Physical Guitar

Physical aspects necessary to play the guitar are developing comfortable posture, holding the guitar, executing hand and finger positions, pressing and releasing strings, picking and strumming, and developing a "feel" for the fretboard of the guitar. Proper attention to these concepts in beginning stages will result in good habits allowing young guitarists to reach their full potential.


Posture And Relaxation

Good posture and relaxation are essential to playing any instrument! In order to play the guitar well, all the muscles in your left and right, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers must be relaxed and ready to respond to your will as needed. When you are physically relaxed, and you feel like you are "one with the instrument" you will play for longer periods of time with better results!

Learn to recognize the demon of tension when you are playing the guitar. Physical tension will sometimes give you an "out-of -balance" feeling, feeling like tightness or mild pain. If you have these symptoms, put your instrument down, walk away, breathe deeply, shake out your arms and hands, stretch, and just relax. Come back to the guitar later for a fresh start!

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Proper Seated Posture

Follow these instructions to establish proper seated posture when using a properly adjusted guitar strap: Stand up straight in front of your chair with front of the seat touching the back of your legs. Next, take approximately ¼ step out from the seat. In one smooth movement, keeping your eyes straight ahead, sit on the front third of the seat of your chair. Do not scoot or slide back after you sit - your seated balance should allow you to immediately stand again in one smooth movement.

Your left foot may be moved out a bit further than your right for added comfort. Now, as you sit, imagine there is a cable attached to the very top of your head pulling it straight up toward the ceiling. Relax your shoulders and arms and let them flop to the sides of the chair seat. This is the proper seated position - this position allows your body to expand all around as you breathe. It also allows you to keep your head and music stand high to see your music book without bumping your guitar on the edge of the stand!

It is also a great idea to experiment with seat height. Find the chair or stool that's most comfortable for you! Review the instructions and find your playing position again. This position says “I am ready to perform!,” and displays an air of professionalism. These things are all important to successful guitar performance. You're looking good, so let’s play Physical Guitar!

Installing A Strap Button

An adjustable guitar strap is one of the most important accessories of the guitarist. The strap should not interfere with the movements of the left (fretting) hand. Many acoustic guitars require that the strap be tied on near the nut, or tuning gears of the guitar. I personally find this to be bothersome because it interferes with the left hand and arm. I suggest that you take your guitar to an experienced luthier (that’s what they call the folks who work on acoustic guitars) or guitar technician and have a strap button installed as in these photos:

When the button is attached as shown, the strap It will not interfere with your left hand movement. It will also be in a position to reliably support the instrument without slipping off the button. After the strap is properly attached, take the following steps to adjust it properly:

Place the strap over your head, insert your right arm through the strap so that the strap rests primarily on your left shoulder.


Then let the guitar hang freely in front of you, and without holding the neck, relax your left shoulder and bend your left elbow to bring your fretting hand into an imaginary playing position.


The strap should be adjusted so that the neck of the guitar hangs comfortably without disturbing the playing position of your left hand. The left hand should be free to move up or down the neck of the guitar, placing the fingers as necessary to produce a nice tone. You should not grab or hold the neck of the guitar using the left hand.


The right forearm counter-balances the instrument by resting on the edge of the guitar. The right wrist and fingers remain relaxed and flexible for picking and strumming chords.

The left hand and arm should remain free to move along the neck and fretboard of the instrument. They should not be used to hold the guitar! That's the function of the strap. When it is adjusted properly, and the guitar is balanced by touching the right forearm on it's top side, the guitarist's left hand (or fretting hand) should be relaxed and prepared to press the strings to set notes or chord forms positions.

Very Important! There are a wide variety of straps with different comfort features. If you have a heavy, solid body guitar, be sure to look around for a strap with soft, non-slip shoulder padding. When the strap is installed and adjusted properly, there should be absolutely no difference in the feel and placement of the guitar to your hands, arms, and body whether you are in a sitting or standing position! (see photos below)

sitting_pos.jpg stand_pos.jpg

The guitar strap advice above is directed at students who choose to play acoustic folk style, rock, or alternative styles. Those who begin studying in the classical guitar style will have to decide whether to use a strap or a footstool. Although a few great classical guitarists have used straps, they're not used often by classical guitarists.

The right wrist should be relaxed and located near the sound hole of the guitar (or between the pickups of an electric model). The guitar pick should be gripped lightly for strumming; this allows the wrist to relax, unaffected by a chain of tension from the finger muscles. When picking single notes, the pick is gripped a bit more firmly for more directed control. (photo below)


The shape of the letter "C" important for establishing proper guitar hand positions! When determining your left hand shape, take your index finger and place it to you thumb, making an "ok" sign. Then open a 3/4 inch space between the thumb and finger. While holding this formation, place your thumb on the back of the guitar neck and bring your index finger down to press a string. Keep the "C" formed naturally upon contact and this will establish the left hand position most natural for you! (see photo sequence below)

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The left wrist remains comfortably firm, but not tight or stiff, while playing. The position of the left hand is a bit more complex because it changes as the player moves the fingers along the fretboard. We will look at three basic angles; the lower position near the "nut" of the guitar, a "mid-fretboard" position, and a high position near the cutaway. Notice that as the fingertips move up the fretboard, the angle from the arm, to the wrist does not change significantly, but the left elbow moves closer to the ribcage.


The angles of the fingertips are somewhat dictated by their placement on the strings. You will notice that the angle at which the left hand fingers contact the strings changes as the left wrist (which remains comfortably firm) and arm move up the fretboard. The fingers should remain relaxed and slightly curved; a light press is used to move the string toward the fretboard. Don't push any harder than needed, unneeded muscle contraction will cost your finger and hand muscles recovery time, and slow your movement toward the next position. Press as lightly as possible to produce a clear, ringing tone from the guitar string.


The set is the combined movement of the arm, hand and fingers which places the tips of the fingers in the proper place above the string to "press" them toward the frets. The press is the actual physical motion of moving the string to contact the fret of the guitar. The press can be an independent finger movement or a combination of a press of the finger with mild leverage provided from the opposing force of the thumb. Set and press happen almost simultaneously, and should result in a clean, clear sounding guitar tone.

The release involves relaxing the finger with a smooth motion the after the tone sounds for the desired amount of time. Sometimes the fingertip releases entirely clear of the string, and sometimes it remains touching the string upon release to mute unwanted tones. This process becomes more complicated in intermediate and advanced guitar playing, because some forms of string release result in special effects used in certain styles of music.

To set the fingers properly requires that all of the preceding steps have been followed properly, so always double-check your posture, arm, and hand positions. The point at which the strings cross under the finger will NOT be at the very tip. This would require too much wrist movement and would defy the angles dictated by the the left wrist and arm. The angle at which the fingers contact the string DOES change, as evidenced by the grooves marked on the fingers in the photo below. Try this by placing your fingers on the strings at different places on the fretboard, then lift your fingertips from the strings and quickly look at the change in the groove marks on the fingertips.


Setting the finger combination to play a chord is a more complex issue! The grip between the thumb and various fingertips becomes more firm. Angles of the fingers and wrist seem to become distorted, and at times it seems impossible to press all the strings needed to form the chord shape. Much patience and slow, analytical, repetitive practice is needed to find the proper physical relationship between your wrist, hand, and fingers to play chords. Be sure your primary body position and posture is correct or it will be three times as difficult. This is where the guidance of a good teacher can be very important.

The pick is held between the thumb and index finger with the point protruding slightly from underneath the thumb (see photo below).


If the guitar pick is held too far back, control of the pick is sacrificed as it makes contact with the string (see photo below). Experiment with both ways! Your ideal pick grip depends on the thickness of the pick and the basic structure of your hand and fingers. A functional pick grip will develop with consistent practice.

The actual movement used to pick a string is a very small shift of the wrist. The right hand lays comfortably on the top of the guitar contacting the unused strings with it's side (see photo sequence below).


Notice the angle of the wrist in the picture. Begin the motion of picking with the pick resting on the first string. While gripping the pick with some degree of firmness, move the wrist only slightly to pick the string. The travel of the pick past the string should be no more than 1/16th of an inch in either direction. Picking Video Here

Sometimes when a string is plucked, the tone resulting seems to be a dead tone without a ring (click here for audio sample). This usually happens because of improper contact of the finger on the string before it it pressed. Be sure that the finger is BETWEEN two frets, or behind a fret, NOT directly on top of a fret. When that happens the fleshy pad of the fingertip extends to either side of the fret and dampen the string sound as in the audio sample above. A little practice at producing a clear, clean tone on the guitar at any fret will help you to establish the proper feel.

Open String And Simple Chords

The guitar can be a lead instrument, playing melodies and solos, or it can provide an interesting rhythmic accompaniment for singers and other instruments. Chord strumming is a very important basic skill of guitar playing! Approximately 75% of my professional playing time has involved playing rhythmic chord patterns as accompaniment.

I choose to hold the pick differently when strumming chords. The pick is held between my thumb and middle finger with a very light grip. Tension in your fingertips will cause sympathetic tension in your right wrist and arm, making it very difficult to relax to accomplish the desired sequence of movement. Experiment with different pick grips and hand angles, because both could differ from the standard grip and feel. Go for a natural, controlled, even, and comfortable sweep across the strings.

To check for proper relaxation of the wrist place a bowl of water on the counter. Relax your wrist and dip your fingertips into the bowl. With your shoulder, arm, wrist, and fingertips totally relaxed, shake the water from them, gently and repetitively, until they are dry. This is the feeling you should have when you strum your guitar. The pick is held so gently that someone can easily remove it from your fingertips. This is the reason I prefer to use nylon guitar picks with a textured grip.

The relaxed arm, wrist and fingertips of the picking hand will allow the pick to sweep across the strings gently and evenly. A great way to develop a natural feel for strumming is to focus ONLY on the strum patterns. This can be done by strumming the open strings or by muting the strings entirely to focus on the relaxation and movements of the strumming hand. Your foot should tap in conjunction with your pick sweep - down pick to down tap, up sweep for up foot. There are a few lessons about strumming, and instructional mp3 recordings on the Lessons page of this wiki.

When the guitar is used as a rhythm instrument, a solid pulse is very important. It is a good idea to practice strumming exercises with a metronome or a keyboard drum beat to help you keep your rhythm playing steady and even. Also remember to tap your foot when you are learning to strum, foot-tapping is another way to internalize the rhythmic pulse.

The left hand fingers must be strong, flexible, and conditioned to play for long periods of time. The following videos are examples of finger "workouts" which will strengthen the fingers and promote the formation of a light callous. When used creatively they will also help familiarize you with the spacing of the fret along the fingerboard of the guitar.

Hammer-On Exercise - the fingertips hit solidly against the string between two frets and is held down so that the sound rings.

Low String Bends - these are accomplished by setting your finger firmly on the lower pitched string, plucking the string with your right hand, and pulling the string downward toward the floor until the pitch changes slightly.

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High String Bends - these are accomplished by setting your finger firmly on a higher pitched string, plucking the string with your right hand, and pushing the string upward until the pitch changes slightly.

If these three exercises are done on all strings in different sections of the fingerboard, they will also assist you in developing the correct finger placement to perform.

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