If you’re new to the guitar, you’ve probably been frustrated a few times trying to stretch your fingers out to fret the different notes in a chord. Over time, your fingers will improve at doing this, and those chords will get easier and easier. But in case you’re impatient, there’s a shortcut!
The Normal Playing Position
For non-classical guitar players, the standard playing position is seated, with the guitar resting on the right leg (for right-handers). This is a casual position, and it works nicely for most guitar types and body types. However, problems can arise with the fretting hand, as the left arm has a poor approach angle to the guitar neck.
Another problem with a seated position is that when you finally put all that training on display in a performance, you’ll most likely be standing up, and you don’t want that to feel foreign. As it turns out, standing can give you an ideal hand position for playing those tough stretchy chords, as long as you don’t sling the guitar down at your knees. Standing during every moment of practice can be pretty fatiguing though. It would be great to have a nicer seated position…
The Classical Position: Magic!
The classical players, with all their rules and posture and hundreds of years of tradition, have this thing figured out. The proper playing position, in their book, is with the guitar on the left leg and a footstool under the left foot. This brings the neck very close to your face, so that your left arm has to bend at the elbow quite a bit and come back toward your face before reaching the fretboard. This is a superb position for your fretting fingers. Stretches magically become easier, fretting doesn’t require as much effort, and you don’t need to twist your forearm so far to get your fingers in the right position.
Keep in mind, this position works best with a classical guitar, which is a little smaller than your standard steel-string acoustic. Depending on the size and shape of your guitar (and your body), this might feel pretty awkward. Just remember, the key is to bring the guitar neck close to your face.
Ever seen a rock guitarist in concert step to the front of the stage for a solo, and he leans back and points the guitar toward the sky? Every single time? Well, there’s a good ergonomic reason for it. Just as with the seated classical position, tilting the neck up gives your fretting hand easier access to the frets, especially when stretching.
Exhibit A: Zakk Wylde
An early photo of Zakk is featured at the top of this article. He tilts his guitar up as much as anyone I’ve seen. Every time he solos, he goes from a low-slung, diagonal position to completely vertical. Observe how he has perfected the technique over the years:
So what’s the takeaway here? Use variety! If you have one comfortable position for practicing and playing guitar, let that be your default. Then change it up once in a while. If you have trouble stretching for a certain chord or melody, don’t force it before trying to bring the neck closer to your face and making it easier on yourself. Practice standing up now and then. Practice various rock poses, if you’re into that sort of thing. Try playing behind your back or above your head. Just remember, there’s more than one way to play a guitar.