Your fingers are doing some amazing things by moving in a very
unnatural way to get to the D chord.
I’m sure we can all remember our first experience with playing the guitar. For me, I would say I was about 12 years old and up until then had never even held a real one – let alone try to play the thing. I remember a new kid moving into the neighborhood, a bit older than my most of friends and I, who would regularly hang out at the park across the street from my place, always with his acoustic on hand. After befriending him through our mutual interest of skateboarding and rock, all of us younger guys would gather around him while he went through plenty of the big guitar hits of the day. He would regularly entertain us with riffs from Rage Against the Machine, old blues licks from BB King and even a few country folk tunes a la Hank Williams, but it wasn’t until he played the intro bars to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue – specifically the finger picking technique used and the lush, compounded but poignantly clear notes that shined through – that I was completely sold. I HAD to learn how to play guitar. It was on that day that I promised myself I’d learn.
Seeing as how he was only about three years older than me, as well as how easy he made playing each song look, I figured, how hard could it be? A week later, I spotted an old acoustic guitar at a yard sale near my place, ran to my mom to get the $10 they were asking for and finally had my very own guitar! An aside: for all of you aspiring guitarists out there – do not buy a cheap guitar like I did if you are starting out. They are professional instruments and using a flawed, cheap model will only making learning that much more difficult and frustrating.
I remember looking down and the fretboard for the first time and feeling like I was trying to read a foreign language; the fret inlays seemed purely cosmetic to me and I didn’t even know the first thing about keys, chords, etc. The next year proved to be the one of the most frustrating of my life as far as learning a new skill was concerned. With skateboarding, it only took about a week’s worth of practice to ride at full speed without losing my balance; another week to learn how to Ollie; about two months after that for a kick flip. By the time I had a year of skateboarding under my belt, I was pretty good for my age – at the very least one of the top at the park across the street. Guitar on the other hand proved to be a great deal more challenging. The C chord! God how painful it felt making that damn C chord! What was even more infuriating was watching that older guy switch between chords like it was an afterthought – it was enough to make me want to stop trying completely! Suffice it to say that my fingers were not ready – it simply felt unnatural holding down anything besides maybe Major G or open E Minor.
Still though, I was determined. The progress was slow and for the first few months, I honestly could not see any improvement in skill, although I had memorized plenty of chord shapes by then, if only in my head. Then, after about three months or so (I honestly can’t remember exactly how long it took, although I remember plenty of my friends who had started learning at the same time I had simply quitting from sheer frustration and lack of noticeable progress – a common reason why people quit trying to learn guitar their very first year), my fingers were finally beginning to learn. No more pain! I was even able to switch from C to D! Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the reason why my fingers were beginning to be able to shape unnatural positions was because of increased independence and muscle memory of the fingers on my left hand (as I play right-handed guitar). Yes, I was finally getting better, but it’s safe to say that I was still taking my left hand for granted at the time, as do many of us right-handed guitarists who seem to mainly focus on our picking fingers. In fact, it wasn’t until several years after this that I finally realized the true importance of the fretting hand. Sure, I did finger exercises here and there but once I pretty much nailed the major and minor chords along with plenty of sevenths, suspended, augmented and the like, I paid it less attention once I was satisfied with nailing them at that moment – bad move.
Going back to that initial unnatural feeling of chord shapes – it makes sense if you think about it. The reason it felt so unnatural in the beginning was because it simply was; our hands and fingers did not evolve with chord figures in mind. And no matter how easily it is for me to now switch between shapes, it is still quite unnatural. Your fingers are doing some amazing things by moving in a very unnatural way to get to the D chord. Most of us can do this move quickly without error, but it’s an amazing feat. We’re crossing our fingers vertically into a pretty unnatural shape. But we learn it by repetition and don’t think too much about it. We learn enough tunes with enough open chords and we get pretty good at switching, but it is quite unnatural. We humans were basically hunter-gatherers: We gripped things with all of our fingers and our opposing thumbs allowed us a few new tricks. But for most people, fingers are far from equal, and most fingers are weak. Across a single string, all four left-hand fingers can be in a line, but once you start playing chords, each finger can occupy a different string, and each finger has to move in a different direction.
So, what is natural for the left hand? Grab a tennis ball, or other palm-sized round object, and grip it with your left hand. Take a note of the shape. When I do it, my fingertips are largely in line with each other, and my thumb is across from the second finger. That’s a natural left-hand position, and that rarely happens when you play the guitar. And while things such as gripping a ball essentially requires no real training as even a toddler can do it effortlessly, consistent, proper chord shape fingering requires consistent, proper exercise. And just like an out of practice quarterback or a long retired skateboarder such as myself – just because you were able to master a certain technique at one point does not mean that it stays with you at the same level forever (trust me – I will never try and do a hard flip again just to impress the ladies like I would in my heyday, lest I want to make a fool of myself... again.) This is why learning these chords and techniques is only half the battle – staying in prime shape by consistently practicing and employing exercise drills to pull you even further is the other half!
Come back tomorrow when we will be discussing plenty of left hand drills and techniques that should help both veterans and newbies alike keep those unnatural talents feel perfectly natural!