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Finger Control

Mark Wingfield looks at finger independence exercises.

Complete finger independence is impossible of course, we can't totally separate the movements of our fingers. For example the 3rd and 4th (4th meaning your little finger) are always connected to a degree, move one and you'll move the other to some degree.

Although its not possible to make our fingers totally independent, it is possible to make them "playing independent". By "playing independent" I mean that for all practical playing purposes they are independent.

The more independent our fingers are the more control we'll have in our playing. You'll find more spontaneity in your fingers and your phrases will sound more fluent.

Even if you use a small set of riffs that don't require a lot of finger independence, if you have that independence the riffs will sound that much more fluent and controlled; allowing you to put in that something extra, because your fingers have the control to do it.

It's like the old car analogy that works for technique in general: If you have a car with a top speed is 80-mph and a car with a top speed of 130-mph; even though you're only travelling at 60-mph, which do you think will be nicer to drive?

So let's have look at some exercises for finger independence.

I prefer to use finger numbers rather than notation or tab for these exercises, because they are pure exercises. In other words they are not assigned to any set of notes in particular, they are a movable shape. You should think purely in terms of getting control of your fingers with these exercises, the actual notes are unimportant except in the fact that you will want to practice on all areas of the neck.

For fingering numbers: 4 is your little finger then we count down from there. The thumb is not counted as a finger.

Start with the following exercises:

13241324 repeat continuously

31243124 repeat continuously

13421342 repeat continuously

42314231 repeat continuously

42134213 repeat continuously

12431243 repeat continuously

21342134 repeat continuously

14231423 repeat continuously

If you pick most of your notes, make sure you pick all these notes. If you alternate pick, make sure to alternate pick correctly. If you play legato style, make sure all your hammer-ons and pull-offs are sounding the notes at the same volume and that your timing is even.

Getting your little finger to behave.

For most people, the most difficult finger to control at first is the 4th or little finger. We might be able to get it down on to the desired string and fret when necessary, but between notes it has a tendency to retract back miles away from the fretboard or point up at the ceiling, instead of remaining curled and poised over the strings with the other fingers, which is where it should be. If your 4th (or any other) finger moves back away from the strings when you uses your other fingers, you are using your hand very inefficiently. Think of it like this: if your 4th finger is hovering a few millimetres above the fretboard when not in use, when it is called upon to play a note, it only has millimetres to travel. This means increased speed and accuracy. If on the other hand if your 4th finger is hovering several centimetres away from the fretboard, then when its called upon to play, it has a long way to travel (which decreases speed), and the brain has a lot of calculating to do to move it all that distance, and get it onto the right fret and string (this decreases your accuracy and causes timing problems). So there are a lot of advantages to "training" your 4th finger to stay just above the fretboard at all times.

How do you train your little finger to stay in line?

Of all the exercises I've come across this is the one that I find is the quickest at getting the 4th finger to stay under control. I'll warn you its not easy at first, but you don't have to be brilliant at this exorcise to get some very quick improvement in 4th finger control, as long as you do the exercise correctly. When eventually you can do this exercise well, you'll find you have complete (or as complete as you can get) control over your 4th finger.

So here's the exercise:

1) Hover your 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers a millimetre or two over the B string, each finger hovering over its own fret ie: the 7th, 8th and 9th frets.

2) While keeping these three fingers in place, hover your 4th finger a millimetre or two above the A string at the 10th fret.

3) Rule: you MUST keep your 4th finger hovered a millimetre or 2 over the A string 10th fret (and curled slightly) AT ALL TIMES. This is the most important thing, all other parts of this exercise are secondary. In other words, none of the exercise will work unless your 4th finger is in this position at all times.

4) Put your 1st finger down onto the 7th fret (B string), but you MUST keep the 4th finger hovering just over the A string. Its no good pressing down with your 1st finger and your 4th finger moving away from the A string, and then getting it back quickly. The 4th finger MUST stay a millimetre or 2 above the A string the whole time. if it takes ages to slowly get your 1st finger down onto the fret while keeping your 4th finger in position, this is fine - you will be getting benefit from the exercise. If your 4th finger moves away from the string, even for an instant, you are not getting anything from the exercise, so you have to start again.

Note: As I said before, it is not necessary to be able to do this exercise easily, to improve control of your 4th finger, only that you do the exercise correctly.

5) Keeping you 4th finger in place, release the pressure of your 1st finger (no need to actually lift it off the string) and press your second finger down on the 8th fret B string (which it should have been hovering above up till now). As always, you must keep your 4th finger hovered just above the A string the whole time. If your 4th finger moves away, even for an instant, you must take your 2nd finger off, put your 4th finger back in place, and try again.

Note: it doesn't matter how long it takes to get your 2nd finger down (its fine if it takes several minutes) just as long as you keep your 4th finger hovering just over the A string the WHOLE time.

6) Release the pressure of your 2nd finger, and press your 3rd finger down onto the 9th fret. As usual, keeping your 4th finger in position the whole time.

7) Go back releasing 3rd finger, pressing down 2nd, releasing 2nd, pressing down 1st, then back up etc... Don't forget, if you let your 4th finger moves away from the A string even for a second, its no good just putting it back and carrying on - you've got to start again.

8) pay particular attention to the movement between the 2nd and 3rd fingers, this is the most difficult time to keep the 4th finger in place.

Note: Keep your hand relaxed. This may seem like a contradiction in terms when you first do this exercise, but most people find that if they relax enough, for long enough, and concentrate for long enough, it gets a lot easier to do this exercise than if you just let your hand get really tense.

By the way, although for the purpose of simple explanation I've asked you to do this exorcise over the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th frets, you can do it anywhere on the neck as long as the frets use choose are consecutive and you use the B and A strings.

Once you've been working on this exercise regularly for a couple of weeks (IF you've done it correctly ie: kept the 4th finger in place at ALL times), you'll start to find that you can keep your little finger nicely curled and in position in line with your other fingers, even when its not being used.

Remember, in time it will seem like the most natural, relaxed thing in the world to keep your little finger in control - you'll forget it was every out of control.


NEVER attach anything to any of your fingers to hold them in place or change their position - you'll very likely damage your tendons if you do.

If you ever experience any sharp or serious pain: relax, stop the exorcise and try it again in a day or two. You should never carry on with any exercise if it it causing any real pain. Having said that, there is no reason why this particular exercise should cause you any pain (unless you've let your hand get extremely tense).

Final exercise:

Once your getting some control over keeping your 4th finger in position you can do these exercises.

The number refers to the finger number, and the letter refers to the string. These exorcises can be (and should be) done everywhere on the neck. Just make sure that you are using 4 consecutive frets, one for each of your 4 fingers.

Pick each of these notes (might as well use alternate picking too).

E1, B2, E1, B3, E1, B4, E1, B3, E1, B2 repeat...

E2, B1, E2, B3, E2, B4, E2, B3, E2, B1 repeat...

E3, B1, E3, B2, E3, B4, E3, B2, E3, B1 repeat...

E4, B1, E4, B2, E4, B3, E4, B2, E4, B1 repeat...

And then:

B1, E2, B1, E3, B1, E4, B1, E3, B1, E2 repeat...

B2, E1, B2, E3, B2, E4, B2, E3, B2, E1 repeat...

B3, E1, B3, E2, B3, E4, B3, E2, B3, E1 repeat...

B4, E1, B4, E2, B4, E3, B4, E2, B4, E1 repeat...

If you want to take this further, once these exercises are getting easy, you can do them skipping a string or even 2 or more strings eg: instead of using the B and E strings you could use the G and E strings.

Note: if you alternate pick these exercises, they are excellent for the picking hand as well.

Mark Wingfield

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