Guitar playing is totally unlike pumping iron

There is a common misconception, like one of those pervasive urban myths, and unfortunately probably encouraged by the titles and cover art of books such as the "Pumping Nylon", series, that good guitarists need to have "strong hands".

Pumping Nylon - repertoire
This type of image conveys a totally misleading idea about what constitutes good guitar playing.

Some of the best instrumentalists are old and frail... definetely not paragons of physical sterngth.

The idea that more physical strength with make you a better guitarist is an appealing, attractive and simple idea.

Like many appealing, attractive and simple ideas it is quite simply not true.

The left hand on guitar does not require strength. It does require balance and connection with the rest of the body, that's why I call the Left Hand the "Tight Rope Walker".

The person who thinks their left hand lacks the strength for guitar playing is either

  • Approaching the instrument with the wrong concepts of left hand technique
  • Suffering from poor "use".

The second option is relatively unlikely unless the person is suffering a debilitating condition of the nervous system, and they would probably have found that out before getting to the guitar!

The key to an effective left hand is "transmission of the gesture of expansion". Use the Expanding Posture with the large muscle groups in the back and let the hand stay soft and pliable.

The fundamental gesture of expansion
The fundamental gesture of expansion

Look at videos of the very young women Li-Jie and Xufei Yang as the play the most demanding barre pieces like "La Catedral" by Barrios with their very small hands. They display almost no effort and have wonderful coordination and connection.

Arm Wrestling as an example of apparent strength

See how relaxed you can be during an arm wrestle - you don't win arm wrestling with the hand or arm alone... unless you are built like Lou Ferrigno!

There is an old martial arts party trick I learned in my youth. You pick the biggest guy in the room and say: "Try and bend my arm". They won't be able to do it. And, once you know how you can do it with an apparently totally relaxed arm.

Cheng Man-Ching thwarting the push of four men.
Cheng Man-Ching thwarting the push of four men by using coordination - not strength!

The secret to this technique is to connect the back, legs and feet. Then maintain the connection from the fingers to the feet. I have seen this technique used by my martial arts teacher, who weighed about 100 lb soaking wet defeat the push of three determined rugby players.

So if 'strength' is not the answer, then what is? It is coordination.