Question by Horace
I have a problem with my left hand “pinky” finger. When I play single lines or chords on the top strings, I always have my “pinky” sticking up in the air.
I have watched other guitarists and no one else seems to have this problem. What am I doing wrong? Can you help me?
Let me start off by congratulating you in trying to improve your playing and guitar technique : most musicians play their whole lives with bad playing habits.
Regarding your pinky finger, I know exactly what you mean and how it feels because… I had the exact same problem a few years back! My unused fingers (not just the pinky) were flying off everywhere for no reason. I had to do something because it had started to hurt real bad. I solved this problem (for myself) by working on playing with less tension and better control / posture / positioning of my body relating to the guitar.
In fact many things have to be considered in order to solve that “little finger”:
1 – Holding the guitar
2 – The Round Hand
3 – No Tension
4 – The “squeezing” Myth
5 – Finger-by-Finger Control
1 – Holding the guitar
That may seem obvious but I find it’s often overlooked. The guitar will “sit” differently for everyone (depends on the player and the guitar model) but you should take some time to figure out YOUR optimal positioning.
It took me about a year of experimenting before I found my “center”. (I changed my strap and its height, tried different chairs, looked at ways of holding the guitar on me, etc.)
Hold you guitar so you can take both your arms from a resting position (hanging by your side) to a playing position without any contorsions. The guitar neck will generally be at 20-45 degree angle with the floor (fretboard being parallel with the floor is a bad sign…)
Look at classical guitar books and videos, you’ll see how the spine remains straight and the arms come up without any extraneous work from shoulders, back and neck.
If you need a strap or “foot rest” thingy, go ahead. Your can sit or stand, it’s up to you. Simply make sure you are as close as possible to “resting” when playing… if you want to practice many hours in a row, that’s how guitar playing should feel like: resting!
2 – The Round Hand
That’s a principle I teach all my students : imagine you’re holding an apple (or grapefruit) in the CENTER of the palm of your left hand. It makes the hand round and strong. The wrist is almost straight.
Another way to look at it : press on a desk/table with the 5 fingertips of your left hand… the hand and fingers will naturally go “round” to maximize the amount of pressure you can get.
Try to play like that most of the time. The thumb will usually rest on the back of the guitar neck. There will also be a distance between the inside of the hand and the fretboard.
There’s also the negative way to look at it :
- DON’T let your thumb show over the neck.
- DON’T let your wrist bend “back” (*the hand should be “inside”, pointing toward you, like if you wanted to touch your shoulder*)
- DON’T let the inside of the hand touch the guitar, only the 4 fingers on the fretboard and the thumb behind should make contact.
3 – Relax!
“No tension”, is the moto here.
If the left-hand pinky is raising into the air for no reason, it’s because you’re putting more work and “energy” into your playing than necessary.
This is the thing you really have to sit down and PRACTICE!!! My trick is to dedicate the first few minutes of my daily practice to relaxing my body and mind. Try it: play any notes and any chords effortlessly. It shows into your playing in no time if you “experience” that relaxed state a bit everyday.
I highly recommend the techniques described in Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner for that matter. Also, watch out for any kind of tension: wrists, forearms, shoulders, neck and back. Pain and discomfort will always tell you what/where is wrong.
4 – The “Squeezing” Myth
I highly believe in leveraging the whole arm and forearm to play notes. It means NOT “pinching” the notes with the left-hand fingers. You cannot “squeeze” the notes without hurting yourself. It’s a myth that the LH needs more muscles or strength…
Try it. Here’s how to proceed :
- Choose a chord to play;
- Put your left hand in the chord’s position (w/o pressing);
- Relax the thumb;
- Bring the whole left arm back so the strings are depressed (with NO hand muscles “squeezing”);
If you’ve done it right, you should feel the world of difference : that’s how cellists and contra-bassists can play without too much wrist and hand tension.
So, in short : You could play all night, literally, without squeezing with the left-hand thumb at all! The trick is to use bigger muscle groups (elbow, shoulder) to do the small job.
I encourage you to look at Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist: he talks about finding the minimal amount of finger pressure required to play each note on the guitar. It’s great.
5 – Finger-by-Finger Control
Now that we took care of “everything else” that can be in the way, we’ll look at the infamous “pinky finger in the air” problem.
Once your guitar is in a good position, your left hand is round and that your minimized the amount of energy your spend playing each note…
Go ahead and closely observe your LH fingers moving while playing.
Do they still “fly everywhere” for nothing? If they do, try that: Play anything but focus all your attention on keeping the LH fingers close to the fretboard. Play slow at first. Do it a little everyday, at the beginning of your practice/warm up ideally. Play simple scales (or the entire chromatic scale) and make sure the fingers do “just what they have to do”, no more, no less.
I strongly believe that this should solve your pinky finger problem, provided that you work on it at least a little. In ideal playing position and context, your LH “pinky” will have no more reason to go “sticking up” like it used to…
And now the traditional “be a good boy” talk: Of course, having an healthy lifestyle surely helps in feeling good when playing : eat well, sleep, exercise often, avoid drugs… the better your body feels, the easier guitar playing becomes.
I hope it helps, let me know how it feels in a little while (reply to this with a comment). Practice and relax well.
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.
Old Comments for The Left Hand Pinky Finger
Dec 04, 2014
I am a novice player and this – all of this – has help me a lot. Thank you for providing great advice and tips for us struggling beginners.
Aug 22, 2013
Wonderful discussion. I wish I knew this years ago. Thanks so much for sharing!
Oct 06, 2012
Theses tips are seriously worth taking notes on.
by: Bryan Panda
I just got to say thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of pinkie control on here. Even though for me it was only one of those instructions that helped me keep my evil pointing pinkie down. I must say best advice I’ve gotten so far about playing. Changing the position to a more tilted upward stance helped me gain more control over my pinkie. Keep up the good work sir you have my respect stranger.
Jan 01, 2010
Relaxation and minimum tension
Great advice on playing without tension. Some other great advice I had heard from teachers is practicing the “minimum pressure” exercise and using gravity to your advantage.
For minimum pressure, start presssing so lightly that the note buzzes and gradually increase pressure until you get a clear sounding note. Most people will find the pressure needed is much lighter than they are doing it now! This was useful for a friend of mine that has arthritis.
For using gravity, if you play in the Classical position, you can actually use gravity to your advantage if the fretboard is angled toward the ceiling a little and you just relax your left arm and let the force of gravity create the pressure you need by pulling the fingertips into the fretboard to sound the notes.
Another great tip I received was to make sure the palm of the left hand does not turn away from the bottom of the neck, but stays parallel to it. It especially tends to turn when playing in the first position. A good analogy is to think of your hand moving like the carriage of a typewriter without the palm touching as you mentioned. Some younger people may have to google “typewriter” to see what the are!! 🙂
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!!