Proper Hand Position for Playing Guitar
Guitars are user-friendly instruments. They fit comfortably into the arms of most humans, and the hand position that comes naturally is pretty much the position from which you should play. In this article, you discover how to hold your hands — just as if you were a young socialite at a finishing school.
Left-hand position: Fretting made easy
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. Your hand should look about like that after you stick a guitar neck in there. 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.
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.
When playing a particular fret, remember that you don’t place your finger directly on the metal fret wire, but in 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. Don’t place it in the center of the square (midway between the fret wires), but closer to the higher fret wire. This technique will give you the clearest sound and prevent buzzing.
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 that may expedite your left-hand endurance, but one thing’s for sure: Nothing builds your left-hand fretting strength better or faster than simply playing guitar.
Because of the strength your left hand exerts while fretting, other parts of your body may tense up to compensate. At periodic intervals, make sure that you relax your left shoulder. Make sure as well that your left elbow doesn’t stick out to the side, like that of some rude dinner guest. You want to keep your upper arm and forearm parallel to the side of your body. Relax your elbow so that it stays at your side.
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.
Electric necks are both narrower (from the 1st string to the 6th) and shallower (from the fingerboard to the back of the neck) than acoustics. Electric guitars are, therefore, easier to fret. But 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 and how easy the strings are to fret. 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.
Because nylon-string guitars have a wide fingerboard and are the model of choice for classical music, their necks require a slightly more (ahem) formal left-hand approach. Try to get the palm-side of your knuckles (the ones that connect your fingers to your hand) to stay close to and parallel to the side of the neck so that the fingers run perpendicular to the strings and all the fingers are the same distance away from the neck. (If your hand isn’t perfectly parallel, the little finger “falls away” or is farther from the neck than your index finger.)
If you hold a guitar in your lap and drape your right arm over the upper bout, your right hand, held loosely outstretched, crosses the strings at about a 60-degree angle. This position is good for playing with a pick. For fingerstyle playing, you want to turn your right hand more perpendicular to the strings. For classical guitar, you want to keep the right hand as close to a 90-degree angle as possible, which enables your fingers to draw against the strings with maximum strength.
Using a pick
You do almost all your electric guitar playing with a pick. On acoustic, you can play either with a pick or with your fingers. On both electric and acoustic, you play most rhythm (chord-based accompaniment) and virtually all lead (single-note melodies) by holding the pick, or plectrum (the old-fashioned term), between the thumb and index finger.
If you’re strumming (playing rhythm), you strike the strings with the pick by using wrist and elbow motion. The more vigorous the strum, the more elbow you must put into the mix. For playing lead, you use only the more economical wrist motion. Don’t grip the pick too tightly as you play — and plan on dropping it a lot for the first few weeks that you use it.
Picks come in various gauges, which indicate how stiff, or thick, it is. Thinner picks are easier to manage for the beginner.
Using your fingers
If you eschew such paraphernalia as picks and want to go au naturel with your right hand, you’re fingerpicking. The thumb plays the bass strings, and the fingers play the treble strings. In fingerpicking, you use the tips of the fingers to play the strings, positioning the hand over the sound hole (if you’re playing acoustic) and keeping the wrist stationary but not rigid. Maintaining a slight arch in the wrist so that the fingers come down more vertically on the strings also helps.