Crocodiles and The Art of the Left Hand

 

 Oftentimes artists must look outside the realm of their art form in order to find inspiration. When it comes to improving your left hand, we can learn everything we need to know by studying a simple principal, best explained by examining the efficiency of one of nature’s engineering wonders, the crocodile.  

 

Bite force is a measurement of the gripping power of an animal’s jaws, usually measured in lbs/in2. The crocodile has the strongest bite force in nature and this is part of what makes it such a formidable predator. It is also an incredible model of efficiency. The ingenious design of the muscles in the crocodile’s jaw and the shape of its skull allow it to apply an enormous amount of force for a long time without becoming fatigued. When fretting a guitar your hand operates like a miniature set of jaws. Just like a crocodile uses its body to its advantage, so we too as musicians must use our body in the most efficient possible way to increase our physical abilities on the instrument. If you can increase the “bite force” of your hand through proper technique, you will be able to play more efficiently and that means greater speed, greater agility and longer endurance. Here’s how it works:

 

There are three joints in the fingers used when fretting the guitar (actual medical names not needed for our purposes): {fig 1}

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Trying to push the string down with joint #1 is commonly seen, but completely incorrect! {fig 2}

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The problem is that the source of the strength (joint #1) is far from the point where you need the strength (where the finger meets the string). This means that the muscle has to work way harder than it should to produce the needed amount of force to push the string down. Because of this, you will not be able to play as quickly as you would if you were using correct technique. It also keeps your fingers flat, greatly increasing your chances of making a mistake by fretting strings you do not intend to fret. Finally, overtaxing this muscle increases the likelihood of an injury, which is always something to be avoided!

 

If we examine fretting with joint #2: {fig 3}

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This is much easier than using joint #1, however, the same inherent problems still apply. You are still placing the majority of the strength burden far from where the strength is needed. Therefore, you will be applying unnecessary force to press the string down. Your hands will tire and feel cramped because they are straining to push down strings that actually do not take a large amount of force to hold down. You are simply putting the force in the wrong place. This leads us to joint #3: {fig 4}

 

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Pressing the strings down with joint #3 uses the greatest strengths of the hand to your advantage.  Playing this way puts the source of the strength as close as possible to the fret board and the string. This increases the “bite force” of your hand to its highest level, using the hand like a crocodile’s skull.  Because the power is so much greater using this joint, the actual amount of strength you have to apply is less. Less strength applied means less muscle fatigue, higher endurance, greater efficiency, and that means far greater speed.

As an added benefit, this places your fingers down on the very tips, giving you greater accuracy with the finger placement. Notice that in some situations, like double stops and barre chords, you are forced to rely on the other joints, but the vast majority of the time your strength should be coming from joint #1.

 

The underlying principle here is that the more we use the inherent strengths of the hand to our advantage, the more effective we will become at playing the guitar. That is the very model of proper left hand technique. If you practice scales and lines slowly, making sure to use the correct muscles and placement, your efficiency will increase, giving you the things guitarists want most from the left hand, power, accuracy, speed and endurance. It is never too late or too early to work on perfecting your left hand technique, so wherever you are in your musical journey, I encourage you to practice this concept, for you can never be too efficient on the guitar. Remember – Crocodiles have been around for millions of years, that’s a lot of time to perfect their technique.

 

 

 

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2 Comments on “Crocodiles and The Art of the Left Hand”

  1. February 1, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Well, Jake l guess you should include the mighty pitbull for it’s incredible biting and holding force. From what l have studied and read, it’s more about teaching the right hand for picking execution because the left hand can develope speed faster than the right hand can follow. The right hand has to deal with string skipping, double stops, rakes, staccato., economy picking/sweeping, hybrid picking, palm muting, etc. Seems like thr right hand has more to do as far as technique goes. Something l am working on all the time if l ever hope to play anything fast. As far as bebop, or Mike Stern lines. However, l do agree that the least amount of force it takes to make the note. or effiency of pressure will help the right hand move lie Jagger. 😉

  2. February 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    It’s true that both hands are important, but the same limitations still apply to the right hand. Eliminate excess motion anywhere you can and your speed will skyrocket. Coordination is another matter…a fast right hand is no good without a fast left hand;-) Jazz Hard brother!

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