We’ve spent a little while on your picking hand, the right, and how to get your fingernails in shape or getting accustomed to using finger and thumb picks. But now, holding down those chords.
GRAB A CHORD, ANY CHORD
Now with your guitar chord practice exercises, most likely you’ll have started with the open E-Major chord; which is a good a place as any. You’d think maybe C-Major would be a good place to begin with, but it leads to the G7 and then the – duh-duh-duhhh! – the dreaded F-Major chord, which is, at first, a real hand-cramper.
So, you place your fingers in position, following the dots on the little chord-diagram, start strumming or finger picking the strings, and you’re going along nicely until you start feeling a cramp maybe; a little pain on the inner part of the wrist, maybe some at the back of the hand. You can see the muscles tensing, the tendons working.
When it gets to that point, stop pressing the strings down and rest your hand. There’s really no advantage to holding the chord down beyond the point of tears, or cursing, or teeth-gnashing. It might be okay – aside from getting the aforementioned tendonitis – but the thing is, in your musical career you’re not going to be simply holding one chord down. You’ll be switching back and forth to other chords during a song, so forcing your hand to become a non-moving vice is sort of pointless.
So, lift off a moment, then press down the chord-shape again. Then again. Repeat it – on, off, on, off – over and over again. Not only do the hand and finger muscles have to become strong, they also have to develop ‘muscle memory’ so putting your fingers on the correct strings, at the correct fret become second-nature to you; something you won’t have to think about consciously.
Hold the chord down, lift off, shake your hand out, then hold the chord down again and repeat until you’re finding that you no longer have to look at your fingers in order to get to the chord. With these quick on-and-off repetitions, not only will the muscles get a tiny break between being tense and relaxed, but they will ‘remember’ where and how they are supposed to move in order to get your finger tips to the right place, exactly when you want them to. Even go so far as hold the chord down for a second, taking your hand completely away from the neck of the guitar (pat your head, maybe), then, without looking, grab the chord again.
It’s about feel, about your hand – not only your fingers but your entire fretting hand – getting used to the feel of guitar neck, the width of it, the thickness, the contour, the placement of your thumb to give you maximum leverage without strain, about the edges of the fret-board, the feeling of the string against your fingertips, and also the feel of the fret below the string.
All very small details, but with quick repetitions – even without strumming the strings or picking them – you start to train your fingers and hand (and arm and shoulders; just be aware of what other parts of your body become involved) to the intricacies of placing your fingers on the strings without having to think about every single motion involved.
It might not sound musical – though you could do a quick strum each time you grab a chord – but in this case it’s not the length of time you hold down the chord, but the number of times you do it. That’s the routine part of your guitar practice exercises.
It’s similar to the difference between a person who’s a weight-lifter as opposed to someone who is a ballet-dancer; the kind of training they each do. One develops thick, heavy masses of muscle while the other develops thinner, longer and quicker muscles. Both strong, but each for a different purpose.
DANCING ON THE STRINGS
And in the case of playing the guitar, the latter is what’s wanted; delicate but quick muscle movements, with just enough pressure on each string to keep it pressed to the frets without overdoing it. Press down, lift off, over and over again. Then, with that part of your guitar practice routine accomplished, go ahead and work with both hands until you can place your fingers on the strings in the shape of a chord just a millisecond before striking it with your picking fingers.
Kind of like a dance, really, though in this case, you’ll eventually be providing the music for that dance.
If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Fingers On Strings