Good habits take time to develop. Learning how to hold a guitar the right way is no exception. It is especially important for the budding guitar player to develop good habits that will enhance and help to speed up learning and prevent injury.
Often in our haste to learn how to form chords and how to pick and strum, we sometimes will overlook posture and proper form. As a result, many beginning guitarists will get discouraged when it gets difficult or painful to play.
Improper positioning of the hands or the guitar also can physically impede learning; as a result, it makes playing more difficult than it needs to be. Learning how to hold a guitar the right way will give the beginning guitarist a solid foundation to work from, making the process easier and more enjoyable. Let's look at the basics of how to hold a guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Basic Position
The acoustic guitar's hourglass design allows us to comfortably rest the guitar on one knee (left knee for left-handed players, right knee for right-handed players).
Sitting with your back straight, position the guitar against the stomach and chest area. Using your leg to support the guitar will free your arms and fingers to form chords and strum. It is important to be mindful of this, as, without proper support, it is your arms that are holding the guitar, which can cause fatigue and make it more difficult to form chords properly.
Classical guitarist often will use a guitar footstool to position the guitar higher on the body. Guitar footstools are available at most music stores and are relatively inexpensive.
Fretting Hand and Arm Positions
Once the guitar is supported and balanced on your knee, it is time to position the hands. Cup your fretting hand around the neck. Your fingers should form a loose "C" shape.
Place your thumb perpendicular to the neck with the tip of the thumb positioned in the middle of the back of the neck. This will anchor the fretting hand, allowing your fingers to be free to form chords. When forming a chord, press the tip of the fingers as close to the fret as possible. Be careful not to place them on the fret as this may cause string buzz.
Remember to maintain your hand in the "C" formation and keep it relaxed. Avoid the temptation to flatten out your fingers. It will take some getting used to. Once you develop the habit, however, it will benefit your playing by giving you a solid foundation and making it easier to form more complex chord forms.
Strumming/Picking Hand Position
Rest the strumming arm on the top of the guitar's body, allowing your hand to "float" over the guitar's sound hole. This anchors the strumming to maximize the movement of the wrist and strumming hand. Just as with the fretting hand, it is important to keep the moving parts as relaxed as possible.
There are many techniques used in strumming a guitar. A basic strum is performed by alternating downward and upward strokes of your strumming hand. With your strumming hand, form a loose "C" formation.
Next, drag the nail of the index finger down across the strings for the downward stroke. Follow this by dragging your thumbnail back upward across the strings for the upstroke. Keep repeating this until you achieve an even, musical rhythm. If you are using a pick, the motion is the same (more on holding a pick in a moment).
Playing the guitar in the standing position is an important skill to learn if you plan on performing by yourself or with others. Learning how to hold a guitar while standing, whether it is acoustic or electric, usually requires a guitar strap. The purpose of the strap is to position the guitar against the body and placing the bulk of the guitar's weight on the shoulder, allowing the arms to move freely. This becomes more important with electric guitars which can be heavy and cumbersome.
The strap allows the guitarist to adjust the guitar and optimize its position to the body. Ideally, the strap should position the guitar so that your hands are free and positioned perpendicular to the body (the same as when sitting).
Be careful not to position the guitar too high or too low as it may cause stress the wrists and hands. It may tempt you rockers out there to let the guitar hang low, imitating your favorite guitar hero, but it's wrong. We see it all the time, but keep in mind when learning how to hold a guitar, it is best to learn the correct way. Once you learn how to play properly, you can break the rules.
Hand Positions While Standing
Basically, the same rules apply to your hand position standing or sitting. When playing an electric guitar, many players will rest the side of their palms on the upper body near the bridge to facilitate single note picking and palm muting. Again, learn the proper way then experiment.
Holding The Guitar Pick
There are endless types of picks (plectrums) available in various shapes, colors, and thicknesses. Picks are made from a variety of materials, most commonly plastic, nylon or celluloid. Guitar picks can also be made from other materials such as metal, wood, glass, or even stone. Learning how to hold a guitar pick is relatively simple; using the pick correctly can be a bit more involved.
Picking A Pick
Guitar picks are commonly made of plastic. They are inexpensive and can be purchased at any guitar store. The type of material and the thickness of the pick will influence its playability and sound. For a beginner, a standard plastic pick is a good place to start.
A pick's thickness is generally described as Heavy, Medium, Light. The denser the pick, the more resistance it will have when striking a string. Light and medium thicknesses are good for strumming allowing the player to sweep across the strings effortlessly, while the heavier picks are better for playing single notes quickly.
The most common pick has a teardrop shape, and the player can hold the pick on the wide end using the pointed end to strike the string. Another common shape is triangular, which can be useful for strumming rhythm parts. There are endless types of specialty picks available as well. Start with a standard pick and experiment with various picks until you find one that suits your playing.
How To Hold A Guitar Pick
Place the pick firmly between your thumb and index finger with the pointed end of the pick perpendicular to the thumb and guitar strings. Position the pick so that you can strike the strings comfortably. The less the pick exposed the more control you will have when striking the string. Start with about 1/2 to a 1/3 of the pick exposed and adjust as necessary.
Strumming With A Pick
Strumming with a pick involves the same downward and upward sweeping motion as you would do using your hand. First, sweep downward across the top of the strings. The idea here is to minimize the amount of contact the pick that makes with the strings and still make the string ring musically. If the strum is too deep, it will sound uneven and clunky. If it is too shallow, you may miss notes.
With the pick parallel to the strings, sweep across, maintaining the same distance from the strings. Follow up with an upward sweep maintaining a proper distance. It may take a little getting used to, but practice until you achieve fluid motion, and it sounds musical.
Fingerpicking And Fingerpicks
Fingerpicks are plectrums that slip over your fingers. Guitarist use finger picks for fingerstyle guitar playing which is an advanced style of picking. Fingerpicks create a more pronounced and defined attack when using fingerstyle techniques.
A Final Word
In our eagerness to learn how to form chords and strum, learning how to how a guitar correctly is often overlooked. When learning the guitar, there will be times when we are bending over to see what our fingers are doing or perhaps we are just want to sit on the couch and strum while watching TV.
The important thing though is to be mindful of how to hold a guitar properly and strive to play correctly. Learning to play involves a series of repetitive tasks that develop certain muscles. Good posture and position help to lower the potential for injury. Repetitive stress injuries (RSI), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and neck shoulder and back stresses can occur from not knowing how to hold a guitar properly.
Listen to your body while playing if something is hurting or giving you trouble, stop, and address the problem. It is better to practice for a short time every day than to play for extended periods when you are just starting out. Playing guitar is an activity you can enjoy all your life. Learning how to hold a guitar the right way will help you become a better, healthier player.