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classical guitar finger independence

How to Develop Left Hand Finger Independence

Playing classical guitar demands some serious left hand finger independence. Some fingers need to stay down while others lift. Some fingers need to compress while others stretch.

Each day in practice we’re called on to do contortionist acts fit for a carnival sideshow.

And if we don’t have the finger independence necessary for the particular passage, all sorts of problems arise. And often, we don’t realize that these problems are caused by our lack of finger independence, because the symptoms manifest in a variety of ways, such as missed notes, buzzes, or pain.

How to Develop Finger Independence

So one of the skills worth developing is finger independence. But how?

To develop better finger independence, you need only give it a bit of ongoing attention. Nothing fancy, just regular challenge and exercise.

Isolate Independent Movement

The quickest route to better finger independence is to isolate movements in each of the fingers.

To do this, move just one finger at a time. Let the others stay either planted on the fretboard, or hovering just above.

One such exercise, demonstrated in the video above, goes as follows.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Place each of the four left hand fingers on each of four neighboring frets, all on the same string (you can start with the low 6th string if you like).
  2. Keeping all the other fingers absolutely still, move just the 1st finger to over one string.
  3. Then, keeping all other fingers still (including the first finger you just moved), move only the 2nd finger over one string.
  4. Do the same for the 3rd, then 4th fingers.

To come back down (up in space, down in pitch) when you reach the 1st string, continue with the 1–2–3–4 pattern moving from string to string.

If the stretch is a bit much for you on the first four frets, feel free to do this exercise higher up on the guitar neck, where the frets are closer together.

Stay on Task, Eye on the Ball

As with any exercise, there are some pitfalls to avoid.  The main pitfall is excess speed (aka, going too fast).

Because the movement is repetitive, and the brain is very efficient at spotting patterns and trying to ignore them, you run the risk of spacing out and losing focus.

The fast-lane to useless practice is going too fast. If you do this exercise quickly, you’ll find it much easier to become distracted and lose focus.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

Instead, go slow enough so that one finger has completed its full movement before starting the next finger.

The banner I often wave: Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

By all means practice to top speed on other exercises, but keep this one slow enough to maintain attention on each individual finger movement.


To recap, a little ongoing training in left hand finger independence will help you to avoid physical and musical problems, and give you more versatility in your playing.

Isolate each finger in turn, and direct it to move independently of the others. You can use this “1–2–3–4” exercise, or create your own.

Related Exercises:

Have fun!

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2 Responses to How to Develop Left Hand Finger Independence

  1. Bish Wheeler December 24, 2016 at 7:04 am #

    Good morning Allen,

    I had happy thought, “The days are now getting longer”. It’s imperceptible but I know it won’t be long until the unmistakable signs of Spring will creep onto the land forcing away the dark and I will joyfully breath in the NW’s famous pollen laden air!
    My guitar playing has greatly improved over this past year mainly because I have paid attention and taken to heart much of your counsel.

    In my life I have done or attempted to do a lot of stuff. I refereed American football for 30 years (from time to time at Lewis and Clarke where I had the privilege of being upended and knocked unconscious) and of course there was a set of rules that needed to be learned. Believe it or not there are only 10 rules for football, but it takes quite a bit of time before you find yourself applying them almost automatically. As I was learning the rules and how and when to apply them, a very veteran official said that to learn the rules I should apply a musical term to my study which is: “Line, Speed, Beauty”. I had never heard that, but it does make sense and is pretty much what you have been coaching. Learn the line, bring it to speed and make it beautiful. It sounds simple enough, but the most difficult of those three items, for me is the beauty part. So I have resolved to record myself regularly so I can hear what it really sounds like out in front of the guitar.

    Allen, I wish you a Merry Christmas filled with Cookies, Eggnog and love.

    • Allen December 24, 2016 at 7:34 am #

      Thanks Bish! I love this: “Line, Speed, Beauty”, and thinking how it relates to non-musical endeavors. Taking it out of the musical context gives new perspectives when bringing it back to music.

      Best of luck with the recording. It’s such a useful practice.

      All the best,

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