The Magic Guitar Position

Zakk Wylde SoloIf 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.

Stand Up

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!

Andres Segovia Playing PostureThe 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.

Rock Out!

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:

Zakk Wylde Solo Collage

Use Variety

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.

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  • Hey Joe,

    I absolutely agree on your takeaway advice. Having a basic, default position as home base is essential – but experimenting and changing things up does open new horizons.

    Zakk is a great example! It shows that you don’t have to hang your guitar below your knees in order to look cool. ;-)

    Check out Jazz chord master John Stowell for a similar vertical guitar position.

    Take care,

    • David

      I was looking at John’s style at his site. My only issue is I have a bad back and neck which seems to give me issues strapping to a fundamentally correct up very high (although great for the fretting hand) position. There seems to be a happy medium for me between height of the strapped guitar and the angle the neck is at.

      Again at 17 just strap on a heavy axe and have at it but now a days probably not the best idea. Thanks for the tips!

    • Joe

      Oh yeah, John Stowell! He’s a more perfect example than Wylde, as he plays nothing but stretchy chords. He came to my school for a concert and masterclass a couple years ago. I also took a private lesson with him. What an illuminating day, and what a wonderful man.

      Actually, Zakk does sling his guitar absurdly low. When he solos, he sticks his left foot on a monitor, lifts the guitar, slackening the strap, and rests the end on his leg. It’s a weird technique, but it gets the neck in a great position.

  • David

    Great advice…I recently came back to playing after getting frustrated in my teens. Seems like I spend more time experimenting with position rather than playing <half-joking). My strap has all kinds of sharpie marks on it for various positions. I do play standing as my daily work routine has me sitting all day so it is kind of like exercise.

    Work in progress…thank you for the article and motivation. I may have to examine Zakk's playing style a bit more in depth. Another great way to learn it seems.

  • Slash is also another example of “pointing the guitar to the sky“ when he solos

  • Re: The Normal (casual) Playing Position

    Hi Joe, greetings from Eastside!
    I play acoustic guitar and found that some chords are quite inconvenient to play in this position. For example, I struggle with C-shape chords played higher than 5th fret. My thumb on the left hand tends to take horisontal position (parallel to the neck) and the wrist gets … squeezed a lot.
    Do you have any advise how to fix that?
    I spend ~5-10 minutes every practice session in the last few weeks trying to resolve that.

    BTW, your blog is great. I like your other sites and resources too.


    • Joe

      Hi Vladimir,

      I’d suggest spending a little time each day playing those tough spots without your thumb. Use the weight of your arm and let it hang from the fretboard by your fingers. A little leverage from your right arm on the front of the body will help too. Then start to experiment with your thumb, adding the slightest pressure at first. Find a comfortable position for your thumb and gradually add more pressure until you no longer need to leverage the guitar with your right arm.

      This has worked well for me with barre chords and various squeezing troubles.

      Good luck!

  • wowlikewow

    My biggest problem is when I think about a chord shape on my left hand, I drop my pick and make the shape with my right!!! help!

  • I love playing standing up with the guitar slung low like Jimmy Page, but with my tiny fingers this is impossible to really do. If anyone out there has a Flying V shaped guitar, the classical “Magic” position is perfect for this shape of guitar and is so comfortable.

    • Great tip, Wally! I’ve never played a Flying V, I’ll have to give it a shot!