The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter II: 4 Technique - Left Hand Exercises

author: ZeGuitarist date: 12/22/2008 category: the guide to
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Part II - Chapter 4

"Technique - Left Hand Exercises"

Hi all! Welcome back to the Ultimate Guide to Guitar! We are now entering the technique section for Novices... You have all the theory down to advance to the Intermediate theory lessons, but before we do, we need to spend some time on playing technique. I'll do this in the same fashion as I did it in the Beginner section: first we'll cover the left hand in one article, and then the right hand in the next. Even when playing for a while, a lot of players have some major flaws in their playing technique. I've seen a lot of players showing the same flaws: bad left hand accuracy, incorrect left and right synchronization, bad legato playing, not playing in position... Of course, not every beginning player shows all these technical flaws; some players do one thing the right way from the beginning, but develop a bad habit in another technique. In this article, I will assess the most common technique problems that novice players encounter, by giving you exercises to train these techniques correctly! What left hand techniques are we going to discuss today? 1. Playing in position: you have 4 fingers and a thumb, use them! 2. Playing accurately: important in both left and right hands! 3. Playing legato: make notes follow eachother up fluently, nobody likes a stutter! These are 3 techniques that are deficient in many beginning guitar players, and even in some more advanced players. In this article, I will discuss for each technique what the most common problem with it is, and how it can be solved using some simple exercises... So let's go!

Playing In Position

I'll start off explaining what "playing in position" exactly is. Then I'll describe the problem beginning guitarists face regarding playing in position... Followed by some simple exercises to solve this problem! A. What is it? Playing in position means, put simply, "using adjacent fingers for adjacent frets". When playing a riff or soloing, playing "in position" means you place your left index finger at a certain fret (a certain "position" along the neck), and leave it there. Then, you play all the notes at that fret with your index finger (or "1st finger"), the notes one fret higher with your middle finger ("2nd finger"), the notes 2 frets higher with your ring finger ("3rd finger") and the notes 3 frets higher with your pinky finger ("4th finger"). You refer to the fret number where your index finger is positioned as the "position" you're playing in... For example, if your index is at the 5th fret, you're playing in 5th position. Playing in position has a certain purpose, of course... Remember the scale shapes I taught you in Chapter II-2? As you know, they all have a certain "position" on the fretboard... Well, if you play "in position", i.e. use your 1st finger for the 1st fret in that position, your 2nd finger for the 2nd fret, your 3rd finger for the 3rd fret and your 4th finger for the 4th (and sometimes 5th) fret, you don't have to move your hand around to be able to play every single note in that scale shape! All 7 scale shapes are designed so that they can be played "in position", i.e. without having to move your hand up or down the neck... So, the combination of knowing where the shapes are and being able to play in position makes soloing much more comfortable! A very good example of playing in position is John Petrucci's "Glasgow Kiss". It's a very impressive piece of music, with a very cool and complex sounding main riff... If you listen to the song without video first, and imagine Petrucci playing it as you hear it, you'll probably imagine his left hand shooting up and down the fretboard... Well, take a look at this! John Petrucci - Glasgow Kiss Of course, in between the repeating main riffs, he shreds crazily across the entire fretboard... It's Petrucci! But notice how his hand remains in the exact same position during the main riff... Everything is played in the 7th position, he doesn't move his hand around the fretboard at all! A perfect example of how you can comfortably play in one position and still make interesting licks, using all the notes in the box with the fingers assigned to it! B. The problem Unfortunately, the importance of being able to play in position is often overlooked by self-taught players. In 9 out of 10 cases, the reason for this is the same: the pinky finger. A lot of beginning players don't use the pinky finger a lot when playing because it's not as strong as the other fingers, so it takes more effort to fret strings with it. They use the 3rd finger instead, and avoid using their pinky most of the time... Unfortunately, doing this can only affect your playing in a bad way. Here's why:
  • If you don't use your 4th finger, the reach of your hand will obviously be smaller. So, if you're playing at a certain position along the neck, you'll have to stretch your hand quite a lot to be able to reach 3-4 frets higher with your 3rd finger, especially on the lower frets! Eventually, you'll have to move your hand to be able to reach that far without hurting yourself... And moving your hand back and forth along the neck while playing notes in a certain box position is all but comfortable! How much easier would it be to just use your pinky...
  • The real problem is, however, that never using your pinky finger results in a vicious cycle. If you strengthen only your first 3 fingers and not your 4th, the weakness of the 4th finger compared to the other 3 will become even more obvious, causing you to use it even less frequently, and so on... Eventually, you won't be able to use your 4th finger even when you need it!
  • C. The solution Obviously, to get out of this vicious cycle of not using your pinky finger, you must start strengthening it... To help you do this, I have provided a couple of simple exercises that are designed to strengthen all fingers. Therefore, even if you normally use all your fingers while playing, it's not a bad thing doing exercises like these regularly! Exercise set 1
       I M I M I M I M I M I M I M I M I M I M I M
    E|---------------------1-2---------------------| B|-----------------1-2-----1-2-----------------| G|-------------1-2-------------1-2-------------| D|---------1-2---------------------1-2---------| A|-----1-2-----------------------------1-2-----| E|-1-2-------------------------------------1-2-|
       M R M R M R M R M R M R M R M R M R M R M R
    E|---------------------1-2---------------------| B|-----------------1-2-----1-2-----------------| G|-------------1-2-------------1-2-------------| D|---------1-2---------------------1-2---------| A|-----1-2-----------------------------1-2-----| E|-1-2-------------------------------------1-2-|
       R P R P R P R P R P R P R P R P R P R P R P
    E|---------------------1-2---------------------| B|-----------------1-2-----1-2-----------------| G|-------------1-2-------------1-2-------------| D|---------1-2---------------------1-2---------| A|-----1-2-----------------------------1-2-----| E|-1-2-------------------------------------1-2-|
    As you can see, the same pattern is played in all 3 exercises in this set. However, the fingers used to fret down with are different in the 3 exercises: in the first one, you use your index and middle fingers, in the second one the middle and ring fingers, and in the third one the ring and pinky fingers, as indicated by the letters above the tab. This looks easier than it is: you will find that the 3rd exercise of this set is hardly as easy as the first one, even though it's the same pattern! Exercise set 2
       I R I R I R I R I R I R I R I R I R I R I R
    E|---------------------1-3---------------------| B|-----------------1-3-----1-3-----------------| G|-------------1-3-------------1-3-------------| D|---------1-3---------------------1-3---------| A|-----1-3-----------------------------1-3-----| E|-1-3-------------------------------------1-3-|
       M P M P M P M P M P M P M P M P M P M P M P
    E|---------------------1-3---------------------| B|-----------------1-3-----1-3-----------------| G|-------------1-3-------------1-3-------------| D|---------1-3---------------------1-3---------| A|-----1-3-----------------------------1-3-----| E|-1-3-------------------------------------1-3-|
    Again, these are 2 exercises showing the same pattern, but played with different fingers: the first one uses the index and ring fingers, the second one the middle and pinky fingers. The exercises serve, like the first exercise set, to strengthen all fingers. Exercise set 2
       I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P
    E|---------------------1-4---------------------| B|-----------------1-4-----1-4-----------------| G|-------------1-4-------------1-4-------------| D|---------1-4---------------------1-4---------| A|-----1-4-----------------------------1-4-----| E|-1-4-------------------------------------1-4-|
       I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P I P
    E|---------------------1-5---------------------| B|-----------------1-5-----1-5-----------------| G|-------------1-5-------------1-5-------------| D|---------1-5---------------------1-5---------| A|-----1-5-----------------------------1-5-----| E|-1-5-------------------------------------1-5-|
    In both of these exercises in this set, only the index and pinky finger are used. This time, it's not an identical set of patterns, as you can see! These exercises are designed to train the pinky in reaching further to fret down notes; the second exercise in the set more so that the first. Doing these exercises regularly will increase the overall strength of your fingers, which is important to be able to play in position correctly. So, by doing these exercises, you learn to use ALL of your fingers! But, there are other things we need to consider, if we want to learn to use them correctly...

    Playing Accurately

    Having 4 strong fingers doesn't mean, of course, that you can use them properly. Accuracy is one of the most important things to consider when playing lead, and is often lacking in beginning players... To promote accurate lead playing, I will provide some helpful exercises, after a short explanation. A. What is it? There are 2 aspects to accuracy in guitar playing that are important to consider:
  • Accuracy in the left hand: this means, being able to accurately fret down a string correctly, not accidentally pressing down on the fret itself instead of behind it... This sounds easier than it is, because when you're playing an "on-the-spot" improvised solo instead of playing a pre-memorized riff, you have to be able to find the frets blindly!
  • And more importantly, accuracy in left and right hand synchronization. Both your hands should act as one... You fret a note but pluck the string too late, and your guitar playing will sound like an awful stutter; you pluck too soon, and you'll get terrible muted noise that ruins your performance! Timing is of utmost importance here...
  • B. The problem Many beginning guitarists seem to be lacking accuracy, especially the essential synchronization between both hands. Beginning players tend to focus a lot more on memorizing the pattern of notes in a certain riff and playing it correctly, rather than trying to play each individual note correctly! Of course, this will result in a lot of "dead" (muted) notes, double picks, ... Overall, lack of accuracy results in very sloppy playing! C. The solution Luckily, there are some easy exercises to train accuracy in both hands. To get the most out of these exercises, I strongly advise you to use a metronome. This useful instrument will help you keep both hands in sync with a beat, and with each other! You're going to need it often from now on, so if you haven't got one yet, I suggest you get one (or look for an computer program to help you, like this one: Metronome Online) I will give you 2 sets of exercises, one for both "aspects of accuracy" I mentioned: the first set promotes accuracy in your left hand fretting technique, and the second set promotes left and right synchronous movement. Exercise set 1
    E|-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-| B|---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------| G|-------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------| D|-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------| A|---------1-2-3-4---------------------------------| E|-1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------| E|-4-3-2-1-----------------------------------------| B|---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------| G|-----------------4-3-2-1-------------------------| D|-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------| A|---------------------------------4-3-2-1---------| E|-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-| E|-----------------------------------------1-3-2-4-| B|---------------------------------1-3-2-4---------| G|-------------------------1-3-2-4-----------------| D|-----------------1-3-2-4-------------------------| A|---------1-3-2-4---------------------------------| E|-1-3-2-4-----------------------------------------| E|-4-2-3-1-----------------------------------------| B|---------4-2-3-1---------------------------------| G|-----------------4-2-3-1-------------------------| D|-------------------------4-2-3-1-----------------| A|---------------------------------4-2-3-1---------| E|-----------------------------------------4-2-3-1-| E|-----------------------------------------1-4-2-3-| B|---------------------------------1-4-2-3---------| G|-------------------------1-4-2-3-----------------| D|-----------------1-4-2-3-------------------------| A|---------1-4-2-3---------------------------------| E|-1-4-2-3-----------------------------------------| E|-3-2-4-1-----------------------------------------| B|---------3-2-4-1---------------------------------| G|-----------------3-2-4-1-------------------------| D|-------------------------3-2-4-1-----------------| A|---------------------------------3-2-4-1---------| E|-----------------------------------------3-2-4-1-|
    This first set of exercises is designed to train accuracy in the left hand only. More specifically, by doing these exercises, the "muscle memory" in the left hand is trained. By doing the same movements over and over again, the brain remembers the movements the left hand muscles make... After a while, your brain will be "conditioned" to making those movements and you will be able to make them with less effort, and more accuracy. With these exercises, we're trying to condition our brain's muscle memory to be able to find the frets easily and accurately, almost blindly! The first exercise in this set is the easiest one: a simple 1-2-3-4 sequence on each string, going from string 6 to 1 and back. The other 2 exercises are just variants on the first one, with different fingering patterns. You can, of course, invent your own patterns, or move to another position along the neck (where the distances between the frets are different). By doing these exercises a lot, you will develop a "feel" for the distances between the individual frets. Your left hand will be able to find the fret positions more accurately, almost automatically... And this will cause you to make less mistakes! Remember that using a metronome while doing these exercises will train you to play in sync with the beat, as well as training your both hands to play in sync... Again, the metronome is a valuable instrument in your guitar playing! Exercise set 2
    E|-----------------------4-----------------------| B|---------------4-----3---3-----4---------------| G|-------4-----3-----2-------2-----3-----4-------| D|-----3-----2-----1-----------1-----2-----3-----| A|---2-----1---------------------------1-----2---| E|-1-------------------------------------------1-| E|-----------------------1-----------------------| B|---------------1-----2---2-----1---------------| G|-------1-----2-----3-------3-----2-----1-------| D|-----2-----3-----4-----------4-----3-----2-----| A|---3-----4---------------------------4-----3---| E|-4-------------------------------------------4-| E|-----------------------------1-------2-----3---4-| B|---------------------1---------2-------3-----4---| G|-------------1---------2---------3-------4-------| D|-------1-------2---------3---------4-------------| A|---1-----2-------3---------4---------------------| E|-1---2-----3-------4-----------------------------|
    This second set of exercises focuses more on training both hands to play in sync more accurately. The main difference between this exercise set and the previous one, is that the exercises in this set have a lot more string changes between notes, which requires better coordination of both hands. The first 2 exercises are fairly similar, the third one is a little more difficult. They all have in common, though, that every next note is on a different string, so it's more difficult for your right hand to move in sync with your left hand. Using a metronome is highly recommended for these exercises, more so than for the first set... It is of vital importance that your hands are able to act as one to the same beat, especially when you're trying to play faster! Always start practicing slowly, though, and build up speed from there if you want... But don't try to play at speeds you can't handle! These exercises are designed to promote accuracy, and playing too fast will only deteriorate your accuracy... These 2 sets of exercises should help you to accurately fret notes and pluck them accurately with your right hand at the same time. So, that leaves us only 1 technique issue left for us to assess!

    Playing Legato

    You know how to use all of your fingers now, and you know how to accurately fret and play each individual note. The last thing that's important to consider, however, is playing "legato". The exercises in this paragraph will help you avoid sounding like a terrible stutterer! A. What is it? There is a strict musical definition for the term "legato". However, for this article, I will use the term legato more loosely. I will now explain what legato means in the strict sense and in the broad sense...
  • In the narrow sense, legato is a term used in musical notation to indicate that notes should be "connected" or strung together with no pause in between. Legato is the opposite of staccato, which means the notes you play are very short, with long pauses in between. On the guitar, playing legato means using strictly hammer-ons and pull-offs: using the pick would momentarily silence the string upon the slight second of contact!
  • In the broad sense, however, the term "legato" means to minimize the pause between notes (rather than having no pause at all!). I use this broad-sense meaning of the term, because being able to pick every seperate note but with minimal pause in between is just as important as being able to hammer-on and pull-off every note, if not more important...
  • B. The problem The problems most players experience with playing legato, relates to both the strict-sense and broad-sense meaning of the term. Basically, a lot of players know the technique of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but are unable to do long sequences of notes using only hammering and pulling (also called "rolls"). Moreover, when they do pick the notes separately, the pauses between the notes are very long due to bad technique, which makes your guitar sound like a stutter! How do these 2 problems come about in the first place?
  • Like I said, most players know what playing legato in the strict sense (i.e. hammering and pulling) means, and how it's done as well. But many players are unable to do longer "rolls" of hammer-ons and pull-offs: the note will "fade out" after a short succession of hammers and pulls for some reason... Well, the reason is a faulty technique (mainly with pull-offs), which we are going to work on!
  • An equally important problem many players have is being unable to play legato in the broad sense... This problem is often caused by bad synchronization between both hands. Beginning players often concentrate on fretting a note correctly and accurately with the left hand first, and only then they pluck the string... This results in a pause between each note, which makes your playing sound sloppy instead of fluent. This can be resolved by fretting and plucking strings simultaneously, i.e. good left and right synchronization.
  • C. The solution For both of these problems, there are solutions, in the form of exercises to train you in the right technique. The first exercise set will help you train your hammer-on and pull-off technique (strict-sense legato), the second set will train you to chain all your notes fluently together, with minimal pauses in between notes (broad-sense legato). Exercise set 1
    V=downpick h=hammer-on p=pull-off
       V h h h V h h h V h h h V h h h V h h h V h h h h
    E|-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-| B|---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------| G|-------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------| D|-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------| A|---------1-2-3-4---------------------------------| E|-1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------|
       V p p p V p p p V p p p V p p p V p p p V p p p
    E|-4-3-2-1-----------------------------------------| B|---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------| G|-----------------4-3-2-1-------------------------| D|-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------| A|---------------------------------4-3-2-1---------| E|-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-|
       V h h h p p p h h h p p p (repeat)
    E|---------------------------| B|---------------------------| G|-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-| D|---------------------------| A|---------------------------| E|---------------------------|
    This set of exercises is obviously designed to train your hammering-on and pulling-off technique. The first two exercises are similar: the first one trains hammer-ons, the second one trains pull-offs. The goal of these 2 exercises: to try not to make the notes "fade out" after 3 hammer-ons or pull-offs, but to keep them ringing as loud as possible. The third exercise has the same purpose, but it's a lot more difficult: the goal is to pluck the string, and then do successive hammer-ons an pull-offs for as long as you can, without the note "fading out"! This is, again, more difficult than it looks... So how do you keep hammers and pulls from "fading out" the notes?
  • For hammer-ons, it's pretty easy: just make sure you hammer onto the string strongly and quickly. That way, you'll prevent the string from being muted under the touch of your finger.
  • For pull-offs, it's a little more difficult; in fact, if a "roll" fades out, it's due to incorrect pulling-off technique in most cases. It's important that you pull your finger off the string sideways instead of just upwards, and that you slightly pull the string along with your finger and release the string (in fact you "pluck" the string again!). If you do this correctly, you can keep a "roll" up forever! Well, theoretically...
  • Exercise set 2
    E|-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-| B|---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------| G|-------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------| D|-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------| A|---------1-2-3-4---------------------------------| E|-1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------| E|-4-3-2-1-----------------------------------------| B|---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------| G|-----------------4-3-2-1-------------------------| D|-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------| A|---------------------------------4-3-2-1---------| E|-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-| E|-----------------------4-----------------------| B|---------------4-----3---3-----4---------------| G|-------4-----3-----2-------2-----3-----4-------| D|-----3-----2-----1-----------1-----2-----3-----| A|---2-----1---------------------------1-----2---| E|-1-------------------------------------------1-| E|-----------------------1-----------------------| B|---------------1-----2---2-----1---------------| G|-------1-----2-----3-------3-----2-----1-------| D|-----2-----3-----4-----------4-----3-----2-----| A|---3-----4---------------------------4-----3---| E|-4-------------------------------------------4-|
    You probably recognise these exercises: I already used them to train you in accuracy. Well, like I said, proper legato playing (in the broad sense) is based on proper coordination between both hands. These exercises are therefore good for training both coordination and legato playing! So, here's how to approach these exercises:
  • The first exercise will train you in legato playing of successive notes on the same string. To do this correctly, make sure you place your finger on the fret and pluck the string at the exact same time. Do this slowly, using a metronome.
  • The second exercise is to train you in legato playing of notes on different strings. This requires even a little more coordination: at the same time, you have to fret the string, pluck it, and remove your finger from the previous string so that the two notes don't ring at the same time. Again, do it slowly, and use a metronome.
  • Conclusion

    OK! These exercises should help you sort out the most important technical flaws you may (or may not) experience... By practicing and exercising regularly, you should now be able to play in position properly, fret accurately, and play fluently like a real guitarist! That was it for the left hand technique... Next week the Ultimate Guide will be back with more technique, for the right hand! Keep your eyes open, and in the meantime, keep practicing! Cheers! ZeG PS: As usual:
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