Improving Your Fretting Hand

A non-exercise based approach for improving the agility of your fretting hand.

19
Many of us have found that after years of practice and commitment that something is still not quite right with our fretting hand. At certain points during our development as guitarists, it is important to reassess what is going on physically and potentially make some conscious adjustments. Most teachers recommend an exercise regimen to address fretting hand problems, but exercises by themselves won't help you understand why you have problems with your fretting hand, nor will they help you pinpoint specific muscular inefficiencies within your hand that get in the way of fluid, accurate play. In fact, in my experience, exercises typically focus attention in the wrong place (getting through the exercises) instead of on pinpointing underlying problems. In other words, in order to have a solid, agile fretting hand it is important to get comfortable with the way that the muscles in your hand work: The muscles that close your fingers into a fist are called flexors. The muscles that straighten your fingers are called extensors. When you use the flexors and extensors at the same time, your muscles work against each other and unnecessary tension is the result. The goal is to make sure that in as many cases as possible (there are always exceptions to a rule) only your flexors are used when fretting a note, and only your extensors are used when releasing a note. The most common problems that cause both the flexors and extensors to be used at the same time are: Holding unused fingers rigidly above specific frets because a teacher once told you to do this arbitrarily as a rule. Drop this rule and don't look back. It will only cause you problems. Looking ahead to what notes you will be playing and adjusting your hand and fingers accordingly is one thing, but holding your fingers in place just to hold them there makes no sense. Not releasing with the flexors before using the extensors to lift a finger off the fretboard. Putting your thumb in a position that causes tension in the rest of your hand. Your thumb will most likely be comfortable outside your fretting hand (try this without a guitar and see what I mean). The more you move your thumb towards your pinkie finger, the more tension you will build. Not putting your hand in the most comfortable position for whichever finger happens to be fretting a note at the time. This can be over or under rotation at the elbow, tension in the wrist or shoulder, etc. With this in mind, spend some time getting in touch with which muscles you're using when you fret notes. This should be done without a metronome and without trying to play any actual music. Just fret some notes using each of your fingers and start to monitor what's going on inside your left hand. You'll be amazed at what you can learn and how quickly you can improve just by becoming aware of the muscles you're using when you play. The important thing is to become more comfortable and reduce unnecessary tension. Once you get comfortable with this you can start monitoring your left hand while playing passages within songs. For a video version of this lesson please see www.whyisuckatguitar.com.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    dvuksanovich
    In other words, you want to make sure that your flexors (the muscles that pull your fingers toward the fretboard) are not still pulling when your extensors (the muscles that lift your finger off the fretboard) start to work. When you lift one or more fingers off the fretboard, make sure that you stop pulling into the fretboard first, otherwise your two sets of muscles are pulling against each other and you are creating unnecessary tension. You can try an experiment without the guitar to see what I mean. Starting with your fretting hand in a relaxed state, make a fist quickly. Those are your flexors working. Go back to a relaxed state. Now you're releasing with your flexors. From that relaxed state, quickly open up your hand as far as possible (as if you were about to put it down on a piece of paper to trace the outline of your hand). Those are your extensors working. Now return your hand to a relaxed state. Those are your extensors releasing. Now make your hand into a rigid "claw." That's your flexors and extensors working against each other... this is what you want to avoid. Does that help?
    shadowmaster036
    Not bad. Never seemed to have trouble with this sort of thing in my playing but i can see you've done some research. 8/10
    rickthepick
    Wearing your guitar real low when you stand to play, and over tension are common problems I've seen among students. Great point about the thumb. Over tension (using more force than needed) occurs often when the wrist is tight and is often caused by placing the thumb toward the pinky. The wrist has to be loose in order to pivot -especially when in the high range of the neck and the arm is close to the body.
    dvuksanovich
    FYI - The knuckle, middle and tip joints are the three joints of your fingers starting at the base and moving to the tip.
    dvuksanovich
    @gizmodius - a single pull off is a combination of flexors and extensors. You're extending at the knuckle joint while flexing at the middle and tip joints. Here are some things you can try: 1. Instead of going straight to a pull-off, try hammering on in descending order. This will expose any coordination problems you have among your fingers while lightening the tension during your diagnostic process. Once you can hammer (don't worry about the fact that there's not much volume, focus on the comfort of your fingers) the notes in descending order you can start pulling off and it should be easier. For me this last part happens kind of naturally once I get the reverse hammer ons in place. 2. Monitor your wrist and elbow. Rotating your elbow outward (taking your pinky away from the fretboard) slightly and flicking your wrist back slightly when you pull off will help keep all your joints loose, since all of them will be in motion. As you speed up these motions will get smaller and smaller and eventually disappear. 3. Make sure that pulling off with one finger is not affecting what your other fingers are doing. I found that when practicing pull offs that pulling off with my pinky, for example, would cause my other fingers to want to do the same thing. This would begin to create the claw because my other fingers were trying to fret a note and pull off at the same time. Being patient with point number one will help to solve this problem because it will isolate any problems with getting your fingers in place before you layer the complexity of the actual pull off on top. Hope this helps. If you have any follow up questions, please feel free to post again, or message me via UG.
    gizmodious
    Yo dvuksanovich! This is awesome, but I had a specific question: I'm trying to master Pull-off and I noticed a lot of unnecessary tension in my fretting fingers, mostly when switching strings directly into a pull-off. Pull-offs are basically flexor to flexor right? How can I lighten my hand up?
    Pechi
    Interesting. I never had problem with that. A exercise i use for that muscles is opening and closing index and middle finger, then middle and ring, then ring, and pinky, then backward and repeat. the idea is to try to esxtend as much as you can. You can do this exercises at anytime xD.
    dvuksanovich
    Good call on the "too low guitar," rickthepick. That's actually mentioned in my "Improving Your Picking Hand" lesson that should be up in a day or two.
    blackace212
    Yer nice work...My teacher told me the same thing...think its good you put it out there...i have a bad habit of it rock on
    illyria
    dvuksanovich wrote: In other words, you want to make sure that your flexors (the muscles that pull your fingers toward the fretboard) are not still pulling when your extensors (the muscles that lift your finger off the fretboard) start to work. When you lift one or more fingers off the fretboard, make sure that you stop pulling into the fretboard first, otherwise your two sets of muscles are pulling against each other and you are creating unnecessary tension. You can try an experiment without the guitar to see what I mean. Starting with your fretting hand in a relaxed state, make a fist quickly. Those are your flexors working. Go back to a relaxed state. Now you're releasing with your flexors. From that relaxed state, quickly open up your hand as far as possible (as if you were about to put it down on a piece of paper to trace the outline of your hand). Those are your extensors working. Now return your hand to a relaxed state. Those are your extensors releasing. Now make your hand into a rigid "claw." That's your flexors and extensors working against each other... this is what you want to avoid. Does that help?
    thx now i understand
    dvuksanovich
    ... and obviously you won't be flexing and extending all the fingers of your hand at the same time, so the idea is to make sure that in each of your fingers, as often as possible, you aren't using those two groups of muscles against each other. As an example, you might be fretting a note (flexing) with your index finger while releasing (extenidng) with your third finger. Make sure the flexors and extensors within each finger are not fighting against each other and causing tension that does not need to be there.
    illyria
    The goal is to make sure that in as many cases as possible (there are always exceptions to a rule) only your flexors are used when fretting a note, and only your extensors are used when releasing a note. Not releasing with the flexors before using the extensors to lift a finger off the fretboard.
    those two are pretty vague. don't exactly understand what you mean
    dvuksanovich
    @Livingtime - Pain is your body's way of telling you to stop doing something. In grad school one of my teachers derailed his career as a classical guitarist because he kept practicing through pain and eventually injured himself to the point (his problem was with his right hand) where he had to switch instruments. Please take it slow and listen to your body. Playing the guitar should not hurt. If you have any specific questions please feel free to message me via UG.
    Mr. J Killjoy
    Wow that ting about the thumb being "outside" your playing hand really improved my playing. I just never thought it affected it