The All Important Left Hand Position!


I received an excellent question from one of my viewers, so I thought I'd share the answer I gave them with everyone.

They were complaining of shoulder pain, which I too used to get. Far too often, not enough guitarists consider the position they sit in (or stand). Which is sad, because with just a few adjustments you can improve your playing vastly. The right position, will allow your body to be comfortable and most importantly- stay loose and relaxed. Tension (wether in the hand, shoulders, or even face) is the NUMBER ONE enemy of guitarists. Not only does it slow you down, make things more difficult, and can even make your tone poor, it can actually HURT you (look up Carpal Tunnel Syndrome).


As I take you through getting the right position,  I assume you are right handed.  If you are not, simply substitue right for left (but I'm sure you're already familiar with that drill by now).

There are a couple of videos you should check out.  First is from an excellent classical guitarist, William Kanengiser. He is a classical guitarist, and he discusses classical technique, and classical position (which is by far the most perfect technique). I use this position when I play classical, but modify it a little for when I play acoustic, elecetric, or stand. But the fundamental ideas will all be the EXACT same thing. I want you to try his suggestions, and then later Iwill discuss how to adapt for the others.

The entire Effortless Classical Guitar video is available on YouTube and it is in an EXCELLENT resource. 


Here's another video to watchfrom another amazing guitarist, Sharon Isbin.  In this video, I don't think she speaks so much about left hand position, so you don't have to watch the whole thing, but what I want you to notice is her position.  Notice how high the neck is, and how high the neck is compared to her shoulder.  It's often so that the 7-9th frets are about equal height with the shoulder. 

Sharon has a technique (once you have the proper guitar position) for how to prepare the left hand.  She calls it the "gorilla grip."  Basically you let your left hand dangle completely loose and then you quickly snap it up and grab the neck in your palm. Be sure not to move your elbow in any direction as you bend it. This is the basic position you should be in.  Of course you won't actually grip the neck like this while you play, but it gets you into the right position. 


Here's a video that demonstrates the technique well.  His initial sitting position is poor, but he demonstrates the gorilla grip well.  As you watch, notice how his neck height is much lower than Sharon's and Williams', and as a result notice how he has to bend over the guitar and reach down under the neck.  So, one of the biggest factors is how high the neck of the guitar is! But, he does demonstrate the gorilla grip, so once you have the right sitting position, do what he says, and your arm/hand position will be good. 

One thing that people don't realize is that the height of the CHAIR you sit on can be a big thing.  Even if you are using a Foot Stand Picturefootstand to elevate the leg your guitar sits on (which you should!  Or at least a good stack of books), alot of people sit in a chair that is too high for them.  There are seats designed for guitarists, but I use a drum throne (easy to pick up at a music store or Amazon) that is adjustable so I can get in a position like Sharon's.  If you have the right sitting position, the right guitar height, and use the correct "grip," this will correct most of your shoulder positions.  One last thing to note is that your elbow should be directly below your shoulder.  If you push your elbow too far forward, or even more likely, pull it too far back that will also create tension in the left shoulder. 

Good Guitar Position for Rock

So, up to now we've looked at the classical guitar position, but what if you want to have a more "rock" look? There is a way to change your look, but make sure you keep all the ideas we've learned so far about tension and position. I keep my acoustic and electric guitars on my right leg (instead of the classical on the left). If you only change which leg you are on though, you will feel more pressure in your shoulders. So, I angle my body (as little as 10 up to 45 degrees) a little to the left, so that the body of the guitar is a little closer to my hip, and the neck is a little out away from my chest. This way, my left elbow still drops down directly underneath my elbow without having to push the arm forwards or backwards (which would introduce that NASTY shoulder/hand tension we hate). How much you have to angle will depend on your height, the width of your guitar (thin electric bodies will have a bigger angle), and how heavy/slim your body is.

When I am in a standing position, I still want to make sure my left elbow is directly below my shoulder, so I once again have the guitar on my hip, not directly in front of me. The strap height is very important. You want it high enough that both of your elbows drop straight down so that your shoulders are relaxed. If it's too high, you'll have to chicken wing your shoulders out, which creates our biggest enemy- yup, tension. If it's too low you'll have to goose neck your left wrist (you want your wrist to be in a straight line with your arm and elbow like it were in a cast) which is THE WORST thing you can do for your wrists and for your ability to play comfortably and quickly. Many people know the Greenday look where the body of the guitar is below the belt line. It may look cool for a video shoot, but it is a terrible way to play the guitar (especially anything more difficult than a few power chords). In fact, looking through some Google Images, it looks like he plays alot of live stuff with the guitar on his hip similar to what I'm talking about.

While standing, I have the neck angling away from my body (instead of the body of the guitar being completely flush with my stomach/chest). Because the body of an electric is thinner, I usually have a greater angle (which will help keep the right shoulder relaxed).

It may take a bit of concentration to get this particular area down, because you'll notice old habits creeping up when you focus on a tough part of a song. But it's one of the best ways to move from a beginner to a pro. Unfortunately, too many guitarists don't pay any attention, and therefore will never quite understand why they can't play as fludily or quickly as their favorite guitar hero.

I'm in the middle of setting up a photo/video area so I hope to get some good video or photos up soon. But until then, I hope this helps!

Mentioned or Related Gear

You can get the Kannengiser video from Amazon. If you want to read further, check out these links too. Or click the pics below to check out some of the products mentioned in the article (if you don't see anything disable ad-blocking software for this page):