Three Newb Right Hand Technique Errors (and how to fix them)

Classical guitar technique is a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s presented as a complex series of exercises meant to develop virtuosic technique. But technique is not a set of exercises, it’s how you move while playing guitar. Theses are three common mistakes I see in all my beginning guitar students.

  1. The Mistake: many beginners pull their fingers out directly away from the guitar body, creating a sort of hook right hand finger. Their sound is thin, and they have a lot of trouble returning to the strings accurately.

    The right way: All the finger joints move in the same direction.

    Make a fist with the thumb along side of the hand. Now open it and close it again as if you’re wrapping your hand around something. That’s the basic motion of the right hand fingers for classical guitar playing. All the finger joints move in towards the palm. This is going to produce the most volume and the best tone.

    This is the basic motion from which all other technique springs, so take some time to get it right!

    The best way to get a sense for what this feels like is to use technical exercises for absolute beginners. Another option is to practice various arpeggios while paying close attention to the way the fingers are moving.

  2. The mistake: after playing a note, the right hand finger must return. Many beginners bicycle or use a circular motion to return the fingers to the strings. As in, the fingers go out away from the guitar then back in to rest on the strings.

    The right way: The fingers return directly to the string.

    Right hand fingers should return as directly as possible. Douglas Niedt, in his latest technique tip, explains this as a way to maximize velocity. This is true, but it’s really proper technique all the way around. It has to do with “economy of motion,” which is really another way of saying, “guitarists should be as lazy as possible; never waste movement or do unneccesary movements.”

    This problem has to do with return, so practice returning! As in, play a scale, but practice i m, then return i as directly as possible. Practicing only the return allows you to focus on improving it. There’s too much going to work on this within the context of other exercises/pieces.

  3. The mistake: when moving one finger, the whole hand often comes with. This moves the entire hand out of position and it has to be returned after after right hand movement.

    The right way: The right hand is a base.

    This goes back to economy of motion (read: being lazy) again. The right hand should act as a base from which only the fingers move! It should not bounce around or jump away from the guitar; it should stay put in a state of dynamic relaxation.

    Again, the technical exercise for absolute beginners are a good start for fixing this problem. After that, various arpeggio patterns should be done and scale work as well. Pay special attention to the right hand. If you have a friend around, try having them place a fingertip lightly on the back of your right hand. This is will keep you from jumping around so much, and it very quickly gives you a sense of what it feels like to play without moving the right hand.

Would you like a video of the mistakes vs. the right way? Let me know!

Posted on in Classical Guitar Technique


  • kuan

    Respectfully, Chris, I will have to disagree on your points about correct finger movement and Doug Niedt’s idea of returning to the string. I think I may have made a comment once on AG forums along the lines of what you just said but I now believe I was wrong.

    The RH movement needs to be more like pressing the keys on a piano. The end joint relaxed, with a straight wrist, and the arm rotated outward a little bit.

    On returning the finger, I believe that the finger should return to the neutral position. Forcing the finger to move while using another finger to sound a note is a recipe for disaster. I too once thought that this was the correct method until I developed focal dystonia, and though I can’t conclusively prove it, I also believe that this is the cause of my dystonia. Apparently I’ve mastered this motion so well that it happens automatically!

    Anyway, consider my remarks and keep asking the tough questions.

  • Robert Bruce Scott

    Never noticed any of those problems, so must have accidentally gotten it right when learning. The only right hand technique problem I have encountered is when jazz strumming with the index finger on the upstroke. This has occasionally caused my hand to cramp on the back along the tendon that controls the index finger.

    Not sure what I’m doing wrong there – only happened twice but after playing for extended periods using mostly other techniques. I only have a few songs I use that strumming technique on.

  • Ole Thofte

    Oh, thanks for these instructive guidelines. I can’t help reflecting on the many, many rules in music, here guitarplaying. Like we’re sourrounded by rules for everything….And how you need to get it right from the start or you go down the wrong alley, oh alas it was the wrong one and you’re stuck with the wrong technique! It’s a bit like marrying – and a number of years later you find out it was the wrong woman ๐Ÿ™‚ Or you did it wrong yourself, aaargh. I’m sure my guitartechnique is wrong and I find it difficult to be sure, because when I play I look at the music and not the hands…. when I do that I no longer play. But, lately, I’ve found much enjoyment in my warmup exercises and they fill up more and more of my playing time: I just doodle around on the guitar and play whatever comes to mind. As I’ve done this for some time, more and more comes to mind and the doodling sounds more like music of a sort. Contrary to my playing from notes during the doodling I look at my hands and it’s quite a bit easier to adjust the angling of the hands and how they move, sometimes even according to the rules, I think. Doing this I have dicovered that there is also the possibility of moving the fingers on both hands upward instead of downward, playing with the nails. Also the left hand can do this (play with the nails in the opposite direction of the usual flow) and it seems to give some more possibilities for sound which is interesting when you doodle, but probably difficult to use when playing from the written notes. What do you think of that?? If anything ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Aubrey Parker
    Aubrey Parker

    Thanks for a great article. A video would be great, thanks!

  • Sam Desmet

    hi christofer,

    I’m a newby here, so first of all let me tell you this: congrats on this blog, I really like the articles, and you have subjects that are really worth discussing.

    I’m also interested in the video actually

    keep up the good work!