by Jamey Andreas

Click here to see Part 1 of this series on Left Hand Form & Development

Question 4: Knuckles Parallel to Strings

My guitar teacher has the ability of holding his fingers almost perpendicular to the strings on his guitar‘s fret board, whereas, I can only hold my fingers (with great strain) at an estimated 25-degree angle to the strings. It is evident that it’s much easier for him to play chords with his perpendicular finger ability, and it sounds a lot better, too. How can I overcome my excessive finger(s) angle? Does this angle pose a real problem for me as time goes on?

Answer: Fingers that are approaching the neck from the angle you describe will cause fewer problems with playing that is strictly blues based, (pentatonic based). This is because most of that playing is done without the 4th finger, and also because you NEED that angle for bending and vibrato. However, any kind of playing where you need that 4th finger will cause a problem. How big a problem depends on the details of your technique and development as a player.

This is why my approach with students is to give them the hand development that can easily use either approach. It is more difficult to attain the “perpendicular” approach you say your teacher has, but it is possible for everyone.

Question 5: How Far to Bar

guitarI can bar from a “E” position 3rd fret “G” note to 8th fret “C” fine, but can’t seem to get or FIT my (large) fingers on the “D” note 10th fret. My fingers are medium large. Is this something I CAN REALLY LEARN or should I quit trying. It’s very frustrating for me. Thanks!

Answer: The E position bar chord is not very practical up at the 10th fret, for two reasons: on most guitars it is too tight for anybody to be comfortable doing it, and two, it doesn’t sound good anyway. You will be much better off using an A position moveable form at the 5th fret when you need a D chord, or, of course, the good old 2nd position open form. Often, people get so enamored of the technical accomplishment of playing bar chords, they fail to realize that the open position chords sound the best in terms of resonance, due to the fact that they contain open strings, sounding their full length.

Now, if you need that high D note on top of the chord for some reason, as in chord melody playing, there are many other choices, such as a small first position F chord moved up to the 10th fret, or, my favorite, half bar at the 7th fret, with the pinky getting the D on the first string 10th fret. This voicing sounds nice because it has the open D string, however, you have to do a half bar, so you better make sure you keep everything relaxed!

Question 6: Strengthening the Bar

guitar pinkySome songs I play today require use of barred chords like a Bb or G#. However I soon found out that in all the years of playing the guitar, that whenever I play these chords, some notes don’t sound well, like a dead note especially on Fm, B7, and the like. How do I strengthen my index finger so that I can avoid these dead notes?

Answer: First, I am glad you are listening well, so you have identified notes that are missing in action! Second, understand that strength in the index finger is only a part of doing bars well, and not the most important part. It’s amazing how players put all the importance on this. I was in a lesson the other day with someone who is twice my size, and probably as strong as the incredible Hulk! His hands are twice my size, and he actually asked me if I thought perhaps I had extra skin on my finger, and that was why I could get all the notes out in a bar and he couldn’t!

Here are the important factors:
1. The ability to lay the 1st finger across the strings and NOT have the 2nd finger squeeze up against it.

2. The ability to have the upper arm muscles stay relaxed, and add the weight of the arm, having it come through the bar finger to supply a lot of the pressure needed to get the string down. Most people lock up the upper arm immediately upon placing the bar down.

3. The bar finger must be positioned right up close to the fret, often it is not, it is too far away, even a quarter of an inch greatly increases the amount of pressure needed to get the string firmly to the fret. Actually, when done correctly, it looks like the finger is on top of the fret, when viewed in a mirror. Also, a slight lean of the finger toward the headstock of the guitar is a good idea.

Here is an exercise. Go to the 5th fret, and touch your light and relaxed 2nd finger to the 6th fret, 3rd string. Focus on your breathing and keep it flowing. While you are touching the string with the 2nd finger, lay the 1st finger across the strings with no pressure. Make sure your 2nd keeps separated from the 1st, and very slowly apply pressure with the bar across the strings, but only push them down half way. Imagine the strings are a bunch of individual rubber bands, and focus on the actual feeling of them under your finger. Keep breathing, and push the bar down a little further, using a combination of a slight squeeze between finger and thumb behind the neck, and the arm weight mentioned before. . Stop and check your shoulder and relax it. Now, slowly push the string down all the way, as you breath and as you keep your attention on your shoulder, which will tense as you do this.

Stop, relax in this position, then rest. Repeat this a few times. As far as strength goes, there is a small muscle in the hand itself called the Lumbrical which actually performs the action required for a bar. All the usual huffing puffing and straining is not going to strengthen this muscle.