First and foremost is posture. Most of us routinely sit down when we play and where we sit can make all the difference. It’s obvious to most players that sitting in a chair with arms makes playing all but impossible unless you sit on the very edge of the chair so the arms do not make contact with the back of the guitar. The opposite mistake is sitting on a soft, comfortable sofa – this encourages holding the guitar with the body at something approaching a 45-degree angle to your body. This in turn forces the player to reach farther around the neck, which limits hand movement and makes arching of the fingers almost impossible. The late, great bluesman T-Bone Walker played his guitar (while standing) with the instrument almost flat in front of him. This always amazed guitarists but as very few of us have T-Bone’s chops, I would avoid this!
A chair with a straight back and no arms is best. And just like your mother always reminded you – sit up straight! That way the body of the guitar can be held flat against your body and this in turn makes reaching around the neck mush easier. The problem with this of course is that it makes seeing the fretboard more of a challenge but resist the temptation to tilt the guitar slightly to see the neck more easily. The more you tilt the guitar, the farther around the neck you must reach. And the farther you reach, the more difficult it is to correctly arch your fingers, which is essential for accurate placement and clear, clean tone.
One of the most common technique boo-boos I see (guys seem to be more guilty of this for some reason) is resting the elbow and forearm on the thigh while negotiating the neck. This is a subconscious reaction to the weight of the neck. Problem is, this totally restricts flexibility in the wrist, something that must be present to arch those fingers but even more importantly, to be able to drop the wrist to play barre chords. Hold that neck up – I have seen this little adjustment help students who have struggled with hand movement and barre chords almost instantly solve the problem.
The best way I know to counter the weight of the neck is to play with a strap on the guitar, even when sitting down. One proviso here however – I’m talking about guitars that have a strap button installed on the heel of the guitar. Straps that are tied to the head of the guitar tend to get in the way, especially when sitting and playing. Straps used while a player is sitting must be adjusted (shortened) compared to when used while standing. Try using a strap if you just can’t break the habit of resting your arm on your thigh when you play. You will be amazed at the difference in your fretting hand technique.
Playing while standing is often awkward and a real challenge for anyone who’s always played while sitting but it is certainly worth doing because the aforementioned fretting hand/arm issues are eliminated. Also, if you sing and play (and you should!), standing allows deeper breathing and this makes for better singing. Voice teachers ALWAYS require students to stand when they sing, for good reason.
Just remember – no matter how much you practice, incorrect physical technique can defeat all your attempts at advancement.
Peace & good music,