Efficient Digital Cycles

Rolling with the fingers can be done extremely well. See Marshall Harrison or Frank Gambale.

However, it requires a shift in playing posture to switch from fretting with the fingertips on the lower string to the finger pads on the higher string. Observe the playing postures in the following post:

A single shift in posture can be performed quickly and smoothly in the context a swept arpeggio for example, but multiple repeated shifting in short passages is awkward and difficult to perform smoothly.

Please ignore my statement that Shawn preferred the first posture demonstrated, his default position is actually more like the second posture with the thumb higher around the neck. He does switch to something resembling the first posture when performing some of his wide interval licks.

As far as I can tell, Shawn didn’t use these motions regularly. On Power Solos, he specifically comments that rolling during pentatonic fives is awkward and hard to do smoothly.

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So simple - that did crack the code for me! So that’s why I was getting so tired playing Clapton licks. I was trying to use “proper” form by using my pinky, while he and most of the players I like hardly use the pinky except for special occasions. This will probably cause me to rethink all my playing!!!

I’ll be honest, you’ve got my interest here, @Tom_Gilroy, and I was definitely in the “the left hand kind of figures itself out” camp. Never really thought about the muscular mechanics of the fretting hand, but you raise a good point with 3/4th finger independence - I always thought my issue there was I just never practiced those movements enough. Hmm.

Any good video of Shawn Lane where you can follow his fretting hand, especially one of the examples where he does something non obvious for efficiency reasons?

Clapton licks are a fair bit trickier than most of the “shred” crowd usually give them credit for. Most never acknowledge (or maybe just don’t understand) the control and variation in micro-tonal bends and vibrato types, but even his more straight ahead pentatonic playing is full of little quirks. It’s not very fast, but it’s not “easy”.

I’ve never really understood that position, to be honest. Maybe that sentiment comes about because for most players, their playing is limited primarily by their picking. If they were to start attempting to play things that were more demanding of the fretting hand, they might change their viewpoint.

Unusual permutations, wider intervals, hammers from nowhere or descending hammers, micro-tonal bending and vibrato control or just trying to push the speeds even further are all difficult and demanding for the fretting hand. All of that also requires we maintain as much fretting hand string damping as is feasible to do it well. Different fretting postures and strategies are necessary to achieve those things.

In almost any video you’ll see Shawn switch from using (1 2 4) for half-whole or whole-whole to using (1 2 3) for whole-half, rather than using (1 3 4). This involves a slight shift in fretting posture. This is absolutely everywhere in his playing. Here’s a nice example:

There’s also a lick in Power Licks where he ends by position shifting and fretting with his 1st finger, even though the shift would be avoided by using his 2nd. The reason to use the 1st is simple, it’s had 2 note duration to lift and fret the new note, so it’s efficient and it maintains the efficient cycle. The 2nd in that lick would have only one note duration to lift and fret the new note, and it would break the fretting cycle. I’ll try to find that lick again.


Well, I’ve (pre-CtC) always been primarily a legato guy, and I think it’s probably a combination of 1) I myself never throught much about fretting hand choices so they probably mostly sorted themselves out, similar to the way people just sort out the mechanics of picking without consciously thinking about it, and 2) I was never trying to play THAT fast, maybe Satriani levels of speed, which is fast but not so fast as to really push some of the limits of muscle/tendon independence and control.

I have to spend some time going through this and thinking about it a bit more - honestly, I just settled on “correct” one fret per finger box position approaches pretty early on when I was just learning to play solos, so I use my pinkie a ton and the stretch between my middle and ring finger is probably underdeveloped compared to the other fingers. I also play a lot more lead lines further down the neck than most, I suspect, with maybe 5-15th frets being the sweet spot for me, where I think some of the stretches leave you a little less flexibility than further up the neck.

Doesn’t mean I can’t develop that, however. :slight_smile:

Damn right! I recently played a Clapton tribute show and I had to study a lot. There are a lot of nuances!

I think I might have gotten about 75% there, and I’m very motivated to get to 95% :slight_smile: I hadn’t studied his stuff for the last 25 years or so, even though he’s one of my favorite players.

I wonder how I can retrain myself to avoid the 3-4 movement. I’m also thinking about trying to avoid the pinky altogether except when absolutely necessary, it will likely help with my left hand tiredness.

Most of my playing technique has come about through careful analysis and focused practice. There are some things I became comfortable with more quickly than others, but it’s almost always because I had a clearer understanding of what I should be doing earlier. I’ve always been naturally dexterous and I’ve something of a knack for learning movements, but there has always been an intellectual, analytical aspect to the that learning process.

I use my 4th finger a lot too. I consider the 8th to the 16th frets to be “middle” of the guitar (and it is in terms of range), so most of my postures are designed to be optimal in that range.

I’m not advocating against using the 4th finger. I’m not even advocating against combinations of the 3rd and 4th, those transitions are valuable in certain contexts. I’ve devoted a lot of time to practicing finger independence and it has been worthwhile.

Even after all of the work I’ve done, however, trills between the 3rd and 4th finger still exhaust my extensors in seconds, and trying to use combinations of the 3rd and 4th fingers at top speed also results in strain and fatigue.

I’m arguing that combinations of the 3rd and 4th are just inherently more difficult than other combinations. Use them where appropriate.


Not sure if @Tom_Gilroy would agree but I think this discussion does not imply that you have to throw 3-4 in the bin! Just be aware that it can be a limiting factor in some very fast licks, and if that is the case look for alternatives like 1-2-3 or even 1-2-4 (I have seen Shawn do the whole-half this way in one occasion). If a lick works for you with 1-3-4 there’s no reason to change it I’d say.

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Hey, I’m not telling oyu you’re wrong, I’m merely describing how I’ve adapted to get to where I am. for better or for worse as a guy who’s hyper analytical pretty much everywhere else in life guitar has always been a more visceral repreive for me.

Now that I’m coming back to this thread with a guitar in hand, I’m not surprised to see your post earlier I missed about the 2nd and 3rd fingers being somewhat linked as well. It’s close but I think I can actually trill better between my 3rd and 4th fingers than my 2nd and 3rd, which I attribute to the fact I simply play a lot more lines with 3rd and 4th fingers engaged than I do with my 2nd and third, which is a combo I almost never use. I’ll have to make a point of practicing this.

I didn’t think you were. I was just describing my journey also, and how I can to my conclusions. Honestly, I would love to be able to turn off the part of me that has to analyze and optimize every detail.

I’d love to hear your findings. If my hypothesis is correct, the finger independence between your 2nd and 3rd should develop more quickly, and in time surpass 3rd and 4th.

It’s a blessing and a curse, for sure.

So, I had a couple uninterrupted hours to practice last night, and I have a couple very preliminary observations.

  • two-fret stretches between my 2nd and 3rd finger on the lower strings, are (at least currently) completely out of the question below say the 15th fret. Slow, awkward, and uncomfortable. This may be a product of my posture, and it may get easier with time.
  • I seem to have better timing control doing fast picked patterns like the Yngwie 6s using fingers 1-2-3 than 1-2-4 or 1-3-4. Stuff like |-15-12-14-15-14-12-| looped over and over again felt immediately a little more in the pocket with my pointer, middle, and ring fingers, which surprised me.
  • Speaking to the power of unconscious problem solving… For three note per string patterns with two whole steps, stuff like 5h7h9 - I know I’ve experimented with 1-2-4 and 1-3-4 for those in the past and never really had a clear argument to go one way or the other… But I almost always fret that stuff 1-2-4, which if there’s some lack of independence between the 3rd and 4th finger that makes total sense.

I think, regardless of whether or not you’re onto something here, this is making me realize that the finger independence between my 2nd and 3rd fingers is woefully underdeveloped, especially for a guy who likes playing legato, so I’ve got some woodshedding ahead of me one way or another. If it bears dividends elsewhere in my playing beyond simply allowing lines involving those two fingers to become either more fluid or, in extreme cases, possible at all, so much the better.

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I think this is normal. I can manage whole/whole and half whole with (1 2 3) until the first finger is at about the 5th fret, but it’s requires an unusual posture. Surprisingly, half/whole is actually less comfortable than whole/whole. I can comfortably make the Spock hand gesture and get a wide opening between the 2nd and 3rd fingers, but I have little dexterity in that position. I can fret, but hammers and pull-offs are difficult.

Very interesting. I don’t notice better time on that pattern , but I do notice that the synchronization of the hands is better for me using the (1 2 3) combination.

I much prefer (1 2 4) for whole/whole also. Actually, I’d say I use that combination almost exclusively for that purpose, excepting some pentatonic turnaround licks and some passages higher in the neck, where I might use (1 2 3). I would almost never use (1 3 4). My 3rd fingers are significantly longer than my 4th fingers, so using that combination for that purpose is probably more difficult for me than for others.

One more thing I’ve noticed, when playing something like a 3 note per string major scale:


If I play this as

(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 3 4)(1 3 4)

the change from the G string to the B string feels like a one fret position shift, while using

(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 2 4)(1 2 3)(1 2 3)

the change from the G string to the B string feels like a two fret position shift. That is, with the second method, it feels that the 2nd finger is more important in determining the position of the fretting hand.


Great thread, Tom. Really interesting insights. It’s a strange synchronicity because I’ve been thinking a lot about the left hand recently.

Do you have any thoughts on Paul Gilbert’s use of 1-3-4 for the whole/whole sequences all over Intense Rock? I’ve always wondered if there is an advantage to it.

Thank you.

I think (1 3 4) for whole/whole has the benefit of simplifying the fingering sequences of some of the patterns that Paul plays, and that it often helps to reduce the feeling of position shifting during those patterns.

However, I think that Paul is unusually suited to that combination, and most players would be better suited to (1 2 4) for whole/whole in almost all instances, which I believe is a significantly less expensive combination.

Paul Gilbert is about 6’4" and he has a huge hand span. His 4th fingers in particular are very long, and the difference between the lengths of his 3rd and 4th fingers is relatively small. Paul is able to use the (1 3 4) combination for whole/whole over the length of the neck without it requiring an unnatural posture of the fretting hand. He also picks a lot of notes and doesn’t really play much legato.

For me personally, (1 3 4) for whole/whole is much more difficult. My hands are roughly average in size. I have a respectable hand span, but it’s mostly the result of flexibility and range of motion. My fingers are maybe a little longer than average, but my 4th fingers are quite short and my 3rd fingers are proportionally much longer.

For most of the neck, the lower frets in particular, the (1 3 4) combination for whole/whole is just unworkable for me. It forces me to keep the ring finger very curled and the 4th very extended, which is uncomfortable, and further increases the difficulty of that combination for me. I can’t comfortably maintain the fretting posture required, and my ability to hammer and pull-off with that combination is significantly worse than the (1 2 4) combination.

I could potentially use that combination for whole/whole higher in the neck, and I sometimes do, though more usually I would reserve (1 3 4) for minor third and whole tone. Even then, I usually prefer (1 2 4) for minor 3rd and whole tone over most of the neck. To use (1 3 4) for whole/whole higher in the neck and (1 2 4) lower in the neck would require me to learn multiple fingering sequences for different shapes, so there really isn’t any benefit for me, especially since (1 2 4) is comfortable for the entire range.

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Tom - couple added notes here, as well as responses to a few specific things you just posted.

First, re: timing and coordination with 1-2-3 vs 1-3-4, I think we’re saying the same thing - I definitely found 1-2-3 more coordinated than 1-3-4, which I attributed to my pinkie’s timing being ever-so-slightly off. Either way, I think your describing this as “coordination” makes more sense than “timing” here, but at the end of the day - yeah, we had the same experience.

Also, I noticed after posting this that on the treble strings I tend to do whole-whole stretches as 1-2-4, but while lower down on the neck I tend to keep the fingering the same, higher up on the neck I tend to start doing them 1-3-4. I’m not really sure why, there very well could be a legitimate subconscious decision I’m making that makes this a little more optimal, but I’ll start practicing trying to do them 1-2-4 and see if I get any sort of improvement out of it.

Finally, on your three note per string pattern… For me, on third position playing it in G… I can physically do that, but it’s not “workable” in that I can’t do it smoothly and quickly enough to be at all musically useful. Are you able to, or is this what you meant when you said you can get down to about the 5th fret, but not really below?

I suspect you’re right, btw, with Paul Gilbert and 1-3-4 fingerings - if you look at the fast descending run at the end of the “Technical Difficulties” intro, it certainly feels less jumpy on the fretboard if you do that 1-3-4 for the first two strings, then, 1-2-4 for the next two.

Hi @Drew,

I noticed that I had written the combinations for that example incorrectly. I’ve edited to the intended fingering, which should clarify my meaning.

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Oh, gotcha. And here I was thinking you were like Rusty-Cooley-level flexible. :slight_smile: That makes MUCH more sense, and your point about the shifts makes a lot of sense too. Kind of what I was getting at with the Technical Difficulties run, as well. :+1:

This whole thread is extremely interesting and almost everything said works for me.


I have plenty of students who have much more interconnectedness between 2 and 3 than between 3 and 4, and they prefer to play 1-3-4 than 1-2-3.
They all have the same posture since they are all my students, but not the same hands obviously.
Sometimes beginner students just come up and have almost total independance between 3 and 4.

Actually I thought until now that there are two category of people : those who have difficulties to move 2 and 3 independently, and those who have difficulties to move 3 and 4 independently.

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Hi @MartinHamiche.

I’m happy to be shown that I’m wrong on any point; it would mean I’ve learned something.

I’m not a teacher. I don’t have access to a large group of guitar players to survey. However, I’ve literally never met anybody who can maintain a trill between their 3rd and 4th fingers at their maximum speed for more than a few seconds.

Personally, I could probably trill (1 2), (1 3) or (1 4) for a long time without fatigue. I’m sure I could trill (2 4) for minutes, though maybe not as long as combinations with the 1st finger. However, I cannot maintain a (3 4) trill for more than a few seconds.

I’ve spent a lot of time developing finger independence. I can comfortably maintain (1 3 4) cycles at Paul Gilbert like speeds. I’ve have practiced every possible finger combination for hammers (ascending, descending and “from nowhere”) and pull-offs. I’ve played Holdsworth lines. I can even perform (1 3 4) cycles at a Shawn Lane like speed, though as I’ve said, it quickly leads to fatigue.

The level of independence of my 3rd and 4th fingers is good, by any standard. That said, the independence of my 3rd and 4th fingers is substantially lower than that of the other combinations. Perhaps my potential for independence between my 3rd and 4th fingers is simply lower than my potential for independence with other combinations. It certainly seems so.

Maybe some people have a greater potential for independence between 3 and 4 than I have. I would believe this.

Maybe some people have people have greater potential for independence between 3 and 4 than some other combinations of their fingers. I would believe these people are a very, very small minority.

Maybe some beginner students have naturally greater independence with (3 4) and others have naturally greater independence with (2 3). That seems reasonable. I’m not really concerned with what beginning students do or do not have difficulty with. I’m concerned with the upper limits of what is feasible for an advanced player, based on anatomical and physiological factors.

I’m not discounting your post, however. Not at all. Maybe you could answer some questions for me? I’d love a teacher’s input, all other teachers are of course welcome to answer also.

Have any of your students who prefer (3 4) combinations or (1 3 4) cycles spent significant time developing finger independence between their 2nd and 3rd fingers, and yet still maintained their original preference?

Can any of your students who prefer (3 4) combinations or (1 3 4) cycles maintain a (3 4) trill at their maximum speed for an extended period (say a minute, or even just more than a few seconds)?

Have any of your students who prefer (3 4) combinations or (1 3 4) cycles developed their fretting hand technique to a very high level? For example, including (but not limited to) competence with all combinations of fingers for ascending or descending hammers and pull-offs, or perhaps some Holdsworth or Garsed style legato lines?

Can any of your students who prefer (3 4) combinations or (1 3 4) cycles perform these combinations/cycles at extreme speeds for extended periods without fatigue?

This might seem like an absurdly high standard to demand, but this is the level of playing I’m interested in.

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Apologizes, it seems that I have misunderstood the aim of this post. I thought the idea was to define principles who might be beneficial to a majority of guitar players just like CtC.
If the goal is rather to help the 0.5% to reach the 0.05% top level then I’m afraid my input is off topic :lying_face: