Acoustic Guitar Basics: How to Train Your Fretting Fingers for Maximum Efficiency and Musicality

Learn to use your fretting hand with maximum efficiency by understanding how that hand works mechanically and how it should interact with the fingerboard. 


You want to play with more accuracy and strength in your fretting hand.


Learn to use your fretting hand with maximum efficiency by understanding how that hand works mechanically and how it should interact with the fingerboard. 

If you think about it, your hands are neat systems of rods, pulleys, and levers. You have bones, joints, and muscles, and a super capable control-and-delivery system (brain and nerves)—if only you understand how to best use them for playing the guitar. 

While both hands require significant accuracy and finesse, it is the fretting hand that has to execute its ballet of power and accuracy while using an immensely greater amount of energy (squeezing) than the picking hand. Furthermore, if you apply too little energy, or if some energy gets directed to the wrong muscles in your fretting hand, you might buzz or miss a note, possibly enervating muscles that are not needed for the hand’s mission, and thus creating unwanted tension. If you engage the muscles with greater force than needed, they won’t manifest all of their litheness and agility and may needlessly exhaust themselves. 

Last but not least, position and form are critical. As with the picking hand, you need to position your fretting hand and fingers in ways that will give them maximum advantage over the fingerboard.


1. Assume Your Best General Position

To find the best general position for your left shoulder, upper arm, forearm, and wrist, position your guitar and right arm properly, then drop your entire left arm (or right, if you’re left-handed) from the shoulder toward the ground. Relax everything—neck, shoulders, elbow, wrist, and mouth. Feel the weight of your fingers trying to drip to the floor. Now engage only the left biceps to bring your hand to the guitar’s neck at the fifth fret. Wrap your fingers around the neck, as if you were going to do a pull-up, and let the arm hang. Be sure that you’re still relaxing everything, then take a mental snapshot of how your body feels. 

The picking hand's thumb is at approximately a 45º angle.
The picking hand’s thumb is at approximately a 45º angle.

2. Zero in on the Fingertips 

Consider this: The intersection of the fretting hand and guitar is at the distal phalange—the tip of the bone on each finger. The action of squeezing the neck between the distal phalange(s) and the thumb, on the anterior side of the thumb’s distal phalange, is how you fret a note.

With that in mind, bring your fingertips to the fingerboard, without letting any effort or tension happen in your body. Explore the positions of your four fingers on four adjacent notes, starting at the fifth fret of each string, to feel your hand’s optimal intersection with the neck. Make sure that you are pressing the note just behind each fret, but not touching it. Start with the G string, as it’s nearly the latitudinal center of the fingerboard. When the fingers are all on this string, the wrist is nearly straight. As you move to toward the sixth string, the wrist will increase flexion. Moving in the opposite direction, it will reduce flexion and will be almost straight on string 1.

Place the four fingers on frets 5–8, and as you squeeze them to the frets, use enough pressure to avoid buzzing. Now focus on the Eb on fret 8 of the G string with your fourth finger. Pick it continuously while reducing the pressure of your fourth finger until the note slightly buzzes. Then, press harder, just until the buzz goes away. Never use more or less force than that. 

The second and third fingers are perpendicular to the fretboard.
The second and third fingers are perpendicular to the fretboard.

3. Work on Some Fretboard Exercises

Now try a series of exercises. Play Example 1 using the process described below:

1. Place fingers 1–4 at frets 5–8 on string 3. 

2. Pick the Eb (fret 8) and listen to it until it has stopped sounding.


3. Lift your fourth finger perpendicularly, <2mm, as you pick the D (third finger), again letting the note decay naturally.

4. Lift your finger in the same way, as you sound the Db (second finger). Don’t let your fourth finger move in tandem with your third finger. Allow the Db to ring until it has stopped sounding.

5. Lift your second finger, making sure that your third and fourth stay stationary, as you pick the C (first finger) and let it ring. 

6. Lift your first finger as you pick the open G string and let it decay. Remember that your second, third, and fourth fingers should not be moving with your first. 

7. Place your first finger back onto the fifth-fret C, again without your other three fingers moving along with it.

Try the same exercise on the other five strings—the pattern is written it out on string 1 in Example 2. Note that when you play on the first string, your wrist will be between 0 and 10 degrees of flexion; flexion will increase a little for each lower-sounding string, with the sixth string needing as much as 30 degrees. Also, the thumb relocates latitudinally relative to what string the fingers are pressing. When you press the first string, the thumb is more or less under the third string; when you press the sixth, it is more or less under that string.


Now, let’s start on the first string with a variation on the exercises above. Practice the pattern in Example 3a through the sixth string, and then reverse course, as shown in Example 3b. Remember to adjust the wrist angle and thumb location as you move latitudinally across the fingerboard. 

This is a general guide to pressing the fretting-hand fingers onto the strings. Of course, when multiple fingers are demanded to play chords and polyphony, there may be compromises to the above, but if you can find the most minimal alterations while stopping all the required notes in your pieces, you will arrive at the most efficient execution of the material that you choose to play.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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Michael Chapdelaine
Michael Chapdelaine

Michael Chapdelaine is the only guitarist to win first prize in both the Guitar Foundation of America International Classical Guitar Competition and the National Fingerstyle Championship at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival.

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  1. Thanks for the article!

    The phalanges have a really cool singular–‘phalanx’

    I only point this out because it’s such a very, very awesome word

    Thanks again!