You may have noticed how some of the greats – past or present – aren’t just tasteful, fast, or technical guitar players. Many of them are really flexible too!
Some of my students like to point out how small and stubby their fingers are, but if you know anything about working out, you know that just about anyone can develop flexibility, tall or short.
And it’s really the same with guitar playing. You might have some limitations due to finger length, but unless you’ve gone through years of training to develop your flexibility, you can always be more flexible than you already are.
Interestingly enough, the way to achieve flexibility as a guitar player is pretty much the same as achieving flexibility in your body by working out. So let’s talk about how you can master big stretch chords and licks on the guitar.
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Start Slowly Before Building Up To Big Stretch Chords
A word of caution before you attempt abnormally big stretches – we want to avoid injury here. So don’t attempt a six-fret spread out of nowhere when a four-fret spread is already causing you some difficulty.
As you develop more strength in your fretting hand, you will be able to stretch more easily. But building that strength takes time – it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why it’s called building strength.
Also be careful not to tense up as you go to work on your technique. Guitar playing requires a lot of repetition and exactness, which is why it can lead to carpel tunnel, tendonitis, and repetitive strain injury if you’re not careful. Fortunately, this has never been a problem for me, but I do have a couple of friends who’ve suffered from tendonitis due to over-practicing and/or bad technique, so don't push yourself too hard. You can learn good guitar techniques by getting the right training from guitar professionals.
Remember To Stretch Your Hands
You’d be silly to try to run a marathon without warming up. We all know this can lead to injury and unwanted fatigue. Guitar playing really isn’t any different. Whether you’re planning on practicing for long hours or attempting advanced techniques, it’s important to warm up and stretch before launching into your practice regimen.
There are a number of simple stretches that can help you warm up and avoid injury. For a full explanation of each, and pictures to go along with them, take a look at: Keep it Loose: Stretches for Guitarists.
I’m not a doctor, so I wouldn’t want to mislead you or tell you to do something that could potentially end up hurting or injuring you. But I would suggest implementing some kind of stretching program to keep your hands and fingers limber.
Build Strength, Coordination & Finger Independence With Warmup Exercises
Warmup exercises are designed to help you build strength and speed, but aren’t necessarily pleasing to the ear. If you’re serious about playing stretch chords and licks, however, you can’t really get away from these types of exercises, so be patient and just put in the work.
Here’s an example of an exercise that can help you build strength, coordination and finger independence:
Whenever you’re attempting something new, remember to play it slowly and precisely. There’s no point in practicing fast if you keep making mistakes, because you’ll end up practicing those mistakes, and that’s counterproductive.
Once you feel comfortable playing this exercise one finger at a time, you can also try leaving your fingers in place for every four-note pattern. So if you started with the first fret of the sixth string, you would keep your index finger down as you place your ring finger on the third fret of the fourth string. Then, with both your index and ring fingers in place, you would lower your pinky on the fourth fret of the fifth string, and so on. Do you get the idea?
Here’s another warmup exercise based on the C major scale (it’s a little less abrasive to the ear):
Much like before, you can play this example one finger at a time, or you can keep all of your fingers down and leave them in place until you absolutely have to move them (with this exercise, you will have to move your middle finger once).
Stretch Chords & Licks
With your hand stretches and warmup exercises complete, you’re ready to attempt some bigger stretch chords and licks. But again, I don’t want to push you too hard. If you feel any abnormal pain, I would suggest resting your hands and fingers for a while. Go and find more warmup exercises (there are plenty of them out there), work on those for a while, and then come back and attempt the following examples again.
First, we’ll try some stretch chords in the key of E. Take this slow, as shifting from one chord to the next can be difficult.
You might have a little bit of trouble with this at first. No problem. You can always come back to it later.
Now let’s try a stretch lick. Again, I’m not going to give you anything too crazy, but this can be challenging if you’ve never tried anything like it before. This lick is in the key of A:
If you’re having trouble with the hammer-ons and pull-offs, then just pick the notes for now. You can always add them in later. But here’s one thing you should know about hammer-ons and pull-offs: they can really help you build your finger strength. That’s right – this isn’t just an ordinary stretch lick – it will actually help you build the strength you need to develop more flexibility too.
There’s a lot more that could be said about achieving big stretches, but alas, we’re out of time and space.
If you practice the four examples I gave you, and come up with your own variations (i.e. try them in different keys or mix up the order of the notes), you should be well on your way to increasing your flexibility.
Practice with care. I wouldn’t want you getting hurt. Take regular breaks, stretch your hands, and warm up before attempting anything too difficult. And even if you can’t play what your heroes can play right now, keep coming back to those riffs or licks on a semi-regular basis. You might be surprised how close you are to being able to play your favorite sections of music.