When you first start out on the guitar you will have a hard time putting your fingers on the appropriate strings — especially while fretting chords. You place one finger on one string, so far so good. Then you place another finger on another string, but in doing so the first finger you placed wants to move with it. The more awkward the chord fingering, the harder it is to get your fingers to go where they should go.
Or, you are able to fret a chord with some fingers alright, but the remaining fingers are left hovering in some awkward position over the fretboard.
It gets worse when you try and play fast chord progressions. Sometimes your fingers just don’t want to move fast enough.
The very first thing my piano teacher taught me was how to develop finger independence. The first thing you should practise when you learn the guitar is finger independence.
Finger independence is crucial for developing good technique. I believe that along with finger relaxation (see the post “Building Finger Speed: Relaxation”), finger independence is the most fundamental thing every guitar player must train early on in their careers.
Here are two ways to train finger independence.
Switch between specific chord fingerings
Play an open C major chord. Now lift your index finger off the B string making sure to leave the middle and ring fingers where they are. Play the chord (Cmaj7). Now put your index finger back on the B string and lift your middle finger up. Play the chord (Csus2). Now put your middle finger back on the D string and lift your ring finger up. Play the chord (Am7).
Repeat this at least five times.
Can you do it without making any mistakes, without thinking about it and letting each string (except the low E) ring perfectly?
If you can, let’s try something a little harder. The previous exercise does not use your pinky. You can try a variation by playing an E major shape barre chord, say A major (that is, you bar the fifth fret). Now in turn lift, your middle, ring finger and pinky up like in the previous exercise, leaving the remaining fingers where they are.
The mother of all finger independence exercises
The following is a finger exercise that my piano teacher taught me. It is very effective in developing finger independence. This exercise is not just for piano players, it is equally effective for guitar players.
This exercise can be performed anywhere; you don’t even need to use a guitar. That’s the beauty of it. You can practise it all day long if you want. All you need is your left hand and a flat surface to rest your hand on. Failing that, you can use your thigh as a replacement surface.
The exercise is best explained visually. You start off placing the tip of your thumb down onto the surface (or your leg), and you keep it there. Next you alternate between two finger placements for the remaining four fingers whilst keeping your thumb down at all times. You place your fingers as if you are playing the piano: you only ever touch the surface with the tip of your finger, not your entire finger.
Have a look at the following two figures. The first shows the thumb highlighted in red, and the index (denoted by a `1′) and ring finger (denoted by a `3′). These three fingers should be on the surface (or leg); the others should be up. The second figure shows the middle (denoted by a `2′) and pinky (denoted by a `4′) highlighted in yellow. This time it is those fingers that should be placed onto the surface, and the other two should be up.
Next, we move onto the index finger. We place it down onto the surface and keep it there and then we alternate between two finger placements for the remaining fingers.
Next, we move onto the middle finger. I think you get the picture now. Here are the remaining figures for the middle finger, ring finger and pinky.
At first this exercise will be really hard and you will have a hell of a time getting your fingers placed correctly. Persevere. The aim of the exercise is to be able to do it without having to think about it. You start off slowly, and you build it up from there (for more information on this, see “Playing Fast: How-To”).
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