The ‘a’ finger – taking a closer look

The ‘a’ finger – taking a closer look


The aim of this article is to examine the functioning of the ‘a’ finger of the right hand, the defects which arise from its underdevelopment, and to suggest ways in which the improved use of this finger can lead to better technical and musical results.

My main premise is that failure of ‘a’ finger function is the hidden technical cause of many musical defects. The reasons for this failure will be discussed in detail, together with typical musical situations in which it occurs.

The ‘a’ finger is the weakest of the fingers used in conventional right hand technique [1]. It is also, in most people the finger most ‘tied’ to the others. This relative lack of independence can be easily tested by turning the hand palm up, fingers outstretched. Curling each finger into the palm in turn normally shows that the ‘a’ finger cannot help but follow the ‘m’ some of the way into the palm. [2]

This combination of relative weakness, and the effect of the link between ‘m’ and ‘a’, means that the development of the ‘a’ finger tends often to be substantially behind that of fingers ‘i’ and ‘m’. There are a number of issues connected with this:
a) at the early stages of learning the ‘a’ finger tends to be introduced later than the others, and as a matter of routine used less, given the perfectly proper need to keep the pupil progressing without imposing the kind of severe discipline that would be needed to properly secure ‘a’ finger function at this level. Unfortunately it also happens that:
b) the habit of not using the ‘a’ finger persists long into the stages of learning when there is no longer any real excuse, when basic technique is established, the ‘a’ finger is in fact being used regularly, but its control continues to lag behind.

Why? Well, as with most other instruments, guitarists have inherited, largely unconsciously, a great number of habits, (some mental, some physical) from their ‘ancestors’ in previous generations of guitar-playing enthusiasts. One of the toughest of these nuts is the persistent habit of staring fixedly at the left hand, even when this is perfectly unnecessary. As well as resulting in a locked posture, tense neck, shoulder and arm muscles, this habit does mean that the last thing most guitarists think about looking at is their right hand. Even when they do, the ‘a’ finger is effectively concealed by the rest of the hand. It is, literally and metaphorically, in the dark.

I am sure those ancestors of ours spent most of their time looking at their left hands, especially in the days before any kind of fixed and reliable method of holding the neck securely in position came to be universal. The habit is, like any other, passed on through unconscious imitation of teachers and fellow players, and means that little is known or thought about what is happening ‘down there’, despite the simple and obvious fact that it is the right hand that is creating and controlling most of the parameters of musical performance – tone, volume, rubato etc.

In order to be clear about what is happening at the ‘finger’s-eye-view’ level, we need to define the right hand finger stroke. We shall then be able to see how the linkage between ‘m’ and ‘a’ causes a breakdown in this basic procedure. [3]

1. In order for the stroke to commence the finger needs to be in close proximity to the string it is about to play, and in front of it, that is to say on the side towards the floor. (The greater the distance from finger to string at this stage, the greater the sense of insecurity felt – quite rightly, as there is more chance of missing, the further away the finger is.) In the interests of tone, timing and matters of muscular efficiency, ie relaxation, the more stable this position is, the better.
2. The finger moves towards its string, passing ‘through’ it, deflecting it downwards towards the table, and follows through into the palm (as in our experiment above).
3. It now returns back to its starting position [4] immediately.

Precisely how stage 3 is encouraged is less important than the technical necessity of its efficiency. Whether it be considered as a bounce, a spring re-bounding or what you like, it must be clear that no finger is going to be ready to play again until it has returned to stage 1; and if it is ‘m’ that has just played, it has to return to stage 1 in order to allow ‘a’ to occupy that state with the kind of stability and security that is needed. If we translate the experiment in the third paragraph into a pima exercise we will see that the movement of ‘m’, however proper in itself, is going to displace ‘a’ from stage 1. So either ‘a’ has to wait until ‘m’ has kindly put it back where it belongs, or it has to do some rather stressful extension of its own to keep itself in place.

Whether this return process happens strictly before the following note will depend on the rapidity of the note succession. It is very useful training for the extensor muscles [5] if all notes whether single or in chords are followed by an immediate return, even at slow speeds. At higher speeds what is important is that the hand has trained a ‘default setting’ which causes the fingers to return to the starting position as quickly as possible.

The breakdown of technique that occurs, as I am sure you have spotted, is that which happens in pima arpeggio figurations in which ‘a’ follows ‘m’; at any kind of speed there is a considerable incidence of;
a) missing the string entirely, ‘a’ coming down ‘inside’
b) quite unsatisfactory tone due to the instability of ‘a’ – in the thrall of its neighbour it cannot enjoy the security needed to play a note cleanly, clearly and with proper tone, especially when the string is still vibrating from a previous stroke.
c) tension in the hand arising from the strain of trying to control ‘a’, often with little idea of what is causing the discomfort
d) in varying cross-string figurations the tendency to use the same finger twice in succession to avoid use of ‘a’, or the use of awkward combinations of ‘i’ and ‘m’ – both of these contribute greatly to tension and bad tone.

So the musical circumstance under which this defect is most likely to occur is that of the arpeggio study (I am sure you know the ones) in which figurations alternate ‘m’ and ‘a’, often on strings 2 and 1 respectively. It is also to be found in chords or patterns where these fingers are separated by one or more strings, ie ‘m’ on string 4, ‘a’ on 2 or 1. Beyond that, potentially any cross-string figuration is a likely case, especially those which are a bit involved and in which many different fingerings are possible: unless one fingering is designed and kept to, the fingers will tend to operate in a state of semi-confusion and doubt, circumstances in which inward-curl and avoidance of ‘a’ will proliferate.

A second circumstance involves the rhythmically accurate rendition of designs such as Example 1 (below). Here, the ‘a’ needs sufficient independence to remain ‘outside’ the curve of ‘m’ as it comes into to play the semi-quaver. If ‘a’ is dragged into the palm by the movement of ‘m’, it clearly is not going to be in a position of play the crotchet on time (at any kind of reasonable tempo) because it will have to make a journey back out to regain the position needed to play string 1. If however ‘a’ can follow ‘m’ in, then this rhythmic figure can be played very sharply, because the ‘a’ finger is using a ‘passive resource’ – it is already being swung in towards the palm by the movement of ‘m’. It now becomes a matter of the control of this movement so that it is timed correctly (fast notes aren’t ‘just fast’ – they still need to be accurately subdivided). So the control of ‘a’ and its degree of independence from ‘m’ is also about cultivating this resource on behalf on ‘a’, which of course is not available to it from an in-curled position.

It is a common observation, I would suggest, that even given the challenges facing an adequately returned set of fingers there is a wide tendency for fingers to remain curled into the palm long after they have finished stage 2 of the stroke. This is of course a matter of habit, but remember that the human hand is designed to be rather better at gripping than at releasing – not surprisingly considering the lifestyles of our simian and more recent (non-guitar playing) ancestors. It takes therefore a conscious effort – on the part of teacher and student – to cultivate this return action.

The most powerful technique in the development of the extensor muscles which are needed for return is the rasgueado. The methodical practice of this, using the ‘one finger at a time’ approach [6] is very effective for the de-linkage of the fingers, and also benefits the little finger. By strengthening the weaker side of the hand, the whole hand is balanced and enhanced.

This technique is the right hand equivalent of slurs in muscle development terms. In conventional technique, whether in rest stroke or free stroke (push stroke, as I prefer to call it) it is useful to cultivate an apparently exaggerated bounce of the fingers in the return action. Try encouraging pupils to really exaggerate their return, making their fingers look like the can-can – you may well find they can’t raise them more than a little, and their idea of exaggeration is a very small movement indeed. Go for a sense of a big free movement (for the purpose, not even particularly minding which string is hit) which can then be scaled down into something usable.

Even when the muscles are developing however, the mental habit of allowing fingers to stay curled is the most persistent issue. The best time to remedy it is of course from the beginning, and as soon as basic technique is underway, it is wise to start to gently bias certain aspects of playing towards both the conscious use of ‘a’, and a style of playing which respects the basic necessities of the successful stroke. In particular, when teaching scales, be aware of the tendency for scale books to give im, and mi patterns first, and to underuse and relegate to last combinations involving ‘a’ – amai, aiam etc. Why not have students only practising ‘a’ based combinations for a while?

In students who have been playing for a time, and in whom curling fingers are an endemic habit (those you’ve taken over from somebody else of course!) the only radical and effective measure may be a complete change of technique, and also repertoire (because the habits are programmed into everyone note that is played). This though may only be viable for extremely motivated students aiming for higher education. It is however possible to cultivate a gradual transition from old to new repertoire, insisting as much as possible on intelligent fingering and the espousal of freer movement of the right hand, and in particular, the famous return.

It is also worth considering how the angle of the right hand to the strings affects this issue. If the hand is allowed to angle downwards so that the knuckles are more-or-less parallel to the strings, then the likelihood is that the knuckle to which finger ‘a’ is attached is well away from string 1. With this disposition, in order to plant fingers ‘i’, ‘m’ and ‘a’ on strings 1, 2 and 3, the ‘a’ finger has to extend even further than usual. If the hand is kept more or less in a straight line from the forearm, a more natural composition of the fingers in their normal aligned curvature will allow the fingers to fall directly from the knuckle to their respective strings. Fortunately, this arrangement is also conducive to better tone (assuming the fingers are working at about 45° to the strings) and the continuation of muscles and nerves through the wrist.

It is also common to observe that disfunctional ‘a’ finger action is associated with a right hand tendency to rotate so as to lower the ‘a’ finger side of the hand towards the table. This gives less room for the finger to move freely and tends to cause the fingertip to curve upwards when striking the string – especially at the moment when finger and string are at their maximum mutual resistance ie. the moment before release, when the direction of push is most critical from the point of view of tone.

In summary, the functioning or otherwise of the ‘a’ finger is a key factor in successful music making on the guitar; its adequate development is necessary for appropriate tone – how often the ‘a’ finger plays the tune! – accurate timing of rapid arpeggios, and the relaxed execution of a wide variety of musical designs. Fernando Sor, whose studies ironically are often excellent ‘a’ finger practice material, counselled its avoidance for all but four part chords. I am myself sure this was due to the correct diagnosis of technical defects arising from the lower, lute-like hand position often used at that time, which tends to disadvantage the ‘a’ finger in every one of the procedures I have been discussing, especially when the little finger is planted on the table! There is no doubt however that for the effective execution of guitar music of any epoch with today’s technique, a fully developed use of all the fingers is essential.

For those to whom this subject is new I offer the following suggestions for change to everyday teaching routines;
1) bias scale fingerings heavily towards ‘a’ finger routines
2) encourage practice of arpeggio studies very slowly so the pupil can watch the linkage between ‘m’ and ‘a’ in action
3) when this is observed encourage can-can exaggeration of the movement to instil the idea that ‘m’ needs to come out again before ‘a’ can be happy about playing
4) instil the idea that the fingers are attached to springs that bounce them out again after playing, or get hold of a ball made of sponge which, if squeezed in the hand and then released gives a good impression of how the hand ‘feels’ when the fingers seem to be releasing and returning back out again of their own accord
5) encourage the practice of rasgueado under guidance – if the neighbours complain of the din the strings can be muted easily enough
6) remember how important is your own example as teacher – much is picked up from you ‘by osmosis’, so be particular that the way you play is the way you want your charges to play
7) remember that this subject and guitar technique as a whole only has value relative to the musical result achieved.


1. Stepan Rak, among others advocates the development of the use of the little finger, which of course is even weaker than the annular.
2. Making the same exercise with the left hand often shows, with long-serving guitarists, that the left hand 3rd finger is rather more independent than its right hand opposite, thus demonstrating some of the potential for improvement.
3. For this definition of right hand action and in particular the insistence upon the necessity of return I am indebted to the teaching of Gilbert Biberian.
4. Or if relevant another string.
5. The muscles running along the top of the arm which are responsible for the outward, spreading action of the fingers. The flexors are those which cause the clenching, gripping action used in plucking strings.
6. This means to keep the fingers in the palm while each in turn sweeps across as many strings as possible. This is therefore a slower developmental technique than the familiar fast effect seen in flamenco – but they practice it like this to begin with too. However it is a very ‘strong’ technique and under no circumstances are fingers to be artificially restrained ie against strings, or lasting damage can be caused.

Stephen Kenyon 1995

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