Improve Your Guitar Technique
Things I wish I knew when I started

These general hints aren't intended to cover every situation for every guitarist, or replace the guidance of a teacher who understands your specific needs. They can give you a push to get started and a little direction once you're moving. Listen carefully, analyze thoroughly, and fully explore alternatives.

Visit for some general advice for beginners on any instrument.

Some General Advice

That Famous Chinese Piece: Tu Ning

The Forgotten Finger: Your Left Thumb

Increasing Speed

Play Pretty

Some general advice

Celedonio Romero:
The right hand is like a spider. The left hand is like a snake.
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The 2nd best time is now.
Albert Einstein:
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.
Henry Ford:
Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right!
Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.
Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.
There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.
Thomas Jefferson:
I'm a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more I have of it.
Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman:
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.
He that lets the small things bind him, leaves the great undone behind him!
Success is a journey, not a destination!
Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic.

Perfect practice makes perfect, sloppy practice makes sloppy

Garbage in - garbage out, etc. It's important to understand the ultimate objective, but you also need to learn how to get there from here and how to be certain you're really there. Repeating the same mistakes (perhaps unknowingly) in the hope that maybe next time something will be different sometimes makes things worse. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got.

Let your talent develop naturally.

A few people can "just do it." Most others have latent talent that only appears after months or years of serious effort. I knew a guitarist who actually took offense at any mention of "talent" or "a gift", feeling that such casual attributions make playing well seem almost accidental and detract from the diligent effort and sacrifices made to achieve success.

Playing well is easy - it's playing badly that's hard.

Playing well feels easy and natural. Playing badly is often a struggle because muscles get tight, and different muscles may actually work against each other. The hard part is learning to play (and practice) well. Don't worry about "talent" - most people create their own. Patience, persistence, and attention to detail usually take you much farther than someone else's idea of "talent" or "ability".

That famous Chinese piece: Tu Ning

Unless you have an instrument with moveable frets or interchangeable fingerboards, most guitars can never be perfectly tuned. You just decide what constitutes "close enough". Without going into the details of tunings and temperaments, guitars, (like dogs and cats) must be "fixed", only guitars are fixed by setting the frets to equal temperament. This is sometimes said to be a way of playing equally out of tune in all keys. Intervals of fourths and fifths are nearly in tune, thirds and sixths less so. To maintain exact equal temperament, you need to tune the fifth string to the fifth fret of the sixth string, the fourth string to the fifth fret of the fifth string, etc. This method doesn't always sound best. Some guitarists temper the temperament, sometimes using harmonics or tuning each string to the same reference string using harmonics and fretted notes.

Tuning with harmonics usually involves using the natural harmonic at the 7th fret and the natural harmonic of the 5th fret of the next lower string. This won't work for the 2nd and 3rd strings.

Here is one method of using a single string to tune all the others.

  1. Tune the 5th string using a tuning fork or other reference.
  2. Tune the 5th fret natural harmonic of the 6th string to the 7th fret natural harmonic of the 5th string.
  3. Tune the 1st string to the 7th fret natural harmonic of the 5th string.
  4. Tune the 5th fret of the 2nd string to the 7th fret natural harmonic of the 5th string.
  5. Tune the 2nd fret of the 3rd string to the 12th fret natural harmonic of the 5th string.
  6. Tune the 7th fret natural harmonic of the 4th string to the 5th fret natural harmonic of the 5th string.

However you decide to tune, there will still be inaccuracies due to imperfections in the strings themselves, misplaced frets, variations in the height of the strings above the fingerboard, and warping of the fingerboard. Try different methods and see which you like best on your guitar. Even then, some keys may sound better than others.

There are several ways to help tune using whatever method you prefer. Sometimes the strings may bind at the nut. Lowering the string below the target pitch and then tuning up, pressing down behind the nut, or running your finger along the string to stretch it can help you tune more easily and accurately. Listen for the slight wavering in pitch (called beats) of two notes that are not quite in tune. The wavering gets slower as the pitches become closer to being perfectly in tune.

Once you think you've got it right, try a couple chords, or compare a couple notes such as the 3rd fret of the 6th string with the open 3rd string, and the 2nd fret of the 4th string with the open 1st string.

The forgotten finger: Your left thumb

In many routine activities (such as turning a doorknob or picking up a spoon) your fingers and thumb grasp together. This tendency often continues when placing your hand around the neck of a guitar, which leads to tension in the hand and other fingers. Your left thumb should normally rest gently against the back of the neck without squeezing. There are times (such as barring) when the thumb must apply a little pressure, but normally the fingers should do their own work, assisted by the lower arm as needed. Imagine a large rubber band from the back of your elbow to a wall behind you, gently pulling your arm back and helping to keep the fingers firmly against the fingerboard. It's also important to keep the left wrist loose as there is sometimes a tendency to bend the wrist inward towards the fingerboard to help increase finger pressure.

Increasing speed

One of the biggest problems many students have when trying to play fast is playing too fast. Rushing often results in just throwing their fingers around and hoping for the best. Practice with a metronome. Start slowly, gradually increasing speed only after achieving rhythmic precision at the current speed.

Right Hand

On your favorite open string, repeat with "i" and 'm' as fast as you can until you start to feel it. After you stop, if the muscles in your forearm just feel tired, you're off to a good start. If something hurts, there's a problem, especially if the pain is in your fingers or hand. The muscles you should be using are in your forearm. Grasp your forearm below the elbow and vigorously wiggle your fingers to see where they are. Pain anywhere else is a sign of muscle tension. As you practice, start slowly and concentrate on using only the proper muscles. Learn to be aware of every muscle and stay relaxed.

When playing fast passages with "i" and "m" alternations, it's important to move both fingers simultaneously, but in opposite directions. You might think of this as a counterbalance that keeps the non-playing finger positioned for the next note. Hold both hands in front of you with your thumbs up. Let your fingers curl, similar to a normal playing position, keep both thumbs straight and bring the tips together. Now let the tops of your "i" and "m" fingernails touch the fingernails of you left index and middle fingers. Adjust the fingers of your left hand so your right-hand fingers are close to their normal playing position. Now "play" some fast rhythms against your left index and middle fingernails using the outward motion (away from you palm) of "i" and 'm" rather than the usual inward motion (toward your palm). The tips of your thumbs should touch gently. Be alert for any pressure or tightness in your thumbs or other fingers. If you feel any tension, slow down and start over. Now when you practice "i" and "m" alternations on your guitar, imaging the non-playing finger striking outward against an imaginary surface simultaneously with each note. As always, be alert for tension and unnecessary muscle movement.

Left Hand

Sitting at a table, let the fingertips of your left hand curl comfortably and rest on the table top as if it were a piano keyboard. Position your hand so the tip of your thumb rests against the side of the table. Now on this imaginary keyboard, play 1-1-1-1-2-2-2-2-3-3-3-3-4-4-4-4, keeping the non-playing fingers resting gently on the tabletop. Be alert for any movement or tension in your non-playing fingers or thumb. Now imagine the tabletop getting hot. Lift your fingertips off the table, but keep the thumb resting gently against the side of the table (which is well insulated). Now as you "play", instantly pull back your fingers from the "hot" surface. As before, be alert for tension or unnecessary motion in your thumb or non-playing fingers. It might help to put your right index finger between your thumb and the table to help check for tension. As you practice on your guitar, be alert for any sensations of tension you might have noticed while practicing on the table.

Both Hands

After practicing the right and left hand exercises, you're probably becoming more aware of your finger, hand, and arm muscles, and learning to feel and recognize tension. You have to be fully aware of both hands at once and make sure that right and left-hand fingers move at exactly the same time.

Copyright 2003-2024 by Don Rowe