Tips for Strengthening Your Fretting Hand
Do your barre chords buzz? Does your fretting hand finish long before the song does? Do you lack the stamina to jam to your heart's content without soreness and cramping? Do your fingers feel sluggish sliding up and down the fretboard? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be suffering from weak hands.
Playing the guitar can be painful and not at all fluent if your fretting hand is near exhaustion all the time. To fret notes cleanly we not only need to know where to place our fingers so that the notes sound clear, but we need to have strength and flexibility in our digits, in our hands and wrists, and to a certain extent, forearms and shoulders. Playing for long periods of time requires endurance and strong fingers that can move nimbly along the fretboard while pressing the strings firmly. Your fingers also need the proper dexterity to both work together and independently of each other.
Hand fatigue happens for a number of reasons. One cause could be your technique. For example, if your guitar is worn too low on the body, the wrist of your fretting hand is in a hyperextended bent position. The positioning of the hand like this decreases strength and makes your hand work harder, thus causing it to fatigue sooner. Another factor could be a sloppy thumb. Proper thumb positioning creates space for your hand to move freely about the fretboard.
Another reason could be your choice of instrument. As far as ease of playing goes, an electric guitar requires less effort to play than does an acoustic or a classical guitar, whose nylon strings are thicker and require more pressure for fretting and picking to get a full sound. Electrics allow you to move your hand around more easily and with less fatigue because the strings are lighter and not as tough to hold down, and you have the benefit of an amp, which helps create a more constructed sound with less effort. The neck of an electric is also much narrower than that of a classical guitar, which allows you to get a good grip and wrap your hand tighter for better finger positioning.
Ultimately, hand fatigue is due to lack of strength. You work out your hand when you practice, but special exercises to develop strength can provide faster results to improve your sound and technique. A combination of finger strength exercises and grip training, such as squeezing a tennis or rubber ball and performing arm curls with weights, can improve the overall strength of the arms, hands, and individual digits. Performed before a practice, or in between jam sessions, strength training and flexibility exercises will help increase the range of motion in your joints and muscles and keep your hands loose, allowing you to play longer without ill effects.
When we play the guitar, or any instrument that demands repetition and precision, we put our bodies under stresses that can cause all sorts of aches and pains and, in extreme cases, cause tendonitis, ganglion cysts, and Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) like carpel tunnel. If you experience hand fatigue and/or pain from extended periods of playing, there are a few things you can do to help remedy it.
First a word about tension. When we learn something new, we tend to tense up a bit, which naturally inhibits muscle movement. To move hands cleanly and accurately over the guitar requires the muscles to be supple, not stiff. So begin by relaxing. STRETCHES
You would never lace up and hit the pavement for a run without first doing some leg stretches, now would you? Well neither should you pick up the guitar and launch into a blistering solo without first having stretched and warmed up the muscles in your hands and arms. Playing guitar is one of the most strenuous exercises you can do with your fingers, hands, and forearms. Stretching helps to keep muscles loose and limber. It increases flexibility and warms up muscle tissues and joint fluids. However, its amazing how many guitarists skip this all-important phase of their practice schedule.
Before picking up your guitar, and with every fifteen or twenty minutes of playing, relax the flexors by pulling each finger out to the count ten. Stretch all fingers and both thumbs out individually. Take each finger and bend it back to a comfortable stretch and hold for several seconds. Also, bend your thumb back toward your wrist and down in toward your palm, especially on your fretting hand.
After you've stretched your fingers, pretend to type in the air as fast as you can for about a minute. This will get the blood circulating to your fingertips.
Roll your wrists clockwise and counterclockwise. Spread your fingers and thumb in a star shape, nice and wide and then release.
A great stretch for both wrists and forearms is to start by putting your palms together in front of your chest. Slowly lift your elbows up and out to your sides, bending your wrists. Hold once you feel a good stretch. Next, rotate your wrists forward so your fingers are pointing away from you. Hold when you feel a stretch.
For additional stretches, including some for shoulders, here's a link
to a series of warm-ups featuring Guitar Tricks Instructor Christopher Schlegel. WARM-UP EXERCISES
Spider Legs, or The Spider as it's also called, helps to build strength and endurance while it works to extend your reach. This warm-up exercise will also help you get familiar with basic guitar scales and fingering techniques.
To begin, place your index finger on the first fret of the low E string and play the note. Without lifting the finger, add your middle finger to the second fret of the low E string and strike the note. Again, without lifting either first or second fingers, add your ring finger on the third fret of the same string, pick the note, and then add your pinky finger to the fourth fret. You should feel a good stretch. Once you have fingered each note, move down one string and perform the same exercise. Repeat until you get to the high E string.
As you improve, perform this exercise backwards, starting with your pinky finger and ending with your index finger. Start slow and speed up gradually without sacrificing technique. Use a metronome. To increase the difficulty of the exercise, move up the frets. Try to take Spider Legs all the way up to the 12th fret.
You can also try a staggered sequence of the above exercise, moving the fingers up a fret for each string. Step that pattern over all six strings, then just descend back down again in the reverse pattern.
Another variation is to use the same fingering sequences as above but climb/ascend on one string and then fall/descend on the next.
Try and come up with your own sequences. There are countless combinations you can try. If you feel your fingers aching, you know you're giving them a workout. Shake off the stiffness, wait a few seconds, and go again. Start slow and only when you're physically comfortable with the pattern, turn that metronome up a notch.
Check out Instructor Lisa McCormick's beginner's version
of Spider Legs, which features both the three- and four-legged variety. For a more challenging Spider, give Ben Lindholm's version
a go. EXERCISES TO STRENGTHEN RING AND PINKY FINGERS
While a guitar player's first and second fingers of the left hand are usually strong because they are used frequently, the third and fourth fingers are weaker because they receive little use.
To build strength in all fingers, place your first finger on the sixth fret on the high E string, with the rest of your fingers placed one per fret through the ninth fret. Hold all fingers down. Play the fourth finger then lift it, keeping it close to the string while allowing the string to sound, and play the third finger. Lower the fourth finger and repeat. Do this until your fourth finger tires, then repeat with the third and second fingers.
Repeat these exercises on the B string, G string, D string, A string and then the low E string. When you have mastered the sixth fret, move to the fifth fret and repeat. Keep moving one fret down the neck to increase both your hand stretch and strength.
Christopher Schlegel has a really cool Secret Pinky Exercise
that you might want to try as well. SPEED DRILLS
Speed drills help build strength, dexterity, and coordination. Here's a fun 6-Minute Trill Drill to try. You'll want to first place your fret hand in the 5th position (1st finger at the 5th fret). Then begin:
Minute 1: Pick the high E string at the 5th fret once. Now repeatedly hammer-on and pull-off (trill) with your middle finger, trilling between the 5th and 6th frets. Try to maintain even volume throughout.
Minute 2: Now switch to trilling between fingers 1 and 3 at 5th and 7th frets.
Minute 3: Trill between fingers 1 and 4 frets 5 and 8.
Minute 4: Trill between fingers 2 and 3 frets 6 and 7.
Minute 5: Trill between fingers 2 and 4 frets 6 and 8.
Minute 6: Trill between fingers 3 and 4 frets 7 and 8.
Now give it a go on the other five strings. Be sure to shake out your hands between strings.
You might also want to try the Burst Method
as demonstrated by Ben Lindholm.
Building strength in your fingers and hands takes time and persistence, just like any other workout regimen. As fingers are some of the most fragile appendages, they should be exercised cautiously, though faithfully.
For a host of ways to improve finger strength, just plug "hand strengthening exercises" into the search bar on the GT site, and work to get your hands in tip-top shape.