The Perfect Left Hand: A Guide for Guitarists
How should we position and move our left hand when playing guitar? Are there best practices and ways to avoid injury? What should we look for to troubleshoot left-hand issues?
Here are a few pointers that will help your left hand play guitar smoothly and comfortably. Master these, and you’re on your way.
The Role and Goal of the Left Hand
If we take the analogy of speaking, the left hand would choose the words, and the right hand would say them. The left hand answers the question of “which note?” And the right hand makes the sound.
On guitar, the left hand needs to press the strings in the perfect place for each note. It needs to avoid muting the other strings. And it needs to stay in a safe and healthy position to avoid injury.
Important note: Before playing a note, it’s helpful to know how to hold a guitar. Get in a good sitting position, and you’ll make playing easier.
Left Hand Finger Placement: Just Behind the Fret
To play a note on guitar, a left-hand finger presses a string behind a fret (the metal bars across the guitar neck).
For this we use the fingertip. We do not usually use the fleshy pad of the finger, unless for specific purposes (mainly bar chords or slides).
The perfect place to press the string is just behind the fret. If we press directly on the fret, the sound is muffled. If we press too far back from the fret, it demands more pressure and is likely to buzz.
So using the fingertip, we press each string just behind the fret.
The C-Shape Curve
The ideal position for the left hand is a “C” shape. Each joint is in the midrange of its possible movement. This means that we can further flex or extend each finger at will. This is one of the “basics of classical guitar.”
Ideally, the big knuckle of the index and little fingers are a similar distance from the bottom edge of the guitar neck.
Once we have the “C” left-hand position, we can move this position up and down the guitar neck. This is called “shifting.”
Using the “C” shape, we keep our thumb behind the fingers. This allows the fingers to stretch away from each other more easily. More on the thumb below.
The 2nd and 3rd fingers don’t stretch much
The middle and ring fingers do not separate from each other as much as the other finger-pairs. This is normal and a characteristic of our anatomy.
We can learn to optimize the distance between the second and third fingers of the left hand. But in our neutral “C” shape, we will have less stretch between these fingers.
We just do our best and make it work. Here are other tips for left hand stretch.
The Left Thumb
The left thumb, staying behind the fingers, is free to move across the back of the neck. It does not need to stay planted in any one position. It can go all the way to either edge.
On the neck, the thumb should not flex at the tip joint. The thumb should stay extended and long, not bent. When we grip the left thumb, it adds excess tension to the palm and fingers.
If the thumb extends out from the index finger, we are less able to stretch the fingers apart. So it should stay behind the fingers.
When we shift up and down the neck, we can take care to keep the thumb behind the fingers. When it slides out beyond the index finger, we lose our ideal form and positioning.
The Left Wrist and Arm
We can use the left wrist and arm to move our entire hand to different positions.
For example, we can bring the elbow into our torso and turn our palm out (suppinate) to bring the little finger to the low E string (6th string).
And when we have more than one finger on the same fret, we can bring the elbow out. We turn the hand towards the right. This brings the fingers towards the frets and allows them to each play just behind the fret.
Ideally, we keep freedom and ease in all joints, including the wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
Left Hand Fingering Rules
In pieces of classical guitar music, we have a few “rules” that govern the left-hand fingerings.
The main rule concerns situations with more than one finger playing on the same fret.
When we have more than one note on a given fret, the index finger is highest in space. The little finger is lowest in space. The middle and ring finger follow this positioning. This maintains the natural “C” shape position.
We avoid crossing the fingers. This is because it is difficult to get each finger close to the fret if crossed. It also limits the range of movement available for next notes. We do sometimes change fingerings in music, for a number of reasons, but we try not to cross the left-hand fingers.
Other than this, the fingers each align over 4 consecutive frets. This makes a “position” on the guitar a 4-fret span, with one finger over each fret.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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