How to Play Guitar with Less Left-Hand Tension

Do you use more muscle than necessary to play guitar? Most people do, especially in their first few years playing.

Here’s a way to practice using appropriate tension in the left hand on guitar. With time, this will lead to more comfortable playing. Speed increases, stretches become easier, and the music feels more fluid.

The Left Fingers on Classical Guitar

To begin, what is it that the left hand does on guitar?

Answer: The left-hand fingers press strings, just behind the fret.

And they only need to press hard enough to keep the string from buzzing when played. Any more tension than this is wasted. Any less creates a buzz or thumbing sound.

What is the “Neutral” Position?

Exercise: squeeze a light fist a few times, then release your hand. Then, bring the thumb behind the fingers. This will create a “neutral” position. Looking down at it, this position will also resemble the letter “C”.

In a neutral position, the fingers neither push down nor pull up. The hand needs no muscle activity to stay here. We can think of it as “quiet”.

Next step: bring this hand position to the guitar. Insert the guitar neck between the fingers and thumb. Let your hand remain completely passive.

We should be able to stay in this position for any length of time. We naturally want to grip or prepare to play. But if we can resist this, we can train our hand to be on the guitar in a neutral position.

Note: It helps to be in a good sitting position.

More Pushing, Less Pulling

Once we can stay in the neutral position, we can slowly weight one finger towards a string.

We can imagine this finger getting heavy and sinking. We don’t need to press with force – but instead imagine it heavy and pressing the string by weight alone.

(Guitarist William Kanengiser suggests we imagine pressing through gel or foam.)

While one finger presses, the others can remain neutral. It’s important to practice this slowly, so we stay aware of our other fingers. They should not lift or press, but remain as they were before we pressed the string.

Then, instead of lifting the finger, we simply stop pressing. The tension on the string will release, and the string will push the finger back up. No lifting, just stop pressing.

At this point, we can stop and check that we are completely neutral again. No gripping or holding in the palm or fingers. Likewise, we can use this moment to check our arms, shoulders, neck, and the rest of the body.

With slow practice, we can train in a small resting period between each note.

At high speed, this small release keeps tension levels low. It lets the muscles stay agile and flexible, instead of tiring out. And it allows for more possibilities of movement.

Keep Your Fingers Low to the Guitar Strings

When we first start studying guitar we may have the tendency to lift some fingers when others play. (This may be the case, even if we’ve played for years.)

For instance, when we play the index finger, the little finger lifts high into the air.

This is not efficient, and it takes more energy than necessary.

Instead, using the practice method above we can keep our fingers low to the fretboard. This will lead to more comfortable playing. We’ll be more accurate and precise, and play with more consistency and confidence.

Guitar is a Long-Term Project

We can expect the exercise above to take a while to become innate and habitual. But with a few minutes daily practice, we may see results very quickly.

Still, the long-term gains of playing from the neutral position are many. So any slow work we do will pay hefty dividends for years to come.

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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