Solve Fretting Hand Problems with Just a #2 Pencil
If you’re like me, you have a natural tendency to recoil at the thought of the #2 pencil. Standardized tests. Filling in those damned bubbles to answer multiple choice questions. Well, okay, multiple choice is still less painful than the essay questions, right? But I still have the deep-seeded desire to break every #2 pencil on Earth. But:
You are a #2 pencil and about 60 seconds away from melting away the vast majority of fretting hand problems.
So right about now, you’re wondering, “What on Earth does a #2 pencil have to do with playing guitar?”
Well, it’s not actually the pencil that will help. It’s breaking it. You don’t actually have to have a #2 pencil, and don’t actually have to break one, if you do. But allow me to demonstrate a simple principle that I promise will make complete sense and help you to play guitar more comfortably without taxing your brain whatsoever. (What more could you ask for?)
So here’s the deal. I hand you a #2 pencil. And I ask you to break it with one hand. (Maybe you’ve already done this?) How do you go about it? Pick up a pen or pencil or something similar, and experiment with it. Odds are that you’ll hold the pencil between your thumb and two fingers. Thumb on one side, roughly in the middle, and two fingers on the other side, towards the ends of the pencil. Right? Okay. Now answer me this question: Why did you put the thumb in the middle, and why are the fingers spread out?
The answer, of course, is leverage. You have the most leverage to break that pencil in that configuration. The further apart your fingers are, the easier it will be to break that pencil. In other words, you can break it most easily—with the least amount of energy—by pushing the strongest digit, the thumb, against the pencil supported by two stable points as far apart as possible.
Let’s make a slight adjustment. Let’s choose the index finger and the pinky finger, if you didn’t already, and put them at a comfortable location on the pencil, using the fingertips, just like you would to fret a note on the guitar. (Remember, no fingerprints!) Now, in order to break that pencil, where would you choose to place your thumb? If you put it opposite your index finger, how hard would it be to break that pencil? If you put it opposite your pinky finger, how hard would it be now? What if you put it on the other side of the index finger, outside the two fingers? Now you can’t even hold the pencil, let alone break it. Do you see where this is going? The best place to locate your thumb is in the middle, half way between your two fingers. Why? It gives you the most leverage. Or put another way, it allows you to use the least amount of force to break that pencil.
Two #2 pencils. #4?
Now, let’s imagine we have two pencils, glued together, side-by-side. Let’s put the index and pinky fingers on the first pencil, again using our fingertips. Now, you already know where to put your thumb to most easily break that first pencil. But how would it go if you chose to place your thumb on the second pencil? You might be able to break the first pencil if the glue is strong enough, and you get a bit of help supporting the two pencils so that it doesn’t rotate away on you. But-- you know that the best place to locate that thumb is on the same pencil that the fingertips are on.
Six pencils now. You see where this is going, of course. You’ve made the connection that the six pencils represent six strings on a fretboard. So how do we make use of this simple principle?
Maybe you’ve always struggled to get your barre chords to ring out clearly. You’ve got your index finger laid across five or six strings, and your ring finger two frets higher. Let’s say, D major. You’re barring the 5th fret with the index, and you’re fretting the D, G, and B strings at the 7th fret, either with individual fingers, or with a secondary barre with the ring finger. Now, let me ask the question: Where do you put your thumb?
Did you put it directly behind the index finger? Did you put it beyond the index finger, closer to the headstock? Pointing towards the headstock? You’ve either done this at some point, or seen others doing it. But with the leverage example we’ve seen with the #2 pencils, you can see where the optimal location ought to be. Right in the middle: The 6th fret. Did you put the thumb behind the 6th string? Again, it belongs right in the middle. This gives you the maximum amount of leverage for that barre chord. Put another way, it allows you to play that barre chord with the minimum amount of force. The minimum amount of energy. Of tension. Work. Fatigue. However you want to think about it, can you see how much difference this can make? All of the extra energy you may be spending to get that barre chord to ring out cleanly-- is wasted energy.
Melodic / Lead Play
Let’s apply the #2 pencil to the way you fret notes while playing something melodic. Let’s choose the 6th string (low E), and play frets 8, 10, and 12, notes C, D, and E. We’ll use the index, middle, and pinky fingers respectively. Let’s put all three fingers down simultaneously. Where does the thumb belong now? Behind the 10th fret on the 6th string. Experiment and see how little force is necessary to get that E note to ring out cleanly? Is it less than you expected? Again, any extra energy applied is simply wasted.
Let’s now move to the same three notes on the 1st string, high E. Where does the thumb belong now? Did you leave it on the 10th fret of the 6th string, low E? Or did you slide it down behind the 10th fret of the high-E string? Can you feel the difference?
Balance and Symmetry
If you go back to that single #2 pencil, and use the fingertips of the index and pinky fingers at a comfortable distance, something interesting happens, naturally. You balance the pencil, automatically. If you add more force from the index finger? You have to also add more force to the pinky finger to prevent rotation. Pick up your pencil and do it. (No, really. Do it.) Look at the symmetry of your hand. The contact points on the outsides of the two fingertips. The gentle bend of every knuckle of your fingers, and of the wrist. This is perfect posture. You should strive to reproduce that posture—recalling the mental image of the symmetry and crown of the hand—every time you play lead. If you maintain a list of items through which you rotate your focus—and you should, if you don’t already— add this to your list. Think about fingertips. About thumb location. About dropping excess tension. About symmetry.
Anchors vs. Reference Points
As you play a melody or scale that changes strings across the fretboard, as you’ve seen, you’ll want that thumb to move with the rest of the hand. As you play a melody or scale that moves along the string, again, you’ll want that thumb to move with the rest of the hand. If you’ve always held that thumb in one spot as an anchor, and pivoted around that point, can you see how much energy you’re wasting? How do you think that’ll affect your ability to play fast? Or for hours on end? That is using the thumb as an anchor. A fixed point at the bottom of the lake that prevents the boat from moving away. (Here, you’re the boat. Sorry.) The desire to use that anchor is a rational one. You’ll place your fingers on the fretboard relative to that point. But you should think of that point as a reference point, rather than as an anchor. As the hand needs to move, that anchor needs to move. Treat it like a reference point, rather than an anchor. Reference points can be reset as often as necessary. Anchors cannot.
The strongest digit you have spends (nearly) all of its time behind the fretboard. But can you see how important it is for fast and flexible and comfortable play?
About the author: Matt Fienberg is a guitarist and guitar teacher in Central Massachusetts. If you liked this article, please visit his website at ROI Guitar Studio, and be sure to let him know! He is available for comments, questions, and/or lessons, if you happen to be in his area!