Beginning guitarists sometimes inadvertently make learning to play guitar more difficult for themselves. They may get frustrated by their inability to cleanly fret a note or to produce a good sounding chord and not realize that fixing that problem is simply a matter of holding the guitar properly.
You have to take a moment to think about just what it is you want to do to get a clear, ringing note. It’s not just placing a finger on a particular fret – it’s also about placing the correct part of your finger in the optimal space on the fretboard to do so. Ideally, that’s the tip of your fingers, the “tip” being the very tops. Lay your hand flat out on a desk or a table with the palm as flat as possible on the surface. Without altering the angle of your hand, raise your arm to about eye level and turn your wrist so that your fingers are pointing directly at your eyes. Those are the tips. They are below your fingernails and above the major whorl of your fingerprint. And that’s where you want to be making contact with the strings of your guitar.
Sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice it can be anything but. How you hold the guitar while sitting or standing can have an adverse effect on your fretting the strings well. And now that you’re all nervous about whether or not you’re causing yourself problems, you need to know that the first step to hold the guitar well is to relax. Being relaxed allows you to sit or stand in the best possible position for playing, and that makes all the difference between getting good, clean sounding notes and producing clunky sounding ones.
Start getting relaxed by getting loose. Shake out your arms and hands, roll your shoulders. Get as tension-free as possible. When you pick up your guitar, be mindful of your posture. Whether sitting or standing, you want your back to be straight so that your arms and hands are loose and free.
Even if you always play sitting down, do yourself a favor and stand up while holding your guitar, just to make a few observations. Just do it without even thinking to much about it. You don’t have to have a strap on your guitar (but you should – whether sitting or standing – as we’ll discuss in a moment). The first thing you’ll notice is that your guitar pretty much lays flat against you. Chances are likely that the body of the guitar is pretty much over your stomach and the neck is tipped slightly upward. Anyone looking at you would say the headstock is between one and two o’clock (between ten and eleven if you happen to play left handed). The main thing you want to remember about this position is that the guitar’s soundhole faces out, not up.
Okay, now sit down with your guitar. What’s one of the first things you notice? If you’re like most beginners, you probably have tipped the top of your guitar slightly upward so that the soundhole is pointing equally (if not more) up than out. Believe it or not, that’s normal for beginners. Why? Because you want to see what your hands are doing on the neck of your guitar! But tilting the guitar in this manner makes it much, much harder for you to comfortably get your fingertips on the strings. Instead of your fingers being nice and arched, you are likely to accidently contact adjacent strings, creating a muted sounding chord that makes you think you’ll never learn to play.
And if you let your fretting hand flop onto your leg while holding the guitar (think of the stereotypical couch potato clutching a television remote), then you’re making things even harder for yourself in terms of being able to place your fingers in an optimal position to cleanly fret a note or finger a chord.
So do yourself a favor – once you’ve got your fingers in approximately the right position, sit up straight and let the guitar rest on your leg so that the soundhole is pointing out again. No, you won’t be able to see your fingers! But in all likelihood you’ll produce one of the best sounding chords you’ve ever tried to play!
The secret, which isn’t a secret at all, is to hold your guitar in the best way to get your fingers in the best place. When sitting, you want to keep in mind what it was like to hold the guitar when standing. This is one reason many players use a strap whether they are sitting or standing. A strap can help you hold the guitar in a standing position while sitting, maintaining a good height and angle for the neck so that your fretting hand (which should be about chest high, by the way, whether sitting or standing) has free and easy access to the entire fretboard.
As a beginner, you should know you’re in for a bit of “growing pains” phase right at the beginning of your musical adventure. As you get more comfortable making chords and gain confidence in your ability to do so, you’ll also find that you’ll be able to take a few liberties. You may not need to hold it quite so perfectly. But while you’re starting out, make the effort to keep your posture and positioning in mind. You’ll make much quicker progress if you do.
I’d also like to recommend that you read just about anything Jamie Andreas has to say on the topic of holding the guitar, or posture or any of the physical (meaning biological) aspects of playing. She is quite the expert on the topic and her advice is top notch. You can find many of her observations here at Guitar Noise (just put “Jamie Andreas” in the search engine on the home page) as well as at her own website.
And also feel free to email me directly or to ask questions on our Guitar Noise Forum pages. You’ll find that just about everyone has gone through the same process you’re going through right now!
Until our next lesson…