The Right-Hand Little Finger: What About the Pinky?
As guitarists, we focus a lot on our left-hand fingers (finding the right string and fret). And we do our best to play the correct string with the right-hand fingers.
But what about the little finger (aka “pinky) of the right hand on guitar? Do we use it? When? And should we train it?
Do We Use the Right Hand Little Finger (Pinky)?
In classical guitar music, we do occasionally use the little finger. Not often, but sometimes. And it’s more likely in advanced music.
Using the right-hand little finger generally falls into the category of “special effects”, or special techniques.
When we do use it, it’s usually one of three scenarios:
1. As part of a chunk chord, along with other fingers.
2. As part of a rolled chord (warning: this puts the little finger on the highest note, which can “pop out” due to the thin tone quality characteristic of the little finger.)
3. As part of a rasgueado. A rasgueado is a flamenco (Spanish) strumming technique that uses the out-stroke of the fingers for a bright, percussive strum.
(For more on the Left-Hand Little Finger, click here)
The Connection of the Little Finger and the Ring Finger
If we attempt to curl the little finger without moving the ring (A) finger, we can observe a connection between the two.
The ring and little fingers are not as independent of each other as are the index and middle.
First, the ring and pinky are more connected by fascia and tissue within the hand. The specific anatomy is beyond the scope of this article.
Next, just as most of us lack fine-motor control in our toes, we also lack fine motor control with our 4th and 5th fingers. This is in part because we haven’t built the synapses in our brains to control the movement with as much independence as the index and middle.
But we can improve with time and practice, as anyone handless who writes and functions with their feet and toes can attest.
Build Strength and Control
As we progress on guitar, we’ll naturally gain more control of the little finger. As we develop the other fingers, the pinky “overhears” some of the lessons.
But we can also build strength and control with intention. We can do this through rasgueado exercises, off-guitar exercises, or by playing using the little finger in place of another.
Pinky Power: How the Little Finger Affects the Others
We don’t often pluck strings with the right-hand little finger. But it can have a big influence on the other fingers. It can either support or work against the other fingers. Especially the fourth finger (“A”).
When the pinky has appropriate tension and moves well, we can play more beautifully. We can play faster and more smoothly. And we can do so with less fatigue.
This means we can play for longer, and with more power and dexterity.
But whether we know it or not, we may hold excess tension in the little finger. When we do, our movement is limited. We grow tired faster. And tone quality suffers.
Do We Ever Play with the Little Finger in Classical Guitar?
In actual music, we very rarely use the right hand little finger to create sound.
When we do, it’s usually played alongside other fingers. This is to play a chord. The chord could be all five fingers, which is most common. Or it could be just some of the fingers playing a chord.
When we can avoid using the little finger, and instead use the other fingers, we usually do.
The little finger tends to have a thin and brittle tone quality. So other fingers will sound better, as a rule.
Don’t Touch the Top of the Guitar – Bracing is Out
This is the number one habit to avoid involving the little finger.
Touching the top of the guitar with the little finger is common. But it limits movement in the hand. And it also adds loads of unnecessary tension.
When we “brace” on the top of the guitar with the little finger, we anchor the hand to one spot. This makes the most effective classical guitar techniques impossible.
We compromise movement. Tone quality suffers. And playing takes more exertion, leading to fatigue and possible injury.
Aside from a false sense of security, there is no musical benefit to bracing.
Let the Little Finger Move with the Ring Finger
So what should the little finger do? How should it move?
The little finger can move sympathetically along with the 4th finger (ring finger).
Ideally, the little finger stays relaxed, and does not “try” to move with the ring finger.
The 4th and little fingers are connected within the hand. They share connective tissue. And when the ring finger flexes, the little finger also tends to flex. We can allow this to happen naturally.
We want to avoid the extremes of over-extending (pointing) or over-contracting (gripping in the palm). Follow the basic rules of guitar technique, and avoid the common mistakes.
The Albatross of the Right Hand
For classical guitar-related purposes, the pinky has the potential of slowing us down by causing excess tension and pain. And the excess tension could increase the potential for repetitive stress injuries.
Like Coleridge’s fabled “albatross around the neck”, the little finger can make it more difficult to move freely.
Release the Side of the Hand
One exercise to use the little finger to our advantage is to practice releasing the outside of the hand.
The “karate-chop” muscle, when tensed, brings excess tension into the palm. This in turn creates more resistance for our fingers. When this happens, we work harder and tire more quickly.
Instead, we can imagine the outside muscle and little finger (as well as that entire side of the forearm) as soft and passive. We can visualize openness, release and softness in our palms.
Signs of Excess Tension
If we don’t ensure otherwise, the little finger can bring excess tension to the palm and other fingers.
Here are two signs that you may be using too much tension in your little finger.
A Straight Little Finger
If your little finger is sticking out straight, you are using too much tension.
If you notice this, you can slow down and give it some attention. To train the little finger, play slowly and allow it to follow the ring finger. Using open strings, or a simple chord, you can notice any tension that arises. Releasing this, you can retrain your little finger.
Video yourself playing to look for this.
The Little Finger Moves in Opposition to the Ring Finger
Another sign of excess tension is when the little finger move opposite the ring (4th) finger.
As said, the little finger ideally moves in tandem with the fourth finger. So you can watch for your little finger moving outward when your ring finger moves inward.
If you see this, slow down and encourage it to do otherwise.
Soreness and Pain
Pain is a telltale symptom of excess tension. If you feel pain and soreness, you may be using more muscular force than necessary. And this may involve the little finger.
When you feel pain, immediately stop and investigate.
If the reason for the pain is not evident, video yourself playing guitar and review the video. You may see one of the signs listed above.
The Ongoing Classical Guitar Education
Classical guitar is a long-term study. And the little finger is one small facet.
When we stay aware of the desired movements, and watch for anything other, we can improve it over time.
Used well, the little finger can help bring ease and grace to the right hand. It can support an overall effective classical guitar technique.
Over time, a small amount of attention to the pinky can yield noticeable results.
We should spend most of our attention on more directly beneficial practice, such as scales or maintaining repertoire. But a few quick reminders to release excess tension in the pinky can help our hands to work better.
Gentle instructions to release, plus an awareness of tension levels can help us gain independence with the little finger. Over time, we discover how to use this finger more effectively, and build the habits that allow the other fingers to move more freely.
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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