Have you heard about the legends – Jimmi Hendrix, Slash, Buckethead, Steve Vai? If you have, can you tell me what they all have in common?
Well, obviously other than the fact that each one of them is in the category of the best guitarist in the world. There is another thing that they share – Large Hands.
There’s no denying the fact that in the world of guitar playing, bigger hands rule the roost. It took me 15 years of diligent practice to figure that out. No matter how much effort you put into your daily guitar routine, which must consistently be a lot, there will always be certain things your small hands will never be capable of doing. Playing guitar with small hands is one of the challenges guitarists often face, and we’ll talk about mastering that.
So, what can you do? Many people invest thousands of dollars in equipment over the years, not to mention the time spent learning the guitar and improving their technique-throwing the hands in the air, and switching to another instrument is out of the question at this point in the game.
Thankfully, where there are problems, there are solutions. In my case, first, I needed a little bit of motivation. It turns out I’m not alone in my woes. A little research landed me some names, one of them is Angus Young (AC DC) who plays a mean six-string. This guy has freakishly small hands. Randy Rhoads could shred with the best of them. It’s a matter of sorrow that he died so early. He also had small hands. This list can go on, but the point has already been made: people with small hands can become excellent guitarists, right?
After this soul (and Google) searching session, I decided to reevaluate the way I approach guitar to better suit my requirement for consistent improvement. We are now going to share ten tips that helped many small-handed guitarists out to become a much better player with their tiny hands.
1. Master Your Pinky
As I discovered over the years of attempting to replicate the left-hand fingering of my favorite guitarists, sometimes the standard ring finger-to-index finger reach expected out of lesson books is physically impossible for my small hands.
When we go to a traditional music teacher, he/she teaches us to use our left-hand pinky to reach the notes that lie outside a typical four-fret scale pack. And this is the rule, regardless of how big or small your fingers are. But, your pinky can be much more effective if you have small hands.
For a small-handed guitarist, it is a good practice to use his/her pinky to reach the notes that is typically destined for the ring fingers. I’m not saying to always try that, because you must try the normal way until you completely fail to do so. This technique, however, can be a lifesaver in certain plays.
Of all the tips I have in this article, this is undoubtedly the most difficult one. Why? Because your pinky is always going to be the weakest finger on your left hand. It usually takes a lot of practice to train your pinky to do half the job of what your ring finger is capable of doing. Due diligence pays off, though: it will make your legato become much smoother, and the soloing ability will become significantly faster.
Moral of the story: incorporating greater use of your pinky isn’t going to be easy, and it’s not going to sound right during your first attempts. Keep it up, though, and even the trickiest fretboard patterns will become second nature.
2. The Higher The Better
There’s no getting around: noodling around the higher portion of the fretboard sounds awesome. It’s a tonal range that allows guitarists to really cut through the mix, and it’s where several iconic soloing moments have happened. If it works for Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, it will work for you.
Guitarists who have smaller hands usually find this place really comfortable to play. While it is often seen for the long-fingered guitarist to feel cramped anywhere beyond the 12th fret, it is a treat for players with small hands, they feel right at home.
So go ahead, get familiar with patterns upwards the twelfth fret. If you’re a beginner, this will take some getting used to. Lesson books (and videos) usually ask you to begin single-note practice around the third or fifth fret and don’t even touch higher frets until much later on in the curriculum. You should still practice in this region, but there’s no absolute rule forbidding you from jumping ahead and getting used to the higher register early on in your training. Now, if you are a small-handed guitar player, it is likely that you will find these higher frets very comfortable while practicing high-speed lessons.
A final note about higher fretwork: If you’re physically struggling with a part designated for the lower part of the fretboard, try taking it up an octave (12 frets). Sure, it’s going to lose some of that bottom-end edge, but on a purely musical level, the notes will be exactly the same. Much like my pinky-utilization tip, this isn’t going to work for everything, but the pros outweigh the cons. Check out my video below for an example. Note how indifferent my dog is–can’t please everyone, I guess.
3. Take Advantage of Tapping
Fretboard Finger Tapping is a great technique that is used by a lot of great guitar players including John Petrucci, Kirk Hammet, and Steve Vai. It gives you a lot of advantages if you are a small-handed player as well. Let’s process it this way – small hands will restrict you to reach the notes that are far away. Tapping is a technique that requires two hands on the fret instead of one, so you can easily reach particular notes that you want to keep in your tab.
Confession time: of all the techniques listed here, I use this one the least. Why? Honestly, I’m not a flashy player, and fretboard tapping is the very definition of flash. But if I absolutely have to hit a note that isn’t within a four-fret space in a particular section, you’d better believe that my right hand is quick to the task.
And hey, if you are a flashy player, finger tapping is a win-win situation. Clearly, it is a neat and easy technique that will impress your friends and colleagues.
4. Learn To Play in Drop-D Tuning
Those who enjoy playing modern metal should be immediately familiar with Drop-D tuning, which simply entails tuning the sixth string down a step (for standard tuning, it means dropping the “E” string down to “D”).
Using Drop-D tuning is a great way to get some tasty riffage out of your guitar, but it doesn’t have to be strictly for “heavy” playing. Since Drop-D tuning allows you to barre power-chords with one finger on the two lower strings, it requires less of a stretch if you want to throw in extra notes on the higher strings. Especially when you are attempting suspended and minor embellishments on the lower three strings, that’s when it becomes useful.
Do you like to play classic boogie-woogie patterns? Drop-D will come in handy for you in that case.
Here’s how to tune in Drop-D if you don’t already know.
5. Why Not Use A Capo?
I don’t know for some weird reason, a capo is considered an easy way out. It’s really frustrating when fellow guitarists talk trash about capos.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this sentiment is complete nonsense. Do you have a small hand? Go ahead and take as much advantage as you can of a capo. This is especially true if you’re trying to play songs that incorporate barred open-chord voicings, like “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It all comes down to how far your left hand can physically stretch. If you can’t barre an open-C chord shape on the third fret because your fingers won’t stretch that far today, then you’ll have the same problem tomorrow.
All I want you to take away from my writing is this: if your body limitations like small hands are stopping you from playing a song properly regardless of how much you practice, you can always go for tools. Who cares what others say? Can’t do it without a capo? Us. Your audience isn’t going to care either way.
Andy is one of my favorite guitarists. He has shared some of his techniques in the video. Do check it out.
6. Install Light-Gauge Strings
Choosing the type of string gauge for yourself is completely up to you just like the choice to play short-scale guitars. The moment you are feeling uncomfortable performing bends or pulls, I think you must consider converting your guitar strings to light gauge ones. These strings will actually start paying off once you start practicing hammer-ons and pull-offs. I tell you, both these techniques are very essential if you are playing something hard-rock or alternative.
Lighter gauge strings have additional benefits, as well. They create a brighter sound in the heavy areas that allow you to cut through the mix just a bit more. Most importantly, they dull out slower, so you don’t have to worry about changing them more often.
On the flip side, there are also benefits to using heavier gauge strings. Guitarists have made a point about heavy strings that they buzz less, and have a greater dynamic range based on the force you put on them. This one is really up to you–both variations have their strengths. Now, we are talking about making guitar play easier for small-handed people. In that case, you must give light gauge a try.
7. Short-Scale Guitars Are Just Fine
There’s nothing wrong with short-scale guitars–for children and genuinely small adults, they’re great. But there’s a sacrifice to be made in the way of variety when it comes to these particular instruments, not to mention the fact that they make playing on the higher fretboard far more challenging than it ever should have to be.
One thing you may want to consider, though, is the distance between the frets themselves. Smaller handed guitarists may find a Gibson-sized fret difference more comfortable than the slightly larger ones found on Fender-typed instruments. This is naturally a personal preference, so it’s best to simply stroll down to your favorite guitar store and actually try out various instruments. The best guitar for you will be the one that feels comfortable in your hands.
Do you need more clarification on using regular-sized guitars with small hands? Remember we talked about Angus in the beginning? He always play Gibson SG, but never a short-scale gear. The same thing goes for Randy Rhoads. He has played several guitars, especially a Gibson Les Paul, which again, isn’t a short-scale guitar either. Among many famous small-handed guitarists out there, I bet you won’t find two that play short-scale guitar.
I’m not trying to demotivate you to buy short-scale guitars. If you find one that works for you, that’s great. Don’t even think having small hands rule you out of using a standard-sized instrument. Many people do use standard-sized gears, and so can you.
8. Be Careful About Your Thumb
The reason why we are talking about your thumb is – many people avoid this one and end up injuring themselves. Please don’t put your thumb over the neck. Avoid it as much as possible. Hold it like you are holding a baseball bat. Instead, you want to keep your thumb behind the neck as much as possible. The normal rule is to have your thumb placed around the middle of the neck.
This rule is often broken, especially if you like to fret notes with your thumb like John Mayer or Jimi Hendrix, but having smaller hands will mean that you’ll want to avoid doing this too much as it causes a lot of tension on your thumb and wrist.
9. Pay Attention To Your Setup
This is more like a generic tip regardless of your finger size. The first thing you should always do when you get a new guitar is to bring it to a professional for an evaluation, and if necessary, get it professionally set up. A professional set up consists of bringing the strings close enough to the fretboard so that your instrument requires minimal effort to play while avoiding any unpleasant buzzing. A set up will also ensure that your guitar’s intonation is on point which helps to avoid any out-of-tune notes from arising.
It is important to note that most guitars don’t come set up properly and playing those instruments will generally result in a painful and tiring experience. It’s going to be even tougher to play a badly set up guitar if you have small hands as you will find yourself overstretching and applying too much tension on the strings. Having too much tension is never a good thing because it can lead to long-term injuries.
10. Don’t Stop Playing!
Okay, this is going to be totally obvious, but practicing guitar every day is the only way you’ll ever get better at the instrument. It’s a universal truth, regardless of hand size, but for guitar players with small hands, you cannot overlook it.
Just the return of a little bit high-school science back into your life – playing guitar requires muscle motion from your hands, small fingers are relatively less powerful than bigger ones. Developing a daily practice routine allows you to enhance muscle mobility, therefore allowing your hands to eventually do more with less effort.
For my money, I have found Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson an invaluable practice book. It features a different practice riff for every day of the week (for a total of one year), focusing on a single guitar technique for each day. If you’re anything like me (scatterbrained and almost always unfocused), then I highly recommend incorporating it (or a similar guided practice tool) into your daily practice routine.
The reason I include this as one of these tips is a simple one: it’s easy to blame inefficient guitar playing on small hands, but there will be genuine moments where hand size isn’t the problem. It took me several years of practice before I realized that certain things were literally beyond my reach–the classic “boogie-woogie” pattern I mentioned earlier is one of them–and I adapted accordingly. Sometimes honest-to-goodness practice is all it takes to overcome shoddy guitar playing.