DO YOU SUFFER FROM ‘WEREWOLF HAND’?
By Aldo Chircop
Don’t worry, you’re not here by mistake and this is indeed an article on guitar playing. 😊
‘Werewolf Hand’ is a term I came up with after noticing a particular and fairly common bad habit in guitar players. It reminded me of how the hands of werewolves are frequently depicted in movies, hence the name. Here’s how it looks:
The ‘clawed’ appearance comes from pulling back the first phalanges of the fingers to the limit of their extension, beyond the line of the metacarpals (the bones that form the back of the hand).
Why is this a problem, and exactly when and how do some guitarists end up holding their fretting hand in this weird manner?
The first question can be answered very quickly just by trying to form and hold the hand position shown in the photo. It results in extreme tension and stiffness in the back of the hand (the tendons standing in bold relief underneath the skin should be a dead give-away).
Holding your fretting hand in this position dramatically reduces the mobility of all your fingers. With the first phalanges being held forcibly back, movement of the fingers towards the guitar strings is restricted to only the second row of knuckles. In other words, you render the strongest and most mobile joints in your fingers unusable. Not good at all, if you want to play guitar well.
I’ve seen this weird position mostly being adopted by some self-taught guitarists while trying to play something on the higher strings. To play on the higher strings, you must in some way ‘shorten’ the reach of your fingers, since the high strings are closer to your palm than the lower strings. Unfortunately, this is the worst way to do that and it results in a crippled hand position that destroys all hope of dexterity and control in the fretting hand. Here’s how it looks like on the guitar:
Notice the cramped and extremely tense position of the fingers, which makes it extremely hard to play guitar with any sort of control and fluidity. Do not do this!
To avoid inadvertently ending into this position, you must train your fingers to shorten their reach by flexing them inwards towards the palm, from the second knuckles. The first phalanges must maintain a slightly flexed position too, and never be forcibly extended beyond the line of the back of the hand. Here’s how the correct position looks:
Note how here the palm of the hand hangs freely and much lower, creating much more space between the palm and guitar neck for maximum freedom of movement. Note also how all fingers have maintained their natural curve, and the back of the hand is still very relaxed due to keeping the first phalanges in proper alignment – slightly flexed instead of forcibly extended. Now the fingers are free to move fluidly from all joints with minimal force and tension.
The trick to achieving this position is to relax the arm and allow the hand to drop down lower, and if needed to pull the elbow of the fretting arm slightly back to find the most comfortable wrist angle.
If you suffer from ‘werewolf hand’, I suggest you do the following simple exercise every day until the correct position becomes second nature.
- Take up the fretting hand position on the guitar neck. Make sure the pad of your thumb is laying as flat as possible against the back of the guitar neck, centred and pointing at 90 degrees to the direction of the neck. Position your thumb directly opposite to your middle finger (the second finger).
- Next, place all your fingers in a line on the 6th string, one finger per fret. Relax your hand and arm as completely as possible. It should feel like the friction of your thumb against the guitar neck is the only thing holding your hand up. Make sure your fingers are in a natural, relaxed curve.
- Next, slowly move all four fingers from the 6th string to the 1st string. Do this by curling the fingers inwards from your second knuckles and pulling your elbow slightly back to make it easier to reach the first string. Under no circumstances must you forcibly pull back the first phalanges of your fingers. Examine the finishing position, and make sure that your palm is staying well clear of the neck, and that your first phalanges are still in slight flexion. The acid test to know if you are in the correct position is to be able to move your fingers freely to fret notes from both the first and second rows of knuckles.
- Keep moving all four fingers back and forth from 6th to 1st string and keep your arm and hand as relaxed as possible. It should feel as light as a feather throughout. Do this exercise a few minutes at time with total concentration and do it often and regularly. Eventually your hand will start to adopt the correct position automatically without the need for conscious thought.
Eliminating this bad habit, it you have it, will improve your guitar playing massively. Banish the ‘werewolf hand’ to the movie screen where it belongs and enjoy the inevitable result: becoming a much better guitarist.
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.