Close your fret hand into a fist and place on a table, palm down. Extend your 1st (index) finger and lift it off the table. You can probably raise it a good three inches or so. Now, curl the 1st finger back into the fist and extend your 2nd (middle) finger. It’s a little tougher to lift, isn’t it? Finally, curl the 2nd finger back and try the 3rd (ring) finger. Go ahead. Try. Can’t do it, huh? That’s because our muscles and tendons are naturally limited in this position. We are actually built to favor our first two fingers, and that is exactly what we do when we first play the guitar: leave the 3rd and 4th (pinkie) fingers flailing wildly in the air, where they’re hard-pressed to start a phrase or hold a sustained note.
FIGURE 1 is a good first step to gaining both finger equality and independence. Once the pattern clicks, continue playing it up the neck. The first challenge will be to a develop endurance. With practice, though, you should be able to make them as strong and quick as their 1st and 2nd cousins.
FIGURES 2A–B are exercises in which one or more fingers are anchored while two others are put to work. In this case, the 1st and 2nd fingers are anchored to the 3rd (G) string while the 3rd and 4th fingers do an elaborate dance. In both exercises, the first challenge is to keep each note ringing for as long as indicated. (Pay attention to the ties in standard notation.) The second exercise emphasizes this tricky move as the pinkie crosses over the 3rd string. As you practice these, try releasing the unconscious tension that builds up in the stationary 1st and 2nd fingers. Although 10 repetitions of these two knuckle-busters may feel like eternity, they shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes a day.
Because FIGURES 2A–B are unsettling to hear, FIGURES 3A–D present some pretty chords. The general concept, however, remains: FIGURE 3A anchors the 4th finger, FIGURE 3B the 3rd, and so on. In each pair, you’ll see one note—held by the anchor finger—sustained through both chords. Be sure to keep it ringing as your other fingers switch between the shapes. Once you tackle each pair of chords, string them all together for a nice little etude in G major.
Want more strategies for finger equality? Try playing simple melodies, like children’s songs or basic riffs, with just your 3rd and 4th fingers. If you’re working on soloing and improvising, make a mental note of which fingers you favor, and learn a phrase that doesn’t involve them. Try starting a phrase with the pinkie for a change. And, finally, play any two-fingered chord (open Em or A7, for instance) with all possible finger combinations.