How to Position Your Left Hand for Electric Guitar

Proper electric guitar technique will help you more quickly get to the point where you can rock all night without your hands cramping or hurting. Paying attention to how you position your left hand (which, face it, does all the work) when you're playing electric guitar can ultimately mean the difference between calling yourself a guitar enthusiast and calling yourself of guitarist.

Your left hand should fall in place very naturally on the neck on an electric guitar. When you play the guitar, your hands should be comfortable and relaxed. If you don't use correct left-hand positioning on the electric guitar, your hand can get tense or even cramped. The tension in your hand will reflect in your music and make it harder for you to learn new techniques.

To get an idea of correct left-hand positioning on the electric guitar, extend your left hand, palm up, and make a loose fist, placing your thumb roughly between your first and second fingers. All your knuckles should be bent. Take a good look. Your hand should look about like when it is positioned around the neck of a guitar. The thumb glides along the back of the neck, straighter than if you were making a fist but not rigid. The finger knuckles stay bent whether they’re fretting or relaxed. Again, the left hand should fall comfortably in place on the neck of the electric guitar — as if you were holding a tool that you’ve been using all your life.

To fret a note, press the tip of your finger down on a string, keeping your knuckles bent. Try to get the fingertip to come down vertically on the string rather than at an angle. This position exerts the greatest pressure on the string and also prevents the sides of the finger from touching adjacent strings — which may cause either buzzing or muting (deadening the string or preventing it from ringing). Use your thumb from its position underneath the neck to help “squeeze” the fingerboard for a tighter grip.

Because of the differences in design and construction, electric guitars are easier to fret than acoustic guitars. Electric necks are both narrower (from the first string to the 6th) and shallower (from the fingerboard to the back of the neck) than acoustics. Also, the space between each string is smaller, so you’re more likely to touch and deaden an adjacent string with your fretting finger. The biggest difference, however, between fretting on an electric and on a nylon or steel-string acoustic is the action.

A guitar’s action refers to how high above the frets the strings ride, which affects the amount of pressure required to fret the strings. On an electric guitar, fretting strings is like passing a hot knife through butter. The easier action of an electric enables you to use a more relaxed left-hand position than you normally would on an acoustic, with the palm of the left hand facing slightly outward, as shown in the following figure.

The electric guitar neck lies comfortably between the thumb and the first finger as the first finge
The electric guitar neck lies comfortably between the thumb and the first finger as the first finger frets a note.

To play a particular fret, remember that you don’t want to place your finger directly on the metal fret wire. Instead, you should position your finger between the two frets (or between the nut and first fret wire). For example, if you’re playing the fifth fret, place your finger in the square between the fourth and fifth fret wires. Also, don’t place your finger directly in the center of the square (midway between two fret wires). Place it closer to the higher fret wire. This technique will give you the clearest sound and prevent buzzing.

The important thing to remember in maintaining a good left-hand position is that you need to keep it comfortable and natural. If your hand starts to hurt or ache, stop playing and take a rest. As with any other activity that requires muscular development, resting enables your body to catch up.

Left-hand fretting requires strength, but don’t be tempted to try speeding up the process of strengthening your hands through artificial means. You may see advertisements for hand-strengthening devices and believe that these products may expedite your left-hand endurance. Some of these devices might work, though most do not (and the same goes for the homegrown method of squeezing a tennis ball). However, one thing’s for sure: Nothing helps you build your left-hand fretting strength better or faster than simply playing guitar.

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