Technique For playing Guitar

Finger Legend
1 = Index Finger
2 = Middle Finger
3 = Ring Finger
4 = Pinky

Most of the time when someone calls my office they are calling in reference to becoming a better guitar player. I have seen all sorts of methods that promise to make a person a better player. Is one better than another? Are there hidden secrets? If you pay someone enough money can they infuse their abilities into your brain and hands?

To me these things are like weight loss diets. Everyone has one that is guaranteed to work and a few actually do work. If you try a method, are you guaranteed you will be able to become a guitar player?

So this month we will have more of a discussion and try to figure out how a person goes about becoming a better guitar player. To me this all starts with technique and attitude. Technique is what separates the serious players from the crowd.

I got my first taste of technique when I had had been playing for about one year. I was not very good and I had no idea of how to change that. I was trying to play some material in an effort to somehow be able to play a guitar better. I was struggling through a small series of lead statements someone showed me. As I started to get really tired of making the same mistake a thousand times in a row, I asked myself how do I get beyond this? There has to be a way of preparing so I could someday be able to play these leads.

So I started to search for a better way of doing it. The only thing I was concerned with is, how do I increase what I can do. It was about this same time that I ran across some guy who was playing some nice lead work in a music shop in Terre Haute, Indiana. The verbose story is on the main page for Uncle Tim's Building Blocks, so I am not going to repeat it here. But suffice it to say, this guy pointed me in the directions of scales and I went with it.

Playing scales really increased my sensitivity and awareness to proper technique. After a while I began to notice the different techniques people had for playing difficult passages. I could watch much better guitarists play stuff I wanted to play. Watching their hand positions and movements helped me to see how they did it. So after that experience, technique was always present in my pursuit of better playing.

Technique is simply the positioning and movement necessary to play the instrument.

Good technique is the positioning and movement necessary to maximize the efficiency of playing the instrument.

Not all technique is good! It evolves from the countless generations of guitar players that came before us and made tons of mistakes. These people passed along what they learned to the next generations. We do the same thing. So with time, our society develops a sense of how to do this by taking advantage of what others that came before us learned. We get a chance to learn from their mistakes and leverage their pool of knowledge and the result is we get better much quicker than if we had to start from scratch. I don't mean to get on a soapbox, but this is a huge contribution to society.

Here is an example of technique.

When I see a person play scales and they have their thumb wrapped around the fretboard as in this first picture, I know some problems are going to show up.

Particularly when this person tries to play a Bb scale as shown below. The only way to maximize the efficiency as they play this scale is to use the first, second and fourth fingers to play the notes in the lowest strings (see diagram above, blue notes). In order to do that you must rotate your hand around the fretboard so your fingers will reach the right position, which will put your thumb on the ridge of the back of fretboard. This will stop a person from wrapping their thumb because it is not long enough to be able to. This has to happen because it is the only reliable way to hit these strings and be able to transition to the next bars of music, whatever they happen to be.

So unless a person has an unusually big hand, they must consider proper technique to be able to play this scale at all. The second picture shows the thumb riding the ridge of the guitar. This is covered extensively in Uncle Tim's First Year.

This is the Bb scale that requires you to use proper technique. Only in this example the pattern is moved up two frets higher to become a C scale.


There are two definite types of practice sessions I have and I never confuse the two (okay, maybe a little). I think I am going to post some arbitrary scale practice mp3 files later this month. I think that may help breathe life into scales for some people. Stay tuned for this.

Practice Time. This is the time where I am not concerned about how things sound to anyone else. I am working on fingerings, scales, chord progressions, finger, flat, double or plectrum style picking or any one of a number of techniques that help me play something. Also included are all sorts of technical exercises and training that focuses on specific mechanisms. This kind of practice can dominate my time for weeks at a time. It is extremely fruitful to indulge yourself in this kind of training.

Performance Time. This is the time spent when I am trying to recite something I have already learned. I am very conscious of who is listening and what they like to hear. I am usually a little more conservative in this mode.

In Uncle Tim's F` irst Year these areas are called technical and artistic skills. In order for artistic skills to come forth, some technical skills must be present.

I know of lots of guitar players that only play in performance mode. They never have practice session time and everything gets worked out as they try to play a song. Some of these guys are pretty good but more often than not they have serious technique problems or underdeveloped muscle response. I am more of a technician. I like to work out details and develop myself in the hopes that the learning curve is steeper. I want to learn more, faster, develop better technique and then put it to use. So I use technique studies to exercise hand coordination and muscle development and work out problems.

The single biggest benefit of technique practice is, it makes all the other things you play sound better. Everything gets a little boost, even seemingly unrelated stuff. They all have this in common, your fingers play all the notes. Anything your fingers do, will benefit from technique work.

Everyone makes mistakes when they learn something. There are players that are so developed they do not make many public mistakes any more. But when they were learning they made lots of mistakes. Practice time will give you a chance to get some of those mistakes out early. Once they are exposed, you can start to eliminate them, one by one. Practice time makes you better faster.

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Kinds Of Techniques

There are multiple techniques for everything.

There are several techniques for holding a guitar.

From there the techniques can be broken into groups, such as left and right hand techniques, picking and scale and chord techniques. There are techniques for generating pick motion that involve the elbow and or the wrist. There are plectrum style techniques for playing scales without a pick. The guitar has such a rich history that there are techniques for all sorts of tricks and styles of play.

There are several different ways of learning techniques. The basic techniques can easily be learned by reading a book and playing attention to the strategics necessary and the correct placement of your body parts. This way you can read and apply. This can be pretty relaxed.

Videos are a great way to see how a person does it because so much additional information is communicated. There are many moves necessary to play even the simplest scale over a two octave range. When you see someone do it correctly, you can apply it to what you are doing and compare things. You will probably see some solutions to problems that give you trouble with one thing or another. It is for this reason we are exploring videos in detail right now.

Picking it up by ear. I have a few friends that only need to hear something to be able to play it. Their ear training is suburb and when they hear someone do something, they can visualize it and play it back right away. This is a wonderful skill that is only obtained by experiencing significant ear training. Together with a study in technique this is a terrific strategy for mastering the guitar.

Getting a teacher and learning from one-on-one training can be a good way too.

Here is a basic list of different techniques available for practice time. There are many more techniques that are not listed here. These can be broken down because in each of these areas, there are techniques for both hands and some micro-techniques that are very tiny in scope, and embedded in more general technique.

Pick Hand Technique

Finger picking with your thumb and three fingers. The pinky is not used, neither is a pick.

Flat Picking with only a pick.

Flat Picking with a pick and multiple fingers. This can be one, two or three fingers. There are techniques for each.

Plectrum style for classical style scale exercises.

Thumb brush for strumming without a pick.

Strumming. Two different ways with a pick.

Double picking for playing scales with a pick.

Fretboard Hand

Linear scale work and finger assignments.

Basic chording.

Barre chording.

Open string chording.


Harmonics (at least two different ways).

Inside the fretboard hand techniques there are specific requirements for thumb position, palm position and finger placement as well as elbow and shoulders. There are problems that can be solved with technique changes alone or combined with exercises to learn and reinforce muscle memory as well as correct behavior.

There are also significant techniques for combining techniques like strumming and then flat picking or chording and linear runs. The specialty techniques can come into play as you transition from one style to another. I had some problems when I tried to combine lead statements while playing a rhythm line. Every time I started the lead statement, I fumbled into the stream. This happened well after I had learned to play scales well.

This list above does not even begin to explore specialty techniques like hammering a string.

In my opinion a study of technique is best started by backing up and addressing your basic foundation of skills and shoring up any lose ends. If you have been playing for a while, this will be an easy and productive exercise. There are probably more than a few things you have either relaxed with or forgotten altogether. You can improve by examining how you presently play and then make sure your technique has not slipped. You can reinforce good technique or clean up bad or sloppy technique. You may do a little of both.

Often times just concentrating on what you are doing is a big improvement in itself. Bring your awareness to a higher level of consciousness. As usual with this instrument, all of this is exteremely personal. You really do have to go deep inside.

All of this will give you an opportunity to improve areas specific to your needs. I will say this without any reservations. Any time you put in to developing GOOD technique will come back many times over.