Practicing Part III
In order to practice properly, attention needs to be paid to a number of different areas. Today’s post addresses some issues regarding fretting hand tension as a precursor to proper form in practicing.
Fretting Hand Positioning and Tension
Many guitarists begin playing guitar without being aware of how much tension they are exerting on their fretting hand. While the title refers to fretting hand fingers, hand tension is actually a complex coordination of muscles working in the hand and forearm. The concept here is to talk about hand tension as it relates to your ability to move your fingers freely.
Here is an example that may help explain how much of a performance issue this can be.
For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine that you have taken a break from the rigors of guitar practice and have gone to spend the day at muscle beach with your friend Charles Atlas. After arriving there and seeing miles and miles of Herculean figures – you have decided to show off to your friends and crush the can of soda you have been drinking.
Okay – hold your fretting hand out in front of you – like you were holding a soda can you were drinking from.
Really visualize the can. Try to feel the ice cold metal against the palm of your hand.
Okay, now try to crush it. But imagine that the can has been replaced with some infinitely strong material that can’t be crushed. You don’t want to crush the imaginary can – but truly struggle against it. If you’re doing the exercise properly, your arm is probably shaking from the exertion.
Okay – now try to move your fingers while you crush the can. You may be able to move them a little but it’s going to be very difficult. You should feel (or even see) a lot of tension in your forearm.
Now stop trying to crush the can. Wiggle your fingers. This should be much easier.
If you grip the guitar neck with too much tension, it’s the same as trying to crush the soda can. If you are carrying tension it will be very difficult to move your fingers freely.
What follows is an exercise that can help with proper hand tension.
Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise
Sit in a comfortable chair (preferably without armrests) with your guitar around your neck as if you were going to play (you are wearing a strap aren’t you? If not you may want to read the last post.)
Relax your fretting hand by letting your arm hang fully extended by your side. Wiggle your fingers a bit and try to relax as much as possible.
Take a deep breath. While inhaling on that breath, make a fist. As you exhale – fully release the fist. Just let your hand naturally relax into a position. Look down at your hand.
Note – this is your hand in a relaxed position.
Now, keeping your hand in position, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to the neck of the guitar as if you were going to play. Your fingers should be bent slightly at each knuckle (i.e. the fingers should be curved similar to the relaxed position).
Proper Fretting Hand Thumb Tension
Reverting back to the soda can example, it’s important that the thumb remain in the back of the neck as relaxed as possible as to not tense the rest of the hand. This is something that I never thought about until I had studied with Jack Sanders. So I need to thank him for bringing this to my attention in my own playing.
It’s also important to note that your hand position will change if you are doing a lot of string bending. While it is possible to bend strings with your fretting hand thumb in the middle of the neck, most people will be used to moving the thumb so that it is more on the bass string side of the fretboard to facilitate bending. Since this isn’t the majority of what most people play on guitar – I view bending hand position as the exception rather than the rule.
The thumb acts as a balance to pressure from the fingers; so the location of the thumb is very important. Ideally the thumb should be in the middle of the guitar neck and typically in line with the middle finger or between the middle and ring finger. What you are trying to do is put the thumb in an area of minimal tension.
Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise
Try playing a scale on the guitar. If you think that your thumb is squeezing the back of the neck hard, try removing the thumb from the back of the fingerboard while you are playing. Now gently and gradually, move the thumb back to the neck so that it is very lightly touching it. Repeat as necessary.
Obviously a huge component in hand tension is how the fingers are actually connecting with the strings and that will be the subject of the next post on practicing.
I hope this helps!