My Left Hand

“Practice puts brains in your muscles.”

Sam Snead

Playing guitar – much like piano, drums, and most other instruments – requires both hands to work together; sometimes in tandem, sometimes as opposing forces. As beginners it can be extremely frustrating to find ourselves very one-handed in the early stages of our playing, and the flawless synchronisation of more experienced players can seem utterly perplexing and unimaginable.

However, all accomplished musicians know that these beginning stages have a lot to do with developing hand coordination and muscle memory. Co-ordination is not an innate quality; some may be more predisposed to it than others, but it is a learned skill. Regardless of your natural base level, practice improves coordination.

In this week’s blog post I hope to give you a better, and perhaps more balanced, understanding of the roles each of our hands plays when approaching our instrument; as well as what you should prioritise as a beginner, and some simple tips for practising and improving hand coordination.

Information.

When beginning to learn on the guitar it is essential that we focus first on the left hand (the fretting hand – note: this will be your right hand if you are playing left handed). There are many reasons for this. It is more often than not your weaker hand, so will need more training. Learning a particular piece or technique will be more manageable focusing on one thing at a time. But, most importantly, it’s the fretting hand that actually contains the notes we are trying to play. Our fretting hand is playing the information.

The information of a piece of music is crucial, it is the what of whatever you are playing. If you and I are both attempting to play the same song, the information our fretting hand is playing must be recognisably the same. This must be the primary focus, as if the content of what we’re playing is wrong it will matter very little what context we give it with our picking hand.

Intention.

If our fretting hand is the information then our picking/strumming hand is our intention. It the way we play the notes. You and I can fret the exact same notes with our left hand but, depending on our approach with our right hand, the end results could vary drastically. There are obviously ways in which we can affect the intonation and articulation of notes with our fretting hand; such as bends, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs. But by and large it is our picking hand that delivers what our fretting hand has merely outlined, and therefore it is here that you can really start to develop a voice on your instrument.

Improvement.

Understanding the roles of each of our hands can help us to prioritise in our approach to learning a new piece or technique, allowing us to clearly define what each hand is doing and how they either work together or in opposition to one another. This can enable us to practise more efficiently and effectively, and remove some of the frustration we may feel when struggling to consolidate movement in both hands.

With this understanding in mind, here are some basic tips to help improve your muscle memory, dexterity, and co-ordination:

1. Relax

Being relaxed, and avoiding excessive tension in your fingers, hands, arms, back or neck, is something that is very important for you to be aware of when practising guitar. Doing some light finger stretches or exercises at the start of each practise session can really help. Tension can not only be hazardous to your health, but it can also slow down your playing. A relaxed hand can move much more quickly and efficiently than a tense hand.

2. Placement

When you are playing the guitar, placement and positioning is everything. Good finger placement for your fretting hand is right behind the fret. This placement makes it easier for you to play clean and clear notes and, in turn, require less force from your picking hand. Use your ears to help mediate your finger placement. If you hear some muting or buzzing on a note, check your finger placement. Most of the time a small adjustment will help to clear up unwanted ‘background noise’. Likewise spend a little time developing your picking hand technique, whether you’re strumming, playing with a plectrum, or finger-picking. Your hand should sit near to the body of the guitar, and should be relatively relaxed, perhaps even resting on the bridge or body of your guitar. Avoid ‘floating’ a great distance away from the strings as this will not only increase tension in your arm and hand, but also reduce the speed and accuracy with which your are able to play.

3. Start Slow

Whether you practice coordination with repertoire, chords, scales, arpeggios, or other exercises, the most crucial aspect of your practise is to take it slowly and deliberately at first. This will ensure your hands are learning correct technique, playing cleanly and smoothly, and that you are not picking up bad habits that will be harder to unravel at a later stage, and at greater speed. Far too often we prioritise and obsess over speed. Only when you are confident that you have the correct technique should you try to increase your max tempo.

“Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast”

Mitsuyo Maeda

4. Start Quiet

You can practice coordination exercises silently. This means there’s no excuse for not practising. Strengthen your fretting hand by going over chord changes without strumming or picking. Work out the fingering of a particular riff or melodic phrase and repeat these movements, silently, often. This could even be done (as long as you are still observant) while multi-tasking; engaged in other activities such as talking on the phone, or watching TV. Consistency is key, and will help develop muscle memory faster.

5. Rhythm

Understanding rhythm, and co-ordinating our hands to play different rhythms is essential for our musical development. One simple way to get started is to tap out quarter notes with your left hand, and eighth notes with your right. Then vice versa. Allocate the ‘on’ beats (1+2+3+4+) to your left hand, and the ‘off’ beats (the ‘+’ beats between numbered beats) to your right. Tap out some basic rhythms using both hands. Then transpose this onto your instrument; perhaps taking a static chord and strumming the same rhythm you’ve just tapped out, where every ‘on’ beat is a downward strum, and every ‘off’ beat is an upward strum.

6. Pick & Choose

Develop your picking hand’s dexterity, efficiency, and accuracy by incorporating some picking exercises in to your practise. Use your developing understanding of rhythm to introduce up & down strumming and alternate picking (picking individual strings both up and down). Why not trying holding a static chord, or playing through a familiar progression, but instead of strumming all the strings, experiment with playing the strings one at a time, in different orders, to pick out different notes of a chord. Try doing this at the same time as incorporating different rhythms.

7. Repetition

Just as every endeavour we practise with our bodies, what we do regularly and consistently develops adaptation and muscle memory. Just as weight-lighters have to develop the mechanical ability and muscle adaptation to lift increasingly heavy weights through repetitive ‘drilling’; as guitarists we have to acquire the ability to sound the correct notes on our guitars through observant and consistent practice. The goal is to develop good technique through the repeated execution of guitar exercises that promote hand coordination and timing. We start slowly and evenly at first, and then gradually build up speed. With regular and consistent practice, you will notice that as you gain greater control over your picking and fretting technique, your potential speed of execution will increase. As your technique improves, you begin to learn how to deliver the information on your instrument with your own intention, and adapt your approach to cultivate a specific effect or sound. Eventually this leads to the beginnings of discovering your own voice as a player, which is the ultimate goal of any musician.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest post and that some of these concepts help you to cultivate a more measured and efficient approach to technique in your own daily practise and guitar playing. If you’ve enjoyed this article please take a look at our other blog posts, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re looking for guitar lessons in Leeds then please get in touch, and I look forward to helping you further your guitar playing soon.

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