Most musicians will tell you that, when it comes to guitars, where you position your fingers—and how you place them on the strings—will significantly impact how well you play the instrument. After all, your hands and fingers are responsible for helping you play the right notes.
The guitar pick should be firmly held between the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand, with its other fingers kept straight. On the opposite hand—your fret hand—the fingers should be comfortably curled as you press down on the strings along the frets as you play each note or chord.
Whether you are new to the guitar or looking to improve your playing technique, the remainder of the article below will cover finger placement and how you can avoid poor playing habits.
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Where Do I Place My Fingers on a Guitar?
Finger placement has a dramatic effect on the quality of the notes produced while you are playing the guitar. Before you begin practicing, you will definitely want to make sure that you are following the below finger positioning tips. Sloppy play at the onset can cause a novice player to develop some habits that will be difficult to break later.
Dominant Hand Finger Placement
Most guitars are built so that right-handed players can use their dominant hand as the picking hand, although if you’re left-handed, you can still follow these tips in an inverted fashion. (We will cover alternative options for lefties later in this article.)
Note: If you are unfamiliar with guitar playing terminology, the picking hand is the dominant hand located at the guitar's soundboard. The opposite hand, or fretting hand, is placed along the guitar's neck, with the fingers hovering over the fretboard.
Holding the Pick
You should hold your guitar pick between your dominant hand’s index finger and your thumb as you strum your guitar’s strings. The pick should be held firmly but not too tightly. It should be controlled at the top by the thumb so that it is not allowed to shift while you are strumming.
The other three fingers (middle, ring, and pinky) should not be on the pick and instead pointed straight down.
The pick angle refers to the angle you will be strumming the strings with your picking hand. There is not necessarily a default angle for holding a pick, as the tone produced will depend on the pick angle you use. However, there are at least two basic angles you can use:
- Holding pick parallel to the string: this will produce a more rounded tone, typically used with down picking
- Holding the pick at a 45-degree angle: this will produce a sharper tone
Properly aligning your fingers around these angles will ensure that you create the desired sound and avoid putting excess strain on them as you play.
Positioning for Non-Pick Players
Playing the guitar without a pick does have some advantages. If you opt to use a pick, there is really only one way to strum the guitar. If you choose to play with only your fingers, then you will have more freedom to modify the strumming action as you please.
- With your thumb: This produces a more rounded tone. You will be using the fleshy part of your thumb on down strums, with the nail catching on upward strums occasionally. You can anchor your other fingers on the guitar, but this is not a requirement.
- With your index finger: You will again use the fleshy part of your finger to strum. The difference is that the nail will catch on down strums.
- With your thumb and index finger: This will produce a sound similar to what you would expect if you were using a pick.
Finger Placement for Muting Strings
Novice guitar players frequently struggle with inadvertently swiping the strings that they do not mean to play; this can certainly be a frustrating problem that may even lead to some beginners giving up on their musical training entirely.
There is no need to give up, as there are some hand tricks that can prevent you from accidentally touching the adjacent strings while you are playing; this is known as muting.
There are a couple of ways to mute the lower strings on a guitar:
- Palm-muting: you can mute excess noise from adjacent strings by gently placing the palm of your picking hand on the lower strings while picking the guitar
- Thumb-muting: you can mute the strings with your picking hand’s thumb
The latter method is an excellent alternative to palm-muting; this is because, muting the strings with your palm can prove to be a little tricky. The flesh of your palm is soft, requiring exertion to effectively stop the string from vibrating. And, depending on which position you are playing from, you may have to make awkward movements with your hand.
The thumb method reduces the wasted motion by having the thumb of the picking hand on the strings while you play.
Non-Dominant Hand Placement
The left hand (or non-dominant hand) is typically the fretting hand for those playing the guitar. “Fretting” refers to selectively pressing down on the strings with your non-dominant hand, which will be positioned somewhere along the fretboard of the guitar.
Finger Placement and Fret Wires
Finger placement with the fretting hand is critical. If done incorrectly, you will not be able to produce chords or notes with clarity.
Here is where you should place your fingers with respect to the fret wires:
- Holding the string directly on top of the fret wire results in a muted note.
- Holding the string too far from a fret wire means that you will have to apply more pressure; this can strain your fingers.
- The ideal position for your fingers is towards the front of a fret wire.
You are encouraged to test out what kind of sound is produced by placing your fingers at different distances from the fret wires. (Note: A buzzing note is a sign that you need to bring your finger forward a bit while applying the same amount of pressure.)
Your Fingers Should Be Curved
The most convenient way to stop yourself from touching strings that you are not trying to play is to keep your fingers curved and relaxed while you are playing. If you watch an experienced guitar player, you will notice that they keep their fingers in this manner; this will be particularly the case while strumming chords.
To get an idea of how much you need to curve your fingers, start by making a fist with your dominant hand. You should then wrap the fingers from your opposite hand around the fist you just made; this is a decent approximation of what your fingers should look like when fretting notes.
Use Your Fingertips to Fret
Novice guitar players need to become comfortable using their fingers' tips to fret notes with ease. Your fingers should not feel heavy or strained when you are playing the guitar. Eventually, this process should become second nature, like riding a bike or using the gas and brake pedals in your car.
That “sweet spot” on the fingers will not be the actual tips of the fingers. Instead, the ideal spot to play the string will actually be in the fleshy part of your finger below the fingertip.
It would be nice if there were a universal sweet spot, but this isn't the case since everyone has differently-sized hands and fingers, so it is up to you to determine where that spot corresponds to your own fingers. However, with some practice, you will be able to make the necessary adjustments to fit your fingers soon enough.
How Far Above the Strings Should Your Fingers Be?
You should avoid letting your fingers travel too far above the strings while playing the guitar. An emphasis should be placed on efficient finger motion. It is hard enough to learn how to play the guitar as it is; why would you want to make things harder on yourself unnecessarily?
You are encouraged to never let the fingers rise more than 1 inch above the string. Ideally, the fingers should be kept about ½ inch above the string. (Use a ruler if you need help visualizing the distance.) All the fingers that are not being pressed down also need to be an equivalent distance from the string on your fretting hand. Remember: efficiency of movement is the goal here.
Where to Place the Thumb While Fretting
Beginners often complain about having sore fingers after several hours of guitar practice. But don’t worry; you will eventually build up calluses on your fingers and hands to make it much more comfortable to play.
However, playing the guitar despite thumb soreness can be a real problem. If what you are doing is causing pain, you need to start thinking about what adjustments you need to make. The absolute worst-case scenario for the novice guitar player is an annoying ailment called De Quervain Tenosynovitis; this is a wrist condition marked by intense pain and even crippling swelling at the base of the thumb.
Fortunately, how you position your thumb will significantly reduce the chances of experiencing soreness as you play:
- Make sure that your thumb is placed at the back of the neck, opposite your index finger.
- It’s also okay if you bring your thumb around your middle finger. Your thumb should usually be pointed upwards or perpendicular to the neck of the guitar.
Either of the above methods will prevent you from putting too much tension on your thumb.
Note: It is not unusual for guitar players to use their thumbs to fret specific notes. The key is to avoid putting excess strain on your thumb, regardless of which notes or style you are playing.
What If You’re Left-Handed?
There are key differences between right-handed guitars and left-handed guitars. For example, the thickest string on a left-handed guitar is on the right side rather than the left.
Given that just 10% of the global population is left-handed, finding a left-handed guitar at stores can be challenging. You can find them online, as is the case here, but many lefties learn how to play right-handed guitars anyways because of the reality that most chords are written for righties. Alternatively, you can always find instructions online for converting right-handed guitars into left-handed guitars.
This can make it more difficult for beginners to learn how to play a left-handed guitar, although certainly not impossible. There are many legendary left-handed guitarists, including the likes of Paul McCartney, Tony Iommi, and Kurt Cobain.
Some have even argued that it is actually not that much harder for lefties to learn how to play a right-handed guitar than for the righties to learn the same. All novice guitar players are challenged by the finger placement requirements, regardless of whether they are right or left-handed.
Is Finger Positioning on Electric Guitars Any Different?
The same finger positioning requirements that apply to acoustic guitars also apply to electric guitars, although fretting the electric instrument will present a much different feel; this is because electric guitars have necks that are both narrower and shallower.
The consequence of this is that fretting an electric guitar has been likened to cutting a hot knife through butter. This is because the guitar has a lot more “action,” a term used to describe the spacing between the frets and the strings. The frets are closer to the strings on electric guitars, making it much easier to fret them.
The biggest challenge posed by the electric guitar versus its acoustic counterpart is how close the strings are together. You are more likely to touch the adjacent guitar string inadvertently, making muting even more critical.
How Can I Make It Easier to Learn Finger Positioning?
Anyone good at playing the guitar makes finger positioning look easy; however, the reality is that the tiniest miscue could lead to the guitar producing a sound different from what is desired. It takes months to even years of practice to learn how to avoid finger placement mistakes.
Fortunately, there are some ways beginning guitar players can make the whole process of learning finger positioning a whole lot easier:
New guitar players may underestimate just how fast their fingers need to be moving while they are playing. Developing both strength and flexibility will be particularly important for those who have never played a musical instrument before.
The point of these exercises is not just to strengthen the fingers but also to get you used to finger positioning. One of the more productive activities for novice guitar players is called the pressure/release exercise.
The pressure/release exercise starts with you placing your fretting hand (left for most players) in the correct position along the fretboard. Then you will:
- Place fingers 1,2,3,4 on frets I, II, III, IV, respectively (any string will do, although string 3 is generally the preferred option).
- Press and release the strings simultaneously.
- Continue repeating this process over and over again until you familiarize yourself with the feeling. You can then proceed to try one finger at a time.
The pressure/release exercise may sound pretty simplistic. Still, it is essential that you familiarize yourself with what it feels like to press down on the strings before you actually start playing.
If you are still very much a novice, then a finger guide can go a long way in helping you figure out where your fingers need to go while you’re playing. If you want to achieve high-quality sounds with the guitar, finger placement must become second nature; this is because you don’t really have much time to think about where your fingers should go next once you start strumming.
Beginners have had success with finger guides like the Fantastic Finger Guide for Acoustic Guitar. The guide consists of three different colors and three different shapes. The stickers for fret numbers 1-5 are different colors than the stickers for fret numbers 6-12. This further helps the novice player easily distinguish where they should place their fingers if given a chord chart.
Guitar Fingertip Protectors
If you play your guitar enough, your fingers are bound to feel sore at some point. You can find fingertip protectors online.
Beginners are certainly encouraged to invest in fingertip protectors; they don’t cost very much at all, and they will ensure that you can complete those much-needed training sessions without having to cut practice short due to finger pain or discomfort.
Where Should You Place Your Fingers on a Guitar? Conclusion
With enough practice, you can quickly learn and memorize where your hands and fingers should go along a guitar to ensure you’re always producing amazing sounds. In summary, here are a few general finger placement tips to remember:
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- If using a pick, hold it between your thumb and index finger with your dominant picking hand, allowing the rest of the fingers to float, pointed straight downward. As you play, you can use your palm or thumb to “mute” other strings to avoid accidentally making them ring. Of course, players that opt not to use a pick have a little more flexibility with hand and finger placement.
- With your non-dominant, fretting hand, keep the fingers curled, relaxed, and hovering no more than an inch above the fretboard, toward the fronts of fret wires. Use the fleshy part right below your fingertip to hold down notes and chords. Your thumb should be kept on the back of the guitar’s neck to avoid strain.