Take a good look at your hands. Are they big, small? Do you have long or short fingers? Do you have a thumb most bass players would die for? At some point during your development as a guitar player you’ll come across certain techniques, and ways of playing or even things like chord shapes, that are simply uncomfortable or not ‘ergonomically available’ to you. Thankfully there are a myriad of ways to play something on the guitar so creative solutions to these kinds of problems abound.
But my teacher said I had to learn it
Guitar teachers will often insist (through no fault of their own) that you learn certain shapes or patterns, unaware that these may be ergonomically difficult for you. For example, I cannot stand this shape:
You may recognize it as the famous C shape from the awful caged system for learning guitar. My hand simply does not like this shape and almost refuses to cooperate when I try to play it. Thankfully it can be easily avoided or substituted with a nicer shape. Chords that fall nicely under your fingers are far more likely to be learned and remembered. Forcing yourself to learn umpteen inversions of a chord shape all over the neck often results in wasted time and effort as not all chords are created equally, ergonomically speaking, and one man’s comfort is often another man’s pain. Here are a few of my personal ergonomic C major 7 chord shapes:
Thumb over the top
When it comes to leveraging your own hand ergonomics, this is a good place to start. Can you play notes on the bottom E (or even A) string with your thumb? Some (classical) guitar teachers still frown upon this technique but if you can do it (without causing yourself unnecessary pain) then it can be a useful tool to have in your arsenal, especially when playing Hendrix stuff. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, among many others, are also well-known exponents of hooking the thumb. Just try playing the (live) intro to ‘Thank you’ by Led Zep without the thumb over technique.
If you’ve been blessed with huge hands then you could try Allan Holdsworth’s four-note-per-string patterns for covering the fretboard in mammoth stretches. You may want to start up at the dusty end of the fretboard and work your way down to avoid the initial stretch.
If your hands don’t easily accommodate big stretches it makes sense to work with patterns that cover four frets or the smaller stretches of the three-note-per-string system.
I heard that if you just play barre chords, you’ll only play in bars… I have to admit I find barre chords rather cumbersome and a little note-heavy for my liking. You may recognize some of the Major 7 chords above as ‘partial barre chords’. If you’ve also found barre chords a little clunky then try extracting the essential notes. Here’s an example:
In this CM7 shape there are two fifths (G). When trimming down chords you can usually take the fifth out; this leaves a cleaner, more comfortable shape with the essential notes for a major 7 (root, 3rd and 7th) as follows:
So take a good look at your hands and see how you can use their ergonomics to leverage your playing (despite what your guitar teacher may say…)