How you hold your guitar, and yes, that annoying thing your mom kept reminding you of – your posture – are hugely important. I get many students who have been playing for a while but want to take things to the next level. We’ll call them advanced beginners. Many men (not women, for some reason) have the very bad habit of resting their forearm on their thigh when sitting and playing. What they’re doing without realizing it is supporting the weight of the neck. The problem is, this totally restricts the hand. Being able to arch the wrist and “roll” the fretting hand around the neck is absolutely essential for finger arch, which of course is absolutely necessary for clear, clean tone from every string. Keeping the forearm on the thigh when sitting and playing also totally restricts the act of radically dropping the wrist, which together with correct thumb placement (centered behind the neck and beneath the 1st finger) allows a nice, straight 1st finger when playing barre chords. Even worse, with this bad habit it’s impossible to move your hand up the neck to that never-land above the 5th fret! There are a whole lot of nice chords and notes hiding up there, folks!
So – how to solve this? If it seems awkward and fatiguing to keep your legs together and your forearm away from your thigh when you sit and play you should start using a guitar strap to support the weight of your instrument. Many people seem to think that straps are only for when you stand and play but this is false. Assuming you have a strap button installed in the correct position on the heel of your guitar (and you should because a strap tied onto the head of the guitar above the nut can get in the way of your hand when playing in 1st position), adjust the strap length to slightly shorter than it would probably be if you stood and played. If the length is right you should be able to release hold of the guitar with both hands and it will stay in “playing position.” Remember to keep your legs together and your forearm away from your thigh.
Neck angle when this is accomplished is a personal thing - although some advanced guitarists might argue this and classical guitarists surely would – but I think keeping the neck at an angle of a few degrees above horizontal works best for most people. Someone with short arms and long necked guitar will have to increased the upward angle of the neck, perhaps even to about half way between horizontal and vertical but these players are the exception and perhaps they should think about buying a guitar with a smaller body and/or a shorter neck. There is a point of diminishing returns in increasing the upward angle of the neck.
The other aspect that affects ease of playing is basic posture. Sure, it’s fun to sink back into a couch and hold the guitar more toward flat on your lap but just think about how far this makes you reach around the neck. Select a straight backed but comfortable chair, with no arms of course, and sit straight up with the body of the guitar upright against your body, not sloping toward your lap. This makes seeing what your hands are doing a bit more difficult but learning to look OVER the neck rather than angling the guitar for a better view makes for much easy playing – easy movement of your hand that results in more concise and cleaner chords and single notes. Now, if like many of us you’re dealing with the results of too many nights bellying up to the bar and too many helpings of decadent food this can be problematic but resist the temptation to slide the body of the guitar away from your middle regions and having the neck in front of your body. Women, even those who are fit may have to deal with physiological realities that are an attribute in a slinky cocktail dress but make playing a guitar a bit of a challenge. Sorry, I don’t have a solution for this….um…problem!
Getting a clear, clean sound from a guitar is challenging for all of us, all the time. Good playing technique is what it’s all about, so why make things more difficult than they have to be? Holding your guitar correctly and good posture is where it all starts.
Peace & good music,