In this free guitar lesson, I have tips for small-handed and short-fingered guitars. If you struggle to play guitar because you have little hands or stubby fingers, these tips will help you eliminate most of your problems. The four things I’m going to talk about include:
- What is the ideal hand size to play guitar?
- Which guitars are best for small-handed players?
- How should small-handed players hold their guitar?
- What can small-handed players do differently on the fretboard?
What is the ideal hand size to play guitar?
If you have small hands, you’re in good company. Guitarists such as Angus Young, Prince, Nancy Wilson, and Paul Simon are small-statured people with small hands yet they’re still great players. Even Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was only 5’5”, had only average-sized hands. I could name others, but you get the point. You don’t need large hands to play guitar well.
Each hand shape and size has advantages and disadvantages. If you have skinny finger tips, you won’t need to worry about bumping into other strings when you fret notes. If you have fat finger tips, you can hold down two strings with one finger tip, which can be a good advantage at times. If you have long fingers, you can play stretchy chord shapes and scale patterns better. If you have short fingers, you can play more efficiently in tight positions.
Instead of worrying about what you don’t have, learn how to take advantage of what you have and focus on playing to your strengths. More on that later.
Which guitars are best for small-handed players?
If you have small hands, you’re probably a person who is small in stature too. An ideal guitar for you is one that is small in size. This could be a ¾-size guitar or a full-size guitar that has a short scale length and a small body. The necks on guitars in these sizes are usually thinner so it’s easy to wrap short fingers around them. Because of the shorter scale length, the fret spacing is narrower so you don’t need to reach as far with your fingers.
There are a variety of ¾-size electric and acoustic guitars to choose from. These guitars are often thought of as being for children, but they work well for adults who have extra small hands. Take a look at the Epiphone Les Paul Express Short Scale, Squire Mini Strat, and Ibanez miKro to name a few electrics. For acoustics this size, see the Taylor GS Mini and Martin LXK2.
Something else to take into consideration is the neck profile and fretboard radius of your guitar. Fender ‘60s Stratocaster models may be full-size guitars with long scale lengths but they have thin C shape neck profiles and 7.25” fretboard radiuses. This thinner, rounded shape makes it easier to wrap short fingers around. This may be more important to you than the overall size of the guitar. Gibson/Epiphone guitars have flatter fretboard radiuses of 12” but you might find this perfectly comfortable if the neck shape is Gibson’s SlimTaper. Most PRS guitars have 10” radiuses and some models feature PRS’s Wide Thin neck shape.
Another option is have a luthier custom make a guitar neck for you or re-carve your existing neck. John Scott at Bluesman Vintage Guitars does both. He says tapering the shoulders (the portion of the neck that runs along either side of the truss rod) makes a big difference to small-handed and short-fingered players.
How should small-handed players hold their guitar?
Before getting into how you hold your guitar, you need to understand how a guitar’s design affects the way a guitar rests on your lap or hangs when using a strap. Guitars are usually contoured to have a waist. When you sit down to play, the guitar rests on top of your leg in this contoured area. If the waist is close to where the neck joins the body, the whole fretboard is positioned closer to your body. This is the case with Les Pauls and most PRSs. If the waist is closer to the bridge, the fretboard is positioned farther away from your body. This is the case with Gibson SGs and Fender Jaguars.
When a guitar is positioned farther away from your body, you need to reach farther to play. This is most apparent when you reach to play in the first few frets from the nut of the guitar. It becomes more difficult when you need to barre or stretch your fingers. For this reason, it’s important to think about how a guitar will rest on your leg when you play in a seated position.
But, wait! There’s more…
Everything changes when you play in a standing position using a guitar strap. In this case, a guitar’s waist is irrelevant. What matters now is how the guitar hangs, and this has everything to do with the placement of the strap buttons and the length of a guitar’s horns.
A guitar with a long front horn hangs in a position that brings the fretboard closer to you. A guitar with a short or no front horn hangs in a position that moves the fretboard farther away from you. Stratocasters, Jaguars, and PRSs have long top horns. That Jaguar guitar that sits farther away from you in a seated position hangs closer to you when you stand up and use a strap. Les Pauls, Firebirds, and Telecasters have no front horns, so these guitars hang further away from you.
If you have ever wondered why basses typically have very long upper horns, it’s to bring the fretboard closer to the player because basses are extra long instruments.
Now that you know to take a guitar’s waistline and upper horn into consideration, I have a few tips on holding your guitar to make it easier for your small hands. Try resting the guitar on your opposite leg and angling the neck upwards at a 45 degree angle when playing in a seated position. This is what classical guitarists do with their foot elevated by a footrest. This position puts your wrist in a more comfortable position to play barre chords and stretchy intervals.
You can position your guitar similarly when using a strap by adjusting the strap so the upper horn on the guitar rests just below your sternum and you angle the neck at 45 degrees so the headstock is nearly at the same height as your head. Police guitarist, Andy Summers, who is known for playing stretchy chords, holds his guitar in this position and at this height. Angus Young holds his guitar like this too.
What can small-handed players do differently on the fretboard?
The final thing I’d like to discuss is what small-handed guitarists can do differently on the fretboard in order to avoid problems. The bottomline is, don’t try to play as if you had long fingers. This means you may need to avoid stretchy chords and scale patterns and wrapping your thumb around the neck.
There are many ways that notes can be arranged on the fretboard and you have a few fingering options with most parts you play. Whenever you encounter something that is too big of a stretch for you, play the same notes in a different position that puts them closer together. For example, you don’t need to stretch to play “Back in Black” by AC/DC. The very same notes can be played on the 6th string.
If you struggle to play a large, stretchy chord shape in its entirety, fret and play only a small portion of it. For example, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police features some very stretchy barre chords, but you can break the chords down into more manageable pieces and still capture the essence of the song.
“Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman–Turner Overdrive features 6th intervals that require you to reach five frets. But 6th intervals can also be played by reaching back a fret and over two strings. With some careful finger placement and string muting, you can play 6ths without needing to stretch.
Placing a capo on your guitar can often eliminate the need to play barre chords. “Refugee” by Tom Petty is played in F#m but can be played more easily by placing a capo at the 2nd fret and using the chord shapes Em, G, and D.
In some cases, you may not find a way to simplify and piece of music and so you choose to skip it. That’s OK. We all have limitations. Being a good guitarist involves playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses. You can’t be all things. You don’t need to be.
Something you did not hear me mention is exercises or stretches. Personally, I’m not a big fan of these things. I think your time is best spent playing music, so make songs your exercises using the tips I have outlined. If you need some inspiration, watch videos of guitarist Lari Basilio. She is an outstanding player who has small hands.
You don’t need to be discouraged about playing guitar if you have small hands. I have given you several recommendations to help make your playing experience more comfortable.