Everyone talks about right-hand picking technique, but without a robust left hand,
you’re not going to get very far. In this lesson, we’re going to talk about left-hand
technique, how to build and develop better chops, and some amazing ways that your left
hand can define your sound. We’re going to focus on finger independence to make switching
between chords easier, and hammer-ons and pull-offs to strengthen your left hand and make
you sound more fluid at the same time. Let’s start by talking about what your left hand
Role of the Left Hand
It’s safe to say that most of us take our left hands for granted—I know I did. I never
purposely worked on my left hand until I got to college, and then I realized what a mess
my fretting technique was. I studied classical guitar in college, and I was sure that my
right hand would occupy most of my practice time, especially considering how different a
classical guitarist’s right-hand technique is from playing with a pick. My first few
months of lessons were dedicated to my left hand, and I had no idea how weak it was. Your
left hand is really important, and I learned very quickly that my left hand was making it
very hard for me to play the guitar; I just hadn’t really understood it until then.
Your left hand is in charge of fretting notes, as well as moving from note to note and
string to string. When you break down what your left hand does, it’s much more complicated
than your picking hand. Your picking hand has two motions: up and down. Add in the lateral
movement to change strings and you’re done.
On the other hand (no pun intended), the left hand has to do a few very unnatural
things. First, it has to strike individual fingers at different times. If you think back
to our evolution, humans were basically hunter-gatherers: We gripped things with all of
our fingers and our opposing thumbs allowed us a few new tricks. But for most folks,
fingers are far from equal, and most fingers are weak. Across a single string, all four
left-hand fingers can be in a line, but once you start playing chords, each finger can
occupy a different string, and each finger has to move in a different direction. Take Fig.
1 for example, a simple movement of a C major chord to a D major chord.
This is probably something you learned early on, and for many people, this is a hard
chord change. If you sit down and look at it, it’s easy to see why. Let’s break it into
pieces: In a C major chord, your fingers are fairly evenly distributed. The third finger
is lowest down, grabbing C on the 5th string, while your second finger grabs E on the 4th
string. We skip a string and let your first finger grab the C on the 2nd string. The shape
is natural and pretty diagonal, and it follows the natural curve of the hand. For
beginning students, this is tricky because in order to have the 3rd string sound, you have
to get your second finger arched up enough to not mute the open 3rd string. Because C is a
common chord, we play it enough times that it just sort of works. Now take the D major
chord. Where does each finger go? Let’s look at the transitions:
Third finger: From the 5th string 3rd fret to the 2nd string
finger: From the 4th string 2nd fret to the 1st string
First finger: From
the 2nd string 1st fret to the 3rd string 2nd fret
Your fingers are doing some amazing things by moving in a very unnatural way to get to
the D chord. Most of us can do this move quickly without error, but it’s an amazing feat.
We’re crossing our fingers vertically into a pretty unnatural shape. But we learn it by
repetition and don’t think too much about it. We learn enough tunes with enough open
chords and we get pretty good at switching, but it is quite unnatural.
So, what is natural for the left hand? Grab a tennis ball, or other palm-sized round
object, and grip it with your left hand. Take a note of the shape. When I do it, my
fingertips are largely in line with each other, and my thumb is across from the second
finger. That’s a natural left-hand position, and that rarely happens when you play the
guitar. To get our hands used to doing these new things, we can do some drills to help
make the basic guitar movements easier, and make everything we play better.