Isolated Motion

Weekly Newsletter #41

May 19, 2022

Grab your guitar and try something out… 

Take all four fingers of your fretting hand and have them hover over the A string, frets 5-8. Don’t fret anything, just let them sit in the air, curved and ready to play. 

Now fret your pinky finger only while keeping the rest of your fingers in the air. 

Did you notice that your other fingers moved when you fretted your pinky? 

If they didn’t move at all, then you’re in great shape, however more than likely your index finger and/or middle and ring fingers moved backward, away from the fretboard. 

This unnecessary motion is very common for players and unfortunately is a huge hurdle to technical progress on the guitar. 

Isolated Motion 

In an ideal world all our fingers would function 100% independently of the others, however, this is not an ideal world. The reality is that through years and decades of using our hands for daily tasks our brains and physiology have been geared towards the fingers functioning in unison. 

There is almost no task in your daily life in which you engage only one finger, while the remaining fingers sit still, lifeless, with no energy being used. Think about this carefully, can you name anything in your day-to-day life that you do where only one finger is engaged at a time? 

“Typing on a key board”, you might say. But watch yourself carefully…as you press one key, your other finger(s) probably shoots out in another direction. 

This counter-motion is natural and it is this motion we are trying to unlearn as guitarists. 

Instead of having all or most of our fingers move when we really only want one to move, learning how to isolate individual finger muscles is a task that will pay enormous dividends for guitarists. 

Isolated motion is the key to quickly changing complex chords, legato playing, muting and a host of other techniques that will help you advance on the instrument. 

Why Does Isolated Motion Matter? 

Essentially, almost everything on guitar can be seen as going from point A to point B. Whether that is the movement of a pick through the string, hammering-on, or fretting a note. 

When traveling from one point to another, in this case your finger traveling from the air to fretting a string, you want to do so in the most efficient manner possible. 

The reason efficiency is so important is that your muscles have a finite amount of energy on tap and once that energy is depleted they cease to function properly. I’m sure you can remember how your hand would cramp when you were learning bar chords…that cramping is your hand running out of muscle energy and becoming useless for a minute or two until its energy stores are returned to normal. 

Every time you move a finger unnecessarily, you are wasting energy and lowering your endurance level while raising the level of tension in your hand. By reaching away from the fretboard while moving your pinky towards it you are literally pulling your hand away from your target. 

It would be like being chained to a post and trying to run away. You can struggle all you want but all you’d accomplish is wasting your energy. 

If you’re trying to go from point A (hovering in the air) to point B (fretting the note with your pinky) why on earth would you move any part of your hand in the opposite direction? 

Learning to not move in the opposite direction is a good start, but learning to not move at all is the goal. 

How Can I Not Move At All? 

Like all things on guitar, it sounds easy, but it really isn’t. 

Hold your fretting hand up and let it sit totally naturally, lifeless, and with zero muscle expenditure. Make sure your fingers are curved naturally and that they are facing you so you can see each one. 

Try to move your index finger about half an inch, from the big knuckle only, and watch your other fingers carefully. Did they move at all? 

If so, start over again, and this time shrink the distance to about a quarter of an inch. Eventually you should reach a point where the distance you move your index finger is small enough that the other fingers don’t need to move. 

This is a very valuable step in eliminating excess motion. Once you are able to move the index, from only the big knuckle, and have no excess movement in your hand it should prove to you that it is possible after all. 

From here you simply want to gradually increase the distance you move the finger until you can move it freely and completely independently of the others. 

Now for guitar you’ll only ever need to move it an inch or two at the most, so more than that isn’t necessary to practice. However, doing this for each finger is a very important process. 

Your index finger is usually the most independent and the easiest to start this drill, but as you get closer to your pinky this will get much harder. 

Using your mind to train your fingers to ignore the neural signal that says, “we’re moving one finger, we must move all the fingers” is what you are achieving with this practice. 

Applying This To Guitar 

Realistically, most people don’t have hours every day to devote to practicing guitar. However, most people have quite a bit of time when they aren’t engaged in a physical or mental task. 

If you find yourself standing in line somewhere, waiting at a stoplight or sitting on the bus you could spend that time improving your finger independence! Don’t waste that valuable time; you don’t need a guitar in your hands to practice. 

But when you do sit down to practice there are some very useful exercises that will help you on your quest for isolated motion. 

Check out these two VIDEOS

They are two parts of an increasingly difficult exercise designed around isolated motion. 

In the first one you are fretting all four fingers on the G string frets 5-8. 

The aim is to not watch the finger that is moving, but instead to watch the fingers that are stationary. 

Remove the index finger and don’t allow the hand or any of the three remaining fingers to move at all. Not even a millimeter! 

They must stay fretted and motionless the entire time. 

Now very slowly (slowly enough that you can stop the other fingers from moving even when you can feel they want to) begin to move the index finger towards the 6th string. Fret the 6th string and play that note. From there, remove the finger and travel all the way to the 1st string and fret that note and play it. 

Did anything move at all? If so, reset, start over again and go even slower. It may be painful to go so slowly but remember you are trying to get your brain to override decades of ingrained behavior. It isn’t going to happen without slow, intense concentration. 

This pattern is then repeated for the 5th and 2nd strings as well. Once these strings have been successfully played and nothing has moved at all, fret your index finger back on the G string and begin the process with your middle finger. 

Repeat this process for every finger. 

It may not go smoothly at first and you will likely get frustrated and even allow yourself to move unnecessarily just to get to the end of the exercise. 

This is unfortunately very counter-productive. By allowing yourself to cheat or accept sub-par results you’re simply reinforcing your current bad habit. 

It’s ok if this exercise takes a few weeks or months to accomplish, but you must remain steadfast and diligent in not accepting anything but perfect results. 

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a quality repetition/isolated movement from a poor repetition/unison movement, but your eyes won’t lie to you! 

By getting consistently good results you are training your brain to recall that isolated motion when you want it, rather than relying on the faulty unison motion built in over decades of daily use. 

Remember that any time you are moving on the guitar you should be moving with a purpose. Having excess energy being wasted is like driving around with a hole in your gas tank. It’s a waste of energy and will cost you (especially these days)! 

If you truly want to get better at guitar, isolated motion must be part of your daily practice routine until it becomes your default way of playing…which it will! 

Remain determined, strong-willed and hungry for improvement and you’ll find the patience necessary to not only get past this hurdle, but enjoy the process of doing so. 

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. 

Max Rich