Technique Control, Part III – Left Hand Techniques

Last time, we looked at several aspects of control with respect to right hand techniques (or the picking hand, to make it independent of whether you’re left or right-handed). Today, let’s look at how we need to control what happens with the left, or fretting hand.

Approach of Left Fingers to Neck
I keep my left fingers very parallel to each other (once again, with some exceptions for more difficult techniques) and coming down on to the strings almost from straight above; maybe tilted just 10 – 20 degrees from the vertical.

Left Thumb during Slides
Just as your ring and little fingers provide the necessary anchor onto the drum head near the bridge, so also we need an anchor when sliding. By keeping the inside of the left thumb anchored to the upper side of the neck, we can rely on the amount of stretching our hand does to tell us how far to slide; usually either two or three frets-worth. Also, the actual slide is done with the wrist, not the arm or fingers. The fingers should be doing very little work and the arm should be doing no work during a slide.

Angle of Left Palm
Here I’m taking about the angle made by the neck, the palm side of the first knuckle of the first finger and the palm side of the first knuckle of the last finger. For example, if your whole palm were touching the neck, this angle would be zero. I tend to keep this angle also at about 10 to 20 degrees.

Relaxed Left Wrist and Forearm
I keep a very natural feel to the wrist. It’s not stressed at all and, except for some occasional especially difficult left-hand techniques, is very straight.

Keeping Calluses
Calluses on the tips of your fretting fingers will help you execute left-hand techniques. For instance, think about doing a pull-off. If you have calluses, when you press down on the string in preparation to do a pull-off, the callus will cause a small indention around the string that stays there longer than if you didn’t have a callus. When you execute the pull-off, this indention will noticeably help in bringing the string up without as much horizontal movement.
BTW, I like to think of executing a good pull-off as being similar to an airplane taking off from a runway surrounded by tall buildings; you have to get up in elevation quick. I believe it is the Hong Kong airport that is a real-life example of an airport surrounded by skyscrapers, making for a very difficult takeoff and landing (so I’ve heard). Of course, ‘landing’ for us (a hammer-on) is no problem in this regard, unlike a real airplane.
I think calluses also help with just having a bit cleaner sound, as the point of fretting (where your fingers and the fretboard act as a temporary nut) is more tight and definite.
Of course you get calluses by, you guessed it… practicing!

Making Chords in One Movement
It’s important to be able to make chords quickly and that is a challenge every student faces from day one. Sometimes, even after the actual finger positions are learned and become comfortable, it still takes a long time to complete a chord, especially one of the four finger chords. It’s important at this point to make sure you are bringing all of you fingers down onto the fretboard AT THE SAME TIME. Otherwise, you are training you fingers to do it in two, three or four stages, and this is a major impediment to quick execution.
You can practice this by getting all your fingers ready to fret before you actually bring them down onto the fretboard. Have them in position just above their respective places. When all fingers are properly positioned and ready, then bring them down simultaneously. At first, this is a lot harder to do that you might realize. It is the essential component in making chords quickly, and one that is often overlooked.

That’s it for this series. I hope you’ve gotten a good tip or two. Maybe you’ve even found that one trouble spot that was there all along, but was just too obvious to easily recognize.

“Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And when you get them, get them right, or they will get you wrong.”
Dr. Thomas Fuller

Part I  |  Part II  |  Part III

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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