Finger picking hand techniques

Part 1: Hand positioning

– Version 2.2 by Dale Cotton, © 2010, all rights reserved.

The right hand

Fig. 1: "classical" vs. traditional hand position

Finger picking as an American folk/blues approach to guitar playing goes back at least a hundred years. It apparently evolved independently in multiple regions among fairly isolated and often rural players who had essentially zero exposure to the technical tradition that had already evolved in Europe. The position shown in Fig. 1b is one of the most common of the indigenous hand positions. The tip of the pinky rests on the soundboard to anchor the hand. The intention is both to stabilize the entire hand and to provide leverage for maximum striking force from the fingers that actually attack the strings. Like training wheels on a bicycle, this position is comforting but is ultimately crippling as a long-term strategy.

If your goal as a guitarist is to work within a folk or blues tradition and imitate one or more guitar players who used this technique, then of course using it is what you should do. If you've been playing using this technique for years and have no feeling that you've hit a brick wall technically, then you certainly don't want to retool at this point. But if neither of those considerations apply to you or if you are teaching someone to whom they do not apply, read on.

The "classical" hand position was the survivor, over several hundred years of intense competition in Europe, between various alternate approaches, one of which was undoubtedly the anchored pinky. In spite the strident arguments to the contrary among anchored pinky proponents, the "classical" position provides just as much stability plus more, not less, striking force. To prove this to yourself you need to solve the ancient Zen koan of what is the sound of one hand clapping? Hold your picking hand out with fingers straight up. Now bend your fingers down so the finger tips touch the base of your palm. Now repeat that motion from extended to palm-touching; but this time slap them down forcefully. After a few repeats you should be able to actually get a faint clapping sound. Finally: try to do this except anchor your pinky against a hard surface. You simply cannot generate as much velocity or extension that way: the immobilized pinky is countering, not augmenting, the motion of the other fingers.

Fig 2. "classical" position, side view (notice finger curve)

As to stability, your forearm rests on the upper bout of the guitar body. With a limp wrist (not only do you have to solve a koan, you have to turn gay in order to play the guitar ;) your hand naturally falls straight downward, as shown back in Fig. 1a. It takes no great effort to center your palm over the strings just behind the sound hole. The exact position of the hand, including its height above the strings, is determined simply by the amount of forearm that extends past your arm's resting point on the top of the guitar. Once in that position your hand is as mobile or immobile as you want it to be. There is plenty of leverage to clap your hand – again, more than you'll get with an anchored pinky. In this position you have power plus fluidity – sounds like something out of Judo or Karate to me. And as an added bonus, this position has proven over at least the past hundred and fifty years to be free of repetitive stress injury inducing tension.

The logic behind this position is shown in the green arrow and line in Fig. 1a. The green arrow points at right angles to the green line; that's a schematic of your fingers striking the strings at right angles (on the axis shown), which is what happens naturally when you pick a string from this position. In deadly contrast, the red arrow and line in Fig. 1b show the insidious evil lurking in wait for you when you revert to the anchored pinky side of the force. Your fingers strike the strings at an acute angle, reducing both power and accuracy at the same time.

In the so-called "classical" position you can use your fingers just as accurately and powerfully on all six strings, not just on the trebles. But wait! There's more! Yet another advantage to this position: your picking thumb extends well out in front of your fingers so it can't collide with them even if both the melody and the harmony happen to fall on the same or on adjacent strings.

The left hand

Problems with left hand positioning among veteran acoustic guitar players are fairly rare. Difficult chords become even more difficult or impossible when you don't use your hand efficiently. Unfortunately, the electric guitar has such a small neck and low string tension that bad left hand positioning abounds, setting the wrong example for novice acoustic players.

The first thing is not hand position but body and arm. Steel string guitarists are not going to have any truck with anything as sissified as a foot stool and instead either stand and use a strap or sit with the waist of the guitar resting on the right thigh. But this second position provides no support to counter-balance the pressure the left hand exerts when fretting. In consequence the guitar player uses the left arm to keep the guitar from pivoting on the thigh. That's just plain dumb. If there's no other help for it, use a strap even when seated. My normal practicing spot is on a low couch. The guitar gets stabilized by pressing against the couch to my right.

Whatever it takes to get there, your left arm should hang loose and your shoulder should be perfectly relaxed, not hunched. Any tension in shoulder or arm will lead to aches and pains over a period of years. And if your left arm is stabilizing the guitar, your left hand is not free to change positions.

Fig. 3: root left hand position

Put your fingers in a row on the third or fourth string, as shown in Fig. 3. As much as possible put each finger just behind its fret. As much as possible have the tip of each finger from the first knuckle forward come straight down on to the string on the axis you would see if you were sighting along the fingerboard from the headstock or from the sound hole. Your left hand thumb falls in the centre of the back of the neck – not closer to the sixth or first string but along the center line between the third and fourth strings. The pinch of the guitar's neck between fingers and thumb supports the left hand, leaving the wrist free to dangle. Again there should be no tension in the wrist.

Fig. 3 shows the left hand fretting in first position (index finger on first fret). Without changing the relative position of fingers and thumb, you can move your hand toward the sound hole so the index finger is on the second fret or third fret or fourth, etc. Your forearm swivels from the elbox as you make these moves, but your upper arm and shoulder remain limp and out of the action.

Fig. 4: bar chord

Going back to first position, leave your thumb centred and your wrist dangling but move your individual fingers as necessary to form a C chord. The critical thing is that your palm remains roughly parallel to the length of the neck and your thumb continues to support your fingers roughly from behind the third or fourth string. For a bar chord your thumb remains behind the third/fourth string but shifts a bit toward the headstock to support the index finger.

Thumbing-over. An exception to the above is using the thumb to fret notes on the sixth string. Many a steel string player feels a twinge of guilt about thumbing-over because it's widely believed that "classical" guitarists consider thumbing over to be truly depraved. The truth is that the nylon string guitar's fretboard is two inches across at the nut and needs a wider gap between sixth string and fretboard edge due to the lower string tension. These two factors make thumbing-over too much of a stretch. Any thumb-over dissing classical purists may indulge in has to be some mix of envy, sour grapes, and teasing.

So by all means take advantage of your guitar's narrower neck to thumb over, just remember to return your thumb to the centre of the neck immediately thereafter.

Once you've trained your left hand to maintain this root position, you still have a battle to wage. Many chord positions require a contortionist struggle just to get your fingers in place on the right frets. We then tend to apply extra force to eliminate buzzing. Bar chords are particularly prone to this issue. During the first months or year of learning to play the guitar your fingers are learning to act independently and to make reaches they formerly thought were impossible. During that stage it is pretty much impossible to apply minimal pressure so we're ingraining a seriously bad habit right from the start. But after that we need to deliberately un-learn applying that fatiguing and immobilizing extra pressure.

Yet another all-too-common source of tension is to press harder on the left hand fingers when playing more loudly with the right hand. Playing a fatiguing passage whisper quiet can be a revelation. Ultimately, your left hand fingers have to learn to press on the strings with the same relaxed, minimal force as you use when dialing a number on a touch tone phone keypad. Efficient technique in any endeavour is all about maximizing results while minimizing effort.

Further information. For more on both right hand and left hand positioning see Alice Artzt's four video tutorials. Just about everything applies to steel string as well as nylon. Don't be put off by the mistaken physics explanation of string vibration in the first few minutes; everything else is smack on. And when she talks about the A finger, she means the ring finger. P = thumb; I = index; M = middle.

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