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The First 4 Chords & Basic Left Hand Position

The First 4 Chords & Basic Left Hand Position

Many classical guitarists find invaluable guidance from Scott Tennant’s book Pumping Nylon. In the introduction of the book, Scott describes the left hand finger placement and accuracy and he address much of the same principles as I will describe here. However, I have added a little more commentary and some extra tips and exercises to help convey more of the feeling and sensation of how to engage the left hand while playing.

Basic Left Hand Position and Tension

Your left hand is the most important part of the equation when it comes to playing well. It facilitates your speed, your applied theory knowledge, and can be the single most important factor determining your skill level. Focusing on your left hand alone could bring your playing to new heights. No matter how advanced you are, you can always benefit from focused left hand work, especially going back to the basic left hand position and movement. I often return to this concept to reinforce my playing.

The basic left hand position involves all four fingers, all on one string, each on its own fret (IE 1,2,3,4). Be sure to press with the tips of your fingers. Let your fingers curl almost naturally. (to feel this: take your hand an relax your fingers. Notice the natural curl and shape of your hand) Make sure none of your fingers or knuckles touch. Notice the slight angle of each finger when spread over a 4-fret span. Do not fight the angle. The thumb should be on its pad, slightly locked as if pushing a door open and in the middle of the neck, directly behind your 2nd finger. Now press on the string with all four fingers with as little pressure as needed to make the string touch the fretboard and make a clean sound when plucked. Then, release the tension but keep your fingers touching the string and in position above the frets. You don’t need to squeeze. Just use minimal pressure, a light touch and the weight of your hand and fingers. Notice how little movement you need to release the tension. The smaller the motion of release, the faster you will be able to move and play.

The goal is to release all unnecessary tension where possible.

For a bonus – remove the thumb completely while fretting with your fingers. Notice how the weight of your arm and hand come in to play. The thumb is there for support but you should be able to fret cleanly by applying the minimum tension with the feeling of the weight.

Cliff-Hanging Fingers!

Applying minimum pressure with the fingers is the key to moving fluidly. A great demonstration of the minimum amount of pressure you should use involves taking the basic left hand playing position with all 4 fingers on 1 string. Make sure you are on the tips of your fingers. Then, drop your left shoulder and relax your arm so the only thing holding it up is your fingers on the guitar. It should feel like your arm would drop if not holding on by the fingers. Now you are hanging by your fingers like a mountain climber hanging on a cliff! Though this is an exaggerated position, the same mechanics are at play when using minimum force on the strings. Use the weight of your whole arm to help support the hand and fingers when applying pressure.

Get Those Fingers Moving

The next exercise (Chromatic Scale) will help you practice the immediate pressure and release of tension in a playing situation. Start with the four fingers spread over the 4 frets in playing position but not touching the string. Place the first finger down with the minimal tension you learn from the previous explanation and pluck the string with the right hand. (Don’t worry about the right hand right now. Use any stroke you wish – with a pick or alternating fingers i and m using rest stroke or free stroke). Next, release the tension in the first finger and bring it back to playing position just above the string while you shift the weight to the second finger with the same immediacy as the release. Try to feel the weight shifting in the whole hand. Repeat the same process for the next 2 fingers and then move to the next adjacent string to start the entire process again. Repeat on all six strings and then reverse the process. Start with your 4th finger (the pinky) on the 4th fret while the others are in playing position. Then shift the weight to your third finger while simultaneously releasing the tension of your 4th finger. Repeat this process for all 4 fingers on all six strings. Make sure to play slowly and to concentrate on feeling the weight shift in your whole hand and feeling the weight of your arm and hand to help apply the minimum pressure with your fingers.

The 4 Chord Shapes

     We can extend the left hand playing position logically into basic chord shapes. The goal is to keep the basic playing position and 4-finger spread while stretching it out to help develop more dexterity and strength.
     The first chord shape involves the 4-fret spread but stretched over adjacent strings starting with the first finger on the first fret of the first string and extending to the 4th finger on the 4th fret of the 4th string. This gives us a Major 7th chord – specifically a F# Major 7th chord. Nice sounding, isn’t it? This shape can be moved up the neck to create all Major 7th chords and is a great shape for arpeggios – more on that later.
     The second shape only uses 3 fingers. It starts with the first finger on the first fret of the second string and extends to the 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the 4th string. You can play the open 1st string if you wish for a nice Major 7th sound. This is the ‘F’ shape.
     This next shape also only involves 3 fingers and it uses the same basic shape as the ‘F’ shape but stretches it a little farther. Start with your first finger on the first fret of the second string like the above example. However, skip the 3rd string and place your second finger on the second fret of the 4th string. Then, end with your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the 5th string. This give you the ‘C’ shape – named for the actual chord you are making in the first position.
     Shape number four is the G7 shape. It again, stretches out the ‘F’ shape a little further. Place your first finger on the first fret of the first string. Then skip up to the 5th string with your second finger on the second fret. Finally, place your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the 6th string. You may strum all 6 strings for this one.
     As a bonus and purely for a left hand exercise (meaning it won’t sound that great), play the last 3 shapes all while keeping your pinky down on the second or third string on the fourth fret. This will really stretch those fingers!
     Play around with the order of the different chords and come up with something that sounds nice. There are a number of popular songs that use these chords (IE The Lumineers “Ho, Hey”) The point is to get your hand used to making those stretches effortlessly. Remember, we started from the basic left hand finger positions all on one string and gradually stretched it out to other strings all while maintaining the minimum necessary tension.


You Are Playing Guitar Wrong! Finding Your Optimal Guitar Position

     We have all seen it before – the guitar slung so low it could kill ants or the laid back singer-songwriter leaning so close to the guitar you think she just might kiss it. You might even be guilty of it yourself. What you might not know is your playing position is probably the most important way to either enhance or kill your technique.
     When I first started playing guitar at age 11, it was in the midst of the grunge era  – you know, baggy pants, flannels, thermal shirts. Playing loud and heavy was the order of the day, and all the cool guys were slinging guitars down to their knees. After trying to play like that for a little while and struggling to get some of the riffs sounding smooth, I realized that there was a difference in my playing when I practiced while sitting versus playing while standing. So, I decided to try to mimic my sitting-style playing and one of the first steps was to bring the guitar up closer to my chest. And voila! Suddenly, those transitions and “difficult” riffs I was hacking through became smooth and almost seamless. You might have had a similar epiphany at some point and just took it and ran with it. What you might not know, is that is just the beginning of your improvement with guitar positioning.
     The absolute first thing to learn and use every time you pick up your instrument and no matter how advanced you are, is to stay relaxed while playing and release any unnecessary tension. There are more specific techniques with which to do this as you progress but it all starts with your playing position and understanding of a few key principles.
The Classical Position
    For a well-thought out guide on classical guitar sitting position, check out ThisisClassicalGuitar.com by Bradford Werner. (Basic Posture and Sitting Position)
    The best playing position for each individual will vary slightly but the core principles remain the same. Keep your shoulders relaxed (not hunched) and pulled back (slightly extended chest); the back should be straight and feet planted – you should be able to let your arms hang and feel the weight of gravity. The optimal guitar position is at a range of 30 degrees to about 45 degrees angled up. Place the guitar on your left leg – the idea is to give your left hand (fretting hand) easy access to the guitar neck without bending at the wrist. Any wrist bending will create tension with your tendons and interfere with the movements of your fingers. (to demonstrate try bending your wrist forward and making a fist. You will feel the tension in your forearm and wrist and it will eventually travel up your arm to your shoulder.) This is why when you are hanging low with your guitar, you find it difficult to move your fingers smoothly.
     Breathing regularly and through your diaphragm will help keep you in a relaxed state (plus it is important to life!) and I suggest starting an almost meditative practice of bringing attention back to your breathing while playing – when you notice yourself holding your breath, then release it and focus on breathing regularly again – do this every time you notice holding your breath. Holding in your breath creates a lot of tension in your shoulders, which travels down your arm and to your fingers. The mindful attention to your breathing should then journey to any tension you feel in your shoulders and back – breathe consciously and release any tension.
The Casual Position
     I recommend only going to the casual position after you have experimented with and understood the principles behind the classical sitting position. You can transfer some of those ideas to the casual position but you will be limited by a few factors. Gravity and weight of your fingers and hands should still be a central focus, though you might have to play around with your position to approximate a similar feeling. Notice the left arm and hand will not be able to access the entire fretboard as easily. You will have to bend your wrist a bit more and apply more squeezing pressure rather than relying on the weight of your arm. You will also have to struggle more to reach the higher frets. Your right hand will most likely rest a little higher on the body and moving the right arm to reach different timbres and sound colors will be more difficult. That being said, the casual position can be used to great affect once thought through. Finding the balance between the classical position’s effectiveness and the casual position’s ease and comfort is a personal journey for every guitarist. Trust your body’s instincts and keep the idea of minimal tension with quick release in mind at all times – and remember to breathe!

Why Every Guitarist Should Learn Classical Guitar

         Classical guitarists are some of the most, if not, the most technically and musically accomplished guitarists out there. Though, they are almost always relegated to a dark, mysterious corner of the guitar world. Guitarists in the know might revere these technical wizards and stand in awe at the almost incomprehensible ability to play full solo works with their fingers. The general public, however, has mostly never heard of classical guitar or think of guitarists playing Mozart or Bach. Most guitarists see the word “classical” and immediately think “boring!” They might think that they could never learn to play like a classical guitarist and that it requires years of practice and study. My goal is to take the art of playing classical guitar out of the realm of the esoteric and put the useful knowledge into the hands of every guitarist. Once a player has the technical tools and knowledge available to a classical guitarist, then a whole world of possibility opens and almost any guitar challenge can be conquered. If you have a strong foundation of techniques and knowledge from the classical guitar, then you will be able to play and understand almost any music.
The idea of classical guitar is not to play classical music but to approach the playing of any piece with a full range of knowledge and techniques of the fretboard and fingers.
    The term “classical guitar” encompasses much more than a guitarists who plays classical music. It is more accurate to describe it as a certain approach to playing and learning music for the guitar. The classical guitar repertoire has grown to include all sorts of styles from straight classical to jazz, Brazilian, Flamenco, African, and modern pop music. The idea of classical guitar is not to play classical music but to approach the playing of any piece with a full range of knowledge and techniques of the fretboard and fingers. Songs of the Beatles or even Adele are not off limits and the classical guitarist will often arrange and play these tunes for various occasions. What the classical guitarists does with these tunes is where they differentiate themselves and shine. Chords, harmonies, and self-accompaniment fill out the sound for a soloist, and the techniques to play multiple parts at the same time give the classical guitarist the self-sufficiency that almost no other style enjoys.
     This blog will go over various techniques and knowledge parsed from the classical guitar literature to give you the strong foundation from which to tackle any guitar challenge from any style of playing. You will not become a classical guitarist from these lessons, but you will learn the essentials from the classical guitar and be able to apply them to any style and genre of your choosing (including classical, if you wish).
Skills you will learn from the classical guitar method:
  • how to practice
  • sight reading
  • fretboard knowledge
  • music reading
  • unique chord voicings
  • how to accompany yourself
  • playing multiple parts at the same time
  • good tone production
  • fingerstyle right hand technique
  • ergonomic playing
  • how to play musically
  • theory applied to the fretboard
  • music history and style
  • expanded repertoire
  • how to bring out a multitude of different sounds and timbres from the instrument