1. Home Position
I used to have my thumb way behind the neck, because I’d been told that this was “correct”. This may be correct for some, and it certainly allowed me to reach any note I wanted in a position. Unfortunately this also resulted in me applying much more pressure than what was needed to fret a note, and had me “pivoting” off my thumb from note to note. This “pivoting” makes one be constantly straining the left hand while playing, and is something a good upright bass teacher will advise their at students against doing in order to be able to smoothly move around that giant neck of theirs. The key to fretting the guitar with minimal effort (which results in the smoothest and fastest playing possible) is to have a position of rest, or “home position”.
Your “home position” is one where your fingers are above the frets, but no force is being used to keep them there. And when you play a note, only the most minimal of effort is spent in order to get the finger where it should be. When it’s time to play another note, the original finger returns to its state of rest while the other finger exerts minimal effort to reach its desired place. The main idea here is that your fingers should always be in a state of rest, unless specifically needed to fret a note. After this, it should immediately return “home”, with “home” being a complete state of rest.
Finding your “home position”.
It’s easy to find your home position:
1. Let your left arm dangle at your side, allowing every muscle to relax.
2.Bending from the elbow only, raise your hand in front of you so your arm is making a 90 degree angle. While keeping the wrist straight, turn your hand so your palm is facing towards the ceiling. The fingers should be naturally curling in towards the palm.
3. While keeping the wrist straight and still keeping the hand limp, position the tips of the fingers on the 6th string, with the first finger above the 3rd fret. Don’t press down to fret the note, just keep all 4 fingers physically touching the string. Also do not spread the fingers in order have each finger covering a fret. With all 4 fingers touching the string and the hand completely limp, you will most likely only be covering 3 frets, from G to A.*
4. Allow the thumb to find its place of rest, most likely the tip will be just barely visible if you were looking at yourself in the mirror. Don’t put the neck into your palm.
Congratulations! This is your home position. You always want to be as close to here as possible.
*One thing you may have to get over is that your hands aren’t always covering a 4 fret range, especially when playing a scale in position at the lower frets. Don’t worry though, you will learn how to play a smooth scale smoothly by combining ever so slight shifts in your hand position with an ever so slight spreading of the hand, as to minimize effort used but still be able to play legato. Forget all that “keep your 4 fingers positioned over 4 frets” stuff you learned in the past; this method is 100% functional with practice, and its incorporation will allow you to play for hours and hours on end without fatigue.
Some exercises to help develop and improve your left hand technique:
– Touch the first finger over the 3rd fret of your lowest string. This will mute the string. Start picking quarter notes, slowly increasing the pressure until the note rings out cleanly. Use gravity’s pull on your arm to help you, and don’t press down harder than necessary to allow the note to ring cleanly. Try to do it slowly enough to allow you 4-5 muted picks before the note sounds out true.
– Lift the first finger completely off the string (very important step, because remember you don’t want to be “pivoting” from finger to finger). Now touch the second finger on the 4th fret, and repeat what you did with the first finger.
– Go back and forth like this. After you’ve learned how to fret the notes with minimal effort, slowly increase the amount of time it takes you to go from a muted to a clean note. Eventually, don’t do any muting and just play the notes themselves (G, G♯, G, G♯, G, G♯…).
– Repeat this entire process with the 2nd and 3rd fingers, and the 3rd and 4th. After, do it with different combinations of fingers, like (1,3), (2,4), (1,4), (1,2,4) and (1,3,4).
– Now you should be able to play a chromatic scale, without any pivoting.
Mute any note with any finger. Pick the note 5 times, slowly increasing pressure until it rings true exactly on the 5th attack. Play scales like this.
This is an exercise I got from Bruce Arnold, so all the credit goes to him. It may seem really strange at first, but trust me when I say that it can be very beneficial.
– Take a piece of scotch tape long enough to wrap around your hand. Hold your left hand out in “home position” (i.e. the hand is completely relaxed and fingers naturally curled towards the palm). Lay the tape across the back of your fingers, in between the the knuckles at the base of your fingers and the knuckles in the middle of your fingers (aka your 1st and 2nd knuckles), and wrap the tape loosely all the way around. Don’t tape the fingers tightly together. The key here is to retain some mobility in the fingers; but not allow them much movement away of your home position.
– Pick any scale, and start with its lowest note. Using 3 notes per string (unless the lowest note is E, in which case you’ll play 4 notes on the low E string), play up and down the scale, slowly. Example, with E major:
Normally, you might have done a lot of stretching when playing something like this, but the tape makes only minimal stretching possible. Instead, you’ll have to shift the whole hand to reach notes.
You may do this and think “This is stupid, I can’t play like this”. Well no, you can’t, but that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is to learn how you can be economical in your movements, and by restricting your dexterity like this you are:
1. Training your fingers to always be as close to the strings as possible, returning to “home position” after being used.
2. Learning how you can get around the fretboard without pivoting off of other fingers, and without “pinching” the neck between your thumb and fretting hand.
3. Learning that a slight and subtle shifts of hand’s position can help you reach notes, so you’ll never have to stretch your fingers any more than you are comfortable.
Try the same exercise, but without the tape. See the difference from before?
I warm up with this simple exercise a lot. You’re just using a simple digital pattern of 1st, 4th, 2nd, then 3rd finger, but the key is not to leave a finger pressed down after it’s been played. Instead, return it to “home position”, just above the frets.
Now back up…
Use half notes. Play staccato until you’ve learned to play without pivoting from finger to finger, then play legato:
The next exercises will be focused on developing your legato (hammer ons and pull-offs). Ease into building this technique, and stop if you experience any discomfort.
For this group of exercises, play the notes as 1/8 notes. All your hammer-ons and pull-offs will occur on the downbeat, which is what is mainly done in Jazz. I wrote them out in 2/4, just to make the tab easier to read. It’s very important to play these with a metronome! Really try to match up hammer-on or pull-off with the metronome’s click.
More legato, but now going through a C major scale. The key here is to only pick the notes that are necessary to pick, pulling-off and hammering-on whenever possible.