Wednesday 21 October 2009

Pull that guitar in tight!

Yesterday I was talking to a mate who is learning the guitar, and I remembered to remind him to pull that axe in tight.  It's something that you don't hear enough about often enough.  In fact I think I spent the first 20 years playing without being told specifically; fortunately I was already doing it unbeknownst to me, so when I was told it made total sense.

Let me drill it into you for a moment, I consider it fundamental, and after this little read you can go away with an exercise to try and be informed up ready to pass on to other guitarists! ;) why do you think it is the big burly fella struggle to grip out a bar chord for more than 30 seconds, and the little seven year old girl play them all day?  It because most of the pressure you need to adequately fret a note should *not* come from your hand, it should come from your arm and shoulder.

Look at that wimpy little thumb muscle in front of you.  Now look at that rippling biscep.  Which one would you rather you were using to apply pressure?

Basically if you were to fret notes only using the clamping force of your hand, you won't have much playing stamina.  If you pull the guitar in tight your left arm is the pulling force - your fingers are just forming the chord pattern - and your right arm is counterbalancing your left.

Not too sure what I'm talking about? Okay, here is the exercise. Form up a chord, whatever you want.  Now, take your thumb off the back of the neck.  What you'll find you need to do is what you should be doing - that is, pulling the guitar in and exerting all the fretting pressure with your arm.  You should be able to fret without buzz, in fact play any tune you know, without touching the neck with your left thumb.

Of course the thumb is important to guide, help with dexterity/fine motor skills/accuracy, offer a bit of structural support/grip/pressure and occassionally fret a bass note - but it isn't where the majority of the force comes from.  Playing a song without your thumb gives you an idea of where you should be applying pressure from, it's a bit of an eye opener if you've never tried it.

Good luck, and hopefully armed with this knowledge you will be able to play all day without getting fatigue in your thumb and fingers (if not at least pressure lines in your chest because you pressed the guitar so firmly into it!)



  1. Iam not sure if Ive understood you 100% correctly but still I do think you are wrong here.
    Do you say I have to play bar chords on my acoustic with 13er strings without the thumb?
    I would break the neck of my guitar off by pressing it on my chest...

  2. You definately still need your thumb, but it shouldn't be where the main fretting pressure comes from. If it *is* where your main fretting pressure comes from (ie your hand is a fingers&thumb clamp on the neck) then you will fatigue very quickly. Want to be able to play all day? Pull that guitar in.

    From a physics point of view - your chest is a fixed pivot, right arm is pulling the neck in, left arm is counterbalancing. As you increase pressure on and off (changing chords and such) your left arm is automatically adjusting the counter force...but it is so instinctive and natural - and subtle - that you wouldn't even notice.

    Did you try the exercise to show what I'm talking about?

    I reckon you are probably already doing it, you've just never thought about it. Try to opposite exercise: play a song without having the guitar pressed against you - have it sitting on your leg a distance from your body, no part of the guitar is touching you. Play for a while. All the fretting pressure is now coming from your hands. See how long you last ;)

  3. Hi Jaw,
    I read the whole article without being able to picture what you were describing, I was sure it made sense, but I had to grab the guitar to really understand. Then I got it at once, it really helps, thanks for sharing, especially for those like me who never took any guitar lesson in their life.
    I even could play bar chords without the thumb at all, well as you explained that's not the point, but it can be done..

    I would add one thing: you need to counterbalance the pulling from your left arm with the other arm, in other words, hold your guitar tight with your right arm/elbow.

  4. Excellent, good to hear it makes sense. No suprises that you could immediately play a bar chord without your thumb (even though it is a bit awkward doing so, huh).

    To be honest, I only had lessons at school for 3 or 4 years...about 25 years ago. And they didn't teach me about fretting force, I read about the "playing with no thumb" trick in a guitar magazine ten years ago. It stuck with me though; for any reasonably proficient guitar player who tries it, it's a bit of a eureka moment, makes sense but you'd never really thought about it until you tried it!

    You're the second person to mention the right arm counterbalancing. I said it in the blog but not very well, if you guys hadn't noticed it then I need to make it more obvious. Do you think I should edit the article?

    Always good to here from you RA!

  5. I was quiclky reading through a classical quitar method book in a store, I like to get ideas and tips from different sources, no matter what the style is, although I rarely find anything useful, most of the time any chapter before the very last is just too easy, boring, whether it is for blues, folk, classical...and I would't call myself advanced, well I can play fingerstyle, folk alternate bass 'fingerpicking', it's no beginner's stuff, but there are many people like me, who could benefit from advanced and original techniques, not always the same old stuff. However I read the other day (not the exact words, but you get the idea): "The thumb should stay behind the neck and you should not rely on it the apply the force on your fingers. The force should come from the arm, not the hand." !!!
    I thought of old Jaw.

  6. Ha, I'm in your head now ;) This subject is so crucial to the understanding of what's going on, and yet so basic, primitive even passé that nobody stops to talk or even think about. In fact, the very notion seems to cause confusion! Hopefully we'll both set a few newbie guitarists straight, and they'll set a few straight, and before you know it there will be a generation of guitarists that can play song after song after song of solely bar chords without breaking a sweat ;)'re a bit of an adventurist aren't you RA, you like to mix it up a little, to try out new & old so long as it is different and a little unusual - the road less travelled? You recording and uploading anything at the moment? I'd be interested to see what you are up to.

  7. I'm not recording now because my place is not in 'studio mode', the microphone and recording equipment are in their box, the computer is not in the right place...but I'll do it sometime, as I play almost everyday (usually for a short time though) and have a few fingerpicking folk covers I want to do.

    Apart from that, I've done some MIDI musics for a mobile phone game, a project I'm very much involved in, in all aspects and taking a lot of time (the music was just the icing on the cake). Then it will makes sense to include those musics as well in a new blog I may start, when I'll have time.

    Take care

  8. What about you jaw, any chance of seeing a new video on Youtube soon?