Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt
button

Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

Are you searching for the secrets to playing with a relaxed left hand?

THE BEST PLAYERS DO NOT PLAY WITH A RELAXED LEFT HAND.

They have EFFICIENT left-hand techniques that use only the effort needed to execute a passage of music.

The goal is to apply minimal effort for maximum efficiency. I explain how you do it.

This is Part 1 of 2.

Questions or comments?

Contact Me

Do you have a question?
Comment?
Suggestion for the website?

I would love to hear from you.

Downloads

Downloads of content and videos are available at the end of the technique tip. Please scroll down to bottom.

Classical Guitar Technique

SECRETS TO AN EFFORTLESS, RELAXED
LEFT-HAND CLASSICAL GUITAR TECHNIQUE
Part 1 of 2



By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved.
This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.



Are you searching for the secrets to playing with a relaxed left hand?
THERE AREN'T ANY! THERE IS NO SUCH THING.

THE BEST PLAYERS DO NOT PLAY WITH A RELAXED LEFT HAND. They have EFFICIENT left-hand techniques that use only the effort needed to execute a passage of music.

The goal is to apply minimal effort for maximum efficiency.

Note: "Left hand" in this article comprises left hand, left-hand fingers, left forearm, and left shoulder.

You are Totally Relaxed Only When You Are Unconscious!

Playing the guitar while unconscious just will not work. And, sorry to break this news to you, but playing any instrument is NOT a relaxing activity. Playing the guitar requires constant muscular effort and tension, sometimes quite a bit of it.

Even in piano pedagogy, which is far more developed than that for the guitar, relaxation theories (now discredited) used to be very popular. The problem is that the teachers had it backwards. They thought relaxation led to efficient, effortless playing. In reality, it is the application of the correct types of movement and tension that leads to what appears to be relaxed, effortless ("He makes it look so easy") playing.

This may seem like I am splitting hairs, but the bottom line is that if you try to follow a teacher's instruction to relax or tell yourself, "Relax darn it", you will not get good results.

You must train your hand to make efficient movements with minimal effort which results in what feels to you (and looks to others) to be a relaxed hand. Only then, will you begin to "make it look easy".

Functional and Dysfunctional Tension

The trick is to use only functional tension (tension which is helpful to accomplishing a task) and eliminate dysfunctional tension (tension that does not help and sometimes hinders accomplishing the task). Broadly speaking, using functional tension is using good technique!

Common Examples

1. Squeezing lightly between the thumb and fingertips can be functional tension. It can help to play a fretted note. Excessive squeezing is dysfunctional tension.

2. Leaving a finger down as a pivot finger or as preparation for a shift is functional tension. Leaving a finger down as you place another finger on a higher fret on the same string is dysfunctional tension. Example #1.

Leyenda (Asturias) Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate. Video 1. Be sure to watch full screen.

Sometimes you may think it is easier to leave a left-hand finger down. But doing so usually leads to choppy playing or creates problems with shifts. Lift the finger. Then prepare the finger for what is coming next. Just because it is an easy C chord, D chord, G chord or whatever, does not mean you want to put all the fingers of the chord down. Only place the fingers you absolutely need. Example #2.

Un Dia de Noviembre (Leo Brouwer) Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate these points in Un Día de Noviembre. Video 2. Be sure to watch full screen.

3. Placing an entire chord at the very beginning of a piece or section is functional tension. Placing an entire chord during the piece when it is not needed is dysfunctional tension. Example #3.

Prelude No. 1 (Heitor Villa-Lobos) Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate these techniques in Video 3. Be sure to watch full screen.

4. In arpeggio passages, placing the fingers one-at-a-time as they are needed is functional tension. Placing the fingers of an entire chord simultaneously is dysfunctional tension. Example #4.

Prelude No. 1 from the Well Tempered Clavier (J.S. Bach) Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate the correct way for the left hand to play most arpeggios. Video 4.
Be sure to watch full screen.

5. Preparing fingers by extending them is functional tension. Keeping fingers relatively relaxed will often lead to dysfunctional tension when you must execute a chord change or move to a full bar. Example #5.

Andantino (Matteo Carcassi) Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate the use of functional tension for left-hand finger preparation. Video 5.
Be sure to watch full screen.

Leyenda or Asturias by Isaac Albéniz, Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

Watch me demonstrate these left-hand techniques in Leyenda. Video 6. Be sure to watch full screen.

Dysfunctional Tension in Other Body Parts

An important goal is to get rid of tension from body parts not directly associated with the operation of the left hand. For instance:

  1. Clenching the teeth together
  2. Making faces
  3. Doing weird things with your tongue
  4. Clenching your toes
  5. Tensing leg muscles
  6. Tensing foot muscles
  7. Tensing throat muscles
  8. Tensing eye muscles

These actions have nothing to do with the left hand. They have nothing to do with improving the efficiency of the fingers or hand. Therefore, they are all examples of dysfunctional tension.

Tensing other body parts will often transfer to or increase tension in the left hand.

Tensing other body parts can also mask your sensation of tension in the hand. Because another body part or parts is under tension, excessive left-hand tension may go unnoticed.

An Efficient Left Hand is the Sum of Many Parts.

The goal is to use no more effort than is needed to do a required job. Dysfunctional tension generates extra effort and sabotages efficient movement.

In the left hand, dysfunctional tension and lack of efficiency may be caused by one or several of the following factors. Reducing or eliminating dysfunctional tension is an extremely complex topic because there are so many interacting physical body parts and so many variations in body characteristics from player to player. Regardless, I will try to give you some broad principles, so you can self-diagnose your problems and focus on the things that might improve your left-hand efficiency the most.

USE THE CORRECT BALANCE BETWEEN USING THE THUMB, PULLING WITH THE ARMS, AND ARM WEIGHT

The Three Power Sources

The left hand has three sources of power from which to draw so it can play efficiently with minimal effort. An efficient left hand uses all three in constantly varying proportions depending on the demands of any given musical passage.

Power Source No. 1: ARM WEIGHT

Arm weight is the power source most teachers and players like to tout. It is absolutely a great power source but unfortunately is limited. The weight of the arm pretty much stays the same. It is sufficient for some demands required of the left hand, but is insufficient for many more. However, it is definitely the most efficient source of power. No effort is required for the weight of the arm to pull on the hand as it hangs on the guitar.

Let me explain arm weight. Video 7. Be sure to watch in full screen.

Power Source No. 2: ARM PULL

Arm pull is the most important power source. Arm pull is the act of pulling the guitar against the chest equally with both arms. The arms and shoulders are very strong and can handle substantial power demands with little effort. It is also probably the least understood source of power. Most players, even advanced players, are often unaware they are using arm pull most of the time they are playing. I often hear people scoff at this idea, but once explained and self-awareness turned on, it is very obvious that everyone uses arm pull.

Power Source No. 3: THUMB SQUEEZE

Most of the time, the thumb should not be a power source at all. It is weak and becomes fatigued quickly. Instead, the left-hand thumb is a PASSIVE PARTICIPANT in efficient left-hand technique. Its purpose is to channel or direct the power from arm weight and arm pull into the hand and provide balance and stability. If you use correct technique, RARELY should you feel tension or pain in the thumb.

Watch this riveting video on how an efficient left-hand technique uses its three power forces. Video 8. Get out the popcorn and watch on full screen.

How to Use the Three Power Sources

To hold notes, intervals, chords, or bar chords, the left hand should use a COMBINATION of the following three power sources. In general, we might use these percentages:

  1. 45% pull with both arms.
  2. 45% arm weight.
  3. 0-10% squeeze between the thumb and fingers.

The percentages will change substantially depending on what you are playing. To play single notes, pulling with the arms may drop to 10% with 85% arm weight and 0-5% thumb.

On the other hand, playing a Db full bar chord in first position will use 80% arm pull, 10% arm weight, and 0-10% thumb squeeze. Example #7.

Db major bar chord, Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

A great way to get a feel of how to use these elements is to practice WITHOUT THE THUMB ON THE NECK.

Start with Single Notes

1. Begin playing this E major scale fragment with the thumb on the neck. Be sure you have the guitar leaned back against your chest, so you can easily see all 6th strings on the fretboard (this makes it easier to take full advantage of arm weight—see video #7). Example #8.

E major scale fragment, Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

2. As you repeat the fragment, take the thumb off the neck. You are now experiencing the use of 100% arm weight to hold down the notes. Wiggle the thumb around a bit to be sure it is loose.

3. Then, add the thumb but do not apply pressure with it. Play the fragment several times. The hand learns it can have the thumb on the neck (exerting zero pressure) and continue to use 100% arm weight.

4. As you repeat the fragment over and over, alternate between placing the thumb on the neck and taking it off as you play. Notice how putting the thumb back on the neck helps stabilize the position but that it does not need to exert any force of its own for you to be able to hold the notes.

This will teach the hand that the thumb is a passive participant (it only stabilizes and balances the hand) as you continue to use 100% arm weight. In real-life playing situations, the thumb will usually exert a bit of pressure, but it should be minimal.

Chords

1. Play this F major chord in 5th position with the thumb on the neck. Be sure you have the guitar leaned back against your chest, so you can easily see all 6th strings on the fretboard (this makes it easier to take full advantage of arm weight—see video #7). Example #9.

E major scale fragment, Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

2. As you repeat the chord, take the thumb off the neck and keep the right arm resting lightly as normal on the guitar. The chord will buzz. You are experiencing the use of 100% arm weight to hold down the notes. Wiggle the thumb around a bit to be sure it is loose. But the chord is buzzing. The use of arm weight alone is not sufficient to hold this and many other chords and formations.

You could put the thumb back on the neck and squeeze and get the chord to come out clearly. But, it will take a strong dose of pressure. Not very efficient. Instead, proceed to step #3:

3. As you play the buzzing chord with the thumb off the neck, begin to pull the guitar against your chest with both arms. You will feel the guitar dig into the right arm as you pull with the left arm. This keeps the position of the guitar stable.

Pull just enough to stop the buzzes. Wiggle the thumb around to be sure it is loose. You are now using maybe 70% arm weight and 30% arm pull.

4. Continue to play the chord and add/take off the thumb from the neck. You can use zero thumb pressure, or add a little thumb pressure to reduce the amount of arm pull.

The arm weight will always be present. You will adjust the amount of arm pull and thumb pressure as needed for different situations. In general, use a minimum amount of thumb pressure. The arms are far more powerful than the thumb. Using functional tension in the arms is far more efficient than squeezing hard with the weak thumb.

Bar Chords

1. Play this B major chord in 7th position with the thumb on the neck. Be sure you have the guitar leaned back against your chest, so you can easily see all 6th strings on the fretboard (this makes it easier to take full advantage of arm weight—see video). Be sure the right arm is resting lightly on the guitar. Example #10.

B major bar chord, Relaxed left hand classical guitar technique

2. As you repeat the chord, take the thumb off the neck and keep the right arm resting lightly as normal on the guitar. The chord will buzz badly. Wiggle the thumb around a bit to be sure it is loose. You are experiencing the use of 100% arm weight to hold down the bar chord. The chord will sound terrible. The use of arm weight alone is no where close to being sufficient to play most bar chords.

You could put the thumb back on the neck and squeeze and get the chord to come out clearly. But, it will take a huge amount of pressure. Not efficient at all. Instead, proceed to step #3:

3. As you play the buzzing chord with the thumb off the neck, begin to pull the guitar against your chest with both arms. You will feel the guitar dig into the right arm as you pull with the left arm. This keeps the position of the guitar stable.

Pull just enough to stop the buzzes. Wiggle the thumb around to be sure it is loose. You are now using maybe 10% arm weight and 90% arm pull.

4. Continue to play the chord and add/take off the thumb from the neck. You can use zero thumb pressure, or add a little thumb pressure to reduce the amount of arm pull.

Once again, the arm weight will always be present. For bar chords, you will mostly adjust the amount of arm pull as needed for different situations. Use a minimum of thumb pressure. The arms are far more powerful than the thumb. Using functional tension in the arms is far more efficient than squeezing hard with the weak thumb.

Read my technique tips on bars for specific information on the "secrets" to playing bar chords: The Secret (Little Jennifer's Secret) of How to Play Clear Bar Chords and How to Learn to Play a Bar Chord in Under 2 Minutes.

End of Part 1. More to come next month in Part 2!

Downloads

These are downloads from Dropbox. NOTE: You do NOT need a Dropbox account and don't have to sign up for Dropbox to access the file.

1. Download a PDF of the complete article (Parts 1 and 2) with links to the videos.

2. Download PDFs of the article with embedded videos
These are very large files.

Download Secrets to an Effortless and Relaxed Left Hand, pages 1-4 with Videos 1-3. 672 MB

Download Secrets to an Effortless and Relaxed Left Hand, pages 5-11 with Videos 4-7. 484 MB

Download Secrets to an Effortless and Relaxed Left Hand, pages 12-16 with Video 8. 755 MB


3. Download the individual videos. Click on the video you wish to download. After the Vimeo video review page opens, click on the down arrow in the upper right corner. You will be given a choice of five different resolutions/qualities/file sizes to download.

Download Video 1 lifting fingers.

Download Video 2 Un Dia de Noviembre Lifting Fingers.

Download Video 3 Planting Chord at Beginning of Pieces Villa-Lobos Prelude No. 1.

Download Video 4 Placing fingers sequentially Bach Prelude No. 1.

Download Video 5 Extending fingers for preparation Carcassi Andantino.

Download Video 6 Extending fingers for bar preparation Leyenda.

Download Video 7 Arm Weight.

Download Video 8 Balance of forces.