way or wrong way. But I encourage you to find your own reasons for doing what you do.
What are some of the ways you developed to play for long periods without fatigue, wrist pain, back pain, speed or efficiency? If anyone has their own stories to share, I would love to hear them.