Guide Fingers

Weekly Newsletter #43

June 2, 2022

How many times per song do you shift up or down the fretboard while playing? 

Too many to count is most likely the answer. The act of shifting across frets occurs so often that it is one of the most frequent movements on the guitar; so frequent in fact you probably don’t pay much attention to it. 

The fact is that shifting is one of the most common spots for mistakes while playing, particularly for those who don’t use a guide finger. Since shifting occurs so often, if you’re doing it inefficiently, then you’re leaving yourself open to countless mistakes. 

What Is A Guide Finger? 

One of the most important aspects of any shift takes into account whether or not you have a finger and string in common between the two points of your shift. A guide finger is when you leave a position to shift elsewhere on the neck and there is a common finger between the chord or note you left and the chord or note you are targeting. 

For example, if you shift from the fourth fret on the 1st string with your pinky up to the ninth fret 1st string with your pinky, you should be using that pinky as a guide finger. Running along the 1st string, without ever removing your finger from the string itself, allows you to use that string almost like a handrail on a staircase. 

Obviously, in order to avoid creating a slur by sliding you must remove pressure from the string so you aren’t fretting it as you shift. However, using that un-fretted string you can retain contact with your pinky finger and simply slide along the string until you reach the ninth fret, at which point you can fret the new note. 

How Can Guide Fingers Help When Shifting Chords? 

By being aware of your current position, the fingering, and the position you’re moving to, you can quickly find any finger that might remain on a particular string during the shift. Using that finger to guide you to your new location provides stability as you shift, and also allows you to avoid having to position one more finger in the event you are shifting to a new chord. 

In the example below you can see that between the Bm7 and the Dmaj7 there is a large shift of about seven frets. Between these two chords however, there is an opportunity for a guide finger to be used. The middle finger on fret three in the Bm7 stays on the 2nd string while all the other fingers reposition to form the new chord. 

Shifting effectively using a guide finger would entail releasing the Bm7 except for the middle finger. Allow that finger to remain on the unfretted string. While traveling towards the Dmaj7 chord you must begin rearranging your non-guide fingers into the Dmaj7 chord shape, meanwhile sliding along the 2nd string with your middle finger. 

In essence, the middle finger remains on the string while all the other fingers change shape around it. By using this guide finger, you can ensure that you are traveling in a straight line up the neck while shifting and not moving laterally across the strings. Additionally you also have one less finger to position for the new chord shape. Both of these elements greatly improve efficiency and speed, especially if this can be done automatically, without thinking. 

The second chord change from Dmaj7 to G employs the same concept except in a descending direction and is done with a guide finger on the 3rd string. Once again, releasing the fingers, save for the middle finger, and forming the new chord “in the air” as you travel with the guide finger running along the 3rd string will greatly improve the accuracy of landing that new chord. 

Here are a few more examples of guide fingers between chord changes: 

In these examples the pinky functions as the guide finger; all the principles remain the same however. Remember as you practice this, a large part of your goal should be to time the landing of the new chord with having formed its shape in the air. 

Don’t simply run the guide finger to the new position and then form the new chord shape after you get there. It’s vital that you learn how to form the chord shape as you travel along the string with the guide finger so that the very moment you get there you can simply fret the new chord and not have to spend time arranging your fingers in the new shape. 

More Than One Guide Finger 

Using more than one guide finger, wherever possible is an obviously superior way of shifting. Take a look at these two examples and spot how the ring and pinky finger are used as guides between the two chords. 

By using two guide fingers for each shift you only need to move the two “free” fingers into position to create the new chord. This is vastly more efficient and will promote ease-of-playing, relaxation and efficiency. 

Very often I see players shifting from one chord to another and missing the opportunity to use guide fingers. This is unfortunate and is simply an oversight on their part. Most often these players struggle to make the new chord in time, especially if the tempo of the song is fast. 

Avoiding guide fingers necessitates more movement and a more vulnerable position. More movement is always something that should be avoided because it increases the time it takes to form the new chord. This is only exacerbated when a player hasn’t yet achieved complete finger independence. 

By using guide fingers you essentially have a sturdy base of contact between you and the neck (the guide finger touching the string). This allows the other fingers to brace against the guide finger and rearrange themselves into the new chord shape without having to do so one finger at a time. 

Take a look at some of the common chord progressions or songs you play. Map them out slowly and look for any opportunity to use a guide finger. You’ll be shocked to find that most likely you are missing many chances to employ this valuable technique. 

By focusing on making this a habit while playing you’ll greatly improve more than just your shifting. Your chord formation, finger independence and timing will all improve as a direct result of using guide fingers. 

-Max Rich