Left Hand Dexternity

Building strength and speed in your left hand means being a better player!

Ultimate Guitar
Left Hand Dexternity
For now, we will work each hand separately. When you're working on one hand, don't worry about how the other is doing its job. Just concentrate on getting the hand you are working to do what it is supposed to.

If you start right at the beginning and make yourself practice correct technique, you will not run into any of the road blocks that a lot of guitarists encounter after they have played for a few years. Most tend to learn the hard way. They opt for sloppy technique instead of spending the time and effort to get it right from start. I've seen this time and time again. A player reaches a certain level only to have to start back at the beginning and re-learn such things as hand position or picking. This is because improper technique will limit your ability to play like a "mother". In the beginning a player is usually more interested in learning to whip out a few cool songs, but when they try to step beyond that and really play, they find that they can't get the "high performance" that they need out of their hands.

Technique is based on efficiency and economy. Correct positioning and use of the hands is essential in order to maximize your ability to get at the notes that you need to play. I can't stress this enough. Take the time to get it right. In the long run you'll save yourself a lot of back-tracking.

Left Hand: There are two basic left hand positions.

01. Classical (thumb behind neck)
02. Baseball bat (thumb hooking over the neck)

The most versatile left-hand position is the classical position. This is the position we will concentrate on. The baseball bat position is very useful but also very limiting. It will come into play later when we deal directly with string bending, vibrato and certain chords. But, for now, the classical position will allow you to develop the ability to use all of your fingers with equal control and agility.

Try this test:

Place your thumb in the center of the back of the neck. Now, spread your remaining fingers out as wide as you can (With a little practice and relaxation, you will eventually be able to cover 6 frets easily, without moving your hand!). While keeping your fingers spread, slowly move your thumb up and over the top of the neck until you have it hanging over the fingerboard, as in the baseball bat position. Notice what happens to the rest of your fingers. There's just no way to keep them spread out with the thumb hanging over the fingerboard. This fact limits your access to three or four frets at a time with little or no mobility if you flop your thumb over the top of the neck. Another way of thinking about position draws from driving a car. If you've ever taken a driver training course, the first thing they make you do is to put your hands on the wheel at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock (10-2 position). This is the best hand position for being able to control the vehicle.

Now, nobody in their right mind would go cruising for chicks using that hand position. You'd look like a dork. Instead, you slump down in the seat, crank the stereo and hang your elbow out the open window. Now, you look cool and the babes just can't resist. Right? (My apologies if you take me too seriously here) But, what happens if you're so busy watching for chicks that you find yourself about to get in a wreck? As a reaction, your hands will automatically go to 10-2. Or, have you ever seen a stock car racer whipping around the track at full speed without having both hands on the wheel?

When it comes to playing guitar, especially the rock star variety, nobody wants to look like a dork. So, a lot of players have the guitar hanging down at their knees and grab the neck in the manly, baseball bat fashion. But, with the possible exception of Steve Vai, most of the newer "high performance" players (as opposed to the older "cruisin' for chicks" variety) tend to wear their guitars no lower than waist level, and when they want to tear up the fretboard, sure enough, they pull their thumb back to the center of the neck and stretch their fingers out.

In order to make full use of the classical position, a few points must be observed.

Notice that the knuckle where the index finger joins the hand is NOT touching the bottom of the neck. Many people, when first trying this hand position, WILL anchor this knuckle. Until you develop the musculature of the wrist and hand, it will feel as though you lack any strength in the classical position. Realize that it takes very little actual finger pressure to push the strings to the fret. Most of the tension that a beginner applies with the left hand is directed onto the fingerboard itself and has very little to do with actually fretting the note. To this end, bracing the hand against the neck at the first knuckle of the index finger gives one a feeling of having better leverage with which to "strangle" the guitar. This is unnecessary as, the muscles of the hand will develop in a very short amount of time (usually within the first two weeks).

The thumb should be just a little higher than dead center on the back of the neck and directly in line with the middle finger. (If you take your left hand and touch the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb like those Indian Yoga people do when they meditate, you'll get the idea. Only, don't bend the knuckle of the thumb. Keep it hyperextended like when you push in a tack with your thumb.) Don't allow your thumb to point off to the side like you're hitchhiking as this will destroy the hands natural ability to apply pressure to the strings.

Sitting or standing can make a difference in your ability to assume this hand position as well. When standing, you may need to adjust the length of your strap. If your guitar is too low, it forces you to have to bend your wrist way too much. I tend to wear mine at stomach level, but then, nobody (except my wife) ever tells me how cool I look. I do receive regular compliments on my playing, however.
If you are sitting down, the most common thing to do is to rest your guitar on your right leg. When I first started playing, I found that, if I practiced this way, when I got together with my band, the guitar would be in a different position (I was now standing) and that I couldn't play all those things I was practicing. I started practicing with my guitar sitting on my left leg and propped my left foot up on a book like those classical guitar players do. It made a dramatic difference. Not only was my guitar in the same relative position as when I played standing up, I found that I was able to play things that seemed impossible before.

Whew! There's a lot to consider, but details make a difference.
What follows is an exercise for developing correct hand position and learning to use all four fingers.

Recall the exercise that I had you do in the section on theory. I had you play all the notes, in order, up and down a single string. We're going to do the same thing again only this time, we're going to go across the strings instead of up and down one string. (see file by clicking at bottom).

For the purposes of this exercise, the index finger will play any note on the 1st fret, the middle finger will play any note on the 2nd fret, the ring finger will play any note on the 3rd fret and the pinkie will handle notes on the 4th fret. When playing ascending notes on a string, It's very important to keep any previous fingers that have played on that string holding their notes down.

For example:

If I play the F note at the 1st fret on the E-string with my index finger, I don't lift that finger off the string to play the F# with my middle finger. My index finger is still holding down the F note at the 1st fret. If I then play the G note at the 3rd fret with my ring finger, the index AND the ring will still be holding their notes down. The same goes if I then play the next note with the pinky. Now, all four fingers are holding down notes on the same string. This will most likely seem awkward until you gain sufficient coordination of the fingers. Keep practicing. It will come.

Once you have completed all the fingers that are going to play on a given string, then and only then, do you release the fingers to play on another string. Notice the word release instead of lift. To release the fingers is to simply relax the muscles that are being used to hold the notes. If instead, you lift the fingers, you are applying an opposite set of muscles to do a separate and distinct action. This may sound like "nit-picking" but it is very important. Lifting the fingers instead of releasing the fingers is one of the greatest causes of undue tension in the left hand. What happens is that the lifting muscles kick in at the same time that the pressing muscles are trying to do their job. This causes isometric tension in the hand that will slow you down, tire the hand, lead to sore knuckles (personal experience) and generally inhibit you from whizzing around on the fingerboard.

A tell-tale sign of this isometric tension is if you find your pinkie sticking way out there like those people who drink their tea in those tiny little cups, or if you use your pinkie to fret a note and your index finger goes sticking out. Relax, relax, relax! That's the key.

If, on the other hand, you are descending on a given string, you don't have to worry about keeping your fingers down (that would be pretty hard to do anyway), but you still must endeavor to keep the hand relaxed. Use only the amount of tension you need to play the notes cleanly (no buzzing or notes that won't stay ringing as long as you desire).

And another simple way to strengthen your fingers is to rest your hand on a table and practice lifting one finger at a time; easy to do, but it works!

82 comments sorted by best / new / date

    man! thanks alot. i've been "playing" guitar for about a year. and this few minor details just made a big difference in how i play. from repositioning the thumb to practising on the left knee instead. thanks alot. theBASSIST-el guitarist
    thanx for the playing on the left knee tip. I tried standing once and I sucked so bad. Hopefully this will help good. Dern starter vid told me to start on right knee...
    i don't get it. if i put my thumb in the back center of the guitar i can't even play. is it bad to have your thumb wrapped around the guitar neck but not enough to press strings, just enough to hold the guitar firmly? can someone help me?
    Wow, great work! All of those "little details" have already helped me a lot! Thanks a bunch!
    Sweet Lesson man, copied or not i don't care because its helped me a lot. The comment about the pinky-pointing tea drinkers or whatever has been a massive problem for me, and i've been playing for 3 years. Yikes :S Thanks dude
    I'm pretty sure its the principal... If you spent the time on writing a lesson on your own page, and someone just copies and puts it on another site... how are you going to get hits and credit for your work.... shit like this is what pisses people off.. and then they stop writing because.. really, whats the point? Not getting paid.. not even getting credit for your work
    this lesson is on lots of websites. how do we know who originally wrote it? and frankly, who gives a flying ****, its a great lesson that helps a lot of people so why bitch about something that doesnt affect you in any way?
    dude you just copied this lesson from www.zentao.com in my opinion.....you did not make this article,,,stonedragon made this article i think
    Madhur Damn
    ugh... It would seem no one can help me :/ I've yet to find help for my guitar playing rut on the internet. Guitar lessons here I come!
    Hi I have been eplaying now for over 30 years and over time as you have said, I ended up hurting so much I more or les quit for several years. I recently desided t oget baack into it, but this time t osee what I was doing wrong. Instead of thinking I was any good I went right back to the beginning and guess what I nver realized just how much pain I was causing myself. Thanks for these lessons, my right hand feels great my pads are back, I quit when I hurt and look to seewht I am doing wrong, and now I find I can even improve my technique even when there are no guuitars around. I guess the stretch is going to take a while to get back, but thanks for all these very valuable tips
    Thank You So Much That Really Helped my playing please visit: www.allyourgreendayneeds.piczo.com
    Wow dude, thanks. This lesson helping me a lot, seeing as I'm a beginner.
    I've been playing for 11 years and always did the "anchoring the index knuckle" thing without even realizing it. Let's see if I get faster now, shall we?
    when I first read this article I found 1 thing that I did wrong and it was that the knuckle of your 1st finger shouldnt touch the fingerboard and it made such a difference! one little detail and it improves so much :O thx so much!
    amazing lessson...can you post a lesson on when to do the baseball grab technique ??
    Thx a lot !! I found the part about practicing on the left leg really helpful
    ok to all of thoughs people that hate this guy because he might have riped off a lesson, YOUR DUMB cause im sure the person who wrote this did it so people can improve themselves if it were me id take it as a compilment that someone thinks my work is so good they think it should be everywere you people must not play instruments then cause the whole reson people play is to feel good and get in touch with a part of themselves that you cant even understand, the original person wrote this to help, and some people only go to one site so these people are trippling this guys helpgo pick up a guitar and you'll understand
    thanks so much for the tip on practicing on the left leg! I was having the same problem of not being able to play the same when changing from sitting to standing!! Thanks!!!
    This is Fantastic!!! The way you put each point across was amazing and i took in evey word of it! And my standardz of playing have dramaticaly increased! haha tht sounded sooo faggy! Puplish a damn book already Thanks again
    This article sucks because when your soloing and you get past the neck if your playing a les paul you have to stick your thumb off of the back of the neck and wrap it around inside the cut-away... and if you have big hands you have to wrap your thumb around or the tips of your fingers wouldn't hit the frets and if you did what he says you couldn't get any leverage. And I say keep your strap as low as you want it! Jimmy Page rules all!
    So...this article sucks because ONE piece of advice he gave doesn't work for your particular case? Or maybe it does work, you're just not doing it right/haven't yet built up the strength to do it right? Great tab, whether you copied it, someone copied you, or you just posted it on more than one site (some people miss the most obvious things). Really helped. But one weird thing: I tried to play on my left leg for a while bu tit really hurt my back so I switched back to right leg, but the other day I tried left leg again and it didn't hurt at all...but yeah, thanks, great lesson.
    Great lesson! Thanks for sharing tips from your experience I'm just curious though, when you lift and/or release, is there a distinct different sound? Also, that little exercise at the very end, do you just keep lifting your fingers until your heart's content? And what's a good height to lift it to? And is it weird that I can't lift my ring finger without my pinky tailing along? Thanks again!
    I always stressed my hand and put way too much pressure on my hands. and then I would always wonder why it seemed like I was getting slower sometimes. I really appreciate it
    I just noticed that when I fret a note with my index finger my pinky doesn't stick out, but when I hit a note with my pinky my index finger does stick out. Do I have...like...half isometric tension??
    I always found it natural to play on my left leg but was put off by a guitar teacher, shows what he knows!
    When playing with the guitar on the left leg, you should raise the headstock chin high. This will put you left and right hands in a more natural position and should not cause any back pain. Refer to Christopher Parkinings Guitar Method Vol. 1
    Thanks, i was doing a 'hitchhiker' with my thumb and not even realising! Helped a lot.
    this is a great article you've wrote here. i'm sure it will help me in the long run. i have tried practicing on my left leg before, but it causes pain in my back. i find myself facing a little to the leftin order to comfortably rest my guitar on that leg. i guess it's just the way fender's are crafted. either way, great posting.
    Like the first poster ive been "plaing" guitar for 3 years.your lesson as ansewered alot of questions for me tha havent seen answered anywhere else because,im assuming,their so damn obvious nobody bothered.Its really frustrating when you introduce your friends to rock music and the guitar,and theyve far surpassed you in 6 months.this has happened to me more than a few times.Im only left with 1 questions though:WHAT IN THE HELL AM DOING WRONG THAT I CANT MOVE MY PINKIE WOTHOUT MY RING FINGER MOVING!GOD its the most frustrating thing ever.oh and my index finger kinda twists counter clockwise when im playing any note,and when i fret the 4th to 6th strings it mutes the other strings.Have you ever encountered this before,is it normal,and is it acceptable to be able to play guitar?
    thx for the knee thing, i was practicing sitting down and i couldnt play standing up, and i didnt understand y, and also, i couldnt understand y my friend steve could reach 7 frets at once and i could reach 4, lol, thx sooooo much
    TWP man
    This article rocks man! It's so clear and easy to read and understand! 4 thumbs up!