Eight Great Tips for Playing Guitar With Small Hands

What do Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Steve Vai, and Buckethead all have in common? Despite the fact that each one of them are (or in Jimi's case, were) excellent guitarists, there's another trait they all share: large hands.

There's no denying the fact that in the world of guitar playing, bigger hands rule the roost. It took me 15 years of diligent practice to figure that out. No matter how much effort I put into my daily guitar routine--which has consistently been a quite a lot--there will always be certain things my small hands will never be capable of doing. Playing guitar with small hands was the crux of this matter, and my own appendages were my kryptonite.

What could I do? I had already invested thousands of dollars in equipment over the years, not to mention the time spent learning the guitar and improving my technique--throwing my hands in the air and switching to another instrument was out of the question at this point in the game.

Thankfully, where there are problems, there are solutions. First, I needed a little motivation. It turns out I'm not alone in my woes. Angus Young plays a mean six string, and he has small hands. Randy Rhoads could shred with the best of them, and he was a pretty tiny dude. This list can go on, but the point has already been made: people with small hands can become excellent guitarists.

After this soul (and Google) searching session, I decided to reevaluate the way I approach guitar to better suit my requirement for consistent improvement. Here are eight things I figured out that helped me become a much better guitar player, small hands notwithstanding.

Make Good With Your Pinky

As I discovered over the years of attempting to replicate the left hand fingering of my favorite guitarists, sometimes the standard ring finger-to-index finger reach expected out of lesson books is physically impossible for my small hands.

Traditionally, guitar lessons teach us to use our left-hand pinky as an afterburner of sorts--a way to reach notes that lie outside a typical four fret scale box. This is universally true, regardless of hand size, but the pinky plays a far more important role for guitarists with smaller hands.

If you're a guitarist with small hands, consider utilizing your pinky in places usually designated for the ring finger. It doesn't always work--minimal hand movement is still preferential--but it could be the difference between being able to actually play a particular part over conceding to ultimate defeat.

Of all the tips I have in this article, this is undoubtedly the most difficult one. Why? Because your pinky is always going to be the weakest finger on your left hand. It took me several months of solid practice before mine could do half of what my ring finger was capable of. Due diligence paid off, though: my legato is much smoother now, and my soloing ability has become significantly faster.

Moral of the story: incorporating greater use of your pinky isn't going to be easy, and it's not going to sound right during your first attempts. Keep it up, though, and even the trickiest fretboard patterns will become second nature.

Higher Frets Are Your Friend

There's no getting around: noodling around the higher portion of the fretboard sounds awesome. It's a tonal range that allows guitarists to really cut through the mix, and it's where several iconic soloing moments have happened. If it works for Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, it will work for you.

If you're a guitarist with smaller hands, here's a place where you're actually at an advantage. Whereas players with big hands may feel cramped anywhere beyond the twelfth fret, those of us with smaller hands should feel right at home.

So go ahead, get familiar with patterns upwards the twelfth fret. If you're a beginner, this will take some getting used to. Lesson books (and videos) usually ask you to begin single-note practice around the third or fifth fret, and don't even touch higher frets until much later on in the curriculum. You should still practice in this region, but there's no absolute rule forbidding you from jumping ahead and getting used to the higher register early on in your training. And if you're a guitar player with small hands, you'll find that these higher frets allow for a far more comfortable (and speedy) experience.

A final note about higher fret work: If you're physically struggling with a part designated for the lower part of the fretboard, try taking it up an octave (12 frets). Sure, it's going to lose some of that bottom-end edge, but on a purely musical level, the notes will be exactly the same. Much like my pinky-utilization tip, this isn't going to work for everything, but the pros outweigh the cons. Check out my video below for an example. Note how indifferent my dog is--can't please everyone, I guess.

Utilize Drop-D Tuning

Those who enjoy playing modern metal should be immediately familiar with Drop-D tuning, which simply entails tuning the sixth string down a step (for standard tuning, it means dropping the "E" string down to "D").

Using Drop-D tuning is a great way to get some tasty riffage out of your guitar, but it doesn't have to be strictly for "heavy" playing. Since Drop-D tuning allows you barre power-chords with one finger on the two lower strings, it requires less of a stretch if you want to throw in extra notes on the higher strings. This is especially useful when attempting suspended and minor embellishments on the three lower strings.

Drop-D tuning also comes in handy for classic boogie-woogie patterns, the chagrin of small handed guitarists everwhere. Check out this video for an example of what I'm talking about. Note the return of my indifferent puppy.

Incorporate Tapping Techniques

It's tempting to write-off fretboard finger tapping as a 1980s guitar hero gimmick, but it can be a lifesaving technique if you're a guitarist with small hands. Think about it: having small hands restricts how far you're capable of stretching across a fretboard. By using two hands instead of one, you suddenly open up greater access between particular notes.

Confession time: of all the techniques listed here, I use this one the least. Why? Honestly, I'm not a flashy player, and fretboard tapping is the very definition of flash. But if I absolutely have to hit a note that isn't within a four-fret space in a particular section, you'd better believe that my right hand is quick to the task.

And hey, if you are a flashy player, finger tapping is a win-win situation. It sounds neat, it isn't particularly difficult to do, and it'll impress your friends.

A capo is a great way to make those ridiculous barred open chords easier for small handed guitarists
A capo is a great way to make those ridiculous barred open chords easier for small handed guitarists

Using a Capo Isn't a Cop-Out

It's really frustrating when fellow guitarists talk trash about capos. For some reason, using a capo is viewed as cheating--an "easy way out."

Well, I'm here to tell you that this sentiment is complete nonsense. For those with smaller hands, capos can be a godsend. This is especially true if you're trying to play songs that incorporate barred open-chord voicings, like "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It all comes down to how far your left hand can physically stretch. If you can't barre an open-C chord shape on the third fret because your fingers won't stretch that far today, then you'll have the same problem tomorrow.

If you take away anything from this article, let this be it: if physical limitations (AKA small hands) keep you from improving upon a certain song or technique regardless of how much practice you put into it, then there's nothing wrong with getting a little accessory-based help. If you can't play a song without a capo, then by all means, use a capo. Your audience isn't going to care either way.

Consider Light Gauge Strings

As with the short-scale guitar tip, choosing a string gauge for your needs is a totally subjective experience. If you're having trouble performing simple bends, though, you may want to consider using light gauge strings (like Ernie Ball Super Slinkys) on your axe. They also make hammer ons and pull offs easier to accomplish--another technique that small handed guitarists may struggle with.

Lighter gauge strings have additional benefits, as well. They tend to sound "brighter" than their heavier counterparts, and thus allow guitarists to cut through the mix just a pinch more. Light gauge strings also "dull out" slower, so you won't have to change them quite as frequently.

On the flip side, there are also benefits to using heavier gauge strings. Heavier strings are less likely to "buzz," and they allow for greater dynamic range based on how hard you hit them. This one is really up to you--both variations have their strengths. But if you have small hands and struggle with certain techniques, then you may want to really consider giving light gauge strings a try.

Here's a tip-within-a-tip: if light strings feel too "floppy" for you, try using a lighter pick along with them. I use Fender Medium picks with the aforementioned Ernie Ball Super Slinkys, and my hands couldn't be happier.

Don't "Fret" About Short-Scale Guitars

There's nothing wrong with short-scale guitars--for children and genuinely small adults, they're great. But there's a sacrifice to be made in the way of variety when it comes to these particular instruments, not to mention the fact that they make playing on the higher fretboard far more challenging than it ever should have to be.

One thing you may want to consider, though, is the distance between the frets themselves. Smaller handed guitarists may find a Gibson-sized fret difference more comfortable than the lightly larger ones found on Fender-esque instruments. This is naturally a personal preference, so it's best to simply stroll down to your favorite guitar store and actually try out various instruments. The best guitar for you will be the one that feels comfortable in your hands.

For further clarification on using "regular" sized guitars with small hands, think back to the famous guitarists example used in the beginning of this article. Angus Young has always been a Gibson SG guy, and that isn't a short-scale guitar. Randy Rhoads played several guitars, notably a Gibson Les Paul, which again, isn't a short-scale guitar either. If you decide to research additional famous small-handed guitarists, I'll bet that most of them play standard sized guitars.

One more time: not trying to knock short-scale guitars here. If you find one that works for you, that's great. Just don't assume that having small hands automatically disqualifies you from using a standard sized instrument. Small handed guitarists have used them before, and they'll continue to use them in the future.

My well used copy of Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson
My well used copy of Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson

Practice Guitar Every Day!

Okay, this is going to be totally obvious, but practicing guitar every day is the only way you'll ever get better at the instrument. This will always be true, regardless of hand size, but for guitar players with small hands, it's an absolute necessity.

It all comes down to physical science: playing guitar requires muscle motion from your hands, and small hands are inevitably less powerful than bigger ones. Developing a daily practice routine allows you to enhance muscle mobility, therefore allowing your hands to eventually do more with less effort.

For my money, I have found Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson an invaluable practice book. It features a different practice riff for every day of the week (for a total of one year), focusing on a single guitar technique for each day. If you're anything like me (scatterbrained and almost always unfocused), then I highly recommend incorporating it (or a similar guided practice tool) into your daily practice routine.

The reason I include this as one of these tips is a simple one: it's easy to blame inefficient guitar playing on small hands, but there will be genuine moments where hand size isn't the problem. It took me several years of practice before I realized that certain things were literally beyond my reach--the classic "boogie woogie" pattern I mentioned earlier is one of them--and I adapted accordingly. Sometimes honest-to-goodness practice is all it takes to overcome shoddy guitar playing.

© 2014 Sam Islam

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Comments 5 comments

Trevor Croft profile image

Trevor Croft 12 months ago

Great hub, Sam! I especially liked the drop-D boogie-woogie tip. I'm going to pass this hub on to a friend of mine who has always struggled with that lick in standard tuning.

I have the opposite issue: I have very large hands. It's true, I can make some incredible reaches, but speed in the upper frets seems to be the trade-off. I have to practice hard for fast passages in the upper frets, to cram my fingers into those tiny frets and get them to work right.

Keep rockin'! --T

Lauren 6 months ago

Im gonna be using my pinky finger a lot

Linda 4 months ago

Thanks for the tips! Much appericated my hands always discourage me from picking up the guitar again and play but, utilizing these techniques should help

Joe Chow Johnson 4 months ago

It's too bad I've got a broken pinky on my left hand I can't use very well. Except the (C7th chord! My doctor said,it's too late to straighten out!

AmandaG 4 months ago

Thank you for highlighting the part about distance between frets. I was constantly advised to try Strat-type guitars as being 'great for beginners' 'thin necks for small hands' etc. Then I won a Les Paul in a competition and was shocked to find how comfortable it was to play - as well as sounding great. It's also a shorter scale length, which is handy for those of us who have short arms as well as small hands.

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