Author of blog www.easy-guitar.weebly.com where you can find all about guitar techniques, products and tips and tricks to help your playing.
IntroductionAlmost every guitar player has come across the concept of "finger strength". There are literally thousands of exercises out there that are supposedly designed to increase the strength in your fingers and help you to play better; some teachers have even developed full programs of lessons dedicated to this purpose. There are even some products available that are said to increase your strength and enable you to play faster and for longer, by making you practice squeezing your fingers together into a fist.
But what is the best way to build finger strength? In fact, do you really need it at all? Most guitar players spend far too much time focusing on increasing their finger strength, when they could be spending their practice time far more effectively. In this article you'll learn exactly why finger strength isn't as important as most guitar players think. You'll also learn exactly what to focus on instead in order to make more progress every time you sit down and play guitar.
Why Finger Strength Isn't What You NeedWhen you pick up your guitar to play, how much tension is there in your muscles? Do your fingers feel relaxed and light and does it feel easy to play, or does it constantly feel like you are struggling to push out the notes? If it's the latter, then you are playing with too much force.
This is a very common problem with guitar players, and particularly with electric players. We'll start by dealing with the fretting hand: an electric guitar string is very thin - around 1. 5mm at the absolute thickest - so it doesn't require a lot of force to play the strings. In fact, if you measure it, you will find that the amount of force required to fret a string is less than the weight of a large apple - practically nothing compared to the amount of force most players use!
This means that you don't need fret-hand finger strength if you want to play well. In fact, even when doing bends and playing legato passages, the amount of force required doesn't go beyond what any normal human being can do. The question, then, is this: why do players find it so hard to play notes if it doesn't require a lot of strength? What is the problem if not force?
Well, that's the key: the problem is force. When you use more force to play you'll find it much more difficult to play passages and notes easily (and don't even get started on barre chords!) because your fingers and muscles are working against themselves and against your instrument. Instead, learn to work with your instrument. Play lighter and you will be rewarded with more ease every single time you pick up your guitar.
The reason most guitar players use far too much force in their fretting motions is a lack of control. They have not yet built up the required control to play accurately and correctly, so they compensate for this by playing harder, thinking that it will solve their problems - and in the short term, it does. For example, using more force does make the barre chord notes come out more easily but only because the player doesn't yet have the skill required to play them without using excess force - the better your technique, the less force is required and the faster and more easily you can play. The problem is that this tension then becomes habit, and when you want to learn more complicated things you quickly run into difficulties. This leads people into thinking they need to use even more force (after all, that worked last time, didn't it?) which they can't do because they are already pushing their muscles to the limit, so they think they need more finger strength; hence all of the lessons, courses and products related to this topic.
This is also where endurance comes into play - the more force you use, the more quickly your muscles will get tired and the less time you'll be able to play for before you have to stop because of pain or fatigue. This means that if you stop focusing on "strength" and instead start to focus on relaxing when you play, finger fatigue and endurance will cease to be an issue. If you're struggling with any kind of finger tiredness (even when playing fast) then you're using too much tension! Slow down and relax, and you'll find everything far easier to play. Then, speed up gradually without letting the excess tension back in, and you'll eliminate all of your issues. If you use too much force then of course your muscles will get tired! It's a lack of control that causes fatigue - not a lack of strength.
Using extra force in your fretting hand can also cause another serious problem - making your notes go out of tune. When you press down on a string it contacts the frets but not usually the fretboard - that is, if you are playing with good technique. If you play too hard then the string will get pushed into the fretboard and bend slightly, making everything you play sound sharp rather than in tune. This can be very frustrating, as all of the money you have spent on a nice guitar that stays in tune will be wasted - it won't sound in tune if you play with too much force!
Next, we'll move on to the picking hand. If you've ever read articles about guitar tone, you will have heard the advice that "the harder you pick, the better your tone." Almost every guitar teacher says this, which is a real shame - simply because it isn't true! People use Stevie Ray Vaughan as an example of a player with great tone who played hard, thinking that his hard, aggressive picking style was the reason for his good tone - in fact, he sounded good despite his picking, not because of it. Picking too hard has the same effect that fretting too hard does - it makes the notes sound sharp because the string vibrates so much that it stretches up to a higher pitch.
Good tone from the picking hand has much more to do with the angle of the pick and the position of the pick relative to the string (i.e. whether you pick closer to the bridge or closer to the neck) than with how hard you play. If you want to improve your tone, pick lightly and experiment with the angle of the pick and the position of it. This is a very personal thing - some people prefer the tone gained by playing with a flatter picking angle, and others prefer playing with the pick at more of an angle. Some players prefer picking closer to the bridge, but others prefer the softer tone that is gained by picking closer to the neck.
Picking in a more relaxed manner is also a vital part of picking faster. You might find that if you want to play fast right away, you'll tense up your arm to get a little more speed out of your abilities. Although this will work in the short term you'll soon find that you can't play fast for much more than a few seconds, and that you'll struggle to get any faster in the long term. The real solution is to relax as much as possible and play at a speed which is effortless; then, increase the speed gradually. If you focus on maintaining relaxed control like this you'll get much faster in the long run, and your skills will be more reliable than if you tried to conquer the challenge with "finger strength".
The Truth about Finger Strength ExercisesHopefully by now you've realised that finger strength isn't what you need to be a good guitar player. Play in a relaxed and effortless manner and you'll find yourself playing much better than before - not to mention the amount of time you'll save by removing "finger strength" practice from your playing time. There is just one question left, however: if finger strength isn't what you need to become a better guitar player, why do so many people find finger strengthening exercises helpful? Surely if strength and force aren't what you need, these exercises would hinder you rather than help you?
The answer lies in the nature of the exercises themselves. You see, if you were really going to do "finger strength" exercises you'd get some mini weights or practice resistance exercises, not play guitar licks. The exercises most people give you to work on your force and strength are usually just patterns of notes that feel awkward to play, so the more you practice them the more control you gain and the less awkward they feel. The patterns aren't really strengthening your fingers (at least if you practice them in the correct, relaxed manner as shown above), they are improving your control - this is why they seem so effective. It's OK to practice these exercises, but don't try and force the notes out with your "strength" - that will lead to unwanted tension and a lack of progress. Instead, play the exercises while remaining as relaxed as you can - even if it slows you down at first. This way you'll develop control much more easily, and learn faster than before.
If you've found this lesson helpful, leave a comment! Check out my blog TomGuitar (www.easy-guitar.weebly.com) for more free lessons, cool articles and reviews of awesome products. Head over there now!