While learning to play guitar, it is easy to pick up bad habits, especially if you are self taught. One very common mistake that I made, and it’s something I notice with other guitarists, is that they ignore the little finger.
Many guitarists feel more confident using the ring finger because it is stronger, but with a little practice, the little finger can be much more effective in certain situations.
Training your little finger will help you minimise the amount of movement from your hand around the neck of the guitar, giving you smoother transitions, cleaner notes and more flexibility with chords.
In this how to play guitar guide you will learn chords, scales and exercises that will help strengthen the little finger.
Hitting more notes with less movement will be the goal of this lesson. Finesse is key.
Modifying chords with the little finger
Unfortunately, the pinky finger is not used when learning basic chords. However, it can be used on top of chords to modify them and create variations of the chord.
For example here is the D chord
We can use the little finger to modify the chord into a D Suspended 4 chord. It is also known as ‘Dsus4’. The little finger is placed on the 3rd fret on the High E string, directly underneath the ring finger. You may need to slightly shift your other fingers to get more room.
Remember to keep your fingers on the original D chord shape as you move your little finger. This way you can transition between them with ease. It may feel unnatural at first, but with practice it will become second nature.
If you are having trouble fitting your fingers on the fretboard, try moving your ring finger further down the neck towards the neck. As long as your ring finger is between the fret, the notes should still ring.
Another staple – The G chord
Once again, we can use the little finger to modify the G chord into a Gadd2 chord. Take your little finger and stretch it all the way over to the 5th fret on the high E string.
This is can be very tricky, since we are stretching out hand out between the 2nd and 5th fret. Remember to keep your thumb pressed flat on the back of the neck, rather than resting your palm on it. This will give you enough flexibility to hit the 5th fret.
Don’t force your hand if it it begins to hurt. Take a rest, allow your fingers to recover and then try again.
Arguably the most difficult beginner chord – The F chord
Here we can change the chord to Fadd2 chord by placing the little finger on the 3rd fret of the high E string.
This transition can be difficult because you are barring the first fret, but make sure all the notes come out clearly.
When practicing basic chords, try to incorporate these modifiers using the little finger. They can add a bit more variety to your chord progressions.
Incorporating these chords into a song
The Blind Melon song called ‘Change’ uses three simple chords in its intro. All of these chords incorporate the technique we have been using so far. You will hear them all within the first 10 seconds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn1WbBaWTdc
The song uses the following chords:
A – Asus4 – Asus2
G – Gadd2 – Gsus2
D – Dsus4
It looks bit complicated, but we can break each chord progression and its variants down.
We begin with the A chord
For this version of the A chord, we will be using the pointer, middle and ring finger on each string, rather than barring them all with the pointer.
Use your little finger to press on the 3rd fret on the B string
Then we continue with the G chord transition we learned earlier.
We then return to the beginning with the D, G and A Chords
If you are having trouble making the transitions, try swapping between the normal chords first, then try the modified chords. Start slow, and focus on getting all the right notes to ring.
Barre chords can be tricky because they require a finger to barre the entire fret, hence the name barre chord. Once you feel comfortable using them, you can now experiment with the placement of the little finger.
Here is a standard D barre chord, which we will use because it is located near the middle of the neck, which has much less tension, allowing for easier barre chords.
You can see that the little finger covers the 12th fret on the D string. We can release the little finger to remove an octave from the chord. This gives you the freedom to alter the chord as you see fit.
Here is a variation called the D6
The only difference between the D and the D6 is that your little finger is off the fretboard. You should be barring the 10th fret with the pointer, the middle finger will be on the 11th fret on the G string, and your ring finger on the 12th fret on the A string.
Notice that the chord now sounds much darker.
Now that we have a free finger, we can try another variation of the barre chord.
Here we have a barre chord called D7sus4
The only difference between this chord and the standard D barre chord is the position of the little finger. Begin with the D barre chord, then move your little finger from the D string to the G string. Try transitioning between the chords.
Keep in mind, you can keep your ring finger still as you move the little finger. This exercise will put a lot of pressure on the little finger, which will help develop a callus.
Here is a simple exercise to help strengthen the little finger without putting too much pressure on it.
Each fret will have a corresponding finger. The 9th notes will always be played with the pointer, the 10th with the middle, 11th with the ring and 12th with the little finger.
Keep your movements slow and make sure the note rings clearly, we don’t want to create any bad habits.
Once you feel comfortable, try it backwards.
Remember to keep your hand still. You should not need to move your palm up or down the neck.
If you are finding the exercise too easy, try alternate picking (picking down, then up on all notes) as you move up and down the neck. This will require a lot of focus and accuracy, but will be beneficial to your picking technique.
This next exercise will test your little finger with different intervals using the same finger per fret rule we have been following.
E|–9–12–10–12–11–12–10 12——–9–12–10–12–11–12–10 12——————-
Repeat this over and over until it becomes natural. This will test how your hand reacts to different fret distances and how your little finger works after using the pointer, middle and ring finger.
Performing both the major and minor pentatonic scales with the correct fingering should help you improve not only your soloing and guitar improvisation capabilities, it will increase the accuracy of your little finger too.
We will use the key of A for this example, Starting with the minor pentatonic scale.
Then go backwards
Using the same rule as the previous exercises, each fret will be assigned to a finger. Don’t move your hand to reach the 7th fret notes and don’t use your ring finger to hit them either. You will be tempted to use it, but it’s important that you fight the habit.
Now we will try the major pentatonic scale in A.
Start the scale with the middle finger, which may feel counterintuitive, but will help the notes flow smoothly.
Then try it in reverse.
Sweet Child of Mine
This well-known intro uses the pentatonic scale as its structure and also makes great use of the little finger (despite Slash himself not using the little finger when playing this).
These chords are a signature technique of Dave Mustaine, lead guitarist of Megadeth. The idea is to make power chord transitions quicker with minimal hand movement. This technique is more suited for the metal heads out there who play fast power chord progressions.
We will start with a D5 power chord, using only the pointer and ring finger
Notice that your middle and little finger are free. We will now play a A#5 power chord using those free fingers, without moving the pointer and ring finger from the D5.
Because we don’t have to move our wrist, we can play these chords close together very fast.
Getting your middle and little finger to move independently of the others will be challenging.
Once you feel comfortable with the technique, try moving the power chord down the neck as you integrate spider chords.
If this is the first time you have tried to use the little finger for classical guitar, remember to be patient. Improvement will not happen overnight. Your main 3 fingers will have developed a callus that your little finger may not have, so it might feel like learning all over again.
Another tip – take it slow. If you have to play at half speed, or even a quarter speed, that’s fine. It is more important to be accurate first, speed will come later. If you practice enough, you will not need to overstretch your ring finger again.