Chord Hand Problems
Typical guitar finger problems experienced by beginners are:
Flattening and using the wrong part of the fingers
Pressing too hard
Pain in fingers, hand and wrists
Grooves in fingertips
Fingers not bent
Fretting in the wrong position
If you’re a beginner learning guitar and experiencing these hand and finger problems, don’t worry – you are not alone! Learning the guitar is most difficult in the first few weeks and months, not only because you’re learning the theory of how to play but because your hands and fingers are being asked adopt positions they are not used to. In this guide we will look at the common problems experienced by new guitarists (including children) and how to overcome them. Of course the Space Trainer accessory is specifically designed to help beginners with these problems, so we might mention it once or twice too!
General Tips for your left hand on the guitar
Before addressing specific guitarist hand problems, let’s look at some general points. The most important is probably the most difficult – RELAX! Whenever we learn something new there is a great deal of concentration involved and learning the guitar is no exception. Concentrating hard makes us tense up and put too much physical effort into what we’re doing – this is the same when learning golf or tennis or woodworking… or anything else that is new to us. So, when learning and practicing guitar try to make a conscious effort to relax as much as possible. Take your time, practice for short periods and stop often, put down your guitar and have a walk around. Believe me that eventually you will be able to play your guitar for hours on end without pain or discomfort, but this takes time and you can’t rush. Some more tips on relaxing are listed below, here: Relax! So now you’re chilled out and relaxed, let’s work though that list of finger problems commonly experienced by beginners.
OK, take a look at the fingers of your left hand. Each finger has three parts. The last part, which has the fingernail on it is the fingertip. Try this demonstration for me. Put your left hand flat on the desk in front of you. Now firmly press the fingertip of your first finger of your left hand on the desk, with the fingernail uppermost, parallel with the surface of the desk. This is what many beginners try to do when playing guitar chords! They place the flat part of the fingertip against the string and press it hard on the fingerboard… then get frustrated that their finger seems too big, uncontrollable and generally impossible to play even the simplest chords on their guitar. With your left hand first finger still on the desk, now relax your hand and raise your palm off the surface while gently bending your fingers until your first finger is nearly vertical. Look at the small part of the fingertip that is now touching the desk; that is the part that should be touching your guitar strings. This, of course is what the Space Trainer accessory achieves – it helps your hand to naturally make the right shape, allowing your fingers to fall on the strings at the ideal angle. Note that you’ll need to trim your nails!
Pressing too hard
One common mistake that beginners often make is thinking that they need to press the guitar string hard onto the fretboard (or fingerboard) with their fretting fingers. This is not necessary, as it is contact with the metal fret that causes the string to sound the fretted note, the fretboard is only there to hold the frets in place! Acoustic guitars generally require a little more pressure than electric guitars and all guitars vary. So experiment with your own guitar and try to find the amount of finger pressure needed on each string to make firm contact with the metal fret, but without clamping the string hard down on the wooden finger board. Your fingers will thank you!
Pain in fingers, hand and wrists
To some degree, you need to suffer for your art! It’s inevitable that you will get sore fingers and possibly some aches in your hands or wrists. But you can control and reduce this by practicing often but slowly and for short periods of time, relaxing and not pressing too hard with your fingers.
Grooves in fingertips
If you’ve read this far, you know what I’m going to say! All beginners suffer from grooves or indents forming in the fingers of the left hand. The part of the fingertip you use for playing guitar does not get too much use in everyday life, so is likely to be soft. With a little and often practice regime they will soon toughen up and stop getting tender. Choose medium or light strings to make things a little easier and, of course, it helps if you don’t press too hard…
Basic left hand position for playing 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. Your hand should look about like that after you stick a guitar neck in there. The thumb glides along the centre of the back of the neck, straight, but not rigid. The finger knuckles stay bent – whether they’re fretting or not, they should be in a relaxed position. 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 near vertically on the string rather than at a shallow 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 deadening the string, stopping it from ringing. Use your thumb from its position underneath the neck to help “squeeze” the fingerboard, but don’t over-tighten your grip. The top part of your hand and bottom part of your fingers should not touch the neck of the guitar at all. Using a Space Trainer teaching aid will help to get this hand position correct.
Finger position Don’t place your finger on the metal fret, but in-between the two frets (or between the nut and first fret), just behind the fret being played. For example, if you’re playing the 3rd fret, place your finger between the second and third frets, but closer to the third fret. This will give you a clearest sound with minimum pressure and prevent buzzing. Left-hand fretting requires some finger strength, but it isn’t necessary to strengthen your hands through artificial exercise – nothing builds your left-hand fretting strength better or faster than simply playing guitar. Remember that you only need to press down on the string firmly enough to make good contact with the fret, you don’t need to force it hard down onto the wooden fretboard – if you are doing this then you are wasting your strength and energy and adding to unnecessary tension in your hand and fingers. Relax! And slow down… Because of the strength your left hand exerts while fretting, other parts of your body tend to tense up to compensate. As with any newly-learnt activity, playing guitar seems to require an enormous amount of effort and concentration when you start out as a beginner. Practice your guitar playing only for short periods of time at first and at periodic intervals throughout your practice make a conscious effort to relax your left shoulder. Make sure as well that your left elbow doesn’t stick out to the side, but keep your upper arm parallel to the side of your body, relaxing your elbow so that it stays at your side. Every new guitar student wants to play quickly, at the ‘proper’ speed for the tune or song they have learned. But practice is far more valuable when you do it slowly and deliberately. In the early stages of learning the guitar you should concentrate on properly fretting the chords and doing so slowly. Be patient and believe that speed and fluency will come naturally in time. Hand pain and stiffness 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. Try this exercise to investigate the weak parts in your guitar playing posture: 1) Holding the guitar as comfortably as you can in the normal playing position, let your left arm to hang limp at your side. 2) Rest your right hand fingers on the guitar’s strings, keeping them very loose and relaxed. 3) Focus your attention on your shoulders and slowly raise your left hand. Raise it straight up without extending it, and place all your fingers on the sixth string, around the tenth fret. Keep your fingers just lightly touching the string,not pressing the string down not as easy as it sounds! 4) Now, holding this position just analyse how you feel. Do you feel strain in your right shoulder? Any tightness come in to the right hand, maybe holding the pick tighter, or tensing your wrist? Anything else you notice? 5) Keeping your left hand fingers on the string lightly, very slowly begin to move your hand down the guitar’s neck toward the first fret. Notice what happens throughout your body. You can also try the Guitar Hand Exercises described further down this page. Different guitars need different techniques! Electric guitar necks are generally both narrower and shallower than acoustics. Electric guitars also tend to have lighter gauge strings than acoustic guitars and are usually easier to fret. But because the space between each string is slightly smaller the new guitar player is more likely to touch and deaden an adjacent string with their fretting finger. The biggest difference, between playing an electric and a nylon or steel-string acoustic is what is known as the “action”. A guitar’s action refers to the hight of the strings above the frets. On a well set up electric guitar, fretting strings is easy, as the string only needs to move a small distance to the fret and, with light strings, only little pressure on the fingers is needed.. 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. Nylon-string guitars have a wide fingerboard and are used mainly for classical music and Spanish misical styles, their necks require a more 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.) The Space Trainer helps with proper hand position on all types of guitar and all playing styles, becayse the fundemental hand shape required is the same! Proper Left-hand Position for Playing Guitar If you start right at the beginning and practice correct left hand position and technique, you will avoid some of the problems that many guitarists encounter after they have played for a few years. Most guitarists learn the hard way; they start with “whatever works” informal technique instead of spending the time and effort to get it right from start. Guitar teachers see this in many of their students… a player reaches a certain level only to have problems progressing and going back to the beginning to re-learn bad habits in hand position. In the beginning a player is usually more interested in learning to quickly play a few favourite 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. Take the time to get it right and, with the help of a Space Trainer, you’ll save yourself a lot of back-tracking and frustration in the long run. Left Hand Positions There are two basic left hand positions, classical and popular or “baseball bat” position. The most versatile left-hand position for playing guitar is the classical position and is the hand position that all classical guitar teachers will concentrate on. The popular “baseball bat” position is arguably easier for beginners and is most useful for casual playing – strumming your favourite pop, rock or folk songs – but it 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.
Classical hand position The knuckle where the index finger joins the hand should not touch 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). Thumb position on the guitar neck 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. 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. Guitar hand exercises laying guitar quickly and well requires above average hand strength. It’s not enough for your hands to have dexterity. They must also be strong enough to play fast. You’ll also want the endurance required to play for long periods of time without getting tired. Whether you play classical or death metal, strengthening your hands will have enormous benefits on your abilities. Stretch 1. As with any strength training, stretching your muscles is important. Hold your arms out straight at each side. Turn the wrists upward, bending your palms backward as far as is comfortable. Maintain this for one minute. Turn your wrists down, bending the wrists down as far as is comfortable. Maintain for another minute. Bend each finger backward, then forward. Hold for thirty seconds each way. Make sure that you feel pressure but no pain. Shake the hands out for thirty seconds. Forearms 2. Your forearm muscles support the hand. While not necessary to do intensive weight training, building strength in the forearms supports your hands. Get some light dumb bells. Three or five pound weights will work fine. Sit down and hold the weight in your hand. Place your forearms flat on your thighs with the palms facing down. Curl your wrist upward as far as you can. Then slowly lower the weight back down. Repeat this 10 times and then rest for three minutes. Repeat the exercise, this time with the palms facing upward. Repeat the entire regimen three times for a total of 30 reps. Wrists 3. Strengthening the wrists is also key to strengthening the hands for guitar playing. Get a pair of exercise hand grips. They come in different tensile strengths. Try a few pairs and get one that allows you to do 10 to 15 reps before feeling moderate fatigue in the wrists. Do 15 reps at a time for this easy exercise, as you can do it while watching television or listening to music. You simply cannot do too many reps on your wrists. Fingers 4. The fingers are, for the guitar player, the most important part of the hand. Take a tennis ball and squeeze it, using the finger tips. Use all five fingers at once. Then graduate to two fingers at a time. Finally, move on to just one finger at a time. Stretch Again 5. Repeat the stretching exercises you began with. This helps prevent repetitive stress injury. Try this test: Place your thumb in the center of the back of the neck, as per the illustration for classical position. 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. Hang it high! About guitar straps.. Whereas classical guitar players position their guitars on one knee raised with a footstool, most guitarists are more interested in playing Rock or Pop music… and usually this means playing standing up with the guitar hanging from a strap. Choose an adjustable guitar strap that is wide enough to take the weight of your guitar without cutting into your shoulder. It might look cool to hang your guitar low down, but this is the worst possible position to actually play – especially if you want tp play fast and smoothly. Most “high performance” players have their guitars no lower than waist level, and when they want to tear up the fretboard they can pull their thumb back to the center of the neck and stretch their fingers out. Here is an example of the wrong way to position your hands to play basic guitar chords. Notice the thumb on the fretting hand is resting on the top of the fretboard. This changes the entire position of the fretting hand: palm sits underneath the fretboard – decreases mobility and ability to stretch fingers flatten out when playing notes on the sixth and fifth strings – fingers will likely come into accidental contact with strings, causing muffled notes, or “dead strings”. It should be noted that at some point in the future, you may actually use your thumb to wrap around the neck of the guitar, to fret notes on the sixth string. You may also notice that some of your favorite guitarists grip the neck in a manner similar to the one illustrated here. It is a hand position that can be effective in the proper situation, but it will make learning the guitar much more difficult. Avoid it for now. Changing chords confidently The primary reason beginners have trouble switching chords quickly has nothing to do with their fingers, or the way they’re sitting, or anything physical at all. Most often, new guitarists haven’t learned to think ahead, and visualize exactly which chord they’re about to play, and which fingers they’ll need to move. Try this exercise: Choose two chords you know. You will be moving back and forth between these two chords. Play the first chord eight times (strumming evenly), and then, without breaking the rhythm of your strumming, quickly move to the next chord, and play that chord eight times. Did you need to pause while switching chords? If so, let’s try and examine what the problem is. Try the following, without strumming the guitar: First, put your fingers back in position to play the first chord. Now, try and move quickly to the second chord, and study your fingers while doing so. Chances are, one or more of your fingers will come way off the fretboard, and perhaps hover in mid-air while you try to decide where each finger should go. This happens because you haven’t mentally prepared yourself for switching chords, not because you can’t play them! Now, try fretting that first chord again. Without actually moving to the second chord, imagine playing the second chord shape, visualising where your fingers will be. Picture in your mind, finger by finger, how to most efficiently move to the next chord. Only after you’ve done this should you switch chords. If some fingers continue to pause, or hover in mid air while moving to the next chord, back up and try again. When you have tried this a few time, next concentrate on acheiving “minimum motion” when changing chords. It is common for beginners lift their fingers high off the guitar fretboard while changing from one chord to the next. Spend five minutes going back and forth between the two chords, visualizing, then moving. Pay attention to any small, unneccessary movements your fingers make, and eliminate them. Eventually your fingers will move efficiently from chord to chord, lifting only a very small amount above the strings. Although this is easier said than done, your hard work and attention to detail will paying off quickly and your chord changes will become more confident and fluid. One final tip: Try practicing with your eyes closed! Many beginners – and more experienced guitarists – spend too much time looking at their left hand. Although not easy for the beginner guitarist, playing with eyes closed and visualising the string position and where the fingers should go is very useful in developing a natural guitar style.