Updated: Nov 10, 2021
I seek the Grail!
This is my one of my favourite topics regarding guitar technique. If it's not one of yours, I'd say it should be! Here's the first in what may well end up being an extensive series of posts dealing with the topic of finger independence for guitarists.
First the bad news; unless you're one of the lucky ones (I'm not and neither are most), you probably don't naturally have what it takes to be a guitar great. I'm not talking about any lack of desire or dedication on your part, or referring to the almost universal struggle to find practice time these days and certainly not to what's often considered musical "talent" on the mental side of things, which I believe anyone can develop.
I'm talking about physical mechanics, plain and simple. Your hands and fingers are the most important tools of the trade. If they're up to the job, learning songs is easy. Otherwise, expect frustration and heartache if what's standing in your way is a lack of finger independence. It may take a while, but when you're ready, you'll know where to start looking for answers.
Common knowledge can lead you astray
From the first things we try as a beginner, issues of finger independence are constantly staring us in the face. The further into our guitar playing we get, the tougher the problems become, and most end up looking for help. Sooner or later you'll come across the wisdom explaining that the key to improving at guitar is developing finger independence. Not many would disagree with this, and it may also seem at first glance that there's a consensus on how to achieve it, namely take a particular type of pattern and repeat it until it has the desired effect!
A quick Google search for "finger independence guitar" brings up thousands of pages on the subject.
Take a look by clicking the image here.
The method most commonly proposed to develop finger independence is the use of "spider exercises". The suggestion is usually to spend a certain amount of time each day repeating chromatic (one fret at a time) patterns with the left hand. In the video below I run through the standard approach and add a few ideas of my own as to how best approach this sort of challenge.
Spider exercises - Do they work?
Yes and no. Like anything on guitar, if you've never tried them before there's undoubtedly benefit to be had from getting stuck into the hard work of learning something new. The red light halting progress usually appears when you've become fully familiar with the new pattern and wind up endlessly repeating it, but only to a level you are stuck dead at. At this point there's most likely no further improvement to be had. however much you repeat the "exercise" in the hope of getting better.
As ever, learning to understand where your problems lie, and coming up with methods to deal with those problems are the two major parts of the solution.
My initial recommendation is the same as always ... "benchmark" (measure) your progress. If you're not familiar with this concept, take a look at my primer How Good is Your Technique? Then try "benchmarking" yourself on a few spider patterns.
The free download "BPM", sent to all subscribers, includes a benchmarking sheet (track your top speeds) containing the spider patterns I use in the video above. This download also contains similar printouts for all the other investgations on this blog.
By monitoring your top speeds on these over time, you'll be able to see when you've stopped improving at them. This will move you away from wasting time on ineffective repetition, and push you to look for new ways to improve.
The more enlightened articles out there on spider patterns certainly suggest more than just plain repetition, and offer plenty of good ideas to break down the problem. There's big benefit in trying out any idea that you think might work. Over time you'll build up a map in your mind of the sort of approaches that work for you, and these same ideas will apply to help many other things you are working on. Just because something worked for someone else is no guarantee that it will work for you, but any idea new to you has to be worthy of consideration.
I'll re-emphasise; benchmarking your progress is the key to improvement. If you don't know for sure whether or not something is working, you're shooting in the dark, and liable to waste an awful lot of time (my bitter experience speaking).
If you want to fly, be a bird!
Otherwise study aerodynamics!
In this series of blog posts, I'll be looking at the various ideas I've used with students to highlight and attack this almost universal stumbling block. I'll also be discussing my own ongoing 30+ year battle with this issue.
If you're one of those rarities with natural finger independence, you're already the bird I refer to in this section's title. For the rest of us, the better we study the subject, the faster we can move toward you. Subscribe below to get your free copy of "BPM" and join me on the quest for the Holy Grail!
All readers are cordially invited to join me in my forum, to discuss and debate the merits or otherwise of my articles. There's even a forum section in which you can chase up some free help if you're struggling! See you there!
Some tough combinations in here, and a method to deal with them
What they never told you about changing chords on guitar