Classical left-hand technique in fingerstyle covers a wide spectrum of factors, ranging from the most basic hand position to the finer points of execution and finger movement. In this lesson, we will work on a few of the concepts that will help you use your left hand much easier. The goal is to develop a technique that will allow your hand and fingers to spend the least amount of energy and and still allow you relative comfort, whether you’re playing a single note, scale, arpeggio, or chord. We’ll explore some ideas that have been designed to help develop the natural alignment of your wrist and hand as well as increase your efficiency and strength.
Let’s start by looking at your wrist. Extend and flex it as far as you can in either direction. You should have about a 180 degree pivot on your wrist. When you play the guitar, your wrist is aligned somewhere near the middle of its range of motion, because this is where your hand works most comfortably. A slight bend in the wrist is cool, as people like James Taylor and Dave Matthews do it all the time to strike those strange chords that you just can’t reach any other way. However, compare the feel of playing with your wrist bent to an extreme in either direction to that of playing with your wrist in its middle range, you will feel a significant difference in comfort, particularly on a wide-necked classical guitar, which can be a pain to play on, but sounds so good!
For good basic left-hand position, start by placing your thumb flat on the back of the neck and laying your fingers flat on the fretboard, with your thumb lined up behind your index and middle fingers. In this position, your thumb will act as a guide and pivot-point for your hand, allowing your fingers to remain relaxed on the strings. Everyone’s hand is unique, so remember that comfort is the key here. Put your thumb where it feels most comfortable, but try to make a distinction that while you may be used to placing your thumb in a certain way, you will still want to try to arrange the thumb in the middle area of the chord you will be playing regardless. You never know, you may be playing stereotypically correct anyway. Hold the neck as you usually do, then, if it’s much different than the hand position explained above, try them both, and compare the two. One will feel much more comfortable than the other. We don’t mean that in the way that since you are USED to playing that way, it should be more comfortable. We mean that the standard should cause less strain on your hand muscles, increasing your playing time and saving you from serious medical disasters. Below is a picture of a standard way to position your thumb and hand on the neck:
Now that you are lined up, lower your fingertips to the third string. Do this repeatedly to get a feel for positioning and alignment, but don’t worry too much about fretting specific notes at this point. Avoid pressing too hard with your thumb and check your wrist alignment. Your fingers should make a graceful arc that ends where the fingertip contacts the string. Try to preserve that arc while you play the following exercises.
We’ll start with a few simple left-hand exercises that will reinforce the alignment you’ve become comfortable with. In your starting position, you should feel fully comfortable with no strain if you followed the concept as described above.Keep your hand relaxed. The farther away your fingers are, the more time and energy it will take for your finger to get to the desired string. Reduce the distance your fingers need to travel, and you’ll instantly play more efficiently and with more speed and precision.
Keep your fingers close to the strings while you slowly play through the simple single-finger exercise in the example below. Practice this slowly enough that you can keep the distance between your fingers and the string in the quarter-inch range. After you get the hang of it, try speeding up while holding the positioning.
After you have completed this warm-up, try the example below, which takes a group of four consecutive frets and assigns a left-hand finger to each so that you can work on your finger arrangements. Start with your first finger at the fifth fret on the first string and play four consecutive ascending notes on each string. As you play the four ascending notes, leave all your fingers down until you shift to the next string. This exercise is good for training your fingers to stay in their starting position as well as building strength. (If you are a flatpicker, it’s also a good way to build up your flatpicking speed, which we will explore later) Once you have played this pattern on all six strings, move up one fret and do the exercise in reverse (descending). When you’ve worked your way back across the fretboard, move up one fret again and continue with the ascending pattern. Work your way up the fretboard with this ascending / descending pattern, and by the time you get to the 12th fret, you will have given your hand a good workout.