Who this lesson is intended for
This lesson is indented for complete beginners who are just starting to learn guitar.
- Knowledge of the parts of the guitar (either acoustic or electric)
The purpose of this lesson is to explain different ways to correctly hold the guitar and pick. Holding the guitar correctly will prevent some bad habits that some beginners experience.
Holding the electric guitar while seated
You can play the electric guitar while seated in seats that do not have arm rests. The curve on the lower part of the body should sit comfortably on your right thigh. The back of the guitar body should rest against the right side of your abdomen or chest (depending on how big a person you are). Try to have the guitar sit up so you can only just see over the top to the strings. Do not lie the guitar down on your lap so the fretboard is facing up. Although doing it that way would make it easy to see the fretboard, it makes playing awkward. You can check if you have the guitar sitting properly if you need to lean your head forward a little bit to see the fretboard completely. But don’t hunch over or else you will develop back problems.
Holding the electric guitar while standing
If you have a strap with your electric guitar, you can play standing as well as seated. Adjust the strap so the guitar sits roughly the same spot against your body that it does when you are seated or a bit lower. You can go higher or lower if it feels comfortable. Try not to follow the trend of many rock/metal guitarists who have the guitar slung so low that they can barely reach the strings. James Hetfield (Metallica) may be able to play it like that but if you try it you’ll likely only experience pain and frustration with your playing.
Holding the steel string acoustic guitar while seated
You can hold the steel string acoustic guitar pretty much the same way as you hold an electric guitar while seated. The difference is due to the fact that the acoustic has a very deep body. Smaller people (and kids) may have trouble seeing over the guitar or reaching the hand over. If your guitar has strap buttons, you can also play standing up. It is pretty much the same as holding an electric guitar while standing: just adjust the strap to find the most comfortable position.
Holding the classical (nylon string) acoustic guitar
Classical guitar players hold the guitar different to the above pictures. By all means if you have a nylon string guitar but don’t want to play classical music, you can use the above positions. If you aim to play classical music, it is suggested to play in the following positions.
THE STANDARD CLASSICAL POSITION
In this picture you can see that a footrest is used under the left foot. If you don’t have a proper foot rest (like me), use a box or something that will elevate your foot. The guitar is supposed to be at an angle of about 30 degrees from the player. Using a foot rest can help with this.
OTHER WAYS WITHOUT A FOOT REST
There are also other ways to hold the guitar to get that 30 degree angle without using a footrest. An easy way is to have one leg resting on the other like in the picture below. Many flamenco players such as Paco De Lucia sit this way. I sit this way when I play flamenco. You may find this position gets a bit painful after a while so try not to be seated in this position for too long.
Left hand holding the guitar neck
The way the left hand holds the guitar neck is crucial to fretting notes. The thumb should rest somewhere on the back of the neck around the middle. The first picture shows the correct way to hold the neck. Notice that the thumb is not protruding over the top of the neck. Holding the neck this way helps you reach your fingers around the neck. When you try to play your first chords, it will help you out to reaching all the notes.
In the second picture I show how you should not hold the neck. Many guitarists out of bad habits hold the guitar this way. Notice how the thumb is wrapped over the top around the fretboard. This can make it difficult to reach the frets on the lower strings with your fingers. Whenever you are playing, try to make sure that your thumb is not wrapped over the top of the neck.
Holding the guitar pick
Holding the pick the wrong way can make things harder then they need to be. You will notice that the pick has one long pointed edge. This is the part that will hit the guitar strings. Hold the pick between the index finger and the thumb as shown below. Have the pointed edge pointing down. When you hold your hand near the strings, the pick should be pointing the strings. Try not to have too much of the pick showing or else you will find it gets caught on the strings often or you drop it often. Don’t do the opposite either by not having enough of the pick show. If you find that your fingers hit the strings while you are playing, try holding the pick higher up so more of it points out below your thumb. Use trial and error to see the best position.
My experiences with holding the guitar:
Holding the guitar the right way can make it less stressful on your body and you will decrease the chance of developing bad habits. Many students of mine who had been playing for a while before coming to see me had developed the habit of wrapping their thumb over the neck. It took them a while to correct the habit but once they did they found everything a lot easier.
Knowing all the different positions is a good idea just in case you don’t have a guitar strap with you or foot rest or chair. Practice sitting down and standing up (if your guitar can attach a strap) with each new piece you learn. If you only play sitting down and try standing up, you will notice a difference and may even find it awkward.
Try to follow the above positions and when you notice you have changed your position or grip of the guitar, try to correct it so you don’t develop any bad habits. Keep the notes in this lesson in mind when you play anything from now on. It is very easy to forget about correct posture when you are so focused on playing.
Aaron is an instructor at Tempo Music Cards – a top resource for anybody learning guitar. Provides educational flash cards to help you learn all the essential chords on guitar, a must for beginners. See the website for backing tracks, video lessons, tips and hints, text lessons and more.