Do you want to learn how to play guitar but you’re not sure how to even hold it?
As a music teacher and private guitar lesson teacher for over 10 years, I’ve worked with people from the age of 7 to 70. And one of the most important things about guitar playing that’s ignored is how to hold a guitar properly.
Many students come to me frustrated that they can’t barre chords or their wrists hurt too much when playing. Often the biggest problem is in how they hold the guitar.
Fixing this takes some effort, so it’s better to learn it correctly in the first place. This way, you don’t have any bad habits to break.
Look ahead for resources on holding the guitar properly in various positions.
8 General Posture Guidelines When Playing Guitar
Before I dig into the details of holding the guitar, I wanted to give you some general guidelines to help your posture when playing. These ideas may seem obvious, but they’re often the most helpful checklist you could have when figuring out how your body should go.
Many times, asking my students these questions will cause them to fix their own holding problems without my needing to go into extreme details.
Ask yourself these questions as you play and hold the string instrument:
- Are you sitting/standing up tall? Or are you hunched over?
- Do your shoulders rest easy on your body or are you forcing them forward?
- Are your shoulders level or is one dramatically higher than the other?
- Do your arms hand loosely from your body or are you forcing them in or out?
- Are your arms forming gentle arcs to the guitar neck and soundhole or are their “kinks”?
- Do your hands and wrists align with your arms’ arcs or are you breaking the arc?
- Is there tension in your fingers?
- Take a deep breath in this position. Is anything blocking your breathing fully?
These 8 questions are good ones to ask when playing any string instrument but especially the guitar.
Don’t get so caught up in the details you forget this list. You may end up working yourself into a painful position.
However, the proper way to hold a guitar is done with these ideas in mind, so following either one should result in the other.
Main Parts of The Guitar
Before going into details, you need to know a little about the parts of the guitar. This will be useful for when I talk about specifically parts and how they’re held in relation to your body.
Here are the ones I will focus on for this article:
Neck: The neck is the long part of the guitar that comes out from the body. This is what you’re left hand (for righties) will hold and where you’ll press down on the strings.
Fretboard: This is the front side of the neck where you’ll press down the strings. The fretboard (or fingerboard) is separated into squares called frets.
Soundhole: This is a circular opening in the front of the guitar where the sound comes out. The sound travels from the vibrating strings, into the body of the guitar, vibrating the air inside, and then out through the soundhole.
It’s over the soundhole I recommend strumming the strings. This position tends to get the best quality and depth of sound.
Body: The body of the guitar is the main part. They are shaped in different ways, but there will always be a dip on either side of the guitar about halfway up its length.
Waist: Where the dip in the body of the guitar is, this is the waist. This is essential for playing guitar when sitting as this is where the guitar rests on your leg.
Breakdown of Holding A Guitar Properly
There is a lot involved in having a proper guitar posture, but luckily for you, once you’ve gotten it down, you won’t have any problems.
In this section, I’ll break down the different considerations for holding a guitar properly.
Most of the hand position considerations are the same, but there are slight differences in what to look for depending on your body’s position (such as sitting, standing, etc).
All the sections unless indicated otherwise are geared towards acoustic guitars, but it applies to all types of guitars. Read on for the special items to watch for in each section.
How to hold a guitar while sitting
I recommend most people begin to learn to play guitar while sitting, so this is what we’ll start with.
Holding a guitar while standing puts slightly more pressure on you to “hold” the instrument when you should be focusing on the basics.
The following directions are for right-handed players. For left-handed players, reverse the hands and sides doing the holding.
Warning! If playing left-handed, make sure you have your guitar restrung for lefties. Otherwise, you’ll be learning all of your chords upside down.
Here are the steps for holding a guitar sitting down:
- Sit in a secure chair that encourages you to sit tall.
- Sit tall in the chair with your back comfortably straight (don’t hunch!).
- Orient the guitar so the soundhole and strings are facing away from you.
- Place the waist of the guitar (middle indent) on your right leg.
- The back of the guitar should be just out (maybe an inch) from your body.
- Let your right arm come down to rest on top part of the bottom end of the body. It should rest near your elbow depending on the length of your arm.
- The rest of your arm continues the natural line of your limb as your hand comes to hover above the soundhole.
- You should be able to comfortably balance the guitar with your right arm, guitar, and your lap.
- Angle the neck of the guitar up slightly (around 10-15°).
- Let your left arm relax comfortably and dangle.
- Bring your left hand up keeping a strong line from your shoulder to your fingers.
- Hold the neck of the guitar according to our section on finger position.
- The weight of the guitar should still be in the right arm and leg.
This position forms the basis for all good guitar posture. The other sections later have variations on this position, which is why I recommend starting with holding a guitar while sitting down.
What is the proper posture and hand positioning?
The proper posture and hand position is key when it comes to playing guitar. The other ideas on this list are important too, but your hand, wrist, and fingers are small and sensitive joints.
With poor finger and wrist alignment you’re setting yourself up not only for pain, but you’re also limiting potential techniques for playing guitar.
Our fingers are only a little flexible when the wrist has collapsed, so making sure your wrist is aligned with your arm is key.
First, let’s look at how to hold the guitar neck.
Your left arm and hand (for right-handed people) should come up underneath the guitar neck in one smooth arc.
Your fingers will make an open “C” shape with the four main fingers together and the thumb forming the bottom of the C alone.
The thumb goes on the back of the neck resting about halfway through the width of the neck. Depending on your exact hand size and shape, the thumb should be as close to perpendicular with the length of the neck without straining.
If you find getting this angle too hard, check if you’re pushing your arm out from your shoulder too far. Your arm should be gently hanging from your shoulder; not held close to the body or far away.
Your fingers curve around the neck (not grasping it) in the C shape so the fingertips come to point at the fretboard directly.
Without this C shape and fingertip point, you’ll hear buzzing when you play because your fingers will accidentally be touching other strings.
These ideas will help you get the proper form, but there are other tricks out there you may wish to try.
Have a look at this one for another approach to finger position which may work for you.
How to hold a guitar while standing up
Once you’re comfortably playing and sitting down, you may want to try standing up. In many ways, this is the same as sitting down with a few slight twists.
There are a lot of professional musicians you may look at who play while standing up. But these are people who have been playing forever; you need to start with a good beginning.
Note: You must use a guitar strap to play while standing. Attempting to stand without a strap will cause major pain problems in the long run and severely limit your playing ability.
Follow these steps and tips for playing guitar while standing up:
- Hang the guitar from your strap in front of you with the soundhole and strings facing out.
- Adjust your strap so the guitar rests with the soundhole between your belly button and beltline.
- Position the soundhole slightly to the right of the center of your body.
- Let your right arm gently relax over the body so your hand rests above the soundhole.
- Angle the neck of the guitar up slightly (10-15°).
- Let your left arm relax and come up under the neck with an arc if possible.
- Hold the neck and position fingers as described in the section above.
Things to watch out for when playing while standing:
Holding guitar too low – A guitar held too low such as at waist level or below will cause shoulder and back pain over time from overextending your arms.
Angle of neck too high – If you angle the neck of the guitar too high, it may seem easier to form chords at first, but you’ll lose some grip you need to do advanced techniques such as barring chords.
Angle of neck too low – On the opposite end, if you angle the neck parallel to the ground, you’ll end up bending your wrist too much and limiting your flexibility.
Guitar too centered – Holding the guitar directly in front of you or over to the left will eventually cause problems in your right side from being stretched over to strum the strings.
Guitar too far right – On the opposite end, holding your guitar way to the right will make strumming the guitar difficult as your right hand won’t naturally rest over the soundhole.
How to hold a guitar with a strap
A strap can be used while sitting for extra support for the guitar. It’s a requirement for playing while standing.
A guitar strap doesn’t require any special tricks for using it, but here are a few tips for using it to make sure you’re using it correctly.
Correct length – The biggest problem with guitar straps come when they aren’t adjusted to the correct length. The guitar should rest easily between your belly button and beltline.
When sitting down, the strap should be just snug on your shoulder. It shouldn’t hold the guitar up and off your lap.
Clip on the outside – This may not seem like a big deal, but you do need to make sure the adjusting clip or plastic piece is on the outside of the strap.
Over time with the clip between you and the strap itself, you’re back or shoulder will start to hurt.
Goes over the left shoulder – Some people try to dangle the guitar from their right shoulder instead of across their body on the right shoulder.
This is insecure, it makes the guitar move to the side of your body, and puts all the pressure on one spot. By putting the guitar on your left shoulder and holding the guitar more in front of you, you spread out the pressure and secure the guitar with your whole body.
Secured to the guitar – Always, always, always double-check the strap is actually fully connected to the buttons or clips on the guitar.
I can’t tell you how many times I reach for the guitar and assume it’s connected only to have it fall down.
Don’t hold it by the strap – Along the same lines as above, never hold a guitar by the strap only. Always makes sure you have hands on the neck and body when handling the guitar.
How to hold an acoustic guitar
All the above sections will give you a good idea of how to hold an acoustic guitar. Here are a few acoustic specific tips you may want to follow:
- Put a little space between your body and the guitar if possible. This increases resonance.
- Strum the guitar directly over the soundhole. This usually gives the deepest sounds.
- Try not to put too much pressure on your right arm holding the body of the guitar. This may very slightly dampen the sound.
- Don’t stand near heaters or air conditioners if possible. These dry out the wood and can cause damage.
How to hold an electric guitar
Holding an electric guitar is basically no different than holding an acoustic. Here are some slight trends and differences you may want to try though:
- Electric guitars may be held slightly lower than the acoustic guitar. You should still stay above the waistline.
- Your hand may strum anywhere near where the soundhole would be. Electric pickups mean you don’t need to be quite as precise.
- You won’t need as much pressure to push down the strings on electric guitars usually.
- Depending on where the jack is for your amplifier cord, make sure it stays away from tripping up your feet.
- Keep the cord slack and away from you or you may damage the receiver.
How to hold a bass guitar
Bass guitars are held slightly different than the acoustic or electric guitar. Here are the main difference to watch out for:
- Bass guitars may be held lower. Don’t go more than slightly below the waist.
- The angle of the neck is often held slightly higher than the standard guitar.
- Some bass players let their right hand and arm come gently down towards where the soundhole would be as with other guitars.
- Some bass players bring their wrist up over the center of the guitar and play with their hands coming down perpendicular to the strings.
Check out this video for more information.
I hope you found this information on how to hold a guitar properly helpful.
If you’re new to playing guitar, pay close attention and make sure you get it right from the beginning or suffer body pain and an inability to play with certain techniques.
If you’re experienced but struggling with pain, you need to slow yourself down and practice proper posture until it becomes a habit. Trust me, you’ll save yourself frustration and pain in the long run.