Does the way you hold a guitar matter?
After seeing hundreds of guitar players on the big stages you might say…. so easy! How hard could it be to hold a guitar? I just have to hold it like they do!
But copying your favorite players might not be the best approach.
Guitar players like Jimmy Page or Slash do look really cool holding their guitars very low. But is this the best way to hold a guitar for ease of playing? Probably not.
There is a better way to learn how to hold a guitar. As you’ll see, these popular musicians make a compromise between how they look, and how easy it is to play.
We aren’t saying you shouldn’t make the same compromise. It depends on what you want to accomplish. But our goal is to show you how to hold a guitar to make it the most easy to play. If you want to change your position to get a certain look, then you can do that after you understand the best way to hold a guitar.
So what is the best way to hold a guitar?
Should you hold the guitar on your lap like a classical or acoustic guitar player? Should you learn to play the guitar while standing up and using a strap like many electric guitar players? There are definitely many ways to hold a guitar. Which is best?
While there are many ways, what matters is how your body moves and how it is positioned.
Fit your guitar to your body, don’t fit your body to your guitarJason Sagebiel Founder Sage Music, NYC Guitar Orchestra
Your body should generally be in the same position no matter which guitar you hold. As you’ll see, holding the guitar is about getting your body in a comfortable and effective position. It’s not about what the guitar looks like, or any specific angles that the guitar should be at. It’s about you, not the guitar.
Let’s start by looking at the different types of guitars. You’ll notice that while they are all ‘guitars’ they each have a slightly different size and shape. That means how you hold each guitar will be slightly different to adapt to the differences between them, like the size of the body or length of the neck. We'll look at the classical guitar, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar.
The guitar as we know it now is an instrument that has been around for hundreds of years. Take a look at the photo below and see how many versions and shapes of guitar have existed in the past.
If you want to know more about these different guitars, watch the history of the guitar.
Here you can see that all the different historical guitars have much greater differences in size and shape than our modern classical, acoustic, or electric guitars. The cool thing is that if you consider instead how your body best works, you can hold any guitar in a way that makes it easy to play.
So instead of showing you how to hold every possible guitar shape, we’ll show you how your body should be positioned so that you can get your guitar to fit your body - making it the most easy to play.
In fact, the principles of easy playing have been the same forever, basically. We even have evidence to show how they would hold their guitar from images!
Take a look at this clay from Iraq around 2000 B.C.E. The instrument looks a lot like the modern guitar, having a neck connected to a body, with strings connecting both together.
The way the musician is holding it has some things in common with how to hold a guitar today. Specifically, you’ll see that the guitar neck is elevated so the player can comfortably press the strings and reach the entirety of the guitar neck.
So let’s get into the principles of holding a guitar so that you can apply them to any guitar of any size or shape.
It’s easy to play the guitar when you use your body in an effective way. And it’s easy to use your body in an effective way if you hold the guitar in a way that allows it.
What allows this easy movement? It’s just a few things:
We’ll start by setting up with good posture, and then we’ll talk about how your body should be positioned so that you can access all the important parts of the guitar.
This article has a decent description of correct posture and alignment. Take a read if you want a little more detail. We’ll give you the parts that relate to holding a guitar below.
Having good posture will prevent you from getting tired since you will use less muscular effort to hold yourself up. This is especially important if you hold your guitar for hours a day either performing or practicing.
You posture should include the following:
The neck and back should be aligned, and together they should form a cross with the shoulders. In other words, both shoulders should be level and at the same height.
When you hold your guitar, you want to hold it in a way that allows you to keep this good posture.
Good posture is actually a bit easier when standing with the guitar.
When you sit, your hips tilt a bit and can affect your posture by causing your spine to be unaligned, and your head to hunch forward.
If you are not careful, this can also harm our performance on the instrument, making it more difficult to play. So we should be careful how we sit when we play the guitar and consider the hips, legs, and feet.
Our hips must be level and we must sit on the edge of the chair on our sit bones. These are the bones of our butt, or the bottom of our pelvis. Being on our sit bones takes the stress off our muscles and allows for better blood flow and nerve conduction. It also allows our spine to maintain its alignment.
In order to balance our body weight and not lean more than one side than the other, our knees and feet should be about shoulder width apart. We should not open our legs too much.
With good posture you should feel stable, centered, and relaxed.
The positioning of our shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, fingers, and knuckles should allow freedom of movement and limit stress or injury. We should be very ergonomic and relaxed without adding unnecessary tension.
You can learn about the following principles if you study biomechanics or kinesiology. Aaron Shearer explains these principles clearly for guitarists in his excellent book Learning the Classical Guitar. He did not discover these principles, but explains them in a clear way for the world of guitar.
The four rules are here, but below is a summary if you don't want to read the full article.
Now that we know the principles of how to sit and how to hold a guitar or any instrument, we are going to see specifically how we should hold each of the guitars to have the best possible posture. We’ll apply each of these to the classical, acoustic, and electric guitars.
You can follow this simple checklist to ensure that you are in a good playing position, and be confident that you are holding the guitar the right way.
Use this checklist as you look at the images below so you can practice evaluating whether or not you are holding the guitar well.
In the following images, you'll see good positioning with the hands on the guitar. Your posture will help you get into a good position. And a good position will make it easier to play the guitar.
Since we are focusing on holding the guitar here, see the proper positioning of the right hand on guitar and of the left hand for more details on how to position the hands on the guitar.
Let's apply our rules of posture and movement to holding the classical guitar.
We are starting with the classical guitar because there is the most information about it. It has existed the longest, since the mid 1800s, and has a history that goes back to the early string instruments you saw above to almost 4000 years.
Much has been written about how to hold a guitar and guitar technique by guitarists such as Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Francisco Tarrega, Andres Segovia or Emilio Pujol. Each of them may have had cutting edge ideas at the time and moved the guitar forward. But compared to what we know today, they had much to learn.
These guitarists instilled in us the use of a footstool and a bad right hand technique that comes with a high rate of injuries, mostly due to the wrists being misaligned and out of the midrange. See an analysis of Segovia’s guitar technique here.
But this is not to blame them, they simply did not have the information that is now available about the injuries caused, for example by the use of the footstool or bent wrist. It is only to say, let’s copy what is good about them, and improve upon what needs it.
I'm not saying that they were bad guitar players either. They were all exceptionally good in their own way, leaving a great contribution of repertoire, method, and recordings, and more.
The size of the guitar is very important when playing or taking guitar lessons. If a guitar is too large, we will not be able to have a good posture and it will be difficult for us to play properly. There are different types of guitar sizes for all ages and heights, so make sure you ask a professional or your teacher before buying the guitar.
You may have a very difficult time holding the guitar if you have the wrong size.
Here I leave you a photo indicating the measure and the suggestion depending on the age. But keep in mind that your age will not determine the size, but the shape of the guitar and your ability to have good position and posture.
Now, before picking up a guitar, we must have a chair that fits us at a perfect height. This means that you can keep your back’s natural curves, balance on your sit bones, and have good posture and positioning.
Avoid chairs with arms, and avoid soft couches since they are made to be comfortable when reclining, and not for when playing a musical instrument. And if they are soft, you may not be able to balance on your sit bones.
Keep both feet placed on the ground. Keep your knees around 90 degrees in the middle of their range of motion. Your knees should also be below your hips which will also help avoid your pelvis turning under and having bad posture.
The principles tell us that the position of our body must be aligned and as natural as possible.
These would be the steps to ensure the best posture when you hold a classical guitar.
While still popular, footstools are not recommended for use. They will cause bad posture from the beginning, and back problems and pain in the long run. I would recommend you buy a support that fits you to be able to have a better posture from the beginning and take care of your back.
There are many types of guitar supports. In order to choose the best support, it should be able to adapt to your posture and the one that allows you to have better mechanical movements. The ones I recommend the most are the Sage Work and the Ergo Play.
Now that we know what the principles of how to hold a guitar are, we will see the examples on the acoustic guitar. If you want to know the history of the acoustic guitar here I leave you the link to a video.
It is very important to know that the acoustic guitar also has different sizes but also has different types of body styles. It is important to know which one to choose when buying one, here is an article about the different types of acoustic guitar shapes that exist and which one may suit you. Generally speaking, the larger the body of the guitar, the more difficult it may be to hold.
The acoustic guitar has existed since the end of the 19th century with the German Christian Frederick Martin, who moved to Vienna in 1811 to study and work with a renowned guitar producer named Stanffer. Martin turned out to be a very talented disciple who, shortly after arriving, was appointed manager.
As the years passed in 1833, the talented Martin moved to the United States and settled in New York, his workshop was in the back room of his house, later he moved to Nazareth Pennsylvania and that is where the headquarters still remain.
The way in which we should hold the acoustic guitar is the same as the classical guitar, allowing our body to be aligned and our mechanical functions to move respecting the 4 rules of efficient musculoskeletal function, the only difference is that we can play it standing up.
We have seen many guitarists play the acoustic guitar sitting down putting the guitar on their right leg, this is not always the best way to play since when we put the guitar on our right leg our back is hunched from wanting to look at the fretboard, the left forearm it has to overextend and in this way the fingers of our left hand do not fit us in a natural way, with this we break all our principles of how to hold a guitar and the 4 rules of efficient musculoskeletal function.
But if your body keeps all the recommendations of a natural posture and positions having a good muscular alignment then you can keep it in the right leg.
There are a few reasons many acoustic guitarists put the guitar on their right leg:
But if you find that your posture is bad with the guitar on your right leg, we’d suggest you
Just look at this great guitarist Marcin Patrzalek's posture and see how he holds his guitar.
See how Marcin meets the principal body posture and the 4 rules of efficient musculoskeletal function?
Now have you noticed that almost all guitar players who played standing up have the guitar near an angle of around 45 degrees? Why will it be? Because that's usually the best ergonomic way to play. The point is not to put the guitar neck at 45 degrees. The point is to place the guitar where it is most easy to play, which is often around 45 degrees. I think that once you relate this you will see why the guitar should always go on the left side when we play sitting down.
Here is a video of this great young guitar player playing Beethoven 5th symphony, he is breaking barriers with the use of acoustic guitar. Take a look and see how he holds the guitar.
Let's see the steps to take into account to know how to hold an acoustic guitar but before that, watch this short video by Dave Dolls pro tips from Martin guitars.
He tells us why playing with the right leg is a bad posture and why the ideal is the left. I still think he is not in a perfect position but it is a great video to understand why you should not play with the guitar on the right leg.
If you are going to play fingerstyle:
If you are going to be played with a pick:
I'd recommend you try the ergo play or sageworks support (pictured above) or using a guitar strap.
After seeing the last 2 options I think we will understand how we should hold the electric guitar.
If you want to know the history of the electric guitar, here is a video.
You also have to know that electric guitars have different types, sizes and styles. Remember to have the one who fits you to have a good posture and position. Ask your teacher or a professional before you buy one. If you want to know all the styles of electric guitar, watch this video.
In the 1920s, different types of acoustic guitars were used in dance orchestras and jazz bands in the United States of America. However, as it had almost no sonority compared to other instruments, its use was generally limited to accompaniment.
Looking to solve this problem, Lloyd Loar, one of the engineers at the Gibson guitar factory, began experimenting with magnets, and in 1924 he designed a pickup that could be attached to a traditional six-string guitar. In this way, it was possible to convert the vibrations generated by the body of the instrument into electrical signals that were amplified through a loudspeaker.
But the biggest breakthrough came in 1931, when Paul Barth and George Beauchamp, employees of the National Company in California, which also made pickups, teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacker to form the Electro String Company, the first to market electric instruments. Together they created the steel and cast aluminum guitars known as "frying pans" because of their shape.
A year later, in 1932, Rickenbacker went one step further by creating the Electro Spanish. It was a basic dome-top design fitted with the same horseshoe-shaped magnetic pickup as the "frying pan." For its part, Gibson produced models that were very successful, such as the ES-150, launched in 1935 and from there it evolved into the guitar we know today.
There were many famous guitarists playing the electric guitar in many ways, some like Jimmy Page or Slash playing very low, Jimi Hendrix or more modern like Steve Vai implementing his ways of playing but if we follow the principles and the 4 rules of efficient musculoskeletal function we will know that they are wrong.
Here I leave a young guitarist breaking barriers with the electric guitar Tim Henson from the band Polyphia.
Lately, people are beginning to be more aware of how the guitar should be held, and talented young people like Tin Henson and Marcin Patrzalek on acoustic guitar are imposing these new trends that will help new generations to play the guitar better.
The electric guitar being a less thick guitar it is more complicated to accommodate it so the use of a strap while standing or sitting would be a perfect solution.
Let's follow the principles and the 4 rules on the electric guitar:
Here we can see all the steps holding the electric guitar while standing.
For the electric guitar it is best to use the strap. Unlike the acoustic or classical guitar, there are no supports for the electric guitar.
After seeing the principles, we should understand why playing on the right side with the incorrect posture and body alignment is bad for our back and for our posture. When we hold the guitar, we should respect the principles of the correct posture and the 4 rules of efficient musculoskeletal function. Make sure to take care of yourself. Keeping your body in a good playing position is more important than looking cool or getting perfect passages in a bad position. Over time, the bad posture and position will take a toll on your body.
We must take care of our body to be efficient and avoid injuring ourselves, so here I leave you a step by step guide so that you can always be aware.
If you are looking for guitar lessons in San Antonio, New York, or online, we'd be happy to help.