June 21, 2011

Pinky Power!

Odds are that when you first learned the most important chord in rock music – the righteous power chord – your pinky finger was not even an option.

Instead you probably learned it in the traditional way, with fingers 1 and 3.

That’s certainly the way I learned it, with the thumb back, fingers spread, and using the familiar “one finger per fret” concept.

For intermediate players, though, there are some real benefits to playing power chords with fingers 1 and 4. The “pinky power chord”:

  • minimizes tension in the hand
  • allows us to play across a wider fret span
  • allows us to use finger 3 when necessary
  • eases the challenge of making fast lateral power chord moves.

It’s comfortable and highly practical – a win-win!  You may even find that you like this grip so much, you rarely go back to the traditional method (just like me).

Let’s check it out!

Less Tension = More Awesome

Once you get used to using the pinky grip, don’t be surprised if you find it much more comfortable than the traditional grip.

The compact hand position results in less lateral (side-to-side) spread of the fingers, which in turn results in less tension in the hand and a straighter wrist. The straighter the wrist, the better for you in term of wrist health and relaxation.

The traditional grip with fingers 1 and 3 is certainly fine, but it encourages you to bend your wrist a bit more and it absolutely requires more lateral stretch in the fingers. Over time and lots of power chords, that lateral stretch will tire you out.

Pinky power chords, by contrast, result in virtually zero hand fatigue, which means more energy for – what else? – more power chords.

Reach Them Notes

From a practical standpoint, the pinky grip allows a greater reach to frets that would be very awkward when attempted with the traditional grip.

Consider an E5 to a B/D# chord progression, similar to the intro of “Hold on Loosely” by .38 Special (demonstrated in the video below).

Most rockers would play this as a root-5 E5 power chord at fret 7. They would then stretch finger 1 back to fret 6 for the B/D#, while keeping the other finger anchored in position at fret 9.

Using the traditional power chord grip of fingers 1 and 3 pulls you beyond the “one finger per fret” position, from a fret 7-9 stretch to a 6-9 stretch. This essentially makes a lateral stretch even more lateral. And pretty uncomfortable, to boot.

If we start with a pinky grip, though, the hand is more compact than it needs to be on the first chord, and then expands to a “one finger per fret” position on the second chord. This is perfectly comfortable and, more important, efficient as all get out.

Another cool possibility is to start wide and then get compact. This is the kind of move you might hear in “Crush Crush Crush” by Paramore or “Alone” by Heart, where fingers 1 and 4 start three frets apart. Then finger 1 pulls back into the standard two-fret spacing (essentially a reversal of the “Hold On Loosely” maneuver).

What About the Third Finger?

Another sweet benefit of the pinky grip is it allows the use of finger 3 on the next lower string, if necessary.

A great example is the chorus of Free’s classic, “All Right Now”, which starts with a root-4 A5 at fret 7. You could play this in the traditional way, of course, with finger 1 at fret 7 and finger 3 at fret 9. However, the power chord is immediately followed by a short two-note fill on the lower string 5.

This is extremely awkward to execute when playing the chord with the traditional grip. If you start with the pinky power chord, though, you have effectively freed up finger 3 to start that pesky two-note fill.

Power Shifting

Lastly, the pinky position eases the challenge of quick-shifting power chords.

In a classic riff like “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, we must shift a power chord back and forth very quickly between frets 10 and 9. In my experience, the built-in tension of the traditional grip inhibits that quick lateral movement.

The relaxed, compact grip of the pinky power chord results in a more effortless movement from fret to fret. This is admittedly a subtle difference, but noticeable to a more advanced player.

And if you anchor your thumb and allow your hand to pivot on it (rather than moving the thumb back and forth with the chord), the quick shifts are even easier!

Put that Pinky into Action

Just a few of the many songs that can benefit from or even require the use of the pinky grip:

• Hold on Loosely – 38 Special (stretch position)
• Hells Bells – AC/DC (stretch position)
• Crush, Crush, Crush – Paramore (stretch position)
• All Right Now – Free (3rd finger freedom, stretch position)
• China Grove – Doobie Brothers (3rd finger freedom, stretch position)
• Iron Man – Black Sabbath (quick lateral shifts)
• Vertigo – U2 (quick lateral shifts)
• You Really Got Me – Van Halen (quick lateral shifts)

The only book I’ve ever found that actually addresses this essential technique is Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar by Troy Stetina. It’s a classic text and highly recommended.

QUESTION: Have you experimented with the pinky grip before? Did you find it helpful or a hindrance? Leave me a comment below!

4 Comments »

  1. […] Whereas most folks stick strongly to the standard two-finger shape with fingers 1 and 3, I almost always default to fingers 1 and 4. I call this the “pinky power chord”. […]

  2. John G. says:

    Hi Jim, thanks for the post. Found it very helpful. It’s amazing how such minor changes enable left hand to stay loose. Cheers !!

  3. […] has happened to me before with particular techniques (the pinky power chord, for example), but recently I’ve run across a series of excellent articles in a favorite site […]

  4. Phil says:

    I tend to play both methods really. I was always told that the pinky method is more a ‘traditional’ 60s method not sure how true that is though

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

© 2012 Jim Bowley All rights reserved.
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