Many guitar students come to lessons with the same basic problems. They’re problems that aren’t hard to solve, but are easy to miss. You might be mostly self-taught, or maybe you’ve had lessons that weren’t as effective as they could have been. Some people have just had bad advice. But in every case, there are a few simple things than can make a real difference in a very short time.
The heart of the problem is that playing guitar can be awkward at first. You have to feel natural with the guitar in your hands, and that usually takes time. Some people are immediately comfortable; these are generally the ones with the most natural aptitude. Others get adapt but eventually hit a roadblock. And some just continue to struggle.
Not a “right” way, but a better way.
If you pay attention to the way different players approach the guitar, you’ll see lots of different approaches. So I don’t like to say that there’s a right way and a wrong way. For every example of someone that plays with the “right” technique, there might be two that don’t. The body is very adaptable, and lots of people develop approaches on their own that work. But our bodies are also mechanical, and all mechanisms have a way to operate with maximum efficiently. So if we’re going to set a standard for technique, efficiency is an excellent measure.
Inefficient technique breaks down into several main categories. If you fall into any of these five traps, addressing them can make your playing much more fluid.
1. Too much tension
Tension in the hand, wrist, arm, neck, and shoulder can all limit your ability to move freely. The most common tension traps are the base of the fretting hand thumb, inside of the forearm, and the shoulder of your picking hand. One limits the free movement of the fingers, and the other two limit the free movement of the arm. All three will keep you from playing smoothly and accurately.
2. Too much grip.
Many of people habitually grip the neck too hard. Some have been told they’re supposed to. If it takes a lot of effort to hold the notes down, there might be too much tension on the strings. This can create tension in the hand as you work harder to compensate.
Sometimes this is because the action is higher than it should be, or the strings might be too heavy. Having the guitar adjusted or switching to lighter strings can help a lot. Some players choose heavier strings and higher action in order to produce a bigger sound, but that’s a choice for a more experienced player. When your guitar is set up for optimum playability, it shouldn’t take much work to make a note sound.
If the guitar is set up properly and you’re still having trouble getting notes to sound clearly, we need to look at item number 3.
3. Too much bend in the wrist, or not enough in the fingers.
A relaxed and efficient hand position is easy to find, it’s the way we’re made! Hold your hand out in front of you with the thumb on top and let it relax. Odds are, your fingers will curl slightly. To make a fist, you would just bring the fingers into the palm. This open, relaxed form is essentially the way your fretting hand should look on the strings. The neck of the guitar sits between the thumb and fingers, but the basic position should be similar: straight wrist, curled fingers. To reach different formations you sometimes will need to drop the wrist or extend the fingers (or both), but these are variations on the basic form. A straight wrist gives you more leverage and therefore holds the strings down more efficiently.
The same goes for curled fingers. The fingertip will generally hold the string down more efficiently on the treble side (thinner strings). Reaching the bass strings can require a little more extension. As a rule, drop the wrist and extend the fingers when you need to make a reach. This is much more efficient than trying to stretch curled fingers apart.
4. The thumb thing.
Lots of people get hung up on the position of the fret hand thumb. Many teachers will misguidedly insist that the thumb needs to stay behind the neck and not creep over the top. If you’re holding the guitar in the traditional position with the neck elevated at an angle, this will take care of itself. There are times this will be the right thing to do; classical and jazz guitarists generally hold the instrument this way. Some electric guitars balance this way naturally, others don’t. We often hold both acoustic and electric guitars with the neck closer to straight, or only slightly elevated. This will naturally put the tip of the thumb above the top of the neck. Artificially trying to hold the thumb down will force you to bend the wrist more dramatically, sacrificing strength and creating tension. The position of your wrist is the most important factor: the position of your thumb is a by-product.
Do expect your wrist to move, it should be flexible! You will need to bend it to reach some chords or to make an extended stretch. Sometimes turning slightly to one side or the other will make it easier to place the fingers. But locking the thumb to keep it below the top of the neck will absolutely limit your ability to move freely.
5. Too much movement (or not enough)
Playing well requires the ability to consistently hit a target. If your fingers fly away from the fretboard, you’re wasting energy and moving AWAY from your target. Keep the fretting hand relaxed and the fingers floating over the strings. That way you’re never far from the next note you need to hit.
When it comes to strumming, you do want to be able to swing the arm in a fairly wide arc to produce the optimum amount of sound. (This, of course, requires a relaxed arm!) Faster strumming demands a smaller arc, covering less distance and moving more from the wrist than the arm. (Ditto). Smooth picking on single notes requires very little movement at all…consider how thin the pick and string really are! Think of single-note picking with a flatpick as a movement of the thumb: dip and return. The wrist should follow smoothly, but if your pick is moving past the next string you’re moving too much. This is essential for building any kind of speed or facility with the pick.
All of these points follow the same basic concept: relaxed playing starts with a natural, relaxed position of the body. We often find ourselves bending our bodies around the guitar in an effort to see what we’re doing, make a reach, or press harder. The intense focus on where your fingers land makes it very easy to lose track of the rest of your body. If you start by identifying these five traps, you can start developing a sense of whole-body awareness. This is what makes great players look effortless, and will make your playing much more smooth and confident.