When I was just starting out on guitar I saw a finger building product for guitar players in a music shop and thought “cool, with this I could keep practicing while I’m on the bus”
Though I hated real life pushups and sit ups, I liked the idea that I was “body building” my fingers while going to school. I assumed, that if I did some extra practicing like this, I would get much better on guitar a lot sooner.
Did the finger builder make any difference to my playing? Maybe it did, a little, but there was nothing that I could notice.
What did make a difference was quitting the finger building on the buy and learning music theory instead. That was useful!
It was much later, when I learnt better how our body and our mind functions, that I realized why building the muscles of my fingers whenever I didn’t have a guitar on me was a pointless exercise.
The reason is that you don’t need to use a lot of strength to press a note. Just by practicing, your fingers will quickly get the required strength to press the notes easily. (If you’re a beginner and you’re finding pressing the notes very hard, make sure the “action” of your guitar is not too high. Action is the distance between the strings and the neck, and the larger that distance is, the more strength you need to apply to press the note).
The part of your body doing the hard work is not your hand but your brain.
I will be using a student during his first week of learning guitar to give you an idea of what’s going on in your brain and your body while you’re developing your playing skills.
After showing a new student how to hold the guitar and some basics, I show him a simple tune he has already heard before, like Jingle Bells.
The student will place his fingers on the fretboard as I tell him, but usually finds it hard to keep them there, to remove them, and put them back on the intended fret with ease.
I tweak the students finger position and gives him some hints, and he tries it again.
He can actually hit the notes now!
Tweak, do it again.
It’s getting better.
Tweak some more, repeat
Something that sounds like Jingle Bells comes out by the end of the lesson but in most cases it sounds sloppy and the student is having a hard time playing it.
The student goes home, practices it and by the next week he can play Jingle Bells like a boss.
What has happened during that week?
My explanations, and the position tweaking was helping the student learn things correctly, but by practicing and repetition at home the student was training his brain to order his fingers where to go.
This is in fact the first skill every students needs to acquire: To get the fingers obey the brain.
As a byproduct of that, the student’s finger muscles will start getting stronger but the real challenge is to repeat an action enough times for the brain to remember permanently that pattern. And this needs to be done on the guitar, not a machine that doesn’t have an actual fretboard.
Apart from “don’t waste time and money on finger building products”, there is a more important lesson I don’t want you to miss here.
When learning guitar, your fingers are doing some 20% of the work, your brain the other 80%. Even when you’re doing “ear training” exercises, you’re not actually training your ear, you’re training your brain to recognize and organize sounds.
Thus, all of your “finger training” should be done on your guitar. If you have free time when a guitar isn’t handy, learning music theory or reading articles about guitar playing will take you a much longer way than trying to body build your fingers.
A final piece of advice: Learn every new technique very, very slowly. While you are learning that technique your brain is building and memorizing patterns. Your first goal should be that your brain memorizes those patterns the right way, which include among other things, the correct position of your fingers and the amount of tension you’re using.
Trying to bypass the process will only lead to sloppy playing, and actually takes more time.
It’s only when your brain has been trained to recognize that particular pattern and can order your fingers around like a dictator, that you should start working on gaining speed.
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