If you have trouble getting your 3rd and 4th fingers in the left hand to behave, accurately placing your fingertips at the fret, or maintaining the left hand position… you are not alone.
I am going to provide you with some useful exercises to improve your left hand technique, but first let’s talk about the key issues.
Left hand finger placement
If you develop the habit of good finger placement in your left hand, you are going to make everything else easier.
Accurate finger placement helps produce a clear sound, it uses less energy, relieves tension, aids agility, and it will encourage consistency with other movements in your left hand. These compelling reasons make it well worth your time to focus on left hand finger placement as a priority in your practice session.
Over the years I have come across many beginner and intermediate students that say they “can’t” make the stretch, or their fingers simply “won’t” reach that far. This is simply not true.
While we all have different shapes and sizes, and even peculiarities from person to person I have never come across anyone who cannot develop reach, flexibility and accuracy with dedicated and focused practice. Developing a habit takes time, and so does developing flexibility within your hands. Remember that we are dealing with ligaments and tendons in our hand, not just muscles, and they take a considerably longer time to adapt.
Perhaps an experience that we have all shared is figuring out how to play the first position G Major chord. This basic chord involves a stretch from the sixth string to the first and for all of those who encounter it for the first time it seems difficult if not impossible. Did you manage to make the distance with some perseverance?
The number one culprit that might be holding you back is a lack of consistency in your finger placement and this is down to your attention to detail. If you are unaware that your fingers are placed too far back in the fret, then you won’t be able to make a change for the better.
Have a look at the following examples, record a quick excerpt of your left hand playing and evaluate whether or not there is room for improvement.
Some exceptions to bear in mind
To be clear, there are many instances where the fingertips cannot always be neatly placed up against the fret wire. A good example of this is the common A Major chord that squashes three fingers onto one fret. There is no need for each fingertip to be exactly snug against the fret in this case. There are plenty of other examples of this being the case too, but in general we should be striving for a consistent closeness to the fret.
Exercises to improve your finger placement
The first step, as was mentioned earlier, is to be aware if you are placing your left hand fingers accurately or not. So, record your left hand playing a variety of material and have a look. Record for long enough that you fall back into your regular playing style, not one that is hyper aware of being analyzed.
After having a look you might notice that your finger placement becomes inconsistent with specific movements. For example, it might be that when you shift your left hand position, the finger lands without consistency. Or, it might be that when more than one finger is used at the same time results get messy.
See if you can identify some specific reasons that it is happening.
If your overall finger placement is sloppy it will be important to take a very simple exercise to start building accuracy and consistency.
For this I recommend playing a very simple sequence of fingerings in the seventh position. This involves the left hand playing finger 1, 2, 3, 4, sequentially on one string then moving the the adjacent string. It looks like a chromatic scale, but it isn’t as we are playing in the seventh position.
Why the seventh position? Because the frets are closer together and it is more conducive to the majority of hands.
(play this sequence in reverse once you reach the first string so you head back towards the sixth string)
As you work through this basic but effective exercise focus on each finger being placed snug up against the fret each time, using the same small pad of your fingertip each time and keeping the fingers down as you play 1 – 2 -3 -4.
After you have spent fifteen minutes on this, you can give yourself a rest (yes try and spend a full focused fifteen minutes!). When you return to the exercise, perhaps that day perhaps the next, you can move it down to the sixth position. Over the span of a couple of weeks move it down to first position and your left hand will have enjoyed and progressive habit building exercise that encourages accuracy and flexibility.
Following on from this exercise, you can move to a full chromatic scale in the first position that then shifts up on the first string towards the twelfth fret.
Focusing on accuracy of finger placement is a perfect example of how we can use scales as tools to develop our technique.
Regular scales that have one single note after another provide the challenge of every single note having accurate and consistent finger placement. We can also start to think about the consistency of weight/finger pressure we use.
A scale in one position is great for the variety of finger combinations it uses and a scale that shifts around the fingerboard will give us a chance to work on shifting, extensions and contractions.
The key of the scale does not matter too much in this process but choosing a variety of locations on the fingerboard and a variety of scales (which therein have a variety of fingerings) will be a comprehensive way to approach your accuracy.
A two octave scale with accompanying arpeggio will give you a variety of challenges with which to monitor and improve your accuracy.
Scales in thirds, sixths, octaves and tenths
These scales require you to play two notes at a time, so our challenge of accuracy and consistency is greatly increased. I would recommend staying on single note scales until you can see that you are very accurate and consistent in your left hand recordings.
The goals will be the same in terms of finger placement and shifting but your finger independence will now get a substantial workout.
These two scales provide a compact area to work on your accuracy, albeit in in the first position where the stretches are the greatest.
Over a two octave scale we get the opportunity to shift, and traverse the fingerboard which includes a variety of distances between frets. A great exercise!
Take all of these exercises at a slow tempo, perhaps quarter note equals 50 or slower. Why? Because if you you set a fast tempo you will not be able to notice or correct your finger position. Use a metronome to keep you on track, and remember that speed is not a goal here just accuracy and consistency.
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