Left hand stretching on the classical guitar is widely considered "the" quintessential problem in left-hand guitar technique.
However, difficulty with stretches on the guitar is usually the result of a misconception regarding the shape the hand must take to achieve them.
In this lesson, we’ll dive deeper with tonebase head of guitar Mircea Gogoncea and show you an easier way to maximize your stretching potential.
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Early in his journey of learning classical guitar, Mircea was fortunate to learn some really useful left hand stretching techniques.
Here he outlines some of his most valuable tips gathered over the years. He also covers seven repertoire examples to demonstrate how these techniques apply to music.
It is a common misconception that the best (or only) way to stretch is to radiate the fingers outwards (see image left).
Not only does this give a very limited stretch, but it will likely result in injury.
Instead, if finger 1 is straightened and the other fingers folded towards the palm, there is a far greater distance between the fingertips, and the hand is overall far more relaxed. This can be utilized to allow more effortless stretching across the fretboard.
Wrist rotation: playing from the left
The typical left-hand position keeps the fingers parallel to the fretboard with the palm under the neck, but this limits the ability to stretch.
If the wrist and palm rotate and the elbow is brought out, the fingers come into a position that allows a greater distance between the tips.
Of course, this is not an ideal position for general playing where there are no demanding stretches, but it can increase flexibility without strain when required.
In the standard position, the joint of the first finger typically falls slightly to the left side and the joint of the fourth finger slightly to the right. If a stretch is required between fingers 1 and 2, the joints of both fingers should fall to the left.
A particularly challenging stretch appears towards the end of Granados’ Valses Poéticos No. 6 (arranged by Joaquín Clerch).
Here, finger 1 holds down the low F-sharp on string 6, while finger 2 reaches the high A on string 1, and finger 4 has to play the ornament, reaching up to a high B.
Adjusting the left-hand position to approach from the left side places the joint of finger 2 almost as far as the third fret while the tip reaches the note held in the fifth fret.
The other important point is that this arrangement by Clerch prepares the notes quite favorably. Finger 2 is already in position in fret 5 before the low F-sharp is needed.
This keeps the core of the hand stable and makes it easier for the hand to adjust the position to extend finger 1. Of course, this particular combination of notes is normally impossible, and it works only by escaping the regular left-hand position.
Usually, when a player has difficulty with a stretch, it is due to a reluctance to lean on the left or right side of the fingers. The Granados example demonstrates how particular stretches can become feasible.
Still, there are less extreme examples that could work in the typical left-hand position, which are made much easier with some simple adjustments.
The first movement of Torroba’s well-known Sonatina includes a hammer-on between fingers 1 and 2 in frets 4 and 6, while the other two fingers hold fret 7.
Playing off the left side of the fingers eases strain in the hand and wrist, making for a much more relaxed playing experience.
Wrist rotation: playing from the right
Stretches with fingers 3 and 4 will typically involve leaning on the right side of the fingers, which many players find far less natural than leaning on the left. Anyone who has played Villa-Lobos’ Etude no. 1 has likely encountered difficulty in measures 5 to 6.
Finger 4 shifts from G to G-sharp on string 6, while fingers 2 and 3 remain fixed. The larger distance between frets in the lower positions makes this stretch all the more challenging. By leaning towards the right, finger 4 can stretch away from finger 3 with far less strain on the hand. The joint of finger 3 will lie slightly beyond fret 2. Although the E minor chord in measure 5 can easily be achieved in the standard left-hand position, prepare the hand for the following chord by already leaning on the right side of the fingers. Then, counter by placing the thumb slightly to the left behind the neck.
Some repertoire does not allow as much time to prepare the left hand for stretches.
In Albeniz’s Leyenda (Asturias), there is a C7 chord in position VIII with finger 4 reaching the high E.
In this case, it works well to maintain a somewhat normal hand position for most of the hand, but for finger 4 to approach string 1 from the right.
Again, the thumb can extend to the left and even slightly below the neck. Be careful with this high note, as approaching from this angle can adjust the pitch to be slightly out of tune.
An example that ties much of this together is the first variation of Ashley Lucero’s “Mariner’s Tale,” in which the left hand has to adjust from a right-sided approach to left-sided.
To hold a hinge barre in fret 5 while allowing open string 1 to resonate with the same pitch on string 2, the fingers must approach the strings from the right side to provide enough room.
For the next chord, fingers 2 and 3 need to stretch out, so approaching from the left side offers a better reach.
As these chord patterns repeat, the left hand has to adjust from right to left several times within a few measures, remaining firmly in position V throughout.
For passages with over-ringing arpeggios such as this, landing on the right side of the fingers generally works better, often (as seen in the previous examples) positioning the thumb further left.
Thumb off the fretboard
This thumb position is particularly important in Leo Brouwer’s Una Dia de Noviembre.
At the start of the major section is a chord that requires a barre in fret 7, with finger 4 still holding the high E in fret 12.
Although a conventional left-hand position may get the right results, the safest approach is to release the thumb entirely from the back of the neck.
The elbow needs to be lower (either by dropping the shoulder or raising the guitar from the knee) and the counterweight against the finger pressure comes from the chest.
For a slightly less extreme example of a thumb adjustment, we return to Torroba’s Sonatina.
The hammer-ons with fingers 3 and 4 stretch across the distance of two frets. Although the fingers can approach from a straightforward parallel position, placing the thumb slightly further left gives fingers 3 and 4 more room to spread to their positions.
Usually, the thumb should sit roughly behind finger 2 as a counterweight to the pressure, but for barre chords such as this, bringing the thumb closer to finger 1 can provide enough stability and offer a little more flexibility.
You could also try removing the thumb completely, as in the Brouwer example, but it is probably not necessary.
Considering the earlier discussion about finger placement, the opening measures of this movement involve various left-hand position changes: conventional position, left-sided approach, and thumb alignment.
These examples demonstrate that your left hand probably has more flexibility than you might have considered.
With the correct adjustment and alignment, even smaller hands can reliably make difficult stretches.
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