In the last article on this subject I wrote about my approach to the left hand, concentrating on the wrist, palm and thumb. This time we’ll look at the fingers. First I’ll start out by saying that I seem to have little girl hands. I am fairly short too, at 5’7”, so those who have much bigger hands might alter my approach accordingly. But really, it all comes down to not working as hard as you might think you need to.
A common exercise for beginning guitarists might be something like a 1-2-3-4 exercise, where you start by putting your first finger on the first fret, followed by the second finger on the second fret, etc. We’ve all done this. However, a common mistake is either pulling previous fingers off of the string, or keeping constant and even pressure with each successive finger. We’ll address both of these problems, but one at a time.
Releasing the finger off of the string simply takes too much effort. I know our fingers want to naturally do this. Place a finger down (remember to use the fingertip, not the pad), release the finger, place another finger down. But releasing that first finger causes problems when that first finger is needed again. It has to search for the right string as it comes down again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a smaller string, a bigger one, or the same string, it has to come down and get its bearings, and press again. I know we’re talking milliseconds (and some cases, millimeters), but those add up. The fingers are moving more, which takes more energy. Why work that hard?
By the same token, keeping all fingers pressed in succession takes too much force in the left hand. The hand tenses too much and you feel it down the back of your hand into your forearm. Again, way too much energy and this can actually cause pain over time.
Again, why work that hard?
I propose that there’s a difference between releasing pressure from the note you’re holding and releasing the finger from the string. I stay in contact with the string, but just release the pressure downward. There’s no tension from that finger anymore, and the finger is ready to go to any string – in fact, you can usually feel a bigger or smaller string touching your finger as you do this.
The problem with this method is that it’s difficult to train the left hand to work that efficiently. It’s even harder to re-train the left hand if it is used to seemingly doing its own thing. But it can be taught: remember the brain is more powerful than muscle memory, and with s l o w practice, you can accomplish much more. You will work less, and when you move more efficiently, you will have more control and more speed.
The other aspect of the left hand fingers to address is where we press. Now, anyone who has played guitar longer than a day knows you don’t actually press on the metal frets – the note needs a clean fret as a starting point for the sounding length of the string. You can press anywhere between the frets to get that note.
However, the closest you get to that metal fret (without touching it) will give you the cleanest possible note, with the least amount of effort. On one of my guitars, I use a scalloped neck, so there’s no wood to press against. You press until the string contacts the top of the metal fret and no more.
There’s that effort thing again. Notes pop out of the guitar if you press in exactly the right place with barely any effort at all. This is great news to anyone looking for a more efficient left hand technique, but it gives hope to new players struggling to press down on a string.
As with any of my approaches, there are exceptions. With chords like an open position A chord, the fingers are at a diagonal angle to the fret, as do many other chords. There is no way around this. People with big hands have it worse when playing chords, as it is almost impossible to play many chords with fingers parallel to the frets.
Yes, I know for the most part, guitar players don’t think this much about the left hand. Because playing didn’t come easy to me (it still doesn’t), I’ve had to dissect many aspects of playing that many other people take for granted.
So, is there anyone else that has some tips for relaxing the left hand? A relaxed tension-free approach will be helpful for many players who currently play with pain, and I am sure they would love to hear any other tips you readers may have.