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Using Hand Ergonomics to Improve Left Hand Technique

Updated: May 25, 2020

I remember one of the first bits of advice I received as a young guitarist was to place each finger on a different fret, making sure that each finger was right up against a fret. This method is called One Finger Per Fret playing (OFPF), and it is a very useful concept for beginning guitarists.

Typical Beginners Grip. Look at how it looks like the hand is squeezing the fretboard.

The tendency for beginners is to bunch up their fingers into as tight of a package as they possibly can. This likely comes from the tendency to over tense the muscles as they make their first steps into the world of guitar playing. This tremendously reduces the reach of the beginner student and makes scales such as the pentatonic and the open position G major scale out of the question without being forced to shift (which often is done in a way that makes the hand look like something out of a horror movie.)

Introducing OFPF (and Some New Problems)

The Pinky and Index Finger Working Against One Another

The solution to this finger-bunching problem is to have the beginning student extend their fingers to the point where each finger is positioned by a separate fret. This is a solution to the immediate problem of students bunching their fingers, but there is the possibility that this will cause some new areas of tension in the hand and wrist.

Typically, the student will try to gain reach by extending out their fingers away from one another. This seems like a logical solution, but the problem is the fingers will face into one another when they splay out. This means the knuckles of the pinky and the first finger will actually extend beyond where they need to be. The result is students put more tension than is necessary to extend their fingers.

In addition, this hand position makes it so that the wrist must be bent. A bent wrist is not ideal as it forces the tendons in the hand to rub up against the bones in the wrist. This rubbing creates unnecessary friction which is avoided when the wrist is straightened.

In review, while OFPF solves one problem for the hand, it can introduce new problems in our playing. Fortunately, with some minor adjustments these problems can be resolved while still maintaining the advantages of OFPF playing.

Turning the Hand

The goal for adjusted hand position should be to encourage each of the fingers to move in the same direction as each other, thus maximizing our reach without the addition of extra tension in the hands and wrist. I learned this technique from one of my mentors, James Flood.

Try this on your guitar: on the high E string, position your hand so the knuckle closest to your hand on the first finger is close to the fretboard. Allow your thumb to stick out on the other side of the fretboard. Give your first finger a rather extreme arch and have the fingernail point towards the bridge of the guitar. As you add the other fingers, make sure that each successive finger becomes less and less arched until the fourth finger is completely straight.

If you have done this correctly the fingers will now all be pointing in the same direction and will not have to splay out to achieve the stretch. This maximizes our finger's reaching power without adding a ton of extra tension.

My Second Finger Could Still Use Some Work

This idea can also be used the opposite way. This way can be a little more tricky but is well worth mastering. The idea is to arch the pinky while the first finger straightens so that all other fingernails point towards the headstock of the guitar.

Moving this way is particularly useful for long stretches with the first finger, barre chords, and playing on the lower strings of the guitar.

Adjusting your hands in this way also has the advantage of straightening the wrist tremendously, which can add some huge advantages to our speed and the ease to which we play.

These ideas can also be applied to the bass guitar; although, there are some interesting considerations for the left hand on the bass guitar that we will discuss in another post!

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