7 Common Left-Hand Mistakes on Classical Guitar

Classical music can get fussy and complicated.

Many pieces demand finger acrobatics not found in other styles and genres of music.

Big stretches, leaps, and feats of independence and strength.

So it’s important how we use our left hand. Get it right and everything is easier. Get it wrong and we hear buzzing, thuds, and squeaks.

Below you’ll find 7 common mistakes classical guitarists make with their left hands. Plus, a bonus mistake to watch out for.

Mistake #1: Extreme wrist angles

Our hands and wrists are strongest near the center of their range of movement.

If we bend or extend the wrist too much, we weaken the hand and risk injury.

Many guitar injuries stem from extreme wrist angles. Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress maladies are due to this.

For safer and stronger playing, keep the wrist in its midrange of movement. If you see any right angles, stop immediately and reposition your hand.

Mistake #2: Bracing the big joint of the index finger

When we first start playing guitar as beginners, we seek feelings of security. And one of the most common ways is to brace the index finger on the side of the guitar.

For players who play with the neck of the guitar low, this feels more “natural.” And it may even be necessary if the neck is parallel to the floor.

When we use a classical guitar sitting position, the neck is elevated. This allows us to use our hands more freely.

But we still may be tempted to brace the big knuckle of the index finger on the side of the neck. It’s a habit worth changing.

When we brace, we limit the movement and stretch of the other fingers. We create more tension than needed. And we slow ourselves down.

While this may (or may not) make sense on a low-slung electric guitar, it’s bad news on a classical guitar.

Mistake #3: Extending the thumb past the index finger

When we extend the left thumb past the index finger, we limit our finger movement.

When the thumb is behind the fingers, the fingers can move away from each other. But when we flatten the thumb out to the side of the fingers, they are locked close together.

As a rule, we can seek to always have the pad of the thumb on the back of the guitar neck, behind the fingers.

We may break this rule once in a while, but most of the time the thumb is best behind the fingers.

Mistake #4: Playing too far back from the fret

To play a note on a guitar, we press the string behind the fret. Ideally, we press close behind the fret.

There’s a good reason for this.

When we press just behind the fret, we create a clear, strong note with the least pressure needed.

Pressing the string far back from the fret takes more strength. This means we get tired more easily. And we may not move with as much agility.

In a piece of music, playing far back from the fret can cause unwanted buzzing and string noise.

In our technique practice (scales, chords, etc.) we can keep the finger position in mind.

We can practice always staying near the fret and using only the needed muscle to press the string.

Mistake #5: Pointing the palm forward

If you look in a mirror as you play, can you see your left palm? If so, your hand is over-rotated.

The little finger is likely far away from the fretboard. So if it needs to play, it has a big distance to cross.

The palm-forward issue may also include #2 above, Bracing the Index Finger.

The remedy for this is to turn the hand more toward yourself.

Show the back of the hand to the mirror.

Mistake #6: Pressing too hard

Part of mastery on the guitar is learning how much tension is needed and only using that amount. This can be a lifelong exploration.

Ideally, we only use the pressure necessary and no more.

But often, we press the strings too hard. This tires the hand and reduces our ability to move between notes with supple grace.

And when we use too much pressure with the left hand, we may also tense the right hand. This is sometimes called tension crosstalk.

And this also slows us down.

If a certain passage seems hard, it may be that we’re pressing too hard.

To train the hand to use more appropriate tension, we can use an exercise called Buzzed Notes.

Mistake #7: Flicking the fingers out

One movement we don’t often see in high-level players is the flicking out of fingers.

This occurs when we press one finger and the other fingers fly away from the fretboard.

While this is common among beginners, it can be remedied with a little practice.

If we stay mindful of this in our practice, we can notice when it happens. Then we can stop and work on the music while keeping the fingers closer to the fretboard.

As with any habit, it may take some time to change, but it will lead to greater facility and easier playing.

Bonus Mistake: Fingernails too long

If we’re doing everything right, but we’re still missing notes and making excess noise, it may be that our fingernails are too long.

Short fingernails on the left hand allow for more accurate playing.

When the nails are too long, the fingers must approach the string at an angle. This changes how we apply pressure.

And because the fingers are angled, they may touch the next string, making a sound or muting the note.

If fashion requires long nails, so be it. But if you can keep your left-hand nails trimmed short, you’ll be set up for fretboard success.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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