Understand Your Hands Part 4 - The Weak Pinky & Ring Finger

Weekly Newsletter #63

October 21, 2022

Try this out: make a fist and stick out your pinky finger as far as it will go. 

Most likely it extended almost as far as your index or middle finger can. 

Now make the fist again and try sticking out only your ring finger. I’ll bet that it can barely extend at all. 

Understanding why this is happening will save you many hours of practice and a lot of frustration. It will also lead to much better finger independence and the ability for you to design and practice exercises tailored specifically to your current level of independence. 

Understanding Mobility 

As all guitarists have experienced, some movements on the fretboard are much easier than others. 

For example, moving your index finger around from string to string is not very difficult at all, and is in fact quite natural (as natural as things get on guitar anyway). 

However, when you start trying to move your ring finger or pinky independently, that’s when things get fairly challenging. 

Your fingers can either contract or extend thanks to muscles in the forearm called flexors (contracting muscles on the inside of the forearm) and extensors (extending muscles on the outside of the forearm). 

Your thumb is the most mobile and independent of all the digits in your hand due to it having its own dedicated muscle  and tendons in the forearm. 

The four other fingers all share flexors coming from the forearm. 

But why is your index finger so much more independent than the other three? 

The index finger has a separate tendon that is dedicated just for its own mobility. This dedicated tendon is the cause for the dominance of your index finger and its ability to bend and point with few restrictions. 

It also has a dedicated extensor muscle that allows it to straighten by itself. 

Notice that if you let all your fingers extend and then you bend only your index finger, as far as it will go, the middle finger and maybe even the ring finger move slightly? 

This is because they share a flexor muscle. 

Now make a light fist, and extend your index finger…it can do so completely on its own with no other movement from the remaining fingers. 

This is because it has its own dedicated extensor muscle. 

This is likely why many fingerpickers prefer to use their index finger as a dominant finger. 

The pinky finger has one dedicated muscle but also relies on additional muscles shared by the other fingers as well. This is why the pinky finger has a wide range of independence, although not as much as the thumb. 

Tendons & Independence 

Despite sharing muscles with the other fingers, the index finger has its own isolated tendon that runs from the forearm into the base of the finger. 

This allows the flexors and extensors to control only that single finger without any other fingers moving along with it. 

It also is the main cause for the dominance of the index finger. 

The same is true for the thumb and pinky, their independent tendons allow them a much greater range of motion and independence, albeit the thumb more so than the pinky. 

Now, what about the middle and ring fingers? 

These two do not have independent muscles or tendons and therefore have much less range of motion. This is why when you try to stick out your ring finger while making a fist you feel a sharp pull in your middle and pinky fingers. 

The ring finger is essentially bound to these other two. You may be asking yourself, “if they are bound together, why can I point my pinky easily but not my ring finger”. The answer to this lies in your nervous system. 

The Nervous System Connection 

There are two nerves that control your fingers, the radial nerve and the ulnar nerve. The radial nerve runs on the radial side of the hand (the thumb side) and the ulnar nerve runs along the ulnar side of the hand (the pinky side). 

These two nerves then branch off into smaller nerves that connect to the fingers: 

-The radial nerve connects to the thumb, index and radial side of the middle finger. 

-The ulnar nerve connects to the pinky, ring and ulnar side of the middle finger. 

When we can’t seem to move the ring finger without the pinky or middle finger moving, it is because the brain sends a signal through the ulnar nerve to move the ring finger, but that signal gets sent down the branches of that nerve and into the pinky and middle fingers as well. 

The middle finger moves much less because it has the ulnar and radial nerve branches connected to either side of it and therefore the signal only gets sent down the ulnar side. 

Essentially it is the branching of these nerves that cause the movement of multiple fingers when the ring finger is deployed. 

However, it is due to the dedicated muscles and tendons of the thumb, index and pinky fingers that allow for their more independent motion. 

Because the ring finger has no independent muscle, tendon or nerve it is highly unlikely to move without another finger moving. 

All of this is critical to understanding how to improve your playing, whether that be landing complex chords shapes quickly, fast and efficient finger picking, or overall independence within your fingers. 

Now, there is nothing that can change the fundamental structure of your tendons and muscles, although you can learn to stretch your tendons to make them more flexible. 

That being said, it is possible to train your brain to send a more specific signal to your fingers in order to prevent the nervous system branching from causing this interdependence problem. 

The strategy for this retraining of the brain is to simply hold out your hand and attempt to move the finger the smallest amount possible (less than an 1/8 of an inch). 

If you can learn to do this small movement while maintaining total and complete stillness in your other fingers than you have been able to successfully send an independent signal only through that one branch of the nerve. From there it is simply a matter of increasing the size of the movement slowly until you are moving the finger the same distance you would during the stroke of a string. 

Understand your hands and you’ll understand what to focus on while practicing. 

-Max Rich