Strength constitutes the essential, and widely unrecognized, key to effective guitar technique. For the guitarist who has never addressed this principle in his playing, newly trained arms, wrists and hands will produce his musical ideas with a precision and effortlessness that astonish. Locking in on the groove becomes inevitable.
Just as strength is the key to technique, overtraining is the key to strength. Consider athletes who repeat their essential motions with maximum resistance in order to ease the movements under the relatively relaxed conditions of actual performance. Baseball players swing multiple bats on deck, lineman practice pushing sleds far heavier than opponents, and runners repeat intense intervals at paces faster than their targeted race pace. The same principles apply to guitar technique, and the first step to overtraining is to isolate the essential motions, namely those of the left and the right hands/arms.
Left-Hand Strength: The Motion
Before developing your left hand, you must become familiar with the details of the motion you naturally or habitually employ already. While plenty of ink has been spilled over proper left-hand position, particularly in the realm of Classical guitar playing, the essential goal seems to me to be a relaxed posture. The knuckles of the hand ought to be roughly parallel to the neck. While the thumb will often creep down the radius of the neck to accommodate difficult chord stretches, the thumb may often peek above the top of the fingerboard, even to the point of fingering bass notes. Wes Montgomery’s left hand position (among all other physical aspects of his execution is the paradigm of relaxation).
Regardless of the position of your left-hand, pay attention to the movement of your fingers towards the frets as you play a line or a chord. Ideally, the fingers ought to move from a completely relaxed state to one of rapid, almost explosive, motion toward the fret before returning just as rapidly to the initial position of rest just above the fingerboard.
As Tuck Andress indicates, the movement is akin to that of the ball of an IBM typewriter, where the hand is the coiled ball and the fingers the keys that snap to the paper before returning to the ball (see Staccato: Learning from Animals, Tuck Andress; 1999). In spite of the explosive force of fingers, the motion itself ought to be so minimal as to be nearly imperceivable.
In order to attain this minimal, explosive force from the left-hand fingers, one must employ large motions. To begin, choose a chord to finger. After grabbing the chord as you would while playing normally, exaggerate the motion by violently moving the fingers from total extension (i.e. with open hand), to the frets of the chord, and then back to total extension.
Remember to allow the chord to ring on the frets for the slightest time possible; a staccato snap is the goal. You should strive even to make the strings buzz on the frets with the force of your momentary strike.
Left-hand Strength: The Exercise
The exercise itself constitutes an intense interval of quick repetitions of this exaggerated motion intended to fatigue the muscles employed in the movement, namely, those of the fingers, the wrist, and the forearm. The duration of the interval will be determined by the current strength of the player and may range from 15 seconds to, hypothetically, eternity. I have found a minute of aggressive and exaggerated motion to be an interval long enough to fatigue a very strong hand/arm.
Be sure to have at least two chords (or inversions of a chord) to grab alternately. Make two strikes per chord form. Running a chord through its inversions consolidates skill development. Running the changes of a tune is likewise effective.
Use a metronome; speed develops strength. Concentrate on nailing each blow to the front end of the beat. A strong driving rhythm is, as always, essential.
Always keep in mind the athletic model: you are like the 4-minute miler doing ¼ mile repeats at 3:40 mile pace. The exercise is neither an end in itself nor particularly fun; it is a task to be completed daily. Each interval should be followed by a period of rest/recovery roughly matching the duration of the interval of activity. A 15-30 minute set of repetitions seems to show results within several weeks, even within several days.
This exercise may be applied to lines as well as chords. Practice scales, patterns, and melodies just as you would chords, though with only one staccato stroke per note. Bebop heads are especially effective.
Stay tuned for the next essay on right-hand training!