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Style Guide: Left-Hand Techniques

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Style Guide: Left-Hand Techniques

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Gain finger independence to make chords easier to grip and change.
• Practice hammer-ons and pull-offs to strengthen left-hand fingers.
• Use legato techniques to play fluid lines that don't require picking every note.

Click here to download MP3s plus a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

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 does.

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 3rd fret
Second finger: From the 4th string 2nd fret to the 1st string 2nd fret
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.

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