Right off the bat I try to have them deal with what can only be described as bad habits. This can be a daunting task for some; a recreational player who’s been doing things a certain way for years or even decades has to be able to trust me enough to abandon those bad habits, even though in the short term their playing may be more difficult than the way they do it now. I am careful to explain exactly why it is that those habits need to be abandoned. Most understand but there are always a few that resist. Part of my job is adjusting both their expectations and my own based on that openness, or lack of. It can be a delicate dance!
So here are a couple things I see fairly frequently. I’ve mentioned them in past posts but this issue is so important to play successfully and satisfactorily that it is worth revisiting them. Whether someone is considering lessons with me or elsewhere these things must be addressed if one is to progress on the guitar.
Left hand (or right hand, if you’re a lefty) position. I’m not speaking of finger position on the frets, that is something I’ll focus on in a minute. Basically, we’re talking about how the neck is gripped. And therein lies the problem: you’re not supposed to “grip” the neck! This is the single most common bad habit I see with self-taught players. I call it the Baseball Bat Grip. Making contact with a large portion of the inside of the hand behind the neck, which usually leads to pointing the thumb toward the head of the guitar. This is counter-productive on so many levels! First, it is almost impossible to correctly arch the fingers and use just the finger tips to fret individual strings. When employing the Baseball Bat Grip, fingers on top of the neck almost always end up touching an adjacent string and the result is a muffled, dead tone, or no sound at all. In advanced guitar playing there are actually times when you want this to happen but not in the beginning. The Baseball Bat Grip also severely restricts fast, fluid movement.
The correct formation of hand position behind the neck requires dropping the forearm and wrist, bending wrist, and keeping the tip of the thumb parallel to the 2nd (ring) finger. Avoid any contact with the inside of the hand against the back of the neck if at all possible. The thumb is the contact point, not the inside of the hand.
Of course, everyone’s hands are different and guitar necks vary widely in width, depth and string spacing so accomplishing this requires some experimentation. In my experience, this can be one of those things that an experienced recreational, self-taught player will resist the most. Whether they realize it or not, their brain is telling them: I can use my old grip and get a decent sound from at least a few chords and oh my god, it is so AWKWARD to drop my wrist and forearm, bend my wrist and avoid contact with the inside of my hand against the neck! My thumb is just not strong enough to do the job back there! But I’m quite merciless about this with those types. While I’ve become a bit more lax about other things in the last few years relating to general technique, this one is not open to negotiation! And while it may take a few weeks, when the student hears and sees the results in terms of clean, clear tone and accurate movement between chords they often wonder out loud how they could ever have played ANYTHING the old way!
Interestingly, it is usually men who have the most trouble adjusting to this concept. Maybe it’s because men are used to more manual labor than women where the strength in their hands is more important than strength with their fingers so they naturally want to utilize that strength. Maybe women are just more flexible. Or smarter. Oops!
What’s going on under and behind the neck is not as obvious as what’s happening on top but finger placement is ultimately what it’s all about when it comes to clean playing, assuming you’ve accomplished the above. The most obvious bad habits I see are not arching the fingers enough and not pressing down hard enough but there’s another one that is almost as common: setting up too far away from the fret. Self-taught players almost always set up fingers at points about half way between the fret that is dividing the string and the one behind the finger. This is a natural presumption based on chord diagrams that are found in books and in diagrams online that always seem to show the “dot” representing the fingers at the halfway point between the frets. But here’s the thing. The fret is “playing” the note or notes for us, dividing the string at a very specific point. On non-fretted string instruments such as the violin and cello, the finger itself is dividing the string. On the guitar the frets do that work. And because of the way a fret protrudes above the fingerboard, the closer the fingertip it to that fret, the firmer the contact will be with the fret. In other words, more of the string is coming in contact with the fret. When this happens the string cannot move on top of the fret when the string is played. Movement – which you cannot see but can certainly hear – results in buzzes or muffled notes. So setting up as close to the frets as possible is a key element in clear, clean tone.
Unfortunately, with some chords this is just not physically possible with all the fingers; first position A Major is an example. There are a few generally used finger “orders” in A major but I subscribe to using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. YMMV, as they say. This is one of those things that I’ve grown more liberal about in recent years; it’s OK to try different combinations if my way does not work for you. The reason I use the fingers I do on that chord is that is encourages concise movement to chords often found after A Major. But again, it’s OK to experiment with that one.
If it is not possible to get one or more fingers close to the frets in a chord remember that you must press down extra hard to make firm contact with the fret. And sometimes setting up one finger too far from the fret will affect good placement of all the others. The single most common problem I see in this regard is 1st position C Major. If the 1st finger is not absolutely tight to the fret (without overlapping it of course, which you never want to do with any fingers anywhere) there is no way you will be able to stretch out the 3rd finger to the fret that plays C on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, and the result is muddy sound. This is so common amongst self-taught players that I can almost count on having to correct it at the very first lesson.
Those are just a couple of the bad habits I see time and time again. The good news is that they are reversible with some focus and effort. The result of dealing with them is a pleasing sound no matter how simple a piece of music may be. There are others….. But that, I hope, is why people come to me for lessons!
Peace & good music,