Three Fingers vs Four Fingers for Lead Guitar Playing
Question by Alan
I read your sound advice about not parroting your inspirations for guitar and agree wholeheartedly. My question comes from observing these wonderful guitarists with reference to my own practice and playing.
With reference to scales practice, nearly every instruction I have seen and heard push that scales be practiced using the four fingers of the fretting hand, including the pinky.
That's all well and good. But every time I observe a great guitarist moving across the fretboard with wonderful melodic lines (sometimes fast, sometimes slow), they only ever seem to use the first three fingers, with their pinky more often than not hanging by the neck. Yes they use it for chords within the music they are playing but it is largely the first three fingers for the runs.
I look at Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Gilmour, Wes Montgomery, Guthrie Govan, even the technically brilliant John McLaughlin, nearly all the runs are three finger.
How does this square with what I am being pushed to learn in the literature? Perhaps I am not seeing the forest for the trees but I am losing faith in it all. I know ultimately it is up to the individual player to find their own style, but I'd like somebody/anybody to explain what is going on.
Hope you can give me some direction.
Three Finger vs Four Finger Playing
Alan, you're right, as many great players have shown, you don't need the pinky to play competently, quickly and expressively. However, ask yourself one thing...
Are these guitarists exceptional because they're not using their pinky very much, or because they've commited themselves to practice and study for years, regardless of their chosen technique?
Ok, that was obviously a loaded question!
When it comes to personal preference, such as using predominantly three or four fingers, it's not necessarily which one you choose that makes the difference, it's the consistent application of that choice (i.e. daily practice) that develops the muscle memory you need to become a competent player.
Obviously there is a huge difference between what a guitarist can acheive playing with two fingers vs three or four. But assuming you put the practice time in, the difference in potential outcome between three and four finger playing is clearly of little to no significance in terms of ability.
It's similar to the debate surrounding strict alternate picking vs economy picking. For every amazing player you can name who uses economy picking, there is another who swears by strict alternate picking.
It's not using one or the other that made them great, rather the persistence with which they practice their chosen technique.
So Why Do We Teach Four Fingers?
Given that it's more important to stick with one method of application and run with it, what tutors tend to do is go with the one that will be accessible for the most possible students in the beginner-intermediate stages.
For example, people with smaller hands will initially find their pinky is essential for making clean jumps between larger fret distances during quicker runs and phrases as their muscle memory develops.
That's not to say someone with small hands couldn't learn to play well without their pinky. It just means in those early stages, you might as well go with the option that will help in building your confidence and move you forward rather than cause frustration and pain.
You have nothing to lose in the long term by using four fingers, but much to gain in those initial stages by utilising that pinky.
I can't even say for certain whether or not more determination and effort was required of the three finger virtuosos at first. But again, teachers have to take into consideration the broadest base of potential students possible, and their various fret-hand profiles.
As a teacher, I have to consider every possible set of fingers that may touch the fretboard, therefore it makes sense to utilise the 4th finger in my diagrams, as the benefits of learning to use the pinky outweighs the benefits (if indeed there are any) of not using it.
Even those with larger hands and fingers may at first find it useful to involve their pinky, especially for those awkward 3-notes-per-string stretches, arpeggios that reach up a major 3rd on the 1st string or to avoid having to use "rolls" (where you collapse back a finger in order to fret the string above on the same fret). You might find it gives you more freedom to play certain licks in different positions.
And perhaps that's another key point here - the pinky can aid freedom of movement, no matter where you are on the neck.
Note that many guitarists with longer fingers tend to switch between using their pinky down the neck vs omitting it higher up the neck, as the fret spaces get narrower and the pinky can crowd the other fingers.
But this kind of adaptation will develop naturally, once you've become confident with patterns and sequences.
I hope this answers your question, Alan. If anyone has anything to add from their own experience, we'd love to read about it. Please use the comments link below.