Guitar Technique: The Fretting Handby Tom Juhas
Can’t quite get those notes to ring? Stretching and straining to get all the notes of a chord? From a “Homer Simpson choke grip” to a weird kind of “funky elbow/chicken dance”, after years of teaching one-on-one I have seen it all. A simple tweak of the wrist can be the difference between hearing all the notes or future hand and wrist pains.
When playing single notes the most important thing to remember is that you want to USE THE TIPS of your fingers (the hard flesh just below the fingernail). This will naturally curl your fingers around the neck with the most dexterous potential to play fast lines on one or more strings. Your fingers are stronger in this position which is necessary because you do have to use quite a bit of pressure to get that note to vibrate continuously.
Many beginners try to play with the soft fleshy part of the finger (where you would take a fingerprint) which straightens the fingers. This will slow you down and sound quite sloppy. It would be like typing on a keyboard with straight fingers. You can physically do it, but not very efficiently.
Place your finger to the right side of the fret you intend to play. Not in the middle, and certainly not to the left (unless you are playing a left handed guitar). When you play a fret the string is actually resting on the metal frets not the wood under your finger, so the closer you get to it the louder and longer it will ring. Do not put your finger on the metal fret though.
If you are still having problems applying appropriate pressure while using the very tips of your fingers, check your thumb position. This is the other most common problem. This is the one that gets students moving their elbow back and forth, and digging it into their stomach trying to find a way to get that note to sing.
The thumb goes behind the fretboard with firm pressure counteracting the pressure from the fingertips. It is essentially holding the neck in place so you can apply the appropriate pressure to the fretboard.
As opposed to the fingers, you must straighten the thumb using the soft “thumbprint” surface. It acts as an anchor which you can pivot or slide across the back of the neck to change finger positions.
The last thing to pay close attention to (whether all the notes are clear or not) is the wrist. This is probably the most delicate joint. The wrist must be straight but flexible. It should not be straining to bend to either extremes at any point. In order for the wrist to be most comfortable be sure to be sitting up straight. Do not slouch or try to play lying down.
When it comes to chords, the wrist is the first thing to check. This is typically when students reach awkwardly causing the wrist to contort strenuously. Loosen that wrist and keep it straight but slightly flexible.
At this point, make sure that your thumb is straight. Do not let the palm touch the back of the neck. This is the “choke grip” I mentioned earlier. The “choke grip” makes it hard to curl your fingers around the fretboard. Once again, make sure you are using the very tip of each finger (just below the fingernail). When playing chords you often have to squeeze a few fingers into one tight area and make sure all the notes of the chord ring clearly. In order to do this you have make those fingers as narrow and vertical as possible.
For the most part, single note and chordal hand positions follow the same 3 rules:
- Use the very tips of the fingers
- Keep your thumb straight and firm
- Keep your wrist straight but subtly limber
Of course some of these rules change (when barring chords or skipping strings on the same fret), but they are the basics and will strengthen your fingers, hand and wrist. Follow these steps (especially with chords) if your notes are dead or if you just feel awkward when you play.
Your fingertips will hurt at first depending on how long your practice session was or how long it has been since you last played. This is ok. It goes away as you develop calluses. My fingertips still hurt once in awhile if I am practicing for hours or if I start playing acoustic guitar.
The muscle between your index finger and your thumb gets tired sometimes (especially with bar chords). This is ok too. That muscle gets stronger, at which point you have gained stamina and can play longer. However, if it gets tired and starts hurting, stop playing. That is a good time to take a break.
If you feel any pain in your wrist, forearm or any joints stop playing immediately. If the pain is reoccurring see a specialist.
Serious injury due to guitar playing is not common in my experience. I have known few guitarists to have mild wrist pains and tendinitis, but with proper care it can go away. With proper posture and a relaxed wrist you should be able to play for hours a day.
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