A while back I got a question from a fat-fingered Severn River Music reader (sorry Robert, but you said it, not me).  Here’s what Robert said:

I just started (1 week ago) teaching myself to play on an old classical acoustic guitar that was given to me. Eventually want to learn to play some old and new rock/pop songs so is learning on a classical guitar ok? I’m just doing basic dexterity/scales practice for about 20-45 mins a day and started learning a few chords. I do have some issues due to having smaller hands/fat fingers and was wondering if that will always hold me back or will it just take longer to get the needed dexterity? Also, calluses are coming along nicely so it’s not as painful now!

Hey Robert – Ahhh yeah, the old fat/stubby/little/short finger issue. A few things that may help:

Use A Big Fat Guitar

Using a classical guitar will probably help anyone who has thicker fingers. Generally, classical guitars have wider/thicker necks, which usually means that the strings are further apart. This lessens the issue of your fingers rubbing up against the wrong strings.  Rubbing up against the wrong strings mutes the strings (or gives you that buzzy sound).

Unfortunately, wider necks can make it more difficult for players with small hands.

Capo That Baby Up!

Using a capo on the 4th or 5th fret (or playing your scales on higher frets) may help as well.

As you get further down the neck of the guitar, the frets become closer together.  This means that you don’t need to stretch your fingers as much as you would in the first position (up near the headstock of the guitar).

Closer frets means less stretching which can make playing guitar easier for people with small hands.  

Examples of Famous Guitar Players with Fat Fingers (or no fingers)

Check out this post (and video) of Django Reinhardt. One of the best guitar players ever, and he only used two fingers.  He lost the use of his pinky and ring fingers, leaving him only able to play guitar with his pointer and middle finger.

Read the full post for all of the details, but the bottom line is: don’t let your physical limitations, limit your guitar playing.

Another example is Richie Havens – who had super large fingers that made normal open position chords tricky to play.  Basic things like G, Am, Em, F, etc  – so he relied on open tunings to get the sound he wanted.  You can see a video of Richie Havens (and his fat fingers) in action here.

From the New York Times...

His hands were very large, which made it difficult to play the guitar. He developed an unorthodox tuning so he could play chord patterns not possible with conventional tunings. The style was picked up by other folk and blues singers.

“A person looking at him might think he was just flailing about,” the guitarist Barry Oliver said in the magazine Guitar Player. “But the way he flailed about was so musical, and it went perfectly with what he was portraying. He’s a good example of not having to have to be a technically perfect guitarist in order to come across.”

I love that quote:  “not having to have to be a technically perfect guitarist in order to come across”.  I also love the his style was picked up by other folk and blues singers!  He couldn’t play using traditional methods so he created his own method out of necessity!

Real Life Examples (from Normal People)

Meet Gus.

My 48 year old student.

He plays a Gibson Les Paul.

He has smallish hands and thick fingers.

Sound familiar?

I have yet to find a song that Gus can’t play.  Now granted, he does a lot of power chords.  But he also plays solos and intricate arpeggiated chords.  I’m talking bar chords… C shaped bar chords.

He loves Red Hot Chili Peppers.  These aren’t the easiest songs to play… and play well.  But Gus can do it.

It takes him a little longer to find the chords.  He has to really focus his efforts.  It certainly doesn’t come as easy to him.  But he loves the music and he loves guitar so he makes it work.

I’ve had other students with gigantic bear sized hands and sausage fingers.  Yet they still execute chords and scales perfectly.  It takes patience and deliberate practice.

Thanks for everyone that comments and asks questions.  If it weren’t for you, I would never be able to address questions like the one in this article.  That’s it!  If I missed anything (or if you have any questions) let me know in the comments below!

Jake Posko is the owner of Severn River Music – proudly and happily providing in-home guitar, piano, drum and music lessons in the Maryland area including: Annapolis, Edgewater, Severna Park, Pasadena, Crownsville, Arnold and Kent Island, inquire about lessons by e-mailing him at jake@jakeposko.com