Putting it all together

Question by Steven
(Taipei Taiwan)

When I was in high school (over thirty years ago) I damaged my pinky and ring fingers playing football.

Since the ’70’s these two fingers have acted as if they were fused together- move one and the other one acted the same way (what this ACTUALLY means is – I could minimally move the pinky but not the ring finger and most times not the index finger at all)

There was a time when I had no feeling in these fingers. – Three years ago I decided to take up guitar again- obviously I had to overcome the “fusion” problem. I spent hours and hours trying to figure out ways to get these fingers moving separately of each other.

To make a long story short, I had to dislocate my left
hand fingers (pinky,ring and index)and go on to endure nearly two years of intense pain. I played random notes at all positions during this time to build the muscle to keep these finger functioning. I had to take extra doses of Tylenol to battle the pain….

For the last year I have continued to focus all my attention on recovering movement in these fingers. There was actually a six month period in which I had minimal movement and feeling in my thumb and pointer finger (left hand)with no feeling in the pinky, ring and index.

Now that much of this is on its way to healing (obviously I’m slow in my finger changes) I am left with the ability to finger almost anywhere on the neck, but I have no melodic structure. I now feel confident enough to build melodic lines. Can you help me in this crucial period to develop melodies? I love the standards and also want to look into smooth jazz playing. I hope you can help.

Best Wishes for 2010

M-A’s Answer:


Best wishes for the new year (and new decade) to you also.

That’s a touching story; enduring this pain means that you must be really wanting to play the guitar! I can relate because I suffered various playing injuries over the years.

I feel like I can help you but, honestly, I don’t know where to start!

Here are a few guidelines:


The Ears Have It

While striving to build some kind of “melodic structure” on your instrument, you have to be careful not play strictly “by frets and fingers”.

Music is an aural art form: you should hear what you play at all times. It applies to playing tunes, accompanying and improvising.

A lot of guitarists fall in the trap of playing the instrument visually; don’t! Listen, sing and play familiar melodies. With time and effort, your repertoire of licks and melodies (the ones you really hear) will develop.

For now, the way to go is : singing before playing.

See this question I answered about learning jazz standards. I used the tune Happy Birthday as an example. In short, the bulk of practice time (to me anyways) consists of trying to hear more and better. Music comes first, fingers will find their way when you listen well. If you don’t believe me, sit down at a piano (or another un-familiar instrument to you) and attempt to play Twinkle Twinkle… by ear. You’ll be surprised.


Play What You Can

Your story reminds me of Django Reinhardt: the poor guy had only 2 functional fingers on his left hand. Nevertheless, he was one of the greatest (and fastest) guitarist of all times.

My suggestion to you is therefore “play what you can” : see what feels right for the hands and make music out of it. There’s no sense in trying to play “impossible” things in the condition in which your hands are. The strongest music always comes from dealing with our limits creatively.

Another prime example of “play what you can” applies between instruments : a trumpet can only dream of playing big octave leaps like piano or saxophone… and that’s ok! As jazz guitarists, we have to stay within our limitations for the music to sound good (and for us NOT to hurt ourselves!) In short, go easy on your left hand: see what’s possible and play your heart out.


See What Has Been Done

That’s where I want to give you straight-ahead pointers : you have to learn the “usual” stuff for you to build melodic structure. There’s enough idiomatic guitar material out there to keep you busy for a lifetime! I just refreshed this jazz guitar articles page. You should start with the “Basics” and also read the articles on position playing . If you’re looking to organize your practice time see this practicing article.

I hope this helps and that your left hand gets better. Persistence is often the key that unlocks years of beautiful music making.

Practice Well.

Marc-Andre Seguin

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