Proper Mechanics For Guitar

SIDEBAR: was redesigned and re-launched on November 28, 2007. As a result, this page was re-written as other articles, including: First Steps For The Beginning Guitarist and Prepare to Play. I invite you to read those articles now.

You can alco click here to visit the new Home Page, then look at the navigation bar on the left side of the page for all of the lessons.

Why spend time learning proper mechanics? Because you need to avoid developing bad habits from not knowing the good ones.

Bad habits sometimes help you play notes, chords, or riffs early on. But eventually they will slow you down, make chord changes more difficult, impair your rhythm while strumming, or otherwise frustrate you in unpredictable ways.

The best way to avoid the trouble associated with bad habits is to never learn them. The only way to ensure you don't learn bad habits is to understand these time-tested proper mechanics.

This lesson gives you some of the boring, but important, basics.

  • how to sit or stand with your guitar
  • how to adjust your guitar strap
  • proper hand positions
  • terminology for your fingers
  • how to hold the pick

Fingers Identification

Chord charts, instruction books, and music notation sometimes refer to specific fingers. They help with proper mechanics, or may make it clear how to play a chord or a passage.

The only way to understand these notations, is to know how authors refer to your hands.

The notation for the hand used on the fretboard (the left hand for most of us) is:

  • 'T' for the thumb
  • '1' for the index finger
  • '2' for the middle finger
  • '3' for the ring finger
  • '4' for the little finger

The other hand, used to strum or pluck the strings (the right hand for most of us) is:

  • 'P' for the thumb
  • 'I' for the index finger
  • 'M' for the middle finger
  • 'A' for the ring finger

SIDEBAR: These are taken from classical or flamenco guitar, and it's Spanish roots. The letters stand for Pulgar (thumb), Indice (index), Medio (middle), and Anular (ring).

Holding A Pick

Proper mechanics for holding the pick are very simple, and prevent the pick from coming loose and falling to the floor as you strum your favorite song.

The key is to get the pick on top of the knuckle of your index finger, then press down on the knuckle with your thumb. You can adjust the amount of pick that is exposed, or the direction of the end of the pick, to your satisfaction.

Click the PLAY button to see the proper way to hold a pick

If you try to hold the pick with the pad of your finger and thumb, which initially feels very comfortable and flexible, it will come loose as you begin to strum with energy.

Click the PLAY button to understand how NOT to hold a pick

Hand Position

The fretboard hand, used to form chords and press on the correct sting and fret for solos and melodic lines, should form a mostly straight line with a cupped hand.

The thumb should apply pressure to the back of the neck nearly opposite to the middle finger. Moving the thumb slightly toward the ring finger helps to widen your ability to apply pressure with all fingers. This helps with scales and riffs.

Unless required for a particular chord, or riff, do not lay the thumb over the top of the neck. It will be in the way and prevent you from making proper chord forms.

The wrist, which must be bent for some chord forms, should not be routinely bend or bend harshly. Doing so can lead to pain and problems.

Sitting To Play

I'm not aware of any ergonomic study on seating positions for proper mechanics. So this is purely what I've gathered from personal experience.

Comfort is great, but consistency is the key when sitting down to play... especially for new players. If you're moving the guitar around as you change from standing to sitting, it will take much longer to develop a comfort level with the instrument. Worse, you'll needlessly frustrate yourself.

You're trying to learn chord forms... fret positions... and finger positions... all while NOT looking at your hands. Try to keep the guitar in the same position, relative to your hands, every single time you pick it up to play.

SIDEBAR: You're not looking at your hands, are you? If you are, glance at your hands as you're learning chords, strings, notes... but then STOP. In the long run your ears will work smoothly with your fingers. Your hands will find the right positions and the right notes... playing will require less effort... and you won't lose your place when you read music.

The most consistent position is typically achieved when you rest the waist of the guitar on your right thigh (for right handed players... left leg for you lefties). Slightly elevating your thigh also helps. You can do this by resting only the ball of your foot on the floor... using a guitar foot stool... or by using a chair with a support brace and placing your foot there.

To find the right seating position, begin by standing with your guitar, then sit down. If your guitar moves substantially, stand back up. Adjust the strap. Adjust how you hold the guitar. Try again.

It may help to find a chair that is adjustable.

It may help to place a phone book under your foot.

Experiment a bit and find a seating position that keeps your guitar in a consistent place once you sit.

Proper mechanics when sitting leads to faster learning, less discomfort, less frustration.

Standing To Play

It may look cool to loosen your strap and allow the guitar to hang at knee level, but it's not proper mechanics. I'm not saying you can't do this... just wait until you master the basics, O.K.?

Basics first... cool later.

Comfort is the most important consideration when standing. By that, I mean hand and arm comfort. To achieve hand and arm comfort, you ned to adjust your guitar strap.

Adjust your strap until the guitar is high enough that your strumming arm can grip the guitar body near your elbow, and your fretboard hand can move between chords with your wrist mostly straight.

Gripping the guitar with your strumming arm helps to stabilize the instrument.

Keeping your wrist mostly straight avoids pain and problems.

Try sitting down (see Sitting To Play, above). If your guitar moves up too much as you sit, you may need to shorten the strap a bit. Conversely, if the strap is too short, it's hard to get the guitar over your head and the body will be too close to your chin.

Return from Proper Mechanics to Start Playing Guitar Home Page