Where to put your fingers

This lesson is on how to place your fingers down on the fretboard.

Ok. So we've learned how to read chord diagrams, but how do we know which fingers to use?

We have two general rules for interpreting chords that will always tell us which fingers to use. They are:

- the finger-per-fret rule

- thinking through the note

The finger-per-fret rule says that we assign each finger of the fretting hand a number. the index = 1, middle = 2, ring = 3, pinky = 4, and thumb = T.

- if more than one finger is in the same fret, then the lowest numbered finger goes to the thickest string played in that fret, the next lowest numbered finger goes to the next thickest string played in that fret, etc.

- if notes are played in more than one fret, then the lowest numbered finger goes to the lowest numbered fret, the next lowest numbered finger goes to the next lowest numbered fret, etc.

Such a rule covers most chords ever encountered.

Let's look at some examples:


Here the 6th string is not played. The 1rst and 3rd strings are played open. the 3 notes on the frets are on different frets, so we place our first finger on the 1rst fret (2nd string), our 2nd finger on the 2nd fret (4th string), and our 3rd finger on the 3rd fret (5th string).


Here the 1rst, 2nd, 3rd, and 6th strings are open (no fingers touching them). The 1rst finger holds down the 5th string, and the 2nd finger holds down the 4th string.




Here the 1rst, 2nd, and 6th frets are open. Then we have notes both in different frets and in the same fret. Given multiple frets, the lowest numbered finger goes to the lowest numbered fret. The first finger plays the note in the 1rst fret (3rd string). Then given notes in the same fret, the lowest numbered finger goes to the thickest string. So the 2nd finger plays the note on the 2nd fret (5th string), and the 3rd finger goes to the note on the 2nd fret (4th string).

Now, our second fingering rule says "think through the note". By this we mean that you need to view the chord in context. So we need to consider not only where our fingers might go if we played the chord by itself, but also where do those fingers go next. And is there a different way to place our fingers so that there is an easier transition between chords (this may include using fewer fingers to play the same notes).

So consider:


The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings are open. Usually using the finger-per-fret rule we would use the 1rst finger for the 2nd fret(5th string), 2nd finger for the 3rd fret (6th string), and 3rd finger for the 3rd fret (1rst string). However, we could choose to play it this way : 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret (5th string), 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret (6th string), and 4th finger plays the 3rd fret (1rst string).

Why would we do such a thing?

Maybe we are switching back and forth between G and C (given above). This 2nd version of G (w/ fingers 2,3,4) would create less hand movement between chords.

Correctly placing the fingers down on the fretboard

Beyond learning how to read a chord diagram (last lesson) and being able to figure out which fingers go where (this lesson), there is the actual physical act of placing your fingers down on the strings.


Traditional practice is that the thumb should be directly in the middle of the back of the neck (riding the ridge)[approximately opposite the middle finger].

Often problems of not being able to reach notes in a chord are due to bad thumb positioning.


It's necessary to clip your fretting-hand fingernails down to a level where you can push the strings down to the fretboard. The fingernails should not hit the fretboard before the fleshy tips of your fingers. find a fingernail length that is comfortable and works for you.


Unless otherwise directed (for barres, damped strings, etc.) the flshy tips of the fingers should push down the strings, perpendicular to the fretboard, an dtouching only the one string being played by the finger.


The fingers should be curved so that the finger-tips push down into the strings perpendicular to the fretboard. Also there should be space (air) inbetween the palm and the neck (see if there is space between the hand and the neck next to the 1rst string). Other parts of the fingers should not touch the strings.


The finger should be placed at roughly 1/2 way through the fret (or closer to the soundhole/pickups). The fingers should not be placed on top of the fret bar (or touching the bars if possible).


Different intensities of pressure on the strings will create different sounds. Not enough pressure and the strings will be damped. Enough pressure and you'll get a clean tone. Too much pressure and the string will stretch too much putting the note out of tune (this is more common with nylon strings).

Largely overlooked, finger pressure has a subtle and profound effect on the tone produced. BB King comes to mind as someone whose finger pressure plays a significant role in his tone.Many people believe the line that buying the same equiptment and having the same setup as player X will make us sound like player X. Unfortunately, the truth is that if player X played on your guitar, they would still sound like player X, and if you got onstage and used their guitar and gear you would still sound like you.

When you play a chord (as you're practicising) if you hear distorted, muffle, or otherwise bad notes, you should pick the chord string-by-string looking for (and correcting) the bad note.

The above rules/suggestions are not written in stone, and indeed there are times when one or more is broken. But they are guidelines to getting a good clean tone. It's important that we are conscious of these things so that our fingers don't get in the way. It is a decision to have good technique. While there is no such thing as "perfect" technique, there is a possibility for excellence, and the ability to awe and inspire others. it will take practice, perseverence, and an honest ear (to hear our own mistakes) and dedication (to correcting them).


Everyone has difficulty at first pressing down the strings. In time, and with practice, your fingertips will develop calluses and your fingers and hands will develop strength and dexterity. Do not give up. Most people who give up playing the guitar do so before their hands become conditioned to play (before the calluses develop or the fingers gain the strength to hold down the strings for an extended period of time).

One thing you can do is to change the string gauge to a lower gauge. I recommend that absolute beginners (from 0 days to 6 months) play with 0.9mm gauge strings (light gauge to extralight gauge). When it becomes easy to change between chords without stopping, you could increase the gauge if desired ( it will take more finger strength to play thicker strings, but it will come with consistant practice).

We can work on finger strength by a daily practice of scales, and also by playing trilling exercises (at the end of your practice).


One of the hardest things for a beginner to (physically) learn to do is to play barre chords. Many people get frustrated when they get to them and stop progressing in their studies of chords. We can greatly diminish the frustration and delay by practicing grand barres from day one, and then whenever we can accurately perform them, move on to barre chords.

What is a barre? Why use them? A barre is the pressing down of more than one string at the same time with the same finger. A grand barre is the pressing down of all 6 strings with one finger. Barres allow us to play more fretted notes than we have fingers. They also allow us to refinger our chords so that some fingers are free from the chord we are playing (allowing them to do other things at the same time).

So how do we practice barres?

This will involve the conditioning (strengthening) of our finger muscles (muscles we don't otherwise use when playing guitar).

Within a single fret, lay your index finger across all six strings and press down. make sure that none of the strings fall into the cracks (under your joints). Pluck each string. Can you hear each note? make sure your finger is flat (not curved at a joint). Press down harder if you're not hearing a clear sound.

ok. So form a barre at the 5th fret. Work on pressing it down to get a clear sound from every string. When this is done, move the finger to the 6th fret, and repeat, etc.

I'd suggest practicing barres for 5 minutes a day until it is easy. Be sure to practice them at different frets (the frets at the extremeties of the fretboard are the hardest).

Next lesson is on reading TAB, then a lesson on open major chords, then advice on troubleshooting finger problems.

Christopher Roberts

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Last updated May 26, 2003.
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