Learning how to play the guitar with two working hands is not always easy, but most people can manage it with the right motivation. We’re all sort of in agreement that the two hands are sort of necessary for any guitar chords – basic chords, barre chords, power chords – and for any scale – be it a major scale, minor scale, or pentatonic scale.
By dint of training, exercises, motivation and support, you can reach a good level in a few months of regular practice. From a beginner guitar player you can climb the guitar player ranks – and navigate the fretboard easily – in no time at all, as you long as you play guitar everyday and are committed to your new guitar.
However, one of the questions a lot of guitar teachers – in both guitar lessons for beginners and those for more advanced players – is, how do you do that thing where you play with just one hand? This always brings in other questions about good technique: is there a specific way to hold the guitar? and how do you play the notes?
An unusual guitar that requires you to play one-handed.
Playing chords is a whole other issue – but it is definitely possible to develop all sorts of chord progressions with only one hand. As ever, anyone decent offering guitar lessons will be able to help you with this.
To play the guitar with one hand it is essential that you rest the guitar on a stable support. This can be on your knees, like the outstanding musician and guitarist Ben Harper (although he uses both hands), or on another support. This could well just be a strap.
For example, you could rest your guitar on a bottleneck and play the notes with one hand. A bottle neck is a small tube of glass or metal that the guitarist wears on one of his fingers of the left hand (if they are right handed) and use to make a characteristic metallic sound.
Country and blues musicians are very fond of this type of accessory. If you are going for this sort of slide guitar technique, you’ll want to keep an eye on your posture. Always be careful of how you hold yourself why playing the guitar: keep your back perpendicular to a chair or stool, and place the guitar flat and close to your body.
Keep the back of the guitar flat or ask someone (such as your guitar teacher) to help you.
Some of the techniques in this article may not be for beginners…
Beginners on the guitar especially find using a pick helps them distinguish the notes they play. If you are not into fingerpicking – or ‘fingerstyle’ guitar – then a pick will be necessary. Either way works – and the best guitar players can do both.
Using the pick to play the guitar with your right hand
A pick is a triangular piece of plastic used to pluck individual notes or to strum the strings of the guitar to make a chord (with a tuned guitar).
A pick is cheap and any music store or website will have dozens of kinds.
To hold your pick, pinch it between your thumb and the side of your index finger as you make a loose fist, and be sure to hold it perpendicular to the strings, leaving about half a centimeter with which to strum.
To play the guitar with one hand, you can start with the back and forth technique – otherwise known as alternate picking – which does not require you to hold the neck.
You will play the strings open, that is, without holding any down. The back and forth technique is used in many styles of music.
The idea is very simple: using your pick, you strike the strings from above and then from below to play the notes. This exercise is not as simple as it seems. It requires a lot of practice, flexibility of the wrist, and attention to the sound of each string.
The more you practice this technique, the more you will gain in fluidity, precision and endurance.
Still using the back and forth technique, you can play one-handed while skipping some strings to make different sounds.
You will need to work with precision.
This technique aims to increase your comfort in transitioning between strings (find out how to choose the right strings), especially those that are not immediately next to them. We’re talking about moving from the first string to the third string, say, without fingering any fret on the fret board.
It sounds simple at first, but requires a good deal of dexterity.
Here are some tips to help you master the back and forth technique:
• Respect the back and forth: one downwards stroke followed by one upwards.
• Do not go too fast, start slowly and then increase the tempo according to your comfort.
• Try a series of downwards strokes followed by an upwards series.
• Make sure your pick is no thinner than 3mm.• Control the pick with your wrist and not your elbow.
• If possible, work with a metronome to get used to strumming in rhythm.• Practice every day.
• Read more on: how to play the guitar?
If you can’t find a guitar teacher near you, try online guitar lessons for tips on playing one-handed.
Have you already heard the song, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, in which Angus Young seems to play the notes of his guitar with one hand?
The notes seem to flow together through the air.
The term legato comes from the Italian for “bound”; when combined with drag effects, for example, legato lets you play melodies with one hand.
The legato gives an extremely melodic and fluid rendering similar to that of a saxophonist.
Many famous guitarists use this technique; Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, and Shawn Lane, an American guitarist and composer who played with The Eagles. He played on a Vigier guitar that had no frets (like some bass guitars).
But it is a common technique in many guitar solos – and if you want to play lead guitar or any fast guitar licks, it is a technique that you will need to get down.
It is usually used on the electric guitar with a high level of distortion that makes the string resonate. However, many people do the same thing on an acoustic guitar. Someone like Michael Hedges uses guitar tricks like these to play rhythm guitar with his left hand whilst playing melodies on the top guitar strings simultaneously.
Turn the treble up to maximum, use the trestle mic and beat the frets with the left hand, while plucking and releasing the string quickly and lightly.
This technique, which is mostly played with both hands, can also be learned with one hand.
It will again need you to connect your electric guitar with a high level of distortion. The touch technique involves hammering the strings with your right hand (if you are right handed). Tapping allows you to get very fast melodic lines and to play further up on the neck to reach high notes (How to play the guitar faster?).
You need to touch a string with your index finger or your middle finger of the right hand between two frets.
There is no need for a pick as a rule, though some pieces alternate tapping and other phrasing.
In these cases you will have to tap with the middle finger while keeping the pick between your thumb and forefinger.
You need both precision and force to make a sound. When releasing the pressure on the string, give a slight pressure downwards or upwards (whichever is easiest) as if in a pull-off.
The sound will be more precise. This technique produces a saturated sound.
The important thing is to stifle with the right hand: place your right palm on the strings to make the sound sharper. You will prevent other strings from vibrating and creating secondary sounds, especially if your sound is saturated.
The musicians who use this technique most are Eddie Van Halen (listen and see the song “Eruption”) but also Steve Vai (see video below), Joe Satriani or Jennifer Batten, the guitarist who played with Michael Jackson.
Another pioneer of this technique is the jazz musician Stanley Jordan.
Two other possible techniques are the hammer on, which is played by striking the note with the left hand only, and the pull-off, which is played by pulling the string slightly down and then releasing it very quickly to obtain a clean sound.
You can practise these techniques even on your inexpensive starter guitar!
As you can see, there are different ways to play the guitar one-handed, but not many of them work on their own.
If you have only one working hand (but the same also applies if you have both hands), playing with one hand is a real challenge, but trying to conquer it will teach you a lot about yourself and the guitar.
Bob Gifford (who has a paralyzed left arm) has played with one hand since the age of five.
You will find you are more attentive to the different sounds you make, and this will affect the quality of your playing.
You will probably need assistance to alternate between different techniques.
Finally, whether you have one or two hands, the basics stay the same: play regularly, every day if possible (it’s more effective than playing three hours straight on weekend, or taking private guitar lessons infrequently), always start slowly and then increase the tempo when you’re feeling comfortable.
Consider taking regular private lessons with Superprof to get you on the right track. Here are a few popular searches:
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