16 December 2008

How to Fix Stupid Guitar Fingers

Do you feel like you have "stupid fingers" when you play guitar? That's what a commenter on the recent Guitar Learning Challenges poll reported. So today we're going to take a look at some ways to train those misbehaving fingers.

Note that for this post, I'm assuming that the comment was talking about the fretting fingers, the ones you use on the fretboard to make chords or scales. For right handed players this is the left hand. The tips below can also be applied to solve problems with the picking, strumming, or right hand too with a little adaptation. I'm sure you'll get it, but feel free to leave a comment if you don't. Back to the story...

Right, so if you have stupid fingers, firstly, you should know that you are not alone. Secondly, you should know that chords and scales are fiendishly designed to tie your fingers in a knot. Guitarists have perfected them over the centuries to discourage newcomers and protect their place as makers of the music.

OK, I admit, I made up the second bit, but I sometimes wonder if there isn't some truth in it. Anyhow, here are some useful tips I hope you can use to combat this knotty problem.

1. Focus on your fingering hand only.
2. Practice changes very slowly.
3. Do finger independence exercises.
4. Practice chord changes in your sleep.
5. Develop a sense of patience.

Let's take a quick tour through these points to explain what I mean.

1. Focus On Your Fingering Hand Only

Your brain has to learn to control hundreds, thousands even, of tiny muscle movements to finger chords and scales on the guitar. If you load it with even more tasks, like reading tab, strumming, listening to a metronome and tapping a foot, all at the same time you are headed for trouble.

Your brain will be rushing around like a plate spinner in a cabaret show, eventually when there are too many plates in the air there will be broken china. Your brain just can't keep up.

So give your brain a chance. Practice only the finger movements of your fretting hand. Forget strumming, forget reading the tab or music at the same time. Work only with your fretting hand.

2. Practice Changes Very Slowly

So now you've cut your brain some slack while it coaxes your reluctant fingers into obeying its instructions. Things might be a little better already, but if you practice too fast some fingers won't get enough attention. They'll start making mistakes to show how unhappy they are about this (yes, fingers can be fickle things).

The more you make these mistakes, the more your finger muscles and brain will learn to repeat them.

So, sloooooooooowwwwww dooooooowwwwwwwn. A lot. Do the movements as slowly as necessary to get them right. It doesn't matter if it takes you two minutes to change chords when you start. Get it right first, get it faster later.

3. Do Finger Independence Exercises

Some exercises to build your finger independence might give you an extra boost. They can also make a nice change from practicing the same old chords and your brain will thank you for this.

You can try the ones I wrote about here, here and here as a start. You can also find a whole bunch of good exercises by visiting Guitar Cardio, a neat exercise generator.

4. Practice Chord Changes In Your Sleep

Another way to get in a little extra learning is to do it in your sleep. You don't need to take your guitar to bed to do this. No, you simply need to learn how to do guitar visualization exercises.

Visualisation is a great way to reinforce muscle learning. The best thing is you can do it in bed, in the shower, or just about anywhere.

5. Develop A Sense Of Patience

Even with all the best practice tips in the world you'll have to get used to the fact that it takes time to un-dumb your fingers.

Even when your fingers have got quite smart at something you will find that they easily go back to their childish ways when you try something new. You just have to go through this process again and they will learn, often ever such a little bit quicker than before.

Let's recap.

1. Focus on your fingering hand only, give your brain a chance.
2. Practice changes very slowly, don't teach yourself mistakes.
3. Do finger independence exercises, for variety and unfamiliar movements.
4. Practice chord changes in your sleep, using visualization.
5. Develop a sense of patience, you're gonna need it ;-)

Now you know what to do to fix your tangled stupid fingers. With a patient attitude and a patient approach you can master chord changes and enjoy playing guitar.

Finally, remember to stay relaxed as you practice. The more you tense up with frustration at your stupid fingers the more they will freeze on you.

I'll be back soon with another answer for your Guitar Learning Challenges. No Mike, it won't be dealing with impatience, you'll have to wait for that... Next time I'll be trying to help those who don't know what to practice. If you are one of them, feel free to comment with a few details of your situation. The more I know about why you don't know what to practice the better the solutions you'll get.

Meanwhile, keep practicing.

You might also like: The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar

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Dugansbf said...

This is exactly what I needed.
Many thanks to you, Gary. It's greatly appreciated.
But, no time to waste. Must fix stupid fingers.

Anonymous said...

"Visualization is a great way to reinforce muscle learning."

Very important tip.

Leslie said...

Thank you for those tips. I had decided maybe I should just try to play very slowly, in hopes that this would teach my hand and fingers "muscle memory". I will continue that and your tips!

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Leslie, slow practice is a good step. To learn more about teaching muscle memory I recommend the book The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar by Jamie Andreas.

Good luck!


Unknown said...

Thank you Sir,
Do you have any exercises that will go along with this ?
Also, not knowing what to practice is a struggle of mine. I do not have a guitar teacher and currently am using YouTube , which can be quite convenient but difficult. How could you help with that? I just sit at my table and learn new things about a scale or different chords, practicing bar chords and trying to change from barre chords to other chords, my picking hand can suck sometimes. Not picking the note well enough or missing the string entirely and hitting the wrong one.

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Joshua,

Wondering what to practice? Try Guitar Practice: Never Be Stuck for Ideas Again, or the Instant Guitar Practice Routine.

For picking exercises, take a look at Guitar Picking Exercises Part 1.

Hope this helps

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